Peter Hum’s journey in jazz

Peter Hum Sextet. From left Alec Walkington, David Smith, Ted Warren, Kenji Omae, Mike Rud, Peter Hum. Photo: Randy Cole

Many journalists find other outlets for their talents. Some turn to fiction writing. Some to filmmaking.

In Peter Hum’s case, he plays jazz piano. There is a direct connection to the work he has done at the Ottawa Citizen where he and I were colleagues.

Hum writes an influential jazz blog. But he more than puts his money where his pen is. He has just recorded his third CD of what he calls modern mainstream jazz with several of the best musicians he could assemble.

The result is Ordinary Heroes and the album will get a public launch on March 9 in the NAC’s Fourth Stage.

As someone aware of the investment needed to make a record and the diminishing returns the discs receive, one has to ask why do it?

“It has an intrinsic artistic value even if the monetary value has dwindled,” Hum said in an interview. “It is something that will represent me and it will represent the musicians and how they play together.

“It’s out there maybe to shake things up a little bit.” That last bit is a reference to some of the extra-musical elements of this music which was written since 2015 and in the years of the Syrian refugee crisis and the election of Donald Trump in the U.S.

Hum went into a recording session in the Venturing Hills studio in the Outaouais about 12 months ago with players that he has known for years.

“The history I have with each guy is pretty specific,” he said.

“I have been playing with bass player Alex Walkington for years. We go back to Grade 9 and 10 at the former J.S. Woodsworth Secondary School. He’s a year older than I am.

“We really came up playing that music. Now it’s 40 years of trying to make things happen through jazz.”

He’s known the drummer Ted Warren almost as long. They go back to Hum’s McGill University days.

He met tenor saxophonist Kenji Omae in 1993. Omae is 10 years younger than Hum.

“He wanted to play with me,” which he said with a sort of surprise in his voice.

“He is a fantastic, humble, inspiring guy and a real role model for everyone who knows him.” These days Kenji is a professor of jazz at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

Mike Rud plays guitar. He was Walkington’s roommate around 1990. “I knew him then. He’s a polymath. He can talk your ear off about philosophy and psychology.”

Another bassist Dave Watt also played on the CD. He filled in when Walkington had a family emergency.

The trumpet player is Dave Smith. In this gang, only Hum lives in Ottawa. The rest are in Montreal, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, Guelph and Brooklyn, New York.

This is basically the band that will go on the road in Ontario for seven shows. A smaller version will travel to the Maritimes for five more concerts. In all this is a big deal for Hum.

“It will be interesting to see how the music evolves over the shows in Ontario.”

Hum as a musician has been evolving over many decades now but he’s humble about his talent. He says this about himself: “You could say I’m not professional. I’m not. I’m a glorified hobbyist.”

He started with piano lessons learning songs such as Teddy Bears on Parade. But he was an indifferent practicer.

“I quit the formal lessons but I still liked playing the instrument.” He continued to play and followed his own path into the prog rock that was in vogue in the 1970s and then with music by Elton John.

The jazz bug started to bite just before high school and he started jamming with Alex Walkington.

“We were playing high school stage band stuff. And then Herbie Hancock put out the album Head Hunters including the song Chameleon.  And we were trying to play that.” (Other jazz influences are John Coltrane for his spiritual depth and intensity and the drummer Brian Blade for similar reasons.)

The distance between prog and jazz is not that wide and there are bridges that exist. Consider the old Dave Brubeck song Blue Rondo a la Turk. It would be on the very first Nice album The Thoughts of Emerlist Davjack featuring Keith Emerson.

All that to say, Hum found his bridge and crossed over.

“Jazz is really fulfilling because it’s the one form that allows the most creative input —  even for 16 year old wannabes. It was true then and true now.

“You see up and coming teens getting bitten by the same bug. They have the feeling of freedom when they play the music and when they listen to it. It is the fact that you are inventing and creating.

“Jazz has rules but the game always changes.” It’s also about team work and trying to do things together with other players, he said.

“But no two performances are the same.”

With that kind of potential for improvisation, the recording of Ordinary Heroes was a true group effort.

“These are my compositions but within that the musicians have a lot of freedom to manoeuvre. I’m the guy who likes to throw the party and let others be the life of the party.”

He’s a good host. And he knows how good the band members are.

“If I wanted to show myself off I would make a trio record. It’s telling that all my records are quintets or sextets. I like that feeling. I would say I really like to accompany (others).”

He feels comfortable enough to take solo now and then “but I have always liked being in the rhythm section trying to support someone else. That’s really gratifying for me.”

The community created by the act of performing is something that is very appealing to Hum.

The CD was recorded over three days.

“It takes pressure off to have the extra day, especially for me because I am kind of slow to hit my stride in the studio. It’s not a pressure cooker because I am playing with friends. But it’s not the same as playing a concert. As the leader, there are logistical things you need to do and occasionally some psychological gremlins need to be dealt with.

“It is fascinating to be recording something. During the process or after you learn a lot.

Some of the music was brand spanking new. The first tune on the record, Crises and Reckonings was basically written in the studio.

He likes the opportunity to really explore the music being recorded.

“There is a different kind of joy that you get more often in performance. It’s ephemeral. There is a different kind of beauty in that as opposed to making music for the ages. I like both.

“To be honest I don’t know if I have another record in me. I think the trilogy might be complete at this point. Making a CD takes tremendous effort. I have a life outside of music and I have this notion that each project should not cost me too much money.”

But he’s not afraid to rock the boat.

He is, as a journalist, probably more attuned to the politics of the age than some. While the music doesn’t really indicate a particular point of view, some of his titles certainly do — such as Fake News Blues, Rabble Rouser and Safe Passage.

“I do actually think the jazz listenership skews left of centre. That’s based on my Facebook jazz friend bubble. Also the music has roots in the black experience and in the 1960s, jazz was civil rights music.

“I would think that I would be preaching to the choir if I made a political jazz record.

“Surprisingly there is one critic in a red American state who refuses to review it and another reviewer clearly identified himself as a Trumpist.

“He said the disc was excellent musically but suspect politically.”

Why make the point?

“You could argue it’s extra-musical. You could listen to it as exciting instrumental jazz.

“I had a conversation with Branford Marsalis about this. He believes people like to have extra-musical notions, titles, stories or introductions that help them frame the music or receive the music.

“I came to all of those things very honestly. The election of Trump troubled me. The plight of Syrian refugees was bugging me especially after the photograph of Alan Kurdi was made public. I’m a distraught political news junkie these days.

There are slight bits of political resonance in his previous records, he said.

“Otherwise I did the things most musicians would do. There is a song for my father, a song for my wife. All of those are great reasons to write music … for loved ones or things that inspire you.

“Some is more music for music’s sake. I was exploring musical ideas that interest me. On this record, the title comes up before or within the writing process. In my mind, I am writing to a message or a theme that, to me, connects to something in the real world.”

Peter Hum’s Ordinary Heroes
Where: NAC Fourth Stage
When: March 9 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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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.