Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2008: Curtis Fuller

Listening In

Written by:

At least a couple of hundred new books crowd onto my desk each year, each of them in contention for a spot on the roster for THIN AIR, Winnipeg’s annual festival of writers at the end of September. There’s some of everything in those stacks: novels, short fiction, memoirs, mysteries, biographies, plays, poetry. Some are funny, some are heart-breaking. Some are so dense they make your brain hurt. Some are so smooth you skate away on them and figure you might not bother coming back.

The variety is one of the great delights of this crazy job. The variety, but also the extraordinary energy that flies off the page of a really well-written book.

I was thinking about this when I walked in on the tail-end of a rehearsal of the jazz camp faculty. Six players amidst a clutter of music stands and microphones, and the focus is so intense you can almost feel it as another presence—these are artists who put aside fatigue and hunger and the myriad details of their day to rehearse brilliantly difficult original material. Most of this music is new to them, and they don’t normally play together, but each musician is so accomplished—and committed—that it takes only a couple of sweeps to make complex rhythms and harmonies click into place.

It’s their joy to do this—you can feel that in the room too. And as they work up these charts, the personalities of the players become sharper and clearer. You can hear their wit, their depth, their originality—they each have a musical fingerprint. You can hear their respect for these new works, and for one another. And when they all throw their various selves into the mix, you begin to glimpse a more precise image of the player-composer too. Even sitting eight rows back, I feel introduced, welcomed in.

I love being part of an audience. I love to listen hard, to hear what’s familiar, to hear what’s unfamiliar. I love the feel of being present to art unfolding in time and space. As I get more experienced in my director’s role at the festival, I find I’m reading differently—I’m more aware of myself as a listener there too. I’m more attuned to the writer’s unique fingerprint. As a reader, I’m part audience and part player: my focus is essential if the linguistic rhythms and harmonies are going to click into place to release that charge of energy.

Writers aren’t so accustomed to the performance moment. We work in our quiet spaces and are sometimes shy of the stage. But a book is only an idea until it is released from its pages—a writer needs an audience too. That’s one of the great pleasures of THIN AIR: I have a chance to make a week-long concert of sorts, with ideas and images flying through the air. It’s another kind of listening from a jazz concert, for sure, but the effects are not so different—there’s challenge, delight, confirmation, provocation, bewilderment, pleasure, exhilaration. I figure that’s a pretty big payback on your investment…

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