Luke Howard and Janos Bruneel on the open road

‘These gentle, tightly focused dialogues emphasise beauty of sound at every turn…the treble piano notes are as limpid as dewdrops and the deeper ones are rich, sonorous and lingering. The bass is played with potency, tenderness and dazzling imagination’. The Sydney Morning Herald

OpenRoad-coverWhen we interviewed Michael Tortoni, Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival (MIJF), he put Open Road on his list of current favourite listens. A few weeks later ‘Spir’ from the same CD won the 2012 Bell Award for Best Jazz Song of the Year.

The CD is a project by Luke Howard (Australia, piano) and Janos Bruneel (Belgium, bass). It was recorded in Oslo’s iconic RainbowStudio. People use words like ‘nuanced’, ‘delicate’, ‘subtle’ and ‘pure’ to describe this music. And the recording’s sound quality makes it a wonderful headphone experience too.

Howard and Bruneel are opening for the Arcoluz Trio of French bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons on Friday 8 June at MIJF, and they’re also playing in Sydney and Adelaide earlier that week. See the bottom of this article for details.

We caught up with Luke and Janos by email in when they were in Antwerp together. How did you meet and how did this collaboration come about? What drew you together as musicians?

Luke Howard: We met in 2007 at the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music in Canada. We hit it off and put on a few concerts there: I guess we had similar personalities, musical ideas and attitudes. And humour, that played a big part.

Janos Bruneel: When Luke was living in Berlin, one day he was all of a sudden in the Royal Conservatory of the Hague. After the first notes we played together, it was pretty clear we needn’t wait another three years to play again.

LH: So yes, I’d been thinking about going to Rainbow Studio in Oslo to record for a while, a studio where many of our favourite recordings were made. This seemed liked the perfect project for that.

AJN: Do you play in other ensembles together?

LH: Apart from at Banff, not really. That said, I recorded some music for piano and strings last week and Janos did play on some of those tracks, probably about twenty notes in total! Was great having his ears in the studio.

JB: We have a few ideas for expanded ensembles, for instance, prepared piano for unprepared composers [laughs]

AJN: How much of what you do on the CD is improvised and how much is written?

LH: The full gamut from completely improvised to completely notated. The first track, ‘Vita Bis’, is written as a four part chorale, with improvisations before each statement. ‘Fourth Floor’ was never written down, I learnt it by ear from Janos, I’m not sure if he has music for it.

JB: By now it’s written down.

LH: ‘Spir’ is more of a traditional jazz form: head/solo/head, although it kind of turns in on itself. ‘She Left a Note’ and the other solo piano pieces are free improvisations, in the traditional sense. Similar for the other tracks; the duo is an opportunity to experiment with these different approaches, and to disguise them.

JB: What is improvised vs notated is not so relevant; you just believe in what you play. Even if it’s written out you have to reinvent it on the spot. I had some kind of idea of what I wanted to do, but the sound and the whole environment in the studio made it turn out differently; better I’d say.

AJN: What part do travel and landscape play in this music, for you?

LH: I think the long journey to Oslo (a day by car, a day by ship, in order to transport the bass) played some role, there was plenty of opportunity for contemplating what we were about to do. Rehearsing as we did in Belgium prior to the recording was a lot more interesting and unusual than doing so in Melbourne, but the opposite may be true for Janos. Maybe we were fresher approaching our instruments, because there was no opportunity to practise immediately before the recording.

JB: This is very true.

LH: And of course, travelling to a studio such as Rainbow – which for us has a mythology of sorts – I think elevates the occasion and can raise one’s playing. I wouldn’t ascribe too much to the song titles though as many of them were assigned retrospectively!

AJN: The music on this CD is really being enjoyed by many of the people I talk to – and I would simply describe it as beautiful. I am intrigued by whether you start creating music like this with the idea of making something beautiful? Is it your intent?

JB: ‘Art has to be forgotten: Beauty must be realised.’ – Piet Mondriaan.

LH: I’m not sure if it’s my intent per se, although I do feel it sometimes necessary to defend beauty. I’m not a big fan of a lot of aggression and atonality in jazz. It’s not really in my nature to make that sort of music. And even if I don’t find listening to my own recordings particularly enjoyable, I do try to make music that in principle I would like to listen to. Having said that, the more atonal piano improvisations on the record were an attempt to balance the ‘inside-ness’ of the other compositions.

JB: Harmony is the thing that seems to attract me the most in music. Beautiful melody, usually also has very nice harmony within it. This is also counts for rhythm actually! Doesn’t make my answer more clear, I’m afraid.

AJN: Who were your inspirations, musically?

JB: When it comes to double bass, my very first teacher, Piet Verbist; and, not much later, the great bass players Hein van de Geyn and Frans van der Hoeven, with whom I was studying for seven years. Other inspirations were my [flautist] father, actually, without noticing I seem to be quite similar in my approach to music. And then, Anders Jormin, Mark Johnson, Gary Peacock, my fellow students at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, and all the musicians I have played more than one gig with!

LH: Locally, Paul Grabowsky and Tim Stevens were huge inspirations, perhaps because I discovered their music quite early on, and of course because they were my teachers. Grabowsky’s soundtrack The Last Days of Chez Nous I must have heard when I was 15 or so; this was my introduction to that modern idiom of improvisation. I found a tune the other day I’d written in 2001 that has the PG/TS harmonic language (or at least my attempts at imitating it) all over it. I wish I could write tunes like that now!

Also, the teachers I had at high school.

Apart from that, it’s usual suspects: Keith Jarrett, Lyle Mays, Brad Mehldau, Bud Powell, Paul Bley, Chick Corea (roughly in some sort of order). I did commit the mortal sin of listening mostly to piano players. Over the last few years I’ve been listening to less jazz.

Janos Bruneel and Luke Howard – photo by Ruben Van Eeckhout

AJN: What projects are  you currently working on? Are there any other Luke Howard / Janos Bruneel projects in the works?

JB: A lot of projects. I’m working a Dufay project, using music from the 15th century as a main source of inspiration, in the unusual yet very transparent setting of flute, pianoforte, and double bass. Two quartets with [Belgian saxophonist] Marjan Van Rompay, my fiancée. My band, Janos Bruneel Lingo Quintet, will soon be releasing a second CD.

LH: This is the first I’ve heard of this quintet…

JB: I should work on my marketing! Actually, the first CD was a trio. There is also a nice trio with a Korean pianist, Soo Cho; and a soon to be released record in Korea in collaboration with a Hungarian saxophone player, Indonesian pianist and Korean drummer, Namyuol Cho (no relation). There’s also a project with the Flemish Radio Choir and trumpeter Jo Hermans. Next season I will substitute my twin brother in a musical theatre play for kids from the age of three.

LH: So, I just started recording another couple of records again at Rainbow. One is a trio with Daniel Farrugia and Jonathan Zion, a follow up to our first record The Meadowlands. The other is (non-improvised) music, for piano and string quintet. Janos and Leonard Grigoryan helped me very much with the latter project, and there was something special about spending a few weeks in a foreign city with your best friends from afar. Finishing them will take most of 2012, I except. Janos and I plan to do another duo record or something with a larger ensemble, stylistically different, maybe next year, but, we will see.

AJN: What are you listening to now?

JB: Guillaume Dufay.

LH: The most recent thing I listened to seriously was Jarrett’s Bremen/Lausanne concerts. Such incredible playing; it’s great revisiting something you know well but haven’t listened to in a long time – like seeing an old friend.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been listening to things on the Bedroom Community label – Sam Amidon, Daníel Bjarnason, Ben Frost, Nico Muhly – all very interesting and different from each other, yet with common ideas and musicians. Nils Frahm, a pianist I heard by chance in Berlin: his albums The Bells and Felt are beautiful (in the sense we talked about earlier). Other than that: the Punch Brothers, old Neil Young records and Tim Stevens.

Tour dates, links to websites etc.

Open Road is available from the Which Way Music website >>>>

Listen to ‘Spir’ on the CD’s web page

Open Road tour:
June 6: The Promethean, Adelaide  info/bookings
June 7: Venue 505, Sydney info
June 8: MRC – Melbourne International Jazz Festival info/bookings