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Interview with Lina Allemano

img  Tobias Fischer

Artists habitually like to claim that music is their life. For Lina Allemano, meanwhile, that statement is almost literally true. Coming to the trumpet early, Allemano performed her first gig aged fifteen – and she's never looked back since. Her entire biography is structured by different stages of her musical education and development: Discovering Miles Davis for the first time ("his sound and his phrasing really speak to me at a very deep level"); moving from her hometown of Edmonton to Toronto to study and expand her horizon ("I had never played freely improvised music before", as she admits in this interview); expanding her insights into the world of extended techniques with fellow trumpet-master Axel Dörner in a bid of combining the traditional and experimental in her work. And, finally, forming two internationally renowned ensembles: The Lina Allemano Four, with whom she's released five spellbinding albums of "avant garde jazz". And the even more uncompromisingly explorative Titanium Riot, an "accidentally-psychedelic improvising powerhouse with a unique electric-acoustic aesthetic" which is due to publish its debut full-length in September. Can there ever be too much music for Allemano? Occasionally there can be, as she states towards the end of the interview. And yet, without a single doubt, a life without it would be unimaginable.

You performed your first gig at the age of fifteen. What was the road leading up to that performance like?
I started playing trumpet at age ten. My dad was my first teacher and then when I was twelve, I started taking formal classical trumpet lessons. I won a concerto competition that year, and the prize was to play a solo concerto piece in a concert with the orchestra. Although I didn't turn out to be a classical player, I think the experience and thrill of playing a concert like that at an early age was formative for me and gave me the confidence and drive to continue.  My dad always had jazz on in the house and we went to see everyone who came through town playing at the local jazz club and festival, which at the time was a lot of great international players, so I was exposed to a lot of amazing music right from the start.
The city I grew up in, Edmonton, had a relatively small but active music scene. There didn't seem to be too many trumpet players around, so I got hooked up with various different bands quite early on. The first gig I did professionally was a Latin jazz band where we played in clubs that I technically wasn't allowed to be in unsupervised, since I was underaged. But my dad used to drive me to the gigs and stand there all night with his arms crossed, watching carefully from a distance.

Moving from Edmonton to Toronto appears to have been an important step for you. What were your impressions of the music scene when you arrived and of your studies at the University of Toronto?
When I moved to Toronto, at the time I had never played freely improvised music, and as I remember, the first person who asked me to do that was my now good friend Rob Clutton, the bassist, at a place called the Idler Pub, which is now long defunct. I've been playing with Rob in his band's various incarnations, most recently the group Cluttertones, for almost 20 years. I also recall a particularly memorable gig playing with Nick Fraser quite early on - he now plays drums in both of my Toronto bands - whom at the time I had just met. He started aggressively deconstructing the drums while we played until there was nothing but pieces of drums and various cymbals strewn on the ground by the end of the set. And all the whilst, he was still making great music. I knew this was a guy I needed to play with! Another longtime musical relationship I've had is with my other bass player, Andrew Downing, whom I met at university and whom I've also been playing with for about twenty years. Andrew has been another fixture in my bands since the very beginning, excluding my newest projects.

I think studying jazz formally helped me learn how music works, how it functions. At this point though, I have completely forgotten everything I learned and only retain the information in a more abstract form. Going to jazz school probably gave me access to some of the building blocks or tools for my subsequent creative development. I also met people there who I still play with now. I think I gained a lot of life experience and playing experience during my time there - I played endless jam sessions, would go out to see music every night, and I also played a lot of gigs myself. It was a good way for me to cut my teeth at an age and experience level in which I may not have been ready to step out on my own.

It has sometimes been claimed that certain people can “give one permission to do things”. How was that for you with the development of your own style on the trumpet?
I never feel like I need permission to play the way I want to. I like to think of music as an invitation and a gift, and I don't feel that I need permission from anyone or anything. I just need to free myself up to be able to accept being a channel for something that is bigger than myself. However, having said that, I can also answer the question this way: I recently discovered the music of the great trumpeter/improviser Axel Dörner. I'm intrigued by Axel's very distinctive approach to organizing sound and to playing the instrument in such a unique way, and this has been very inspiring for me. He uses sounds and techniques that I'm very excited about and he's inspired me to continue developing my own language and my own voice by continued self-exploration. I feel like I'm just starting to scratch the surface of what might come next for me artistically.

I've been interested in getting varied colours and textures and other subtleties on the trumpet for a long time. I'm inspired by all kinds of sounds and I like the idea of being able to express myself with a wide palette of sound possibilities. This interest has grown stronger and stronger for me over the years where it has now developed into using various extended techniques, and in certain contexts, mutes used in so-called non traditional ways, to get the sounds I want. Playing the trumpet is such a physical thing with many unique challenges; the embouchure is such a finicky thing. It takes a lot of time and hard work to stay in shape on the horn and requires a level of commitment that cannot be compromised. Some of the techniques I use, both traditional and extended, can be very taxing physically.

Occasionally, reviews have brought up the term of the avant garde with regards to these sonic explorations. What's your take on the continued relevance or even possibility of an avant garde today?
Good question! I'm just a lowly trumpet player. I write music and I play music that I want to hear and I play it with the people I like to play with. Labelling music, giving a name to a genre or style or whatever, is not something I'm overly interested in, but I can appreciate that it might be a useful thing to help people understand what the music might sound like or to frame it within a certain context. In terms of the actual terminology and historical connotations of the word avant garde ... well, I guess it's more an associative picture rather than an accurate description. I think we're playing contemporary music that has a huge historical precedent; many, many things have preceded it and led us to where we are now. Everything, all music, is somehow related or connected, isn't it? Whatever someone wants to call it is fine with me! Playing and listening to music is a visceral experience, or should be, so sometimes it's hard to think about music in these terms. Although on the other hand, context can be very informative and important as well! I like both ways of thinking.

Listening to your Lina Allemano Four recordings on Live at the Tranzac, I was excited by your interaction on stage. The extreme dynamic moves from silence to big crescendos are absent, there is none of the flamboyant virtuosity and flashy soloing, still the music is constantly engaging and intriguing.
The way we interact is partly a result of just having played together for so many years. We also have always had a strong chemistry as a group, which is not something I think one can explain in concrete terms. We do work on executing my compositions, but the group improvisations are very intuitive at this point. We don't have particular strategies for any given tune; we improvise intuitively as a group with the composed materials and with spontaneous materials. There is a degree of abstraction on how we improvise on the materials, but that aspect of the performance is never planned or discussed - it is something we have developed over the years of playing together.

In terms of the performance, the space is always an important aspect. The audience, the air, the sound, the energy, everything. The Tranzac feels comfortable because we've played there every month for many years, but it's still a performance. It's a listening room so people come to attend a concert. But on the other hand, it is also a place where we feel free to try out new things and let the music develop over the course of several performances, and I think our dedicated audience members enjoy being part of that developmental process.

What's your concept of leadership?
Nick has always made the set lists. And since he's the most fearless of the four of us, he also goes around collecting money from the audience if we're playing a tip jar gig. When we're touring, Andrew and Nick do all the driving and are extremely helpful in many, many other ways. Brodie provides important comic relief at crucial moments. So, perhaps my concept of leadership is to delegate...? I provide all the compositions and the artistic direction. I also organize all the logistics of touring, applying for grants, etc. I make the artistic decisions about our recordings. But in performance of the music, it is very much a collaboration. When I bring a new tune in for the band to try, even though I always write the music specifically for these guys to play, I tweak it a lot once I hear them actually play it. I ask them questions and I ask them to try different approaches as I try to find what I might be looking for - but I never impose something that doesn't feel right for everyone. Everyone needs to find their own way to play the music that works for the whole group and for the music. It's a process that unfolds with time and work.

It seems not a day goes by without you being engaged with music in some form. When you're immersed in sound all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious?
I love practicing. I love playing. When I'm maxed out with sound, I like silence. Often I need a lot of silence or quiet sounds. If sound or music is imposed on me and I'm not in a receptive mood, that can be problematic. I often need the space to just let music play inside my head. When I crave some sort of outside stimulation, I play music or listen to music. I like being surprised. I like mystery, but sometimes I also like something simple and familiar. Sometimes I put on music that makes me dance. Sometimes I put on new music to study and learn from and think about. Sound is always fascinating to me; I think you start to hear sound as music and music as sound and it all becomes the same thing.

Lina Allemano interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Lina Allemano