Ernesto Cervini Finds ‘Joy’


“I think in small chunks and just get done today what needs to be done for tomorrow,” Cervini says.

(Photo: Justin Van Leeuwen)

Time management carries multiple meanings for Ernesto Cervini. For one thing, the 40-year-old, Toronto-based drummer creates permutations of musical time on a daily basis. He leads or co-leads multiple bands, each with a different sonic personality, that play primarily original compositions, documented on 16 albums, most recently the magnificently kaleidoscopic Joy, the 10th release on TPR Records since March 2021, when Cervini launched the label with composer — and brother-in-law — Oded Lev-Ari.

Cervini also spends consequential time tending to Orange Grove Publicity, spreading word to the gatekeepers not only about his latest productions, but for releases by a variety of Canadian jazz artists. Then, too, Cervini teaches drums at University of Toronto and jazz business at York University and Humber College.

“Many days I wish I had a few more hours to get everything in,” Cervini said in mid-November Zoom call from his neatly organized basement studio. This was one such day: Normally up at 6 a.m., he’d been thrown off-kilter after returning home late from a sideman gig at The Rex Hotel and Jazz Bar. “I had to do my Orange Grove work after dropping off my son at school, and my daughter is home sick — so I haven’t practiced today. It’s still manageable, though. Hopefully I’ll write some music this afternoon.

“I think in small chunks and just get done today what needs to be done for tomorrow. You can get paralyzed when you have a lot of work, and end up doing nothing. I try to make sure I never get there.”

Cervini adhered to that modus operandi when conceiving and executing Joy, a Duke Ellington-esque tone parallel to the oeuvre of the eminent Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny. It’s a compositional tour-de-force, with strong melodies scored for diverse instrumentations. Cervini showcases three of his groups — the three-saxophone-and-rhythm-section unit Tetrahedron, and chordless instrument units Tune Town and Turboprop — plus a female vocal trio (Felicity Williams, Emilie-Claire Barlow and Amy Cervini); two art songs for Alex Samaras; “concertos” for alto saxophonist Tara Davidson, pianist Adrean Farrugia and electric bassist Rich Brown; a contrapuntal alto saxophone-trombone-drums trio by McDonald, William Carn and Cervini; and a clarinet-trombone quartet for Virginia McDonald and Jim Lewis.

The project gestated in 2019, when Cervini, who’d been thinking about doing a project with an overarching Canadian theme, was reading The Beautiful Mystery, Penny’s eighth novel, framed around a murder in a Quebec monastery. “She writes beautifully about music and the monks and their beautiful chants and how it makes people feel,” he said. “I was inspired to write a song that could capture the monks singing and the idea of the music that evolves. Then it was a natural step to start writing a whole album’s worth of music based on her books. As ideas arose for how I could portray these different characters, I started hearing these specific musicians.”

In the process of composing, he refracted theory lessons from years of immersion in the piano and clarinet canons, his undergraduate studies in piano performance at the University of Toronto and his master’s work on drums at Manhattan School of Music. “New York was inspiring, the kick in the ass that I really needed,” he said. “The musical vibe in Canada can be laid back; in New York everyone’s going for it. I relished the idea that, when you’re playing, you’re always all in. Being there helped solidify the way I play — and, to be honest, the way I’ve approached everything since I returned to Canada.”

More than anything, Cervini asserts, Joy is a paean to his musical family in Toronto. “Louise Penny writes that although her books are about murder and death and darkness, they are more about light and goodness and decency and human interaction and community,” he said. “I’m a joyful person, I love making music with people, and a lot of the people on this album are like family.” DB

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