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Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Jazz Festival

Interview: Jazzfest Artist-in-Residence Hayden Chisholm

By Stewart Wiseman on June 26, 2019

Ottawa jazz fans are in for a special treat this week, as Hayden Chisholm makes his long awaited return to North America with two unique performances on Wednesday and Thursday night. Chisholm is a unique figure in contemporary jazz, as the New Zealander came into his own as a musician while studying under Frank Gratkowski in Germany, developed a new system of micro-tonal fingerings for saxophone, has become a modern expert in Serbian traditional music, and has a penchant for releasing his music in massive 13-CD box sets.

Photo courtesy of the Ottawa Jazz Festival

This week, Hayden Chisholm will take the Ottawa Jazz Festival stage on two occasions, beginning with a Wednesday night concert accompanied by a string and horn section, followed by a saxophone-bass-drum trio performance on Thursday night. You’ll need to book a European vacation to see Chisholm perform again, as he’ll be returning to Serbia at the conclusion of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

We caught up with Chisholm as prepared to rehearse with his Wednesday night string arrangement for a first time.

Apt613: When’s the last time you played in North America? It’s seems like it’s been quite a while.

Absolutely, a very long time. The last time was probably New York City about fifteen years ago. This is actually the first time I’ve ever played in Canada. I have some great Canadian musician friends who I’ve played with in Europe and they’ve been telling me that I have to come over here.

Do you have any preconceptions about Canadian audiences ahead of the shows?

I walked around today and was reminded of the people back home in New Zealand, so it feels like I’m not too far away from home. There’s a certain familiarity to Ottawa.

You’ll be playing two performances this week at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, the first with a string arrangement and on Thursday with a trio. Will there be any overlap in material?

The first night with the strings will be interesting, half the program is selected pieces chosen from the Charlie Parker with Strings recordings, and between those pieces we’ll be playing some of my own arrangements. The second night will have a different pace, I’ll be playing with Jochen Rueckert on drums and Matt Penman on bass. I’ve played with the two of them for over twenty years in various formations, so the music will be quite different both nights.

Is it a challenge for you to jump between both of those different styles over such a short timeframe?

A lot of my life is spent kind of crossing over worlds. I’ve lived in Serbia the last couple of years, and I like to mix together everything from traditional Serbian music to jazz and a lot of contemporary music. Luckily I play the saxophone, so I can play around with a variety of styles with one instrument that can suit really any type of music.

Digging through your discography it’s hard to find an arrangement or style that you haven’t tried. What do you think drives your curiosity to always be experimenting with new forms of music?

I’ve been on the move a lot in my life, and as I travel I find I’m often curious about the music in the places where I end up. The saxophone has been my main instrument all my life and I’m lucky because it’s an instrument that can do almost anything, so I like to use that musical possibility and try things ranging from Serbian traditional music to jazz. Some people don’t realize that it’s an instrument that can really do a lot.

“At this beautiful little festival in the east of Germany… I ended up duetting with an old tractor.”

Lately I’ve discovered more in depth the New Zealand Maori traditional music that was unknown to me growing up there. I’m always open to giving something new a shot as I explore the sounds of different countries, maybe here I’ll start looking into Canadian Indigenous music.

I saw you recently performed a duet with a tractor. What series of events led to you playing accompanied by farm equipment?

That was last week at this beautiful little festival in the east of Germany where they basically turned farm machinery into instruments and put on shows in these huge barns. People played their instruments accompanied by milking machines and all kinds of stuff. It was beautiful but quite in the middle of nowhere, and I ended up duetting with an old tractor from 1947.

What was the tractor like as a musical partner?

The tractor gives out a nice beat, and I tried to adjust my piece to mesh with the percussion of the tractor’s engine.

Do you see yourself collaborating with more machinery in the future? Maybe a microwave trio?

Haha well I’m very much into experimenting with frequencies and vibrations, so why not give that a shot.

You often perform saxophone while playing the Indian Shruti box. I’ve never heard it played before, what drew you to its sound?

It’s a beautiful little Indian drone instrument. It’s not really used so much anymore in India, but it’s something I was drawn to right away when I heard it. It’s a great accompaniment to the sax and the voice. The Shruti box will actually be one of the few consistencies in both of my shows this week. I heard it for a first time in Greece fifteen years ago and it’s been with me ever since.

What sound do you get from it that you can’t from another instrument?

It functions like a harmonium accordion, it has a breathing quality to it like a lot of drone instruments. I think it blends nicely with the saxophone, which is breathing at its own rhythms, so the two of them together create a really nice blend.

In 2013 you released a 13-CD box set The 13 Views of the Heart’s Cargo, and in 2016 you released another 13-CD set Cusp of Oblivion. It’s 2019, can we expect you to continue the pattern of a new 13-CD box set every three years?

I’ve got some things in the plans that I can’t say too much about yet. I took the last year and a half off from releases, but I’ve got some projects that will be released in the near future. Something along the lines of another large collection of music.


Hayden Chisholm will play with a string and wind accompaniment at the NAC Studio Stage on Wednesday June 26 at 7pm. Tickets cost $30 and can be purchased online. On Thursday June 27, The Hayden Chisholm Trio will play the NAC Fourth Stage at 6pm. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased online.


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