Partaking in the “Bitches Brew”

Bitches Brew

A couple of weeks ago, we were privileged to post an interview with jazz musicians Aline Homzy and Emma Smith about their April 28 event at the Canadian Music Centre in Toronto, “Bitches Brew.”  We had already planned to travel up to Toronto that weekend, and while we had tickets to another show, I increasingly felt through the week that I wanted to be at this event – not just because I knew it would be a tremendous evening of music, but also because I believed so strongly in its importance.  So, I sent M on his way to the other event (with apologies to the artist in question) and took myself to the converted house on St. Joseph Street that would host this particular concert.

Emma Smith, a bassist from Edinburgh, launched her “Bitches Brew” series there in 2015, providing a showcase for a wide variety of female musicians to feature their instrumental and improvisational skills.  After Aline Homzy, a violinist currently based in Toronto, experienced “Bitches Brew” for herself, she set out to bring it to Toronto, garnering grants and support to do so – and on April 28, a lucky roomful of people got to experience it too.

Although we normally don’t talk much about ourselves in this blog (which is, after all, about the music), a word about some of my motivation in attending this particular concert: a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away!) I took my degree in theology, at a time when the presence and equality of women in the church were not yet normalized, and in a part of the United States where that was even slower to change.  To see women so clearly gifted for full participation closed out of the work they dearly wanted to do was, and is, heartbreaking.  This is no less true in music and it is past time for circumstances to change; what I have often seen over the years is that where words fail to alter minds and hearts, experiences can make a profound difference, which is why I believe this event – an opportunity to see women leading ensembles, making first-rate music, doing so because it’s what they were born and have trained themselves to do – mattered so greatly.

Playing to a sold-out crowd, four ensembles performed half-hour sets, each providing a unique twist on jazz that was as invigorating as it was enjoyable.  Below are brief synopses of each group’s performance; I can’t possibly do them justice but hopefully I can give you a sense of each.

Emma Smith, with Aline Homzy

Taking the stage first, Emma Smith (paired with Aline Homzy on violin) presented a dazzling variety of pieces, drawn from multiple musical traditions.  One, “Las Vegas Tango,” melded Indian influences into a diverting tango, while “My Brother Is Hurting” provided a deeply thoughtful musical reflection on Emma’s recently completed travels to Palestine (as part of her work with Musicians Without Borders) through the lens of a refugee who travels first to one country, then another, ultimately taking his own life when he perceives no other path out.  The duo finished off with a piece composed by Aline – a fine ending to a set that also provided an excellent beginning to the evening.

OKAN (Magdelys Savigne and Elizabeth Rodriguez), with Dánae Olano

Next up was OKAN, bringing us an energetic and passionate take on jazz rooted in the group’s shared goal to rescue old genres of Cuban music (and present them with a contemporary twist).  Playing a mix of original and traditional pieces, what struck me most was the infectious joy all three musicians brought to their performance in tandem with their mad skills.  (I envied the skill and talent of every single musician who performed that night, just to be clear – they are all so gifted that I immediately wanted to drag all of Toronto into that small room and say, “LISTEN TO WHAT YOU HAVE BEEN MISSING!”)

Anh Phung, with Alan Mackie

The performance of HaiRbraIN was far and away the most unique segment of the night.  Anh Phung, who is primarily a flutist but alternated with mandolin, and bassist Alan Mackie presented a mix of music and spoken word that was unlike anything I’ve seen previously.  In my notes that night, I wrote, “Quirky; performance art” – and so it was, a roller coaster of experience that was thoroughly original.  Weaving bits of Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” through their set, they poked sly fun along the way at our cultural tendency to place certain artists and works on an untouchable pedestal.  For this pair, I suspect nothing is off limits – one of the many elements of their work that was so delightful to see.

Aline’s étoile magique (Aline Homzy, Thom Gill, Chris Pruden, and Daniel Fortin)

It’s entirely appropriate that Aline Homzy, who curated and nurtured this project from start to finish, finished off the evening with a set of pieces accompanied by her new ensemble.  Aline’s compositions, to my (admittedly non-expert jazz listener) ear, incorporate not only some sizzling jazz but also elements of folk and even some classical twists, and have some of the most clever titles I’ve heard in a good while.  Several of the pieces, including “Are There Rats in the Shed?” and “Aliens Are Pieces of Wind,” were brand new, but one wouldn’t have known it – this quartet plays seamlessly together, weaving a spell with their music that I hated to see come to an end.

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Not long after I returned home, I stumbled across an article entitled “Why is there so little space for women in jazz music?”  Clearly we in North America are not the only ones grappling with these questions.  Performances like “Bitches Brew” are one answer to this problem – as the article hints, the more we see women front and center in music, the more normalized it will become, not just for the generations currently in the audience but also for young girls just starting to dream about the possibilities before them in music.

If you’re asking how you can help this along, here are some thoughts: when women-led ensembles are performing in your area, go hear them (irrespective of genre; this problem isn’t specific to jazz).  Buy their music.  Tell your friends.

And if you want to hear this specific performance?  Well, you can – the Canadian Music Centre livestreamed it and (as of this writing) the recording is still available here.

~ L