Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival: Adrean Farrugia with feeling

Toronto pianist Adrean Farrugia will be appearing at the Ottawa Jazz festival's winter weekend with his duo partner Joel Frahm.

Adrean Farrugia is a talented — and funny — pianist who has paired up with the saxophonist Joel Frahm for a recording called Blued Dharma. The duo will be at the Ottawa Winter Jazz festival weekend. Before the show Farrugia answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Tell me a bit about yourself.

A. I grew up in Stoney Creek. Ontario, a suburb of Hamilton at the time with a population of 18,000 back in the late ’70s. It was a blue collar environment largely occupied by white catholics who liked CFL football, NHL hockey, backyard barbecues (with lots of beer),  going to the mall on Saturdays, and church on Sundays. It was what I, an overly sensitive — non-athletic — artistically inclined — late to puberty — somewhat introverted kind of kid saw as HELL. Luckily my parents were cool. My Dad has always been a semi-professional drummer and my mother’s side of the family, originally from the Maritimes, was full of musicians. So my artistic inclinations were nurtured at home, but not so much elsewhere at the time.

Adrean Farrugia and Joel Frahm.

Q. Why music?

A. I remember being at church one Sunday afternoon and after mass the congregation would often go to the basement where there were cookies, coffee, socializing and an old upright piano. One afternoon, the parish priest and one of the parishioners began to play Heart and Soul (in the usual way where one person plays the repeating left hand figure and the other plays the melody). I was fascinated, watching closely. After they stopped playing, i curiously sat down at the piano and began playing the left hand part and then added the melody with my right hand. The priest walked up and said ‘Oh how nice Adrean. How long have you been playing piano?’ I replied, ‘This is my first time.’ I remember at that moment a woman standing close by GASPED and then I  heard murmurs around me exclaiming how amazing it was that I had never played before and could just sit down and play like that. The priest then told my parents that they MUST get me piano lessons.

It was the first time in my life that I felt special — that I had a talent of some sort. I started piano lessons shortly thereafter and never looked back.

Q. Why Jazz? Only jazz?

A. I started college as a classical piano major. Within the first few weeks I discovered that there was a whole other ’stream’ of study—the Jazz program. I would hear these guys ‘jamming’ on tunes together and it all sounded very complex and ‘cool’ to my ears. I began to get to know some of these other students and was mesmerized with the idea of improvisation in music—creating something ‘on the spot’ using only your instincts, and acquired knowledge and no sheet music! This seemed very magical to me. I switched over to Jazz studies midway through my first semester in College.

Jazz to me is the ultimate creative outlet for a musician. Throughout history it has always been defined as a genre of music that has no boundaries, which to me equals ultimate freedom of expression. It’s also a potentially very complex music, which to many musicians is very appealing, but also creates challenges for the average listener, hence its longstanding perception as ‘fringe music’ stays with the general public.

I don’t only play jazz. I still enjoy playing classical music at home. I also enjoy playing any music that allows for creative expression. In fact, I’m not a big fan of the word jazz. It has too many connotations in the public eye implying cheesy zoot suits, lindy hopping swing dancers, and smug beret-wearing hipsters in smoky dive-bars. I simply prefer referring to it as Creative Music — music motivated by the pursuit of self-expression and creating something new, rather than commercial appeal and monetary success.

Blued Dharma is the duo’s release.

Q. Tell me a bit about your career apart from the duo with Joel? 

A. I’ve enjoyed a wide variety of musical associations over the years. I’ve largely done work as a sideman contributing to other artist’s projects. I’ve played on more than 50 albums to date. I’ve had long associations with artists such as crooner Matt Dusk, American trumpeter Brad Goode, the Toronto band The Worst Pop Band Ever (described as the ugly lovechild of Miles Davis and Radiohead), American saxophone legend Ernie Watts and my wife and vocalist Sophia Perlman.

I love touring. I’ve toured across Canada many times as well as the U.S., Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Australia and Israel. I also really enjoy being in the recording studio bringing new music to life.

Q. When dod you meet Joel. How did it come about?

A. I met Joel in 2008 when we were brought together to play in Toronto drummer Ernesto Cervini’s newly formed quartet. Ernesto met Joel while living in New York City as a student working on his MA degree at the Manhattan School of Music.

Q. Why do a duo with Joel?

A. Duo music is very intimate. It’s the most exposed and dynamic way that two musicians can communicate. It also has the most possibilities as far as where the music can go. This is both very exciting and potentially very scary (not scary like being chased by a grizzly bear, but scary like being paralyzed by so many choices at once :). The duo thing is quite new for us so there’s still a lot to explore. How it works is we play when we can. It takes planning.

Q. Tell me about the making of Blued Dharma. 

A. I wrote some tunes. I drove to NYC and met Joel. We had one rehearsal. We drove to New Jersey to a recording studio. We recorded the album in four hours. Done :).

There’s no underlying philosophy around this album. There is an underlying philosophy around my life as an artist though. It’s about continually stripping away all the BS and getting to that essence of Being and expressing that in the music. Honest and real self expression and finding the beauty and simplicity inside of life and trying to channel that through the music. Allowing the music to wake up a fire inside me allows the music to also wake up others. That’s how I see what I do as having the potential to make a difference in the world — awakening a sense of fire, inspiration, magic in others.  Joel is a musician with whom I feel comfortable and inspired to engage with in this process.

Q. As a composer what is your focus?

A. Write music that makes me feel something. That’s it.

Q. You are also a teacher. Why? Who do you teach, where?

A. I teach because I love to share what I know and watch discovery unfold in others. I teach at Mohawk College in Hamilton, Humber College in Toronto and I’ve also taught at York University in past years. I also teach younger musicians at the Interprovincial Music Camp, The National Music Camp, and sometimes at the Leahy Music Camp.

Q. What’s next for the duo? What’s next for you?

A, Next for the duo: who know’s? Hopefully more tour dates and another album. Next for me: lots of sideman work on other musician’s projects as well as an upcoming duo album with U.S. trumpeter Brad Goode and in June I’m flying to Paris, France, to make a piano trio album with my old friend and genius bassist Chris Jennings — I’m excited about that. And I’ve also got some tour dates coming up in May with Jane Siberry, one of my musical idols.

Adrean Farrugia & Joel Frahm present Blued Dharma
TD Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival

Where: Arts Court Theatre
When: Jan. 30 at 6:30 p.m.
This concert is sold out.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.