Brodie West Finds Rhythm with The Ex, Mengelberg, Bennink


Brodie West’s Clips is due out Sept. 21.

(Photo: Chris Boni)

Canadian saxophonist Brodie West’s 13th release as a leader, Clips, finds the composer stringing together abstract impressions, each statement seemingly springing spontaneously from the moment before. With stark melodic lines, the sound is innately personal, a kind of sonic solitude emerging from the bandleader’s quintet.

Growing up in British Columbia, West moved to Toronto at 17 and eventually to Europe. Studying with composer and pianist Misha Mengelberg (1935-2017) in 2000 led the saxophonist to fruitful recording and performance collaborations; his work with Han Bennink, who West met at age 24, connected the Canadian with avant-punk’s The Ex and their compatriot, the late Ethiopian saxophonist Getatchew Mekuria. An open and flexible musician, West, 43, has recorded on more than 35 albums, including projects with Sandro Perri, Lina Allemano, Jennifer Castle, U.S. Girls and the late Gord Downie.

In addition to Clips, which is due out Sept. 21 on Lorna Records, West is set to release an album with drummer Evan Cartwright under the name Ways, and a fifth album for his avant-calypso octet, Eucalyptus, is planned to mark the group’s 10th anniversary next year.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Studying in Amsterdam with Mengelberg—how did that influence your approach?

He was a very unconventional teacher: I really enjoyed how he never told me something specific that I should do. One of the biggest things that he told me was that there was no such thing as a wrong note. I remember that lesson well, playing a Thelonious Monk tune just with him, just the two of us. He could tell that I was trying to find the right note, or that I was worried about playing the wrong note. He wanted to clarify that, which was a huge lesson. He had this irreverence about him; Han Bennink did, too. Irreverence works and made sense to me. Misha was really influenced by Dadaism; he was kind of an absurdist.

You also performed extensively with Holland’s The Ex?

We played over 100 concerts together from 2005 to 2015—we met when I was touring with Han Bennink. It was an eye-opening experience; it was very exciting. Getatchew Mekuria was a huge part of The Ex’s touring, starting in 2006. It was really amazing how they brought their strong voice as a band and made it an equal collaboration. They used songs that Getatchew chose—I was so lucky to be there.

He just started playing these melodies in the hotel, and they set up a camera for him to record these melodies of the songs. That was the beginning of the project, and we had a whole new set and that led to a second album. There is a DVD, 11 Ethio-Punk Songs, that documents our concert and the rehearsal process.

When we were in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopians would see us, and try to put the story together. You know, “What is going on here? How is this happening?”

With shorter melodic fragments on Clips and a focus on rhythm, break that down. What was your vision, and what tied it together for you?

You nailed it. It’s the rhythm and just focusing on the psychedelic effects of using rhythm to create a disorienting feeling. A psychedelic, visceral experience of just hearing rhythms that are more dissonant, in a way. So, deliberately setting up situations that are disorienting in the rhythm and challenging, but not in a conventional way for the musicians. We had to rehearse a lot, but it does not necessarily sound like it. Disorienting, strange movement in the rhythm: That is what I really wanted, was to not use rhythm in a conventional way.

I have been working with drummer Evan Cartwright in the quintet, and we have been working hard and developing together as a duo together in a collaborative way. We have been prioritizing the rhythm over melody and harmony, and thinking of just the rhythmic line. We have been really pushing the analogy of rhythm being melody or rhythm making harmony based on polyrhythms. I’m just trying to create movement in a different way.

For you, what makes the artistic process complete?

You can definitely get lost in your own ideas, if you’re not careful. So, it’s important to know what people are taking away from it. Ultimately, I am not just doing it for myself. I want to make music that people can feel and for it to mean something to people. So, it’s important to just not be in your own head and try to work at it from different angles. Misha Mengelberg, one of his great quotes is that music does not even exist, and that at most, it’s an illusion. It’s intangible. Being open allows you to connect with people in a deep way. So, for me, it’s about being connected with people. DB

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