Christ Church Cathedral on Rue St. Catherine - the only church in Canada to sit atop an underground mall. The dramatic view from the street of the office tower's façade reflecting the church has become a city icon[This article was published in the August 2007 issue of the Qatar-based feature magazine ‘New Era’.]

Attending the Montréal Jazz Festival in Canada has been a musical pilgrimage of sorts for me since emigrating to the West in 1994. A musical marathon, this festival spans eleven days and nights in the summer, turning the Western hemisphere’s largest French-speaking capital into an entertainment mecca for everyone from aficionados of pure jazz to its musical offshoots. By providing entertainment and plenty of other distractions to approximately two and a half million people, this festival overshadows both Canada Day and the Fourth of July, two big holidays in North America, with the European ambience strong enough to make one forget about anxieties south of the border such as war and terrorism. Continue reading

Received an IM this morning from my brother with a ‘Happy I-Day’ greeting (Independence Day that is). I’ve never really been patriotic, and had no political leanings when living in India. For some reason, today my mind flashed back to my school-going years in Bombay. I recall rising up early every August 15th to witness the flag hoisting ceremony on the school grounds, (which required compulsory attendance) after which we would sing the national anthem Jana Gana Mana (ok, I admit I tried to re-harmonize this every way I could when I played the accompaniment at the school assembly). After prayers and announcements, we would file in an orderly manner toward the school auditorium where a sweet ‘boondi’ laddoo,  glistening with sugar and ghee, nested in a thick dark green almond leaf would be handed out to each kid. Seated crosslegged on the mosaic floor, we’d pick at this round gob of indulgence with our fingers, settling down as the room darkened, to watch an English movie. It would have to be a chaste film with a harmless story line, preferably with nuns in it. No westerns, murder plots or hollywood glam. Continue reading

[This article was published in the June 2007 issue of the Qatar-based feature magazine ‘New Era’]

When asked to name someone who has had a major influence in their lives, most people choose to mention a mentor figure – a teacher, sports coach or counselor. Having had a succession of piano teachers in my learning years, I can attest to their influence not only on my musical growth, but also in areas personal and psychological.

I began learning the piano at age six. In the years to follow, my teachers were chosen for me. If at all there was an interview, it was the teacher who had the final say in choosing the student. Understandable. For the most part, they were wonderful human beings, but their undemanding teaching methods (at least where I was concerned) and indulgent style left me unchallenged and I carried a certain void with me.

Recognizing the need to be challenged, I set out to find a teacher in my early teens. I was already in love with the piano, working zealously and enjoying practice as much as I did performance. Impatient to move ahead in my musical growth, I welcomed criticism, objective observation and discipline. My ideal teacher would be someone who would recognize my musical aptitudes and deficiencies, while shaping a curriculum that would bring out the best in me while setting a high standard of goals. 

If you want to study music privately, recognize that you are a free agent, and can and should interview prospective teachers. As a teacher, I encourage students to query about my teaching methods & lessons before they sign up. Just as you might seek the opinion of two or three doctors on a medical issue before accepting one diagnosis and treatment over the others, I see no reason why a student shouldn’t take trial lessons with a few teachers before deciding on whom to study with eventually. Continue reading

New Era, May 2007[This article was published in the May 2007 issue of the Qatar-based feature magazine ‘New Era’. View as PDF.]

“My memory is shot” you mutter to yourself despondently, as you try to retrieve a speck of information from the dark recesses of your mind. And it’s not the first time you’ve experienced this mental blackout.

You’re trying to play from memory a solo piano work comprising sixty-four A3-sized pages – covering thirty minutes of performance time. But why bother to go through the arduous task of putting to memory something you’re better off simply reading? Here are a few reasons: It is protocol at some music competitions & festivals to perform without a score. If you ever arrive at a social event, and someone invites you to perform, you can do so, even you don’t have the score on hand. Besides you’ll be guaranteed to impress your audience, as there seems to be a false assumption by listeners and critics that if a piece is not memorized, it is not being played to it’s fullest potential.

Oh well, I’m happy to break the rules since I’m hardly the convention-bound teacher. I’m not in any way demeaning the practice of memorization; in fact a fair amount of my classical repertoire had been put to memory in my younger days. Some pieces require total virtuosic treatment – where the body is physically almost one with the instrument. I recall playing some etudes by Karol Szymanowski, (involving bi-tonality and plenty of crashing dissonant chords) in which the notes traveled at lightening speed, the performance wrapped up before I even knew I hit the last chord. I certainly couldn’t read and execute these pieces simultaneously. In this case, memorization totally facilitated my performance. Continue reading

Internet radio companies are preparing for a battle with the Copyright Royalty Board that could lead to the Congress and – many fear, the end of streaming music stations in the United States. Most Internet radio stations are independent from major media companies that own the majority of traditional radio stations. As a result, webcasters play a far more diverse selection of music than broadcast or even satellite radio. Several Internet radio companies are arguing that a recent decision by the Copyright Royalty Board (a three-member panel under the Library of Congress), would make it almost impossible for them to stay afloat. Under the ruling released on March 2, web broadcasters must pay every time a listener hears a song, at a rate that began at 0.08 cent in 2006 (the ruling applies retroactively) and rises to 0.19 cent in 2010. Besides increasing the charge for each song, the ruling established a $500 minimum payment for each Web channel. In all likelihood, many stations will be bankrupt if forced to do this. Continue reading

With NARESH FERNANDES, Timeout Mumbai Magazine, January 2007

It’s been 15 years since Jazzmates. What’s changed for you since?
Much – it’s been a great journey and continues to be. I think the two most significant changes in my life have been geographical moves across the globe, and the inevitable – getting older! I think the latter has a lot to do with changing your perspective on life and the intensity of commitment to things important in your self-development as an artist.

Around the time of the release of ‘Sound Matters’ in India (1991), we had the opportunity to move to Ottawa, Canada. It came at a time when we were trying to play jazz in an otherwise bleak environment, and although the move was a job related one for Noel, we both felt it was necessary for our own growth as musicians to place ourselves in a more creative environment. Continue reading

Michel Petrucciani was one of my favourite pianists – I saw him perform live just once – and what an amazing, high-energy, mind-blowing concert that was!!! I had the opportunity to meet him the next day in oddly mundane surroundings – the foodcourt in a shopping/office complex in Montreal, during the Montreal Jazz Fest in the summer of ’98. He was with some of his band members, and they were debating on what to order for their meal when I went up and spoke to him. I think he may have been one of the very few jazz musicians I’ve met who actually expressed an interest in how I had heard of his music, and what my connection to music was in general. When he learnt that I was a pianist, he immediately asked if I had any music of mine that he could listen to – of course, I didn’t then, but I came away touched by his offer to listen to my efforts. Little did I suspect that six months later, he would be no more. He was only 37 when he passed away.

I think any lover of jazz and student of piano would benefit from watching this video. It’s around 40 minutes in length, and has some touching moments during the interview with him.

And here’s a masterclass conducted in ’97:

Indian tigerIn the early 70’s there were apparently only 1800 tigers left roaming the Indian plains, thanks to merciless poaching and de-forestation. Officials at that time scurried to reverse this alarming decline in this species, launching “Project Tiger” in 1972 at Corbett National Park. Bogged down by non-approval of management plans and poor funding since its launch, it’s good to know that the Indian government just announced that it is considering opening eight more sanctuaries for tigers and three for elephants, as part of its ongoing conservation plan. The increase in allocation for tiger conservation (up by 36%) comes in the wake of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh personally visiting Ranthambhore National Park last year, following reports that tigers were on the verge of extinction.

However, the protection of pachyderms under Project Elephant, set up in 1992, received a blow to its funding which decreased by 13.7%. It hasn’t had much success to show – there has been no increase in population, and like the tiger, the elephant continues to fall prey to deforestation, poachers and elephant-man conflicts.

Save Tigers Now
WWF – 2010, Year Of The Tiger

snow leopardMy heart aches for what Kashmir has had to endure in the past three decades. I visited it in 1975, and remember its warm, smiling people and idyllic surroundings. But, according to a recent BBC News article by Binoo Joshi, the insurgency has contributed to one bright spot for wildlife in Kashmir. Native wildlife has apparently seen a 20%-60% rise, thanks to a dramatic drop in poaching and hunting. The authorities have ordered people to hand firearms and weapons overto them. There is also a general lack of willingness to venture into the forests by locals lest they fall prey to militant fire or attacks.

By MAURIZIO SPENNATO | altriSuoni.org |December 2006
(Thanks to Stephan Cocron for translating the article from the original Italian into English)

Ramona Borthwick - A New Leaf
A New Leaf

A New Leaf is the very diverse and interesting debut CD from pianist and composer Ramona Borthwick. Indian by origin and English by adoption, Borthwick avoids every temptation of dominating or abusing her position with respect to her valid collaborators , and instead gives each of her fellow musicians the space they need to fully express themselves creatively, resulting in a resounding success.

In this project Ramona takes on many different styles of music, from ballads, like the track A New Leaf, to the passages of Home, which starts with a strong rhythmic component and then moves to flamboyant, almost tribal repetitive vocals, and then flows to unexpected resolutions and modern, original phrases that seem to want to repeat over and over again; in short, the song spans the entire cycle of the evolution of human musical expression, ranging from the early rudimentary beginnings to the construction of more contemporary avant-garde and innovative styles.

But there is no lack of other musical styles on this CD, which features some latin jazz tracks as well as influences from other parts of the world. These influences can be heard coming from the likes of Argentinean bassist Fernando Huergo, the strong and evocative presence of American trumpetist Phil Grenadier, as well as constant support of Israeli drummer Ziv Ravitz and finally the result of Borthwick’s passionate search for additional vocals leading to singer, bassist, and composer, Esperanza Spalding.

All of the tracks were composed by Ramona, with the exception of Two’s Complement, which was co-written by trusted collaborator Noel Borthwick, and Dark Secrets of Three Blind Mice, which was written entirely by Noel. Apart from being the guitarist of the group, Noel supervised all of the technical aspects of the CD; his regular gig is “software engineer” in the music industry, developing digital audio for recording engineers from around the world.

All the work is then pervaded by a subtle poetic vein (inspiration), which becomes palpable in the printed lyrics that complete the music and in which the individual tracks are commented on by Ramona and accompanied by delicate verses of poetry.

The result, then, is music, and poetry, but much more than that: even the graphical aspects of the CD were designed by Ramona, because as a complete artist, it is clear that all of visual, graphical, and Web, etc, arts, are all interconnected. All you need to do is take a glance at her website and you will see right away that she is a truly accomplished, “all encompassing” artist…

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(Original article as published in the Italian magazine AltriSuoni)

Molto vario ed interessante questo A New Leaf, il primo CD inciso da leader dalla pianista e compositrice, indiana di origine ed inglese di adozione, Ramona Borthwick che, evitando ogni tentazione di protagonismo e di prevaricazione nei riguardi dei suoi validi collaboratori e lasciando a ciascuno tutto lo spazio necessario per esprimersi compiutamente, ha conseguito un risultato brillante.

In questo lavoro Ramona si è confrontata con diversi stili, dalle ballads, come nel brano A New Leaf, ai passaggi di Home, caratterizzati inizialmente da una forte componente ritmica e da vocalizzi ostentatamente ripetitivi, quasi tribali, e successivamente da risoluzioni inaspettate e fraseggi melodici moderni ed originali, che sembrano voler ripercorrere così, in breve, tutto il percorso evolutivo dell’espressione musicale del genere umano, dalle rudimentali espressioni delle origini ai costrutti più avanguardistici e spregiudicati dei giorni nostri.

Non mancano infatti spunti modali, brani in puro stile latin-jazz ed altre influenze musicali di varie parti del mondo, dovute anche all’incontro con il bassista argentino Fernando Huergo, alla presenza forte e significativa del trombettista statunitense Phil Grenadier, al sostegno costante del batterista di origine israeliana Ziv Ravitz e una sensibile ricerca in campo vocale della stessa Borthwick assistita dalla vocalist, ma anche bassista e compositrice, Esperanza Spalding.

Tutte le composizioni sono di Ramona, con l’eccezione di Two’s Complement, di cui è coautore il fidato Noel Borthwick e Dark Secrets of Three Blind Mice di cui è autore proprio Noel che, oltre ad essere il chitarrista del gruppo, ha curato gli aspetti tecnici del CD, anche grazie all’altra sua professione, quella di ‘software engineer’ che opera proprio nel campo dei software musicali e delle registrazioni digitali per note case di livello mondiale.

Tutto il lavoro è poi pervaso da una sottile vena poetica, che diventa palpabile nel libretto che completa la musica ed in cui, i singoli brani, sono commentati dalla stessa Ramona ed accompagnati da delicati versi di poesia.

Musica, dunque, e poesia, ma non solo: anche gli aspetti grafici del Cd sono stati curati da Ramona stessa; già, perché altra sua attività è proprio quella di occuparsi di arti grafiche, web e quant’altro ad essi connesso. Basta dare un’occhiata al suo sito per avere l’immediata percezione di un’artista ‘a tutto tondo’…

Maurizio Spennato