Monday, August 23, 2010

Ex-Torontonian brings klezmer to Gypsophilia’s eclectic sound

The band Gypsophilia: in the top row, from left, are Adam Fine, Sageev Oore and Ross Burns, and in the bottom row, from left, are Matt Myer, Nick Wilkinson, Alec Frith and Gina Burgess.
With seven people coming from seven different backgrounds, it’s only natural that Gypsophilia can meld so many different styles of music.

The jazzy Halifax band takes different genres, including gypsy jazz, klezmer, funk, indie and reggae, and synthesizes them to create a unique sound.

For example, double bassist Adam Fine brings a lot of the klezmer and Jewish aspects to Gypsophilia’s material. The band’s repertoire even includes a song called Jewish Dance Party, which has a simchah flavour.

“It started one Sunday morning when I sat down and wrote some Jewish music,” Fine said. “I decided I’d take all the Jewish clich├ęs that I knew and put it into one song.”

Fine is originally from Toronto, though his mother came from Yarmouth, N.S.
“When I mentioned I wanted to move to Halifax, both her and my dad said, ‘What the hell do you want to move back there for?’” he says. But he has found the beauty of living in a small city.

“It’s a much smaller scene. You can get to know everybody who’s playing here,” he says. “I like how social it is. You walk into people you know everywhere.”

But he describes the Halifax Jewish community as quite small, with around 1,500 people.

“I have to go home to get deli,” Fine says, laughing.

One of the best things about Halifax is the lack of competition, he says.

“If I started a klezmer band in Toronto, there are already 50 really great klezmer bands you’re competing with, and here there are only one or two,” he says.

His grandfather initially introduced him to klezmer music when he was in high school, though Fine says some of the klezmer bands he’s heard, such as Masada, led by American saxophonist and composer John Zorn, are a bit too noisy and “avant-garde” for his taste.

It was also his grandfather and father, both of whom were trumpet players, who inspired him to request to play trumpet in his Grade 4 concert band. Unfortunately, the teacher thought he would make a better French horn player.

And for the next five years, he was stuck with the instrument.

“These days I love the sound of the French horn, but only when it is played by other people,” Fine says.

Then, about 14 years ago, he took up the electric bass, which he describes as the first instrument he ever liked to play.

However, two years later, another bass player advised him to switch to the double bass if he wanted to maintain a career in the jazz scene. This transition was a bit difficult due to the physical-strength requirements for pushing down the strings, but it got easier over time, he says.

Fine is keeping busy, with seven side projects, including one called Der Heisser, which is purely klezmer music.

Gypsophilia’s music is often described as bridging the worlds of jazz and indie rock, drawing both the regular jazz crowd as well as indie hipsters to the shows, which have been described as highly energetic and almost like a party.

It’s a mix of danceable music and listening music, sometimes both in the same night, Fine says, adding that the band has opened for hard rock and punk bands in the past. The music, while clearly in the jazz genre, is less improvised than a typical jazz band, which might make it a bit more accessible.

“Some of the stuff is rhythmic and driving,” he says, “and other stuff is very dynamic and a little more developmental.”

He draws inspiration from many different places, with one of his songs incorporating a rugby chant from southern France. He told The CJN he was at a rugby game, heard the chant, wrote down the music – exemplifying an obviously great ear for music – and brought it to his bandmates – keyboardist Sageev Oore, guitarist Ross Burns, trumpet player Matt Myer, guitarists Nick Wilkinson and Alec Frith and violinist Gina Burgess.

Gypsophilia’s latest album is called Sa-Ba-Da-OW! and refers to the ways musicians talk when they’re trying to explain a part of the music.

For example, he might say he’s referring to the sa-ba-da-ow part, and the other musicians would know exactly which part he means.

The album has garnered attention from the East Coast Music Association, which gave Gypsophilia a Jazz Recording of the Year award for Sa-Ba-Da-OW!

Right now, the band is working on material for a followup album, which is set for recording in Montreal in December and for a 2011 release.

Although the musicians haven’t determined which direction the album will go, one thing is sure: there will be waltzes.

“I’ve got a bit of a curse,” Fine says, laughing. “That’s all I can write these days.”

Gypsophilia will play a few shows in the Maritimes in August and September. Visit www.gypsophilia.org and www.adamfine.ca for more information.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grandfather’s cantorial CD release inspires jazz singer

One song was all it took to change Sophie Berkal- Sarbit’s life.

The now 19-year-old jazz sensation was just 10 when she was preparing for an international music festival in New York. She sang folk music and was involved with musical theatre at the time, but on her father’s recommendation, she performed Angel Eyes, made famous by jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald.

“I fell in love with the song and style and haven’t gone back since,” Berkal-Sarbit says.

She was 16 years old when she released her first album, The Gypsy in My Soul. Her followup album was released on Valentine’s Day this year and is called Young and Foolish. Both albums contain Berkal-Sarbit’s covers of famous jazz tracks.

She opened the Beaches International Jazz Festival in Toronto on July 16, where she performed an original song, Just Us. Songwriting, she says, is a skill she’s just starting to get into.

She has performed at this festival every year since 2006 as part of the group the Real Divas, but this is the first time she got her own show – on opening night, no less.

“I’m really excited and honoured to have that,” Berkal-Sarbit says.

She describes percussion as something she loves to incorporate into her shows. Not drums, she specifies, but other percussive instruments such as bongos.

“I’d love to learn that [percussion] myself, but I don’t have any time,” she says.

Her album pushes the envelope for a jazz CD, as she performs material that is not jazz – for example, Until by Sting and Grandma’s Hands by Bill Withers – but transforms the songs into Latin jazz or ballads with different arrangements.

She has worked with jazz musicians who incorporate their own styles into music from other genres, and she says she is following their example. She also credits the approach to working with her producer, Bill King, who helped her arrange the tracks.

King says Berkal-Sarbit’s voice is unique in that it truly connects with people, and he describes it as having a softness to it.

“She has a great rhythm to her singing,” he says, attributing it to her exposure to jazz music while she was growing up and developing as a vocalist.

Being in the studio is probably her favourite thing to do, Berkal-Sarbit says, as she expertly describes the recording process, in which she decides on a theme and picks songs that flow into each other to create a cohesive album.

She records herself singing with the band initially and then redoes the vocals separately, she says.

She calls her grandfather, Rabbi Louis Berkal, her biggest inspiration. He was a rabbi and a cantor at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue in Winnipeg, and released his first cantorial music CD at the age of 87.

“After I found out he was recording a CD, it made me want to record one, too,” she said. “He really taught me never to give up and to always go for my dreams.”

Her grandfather was born in a shtetl in Lithuania and moved to Canada when he was 13. He went to Grand Forks, N.D., to study to become a rabbi and a cantor. He met her grandmother there, and the two of them moved to Winnipeg.

Her grandfather was at Shaarey Zedek Synagogue for more than 50 years, and he died last year at 95 years old.

Winnipeg is Berkal-Sarbit’s hometown, though she moved to Toronto last year to study at a makeup school, where she specialized in special effects and prosthetics, a hobby that she says has always been one of her interests.

But don’t expect to see any of it at her shows.

“I think I would scare my audience,” she says, laughing. Although her youth attracts a younger audience, jazz still generally appeals to an older crowd, Berkal-Sarbit says.

She says it’s an interesting experience being a young jazz singer. While it was difficult to keep up with the workload in high school due to her career commitments, her friends were supportive, she says, adding that they all had tickets to her Beaches Jazz Festival performance.

It’s also nice to be different, she says.

“I get to meet so many interesting people, and I always get different reactions from people when they find out I’m a jazz singer,” she says.

In the future, Berkal-Sarbit says she wants to spend time writing more music with her producer.

“I love, love, love writing with [him], and we work really well together,” she says.

King says her first original song, Just Us, turned out amazing, and he plans on helping her write more songs in the future.

“When she does it live in concert, it’s the most successful song in the set,” he says. “It doesn’t sound like the jazz tunes. It sounds like her.”

And if Berkal-Sarbit could collaborate with any other musicians, she would choose fellow Canadian jazz singers Holly Cole and Emilie- Claire Barlow.

Berkal-Sarbit is also hoping to tour in support of Young and Foolish, and has been thinking of basing the tour around Jewish community centres. She performed as part of the Real Divas at the Stars on Spadina concert at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre last April .

Although Judaism doesn’t necessarily directly affect her music – and the Jewish aspect to her life was more prominent in Winnipeg than Toronto – many of her fans admired her grandfather, who does play a significant role in her music.

“I definitely talk a lot about my grandfather in my shows,” she says.

Catch Berkal-Sarbit on tour when she performs at the Reservoir Lounge in Toronto on Sept. 28. For more information and tour dates, visit www.sophieberkalsarbit.com.

Originally published in The Canadian Jewish News.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Paul McCartney puts on one-of-a-kind show

Playfulness and energy. That sums up last night's Paul McCartney show at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.

I've been to a ton of concerts, but I've never seen anything like this one.

Almost every seat was filled with cheering people. Sitting up in the 300s level, I was blown away by the sheer number of people there. It's crazy to know they were all there, with very, very expensive tickets, all to see one man. What a crazy world it is. But by the end, I completely understood the attraction.

Paul McCartney wows crowd
at Toronto show [Grace Zweig photo]
I have to start by saying that I'm not a huge Beatles fan. I respect them and I appreciate them, but I've never felt the desire to go out of my way to listen to them. Therefore, my views come from someone who didn't know what to expect, and mostly has concert experiences from indie or rock club concerts.

Before the show, screens on each side of the stage showed 60s era photos and videos to the soundtrack of remixed Beatles and Paul McCartney songs.

When the lights went down and the former Beatle walked on stage, the crowd went wild.

The band played perfectly together, reciting the songs with precision and a real tightness.
They performed a wide range of songs ranging from the Beatles’ early material all the way to his most recent album.

He also played the Jimi Hendrix song Foxy Lady in a tribute to the late guitarist, emanating the wild rock and roll sound for which Hendrix was known. McCartney told a story about seeing Hendrix perform the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album just days after its release.

In that performance Hendrix used excessive whammy bar movements causing the guitar to slide out of tune, so he asked if Eric Clapton was in the audience—which he was—and requested he tune his guitar for him.

McCartney bounced around while he played, looking like he was having a great time. He was playful and seemed thankful at the same time, combining a sense of ease, excitement and humility.

Real emotion came through as he sang. Even after performing the same songs thousands of times, they still came out fresh and full of feeling.

He joked around with the audience and was very energetic. He seemed at home on the stage and his voice was strong as ever. I could hardly believe the sound and power that came out of this man.

He had a moment of dedication for John Lennon as he introduced the song about the conversation they never had, Here Today. The soft guitar-vocal piece still sounded extremely honest and clearly resounded with many audience members.

A while later came a moment for George Harrison right before he performed Something on Harrison's old ukulele. When the guitar solo kicked in, McCartney switched to a guitar while a slideshow of old McCartney and Harrison photos played behind them.

He also dedicated his performance of My Love to his late wife, Linda McCartney, as well as the other lovers in the audience.

Throughout the show, the musicianship, needless to say, was phenomenal—but I wouldn't have expected anything less from such a legend.

It was a lot of fun watching drummer Abe Laboriel Jr. dancing behind the kit throughout Dance Tonight—and McCartney’s subsequent imitation of the dance. The drummer was amazing throughout the show, performing much of the backing vocals while he drummed, and even left the drum set to sing and dance during a couple of the songs.

McCartney led the crowd in making strange sounds as he began Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da, for which he said was only the second time he ever performed it in Canada, with the first being the first night of the Toronto stop.

During Paperback Writer, McCartney played the guitar he used during the period in the 60s when he recorded that song. It seemed he switched guitars after every couple of songs, and he jokingly described these purpose of these changes as simply to show off.

"We've got all these guitars," he said, "we're going to show them off."

Shortly after, the atmosphere changed completely and got even better. It began at the start of what was easily the best set: Let It Be, Live and Let Die, and Hey Jude. Although I've heard the pyrotechnics are identical every time he performs Live and Let Die, it was easily the best performance of the night.

The encore included Day Tripper, Lady Madonna, Get Back. The second encore had Yesterday, Mull of Kintyre, Helter Skelter, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and The End.

During the second encore, he called up an audience member who held a sign asking McCartney to sign her arm, promising she wouldn't sell it on eBay, quite to his amusement. He signed it on the condition that she sticks to her promise.

He performed Mull of Kintyre with the kilted Paris-Port Dover Pipe Band, which was a great addition to the show.

The energy completely changed from the first two-thirds of the show—more of a concert-like performance—to the last portion, encompassing the final few songs of the main set and the encores, which become more of a party. Instead of sitting and listening, almost everyone was standing, dancing, and clapping along.

It almost could have been two separate shows—but I suppose that's what happens when the performer has such a huge catalogue of material.

It isn’t to say the beginning section was worse, but the second portion is where McCartney truly grabbed every person in the audience and pulled them into the show.

The spread of ages within the audience was huge, with little kids as well as older folks in attendance.

I didn't come into the show hoping to relive past music moments like many of the audience members clearly were. I’ll admit I only knew most of the songs from hearing them in my Dad's car as I grew up.

But it was a great show, and an incredible experience, and I never appreciated the Beatles and McCartney as much as I did that night.

Originally posted in the Canadian Jewish Schmooze, blog for the CJN.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Actor re-invents herself as an abstract artist

Marilyn Lightstone; a real artist in her Toronto studio
Not every artist can claim credits in Anne of Green Gables, The Jetsons and Cheers. Nor can every artist claim to have written a novel and hosted a radio show. Then again, not every artist is Marilyn Lightstone – a successful actor, author, painter, photographer, radio host and musician.
Although Lightstone, 70, spent much of her life as an actor, she always wanted to paint.

“I thought I was going to be an artist when I was a kid,” she said. “I thought I was going to be a painter, but I became an actress instead.”

In addition to guest roles on television, Lightstone wrote a novel, Rogues and Vagabonds (Stoddart), in 2001 and currently hosts a radio program on Classical 96, a Toronto radio station owned by her husband, Moses Znaimer.

Despite taking the acting road, she says she always knew she would eventually come back to visual art, and in the late 1990s, she started thinking about it seriously and began to take photographs again – not specifically as artwork, but as a preface to her return to art, to sharpen her eye and sense of composition.

She played around with watercolour, gouache and oil paints before discovering that acrylic paint was the medium for her because she likes to work quickly and layer colours.

Lightstone says experimenting with different media and styles are steps that she would have gone through as she grew as an artist if she had focused on visual art as a child. The fact that she brought visual art to the forefront of her life as an adult simply means she goes through the stages much faster, she adds.

Her first paintings were still lifes, but she grew bored and moved on. Although she never thought of herself as a lover of abstract work, she found herself involved in abstract paintings and jazz, which some people consider an abstract form of music.

“I came in one night, and instead of listening to one of my CDs, I got a canvas ready to paint, and I tuned into the jazz radio station,” Lightstone says. And then, some time after that, as she prepared another canvas to do a landscape in oils, she decided to do a red wash on the canvas.

“Then it was like I was hit by lightning,” she says. “It was one of those extraordinary moments where I kind of looked at the squiggles and figures I’d made on the paper with my squeeze bottle of acrylic paint, and I said, ‘What’s that? How did that happen?’ and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll do it again,’ and I ended up painting my first abstract painting.”

Suddenly, she understood abstract painting and what it meant to her, and she really never went back to figurative painting again.

“To me, abstract art was a journey into the unknown, whereas when you do representative things, you know where you’re going to end up,” Lightstone says.

Her studio walls are covered with her work, oil and acrylic paintings and some that incorporate photography.

In some of her abstract paintings, she uses mixed media, integrating her photography with the paint. In her Homage to an Ancient Culture series, she used both photographs of totem poles and paints to create red and black paintings.

One series of photographs plays with lights; bright lights over dark backgrounds, often together with other coloured lights, create abstract photographs.

“I had to find ones that would talk to each other,” Lightstone says.

Her art pieces display a wide range of styles, including abstract images, landscapes and straight photography.

One element comes through all of her work – the use of bright, bold colours.

People often tell her that her work looks like 10 different artists could have done it, she says.

“I like the idea of evolving rather than repeating myself,” she says, and her work clearly displays this attitude.

Lightstone likes to photograph aged, ruined walls and wrecked buildings, which she says provide the most interesting shots.

“It’s not in the glamorous that really has the most appeal,” she says.

Her photography has taken her around the globe. Lightstone has photographed people and places in India, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Mongolia. She says she is a firm believer in the philosophy that the purpose of life is to experience, learn, and expand your horizons and perspectives, and the best way of doing that is through travel.

“You have got to see everything you can before you leave this earth,” she says. “If you see the same things every time, you take things for granted, but when you’re in a new situation, you see things afresh.”

The places she goes to photograph are not conventional tourist destinations, but she says she likes to take “the beaten track a little bit – or a lot, if it’s safe.”

Although some people have told her to avoid taking photos while on vacation and instead fully immerse herself into the experience, Lightstone has found this to be untrue, and describes herself as having stupidly fallen into this idea on many of her travels. The trips she remembers most vividly are the ones she spent photographing, she says.

She has researched the subjects she photographs. For example, she is aware of the lifestyles of the nomadic people of Mongolia.

“I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world,” Lightstone says. “That’s only true to a certain extent, I know, but I try my best.”

For more information, and to see some of her work, visit ­­­www.marilynlightstone.com.

Originally published in The Canadian Jewish News.