Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No.3, 2017

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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Bernard Dubé
  Contributing Editors
David Solway
Louis René Beres
Nancy Snipper
Farzana Hassan
Daniel Charchuk
Samuel Burd
Andrée Lafontaine
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Serge Gamache Emanuel Pordes
Diane Gordon
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Chantal Levesque Denis Beaumont
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Jazz Contributors

Tommy Emmanuel
John Stetch
Susie Arioli
Coral Egan
Diana Krall
Stacey Kent
Carol Welsman
Aldo Romano
Denzal Sinclaire
Madeleine Peyroux
Bireli Lagrene
Sonido Isleño
Provost & Lachapelle
Kevin Breit
Sophie Milman
Annie Poulain
Badi Assad
Donato & Bouchard
Ingrid Jensen
John Roney
Russell Malone
David Binney
Kurt Rosenwinkel
Mimi Fox
Voo Doo Scat
Coral Egan
Martin Taylor
Jordan Officer
Melody Gardot
Jean Vanasse
Yves Léveillé
Sylvain Provost
Louciana Souza
Patricia Barber
Jill Barber
Corrine Bailey Rae
Chet Doxas
François Bourassa
Sylvain Luc
Neil Cowley
Marianne Trudel
Florence K
Terez Montcalm
Cyrus Chestnut
Tord Gustavsen
Sarah MK
Julie Lamontagne
Vincent Gagnon
Arioli & Officer
Jean Félix Mailloux
Becky Noble
Vijay Iyer
Lionel Loueke
Tia Fuller
Cécile McLorin Salvant
Emma Frank
Shai Maestro
Christine Jensen
Vincent Rehel
Kat Edmonson
Jaga Jazzist
Cline & Lage
Fred Hersch
Gregory Porter
Takuya Kuroda
2010 Montreal Guitar Show (Sylvan Luc)

Montreal Jazz Festival 2010







Piano Keyboard


by Robert J. Lewis

Featured artist: EDMAR CASTAÑEDA


When an exceptional musician makes us feel he is reinventing his instrument, it is because he is no longer able to abide by its time worn, set-in-stone tonal and emotional pre-sets. Flouting convention, he resolves to be true to himself, to convert what's in his head into fact, and a new sound, a new way of making music is born.

We all know what to expect from the flute, accordion or harp; their generic timbre and pitch are as predictable as the centuries they have spanned.

The prototype of the pipe organ has been around since the 3rd century BC, coming into its own in the 14-15th centuries when the instrument was reconfigured to fill the vast and chilly marble spaces of the magnificent cathedrals of the time. The magnificat -- and at the time revolutionary -- sound that emerged reflected the glory of God and buoyed the faith of His worshippers. J. S. Bach was the instrument’s most brilliant and indefatigable exemplar.

But over time, the cathedral organ sound and its very particular, sacred language began to wear thin in a world that was turning secular. For neglected or disadvantaged communities looking for a way out of the harsh conditions of inner city life in the 20th century, the cantata was a foreign tongue that spoke in secret alphabets. To give voice to the mute disaffection and despair that became synonymous with black ghetto life in America, a new language was required, which in the 1950s was radiantly supplied by Jimmy Smith (1928-2005), who took the conventional organ dispensation, put it through his Hammond B3, and made it speak the language of jazz. His revolutionary sound was sky-scraper sleek, icy and cool. The listener carrying it in his head felt fortified, equal to the many dead-ends and social iniquities that would have otherwise crushed him. However transitory, this new organ vibe allowed the misfits and failures to feel good about themselves: their strut and cool left no doubt that the neon lights on Broadway were shining on them.

As hard rock began to steal the thunder from all other genres, the organ sound was again reinvented by Door’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek (1939-2013). Many rockers swear they actually disliked the organ until Manzarek came up with his liquid-like, hollowed out organ-bass sound out of which were fashioned those deliriously expansive solos that became synonymous with The Doors.

* * * * * * * * * *

The lineage of the harp can be traced back to ancient Egypt. Its generic sound has remained stubbornly unchanged throughout the centuries. We look to the harp to evoke civility, gentleness, the wind caressing a field of flowers, angels and cherubs taking to the skies. We would not summon the instrument to express anger, frustration or military might.

Enter Columbia’s Edmar Castañeda, whose father was a harpist, who at 16 discovers the world of jazz and improvisation, but is unable to find an opening into that fascinating new world because of the limitations of his instrument. He has already listened to the great oud (11-13 strings) and kora (21 strings) players coming out of Africa, and realizes that he has to completely reconfigure the harp so it can be played more percussively and speak the language of jazz.

To this end, he takes his Columbian or arpa llanera harp, redesigns the sound board to accommodate shorter strings for his right hand, triple-winds the strings at the long end to produce a rich bass sound, and finally he introduces a series of mechanical levers that allow him to change keys from one song to the next or within the song.

The result is nothing less than something out of the black and into the blue. Independently supplying his own bass, Castañeda is now unprecedentedly free to improvise with his right hand, alternating complex chord runs and melody, sometimes caressing, sometimes plucking or striking the strings as per the mood of the moment. His hybrid sound draws from tango, flamenco, African, samba, and his native folk, but now -- in solo, duo or trio format -- friendly to jazz and improvisation.

The conventional harp had been previously used (Dorothy Ashby) in jazz, but Castañeda takes the instrument, its physical and emotional dynamic, to a new level, a new orbit. His arrestingly original vocabulary of sounds and effects and the very particular compositions they inspire reflect the passion and necessity that prepared the harp for its metamorphosis.

In live performance, his energy and presence speak to the extent his instrument has evolved under his guidance and temperment. To better grasp what he has accomplished, think of someone who has been refused entry into a world because of his colour or beliefs, but who refuses to accept any limitations in his expression, in being himself. By staying the course and remaining true to his muse, he breaks down barriers and -- what can only be said of the great innovators -- becomes his own precedent.

If you’re in the Montreal area come June 30th, you’ll be able to catch him live (in duo with pianist Hiromi) at the city’s celebrated 2017 Montreal International Jazz Festival. He will dazzle with technical virtuosity such as you have never seen, much like Stanley Jordan dazzled with his reinvention of the guitar, whose fret board is wired to be played like a piano.

But as with Jordan, the final judgement of Edmar Castañeda’s music will not be rendered by the mesmerized eye and the excitement generated by startling innovation and technical brilliance, but by the ear, in those “quiet nights of quiet stars” moments, when the CD is spinning and there is just you and the music. It won’t matter a whit how the sound is produced. The discerning listener will be looking for those exceptional qualities that allow only the very best in music to survive on its own sonic terms.

Stanley Jordan, if not forgotten, plays in the shadows of the many more talented guitarists of our time because the tapping or hammering of the notes and chords on the fret board do not lend themselves to the kind of deep probing that results in memorable music. Despite technical wizardry that is without precedent, Jordan falls short in jazz’s most critical category: interpretation.

Be as it may that Castañeda is wowing audiences with his unsurpassed brilliance on an instrument he has completely reinvented, only time will tell if his compositions and improvisations will survive the novelty of their production in live performance.

Photos ©Nike Martens

Montreal International Jazz Festival
Friday, June 30, 2017 at 8:00 PM
Monument-National 1182 St. Laurent Blvd




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