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Carry on virtuosos

It's hard coaxing a concert out of junk. Jean Martin, Justin Haynes and Ryan Driver, three acclaimed Toronto-based jazz musicians, have mounted their latest tour with only a ukulele, a suitcase and a bristle from a streetsweeper.

It’s hard coaxing a concert out of junk.

Jean Martin, Justin Haynes and Ryan Driver, three acclaimed Toronto-based jazz musicians, have mounted their latest tour with only a ukulele, a suitcase and a bristle from a streetsweeper.

“Despite not having as many sonic options as we normally would like to have, we’re still going for the same kind of intensity and musical territory we like to go to,” said Haynes, the ukulele player.

Martin, an acclaimed Toronto-based drummer, is usually seated behind a customized drum kit.

On more conventional percussion instruments, he has been at the centre of Canada’s free jazz and fusion scenes.

Fresh from founding Barnyard Records, Martin decided to bolster the company’s catalogue with a slate of unique duet recordings.

Throwing two musicians into a recording studio them some unique flexibility.

“There’s something about just doing something with one other person,” said Haynes.

A collaboration with saxophonist Evan Shaw yielded an overdubbed, improvised jazz-based album.

When it came time for Haynes to partner with Martin in the studio, they came up with a back-to-basics theme.

Martin and Haynes often collaborate, typically in resource-heavy, multi-instrumental groups.

“It’s a lot of stuff; part of the idea is that it would be nice for me and Jean to make a record where there’s none of that,” said Haynes.

“All you’ll hear on this recording is a ukulele and a suitcase,” according to the album’s liner notes.

After reading that, Haynes’ next door neighbour in Toronto phoned her musician friends to find out what sort of instrument a suitcase was.

“It’s just a suitcase; luggage,” said Haynes.

A Salvation Army acquisition, to be precise, played with brushes and drumsticks.

The drumbeats are hollow and leathery, but the subtlety makes them an ideal partner to Haynes’ whimsical ukulele lines.

Too many Canadians associate the humble ukulele with the soul-killing Grade 6 music class.

But in Hayne’s capable hands, a $30 ukulele emits smooth classical-esque melodies.

The album, dubbed Freedman, is an unorthodox return to Haynes’ classical guitar roots. Recently, he has had more of a

jazz bent.

All the songs are taken from the catalogue of the duo’s friend and fellow composer Myk Freedman (pronounced ‘Mike’).

The two instruments traipse through the Freedman catalogue, creating a dreamlike—but ordered—sense of musical chaos.

Listening closely, the listener can hear the rustic clackings and tappings of the recording studio; another layer of unique musical authenticity.

Haynes’ neighbour can be forgiven her initial confusion, as Martin carefully yields a surprising array of sounds and rhythms from his suitcase.

“We’re trying to transcend the limitations of those instruments a little bit,” said Haynes.

“They’re like little jazz tunes ... he likes to keep things simple so that the people who are playing it have a lot of options as improvisers,” said Haynes.

A set song catalogue is new terrain for Martin and Haynes, who typically perform long-form improvisation.

Bassist Ryan Driver is the “hero” of the tour, said Haynes.

Normally a guitarist and keyboardist, Driver joins the tour with an instrument of his own design; the “streetsweeper bristle bass.”

Toronto streetsweepers use metal bristles on their brushes. Sometimes, during a particularly vigorous street sweep, a bristle becomes discarded.

“I’ve never seen one, but (Driver) sees them all the time,” said Haynes.

“They’re about six inches long, and about three quarters of an inch thick—almost like a tiny ruler,” said Haynes.

The bass injects a welcome backbone into the music, said Haynes.

Freedman is a “headphone record,” but Driver makes it a bit more lively.

When Toronto’s streetsweepers rolled off the assembly line, little thought was given to the acoustics of their cleaning bristles.

“The pitches are not always bang-on, so that creates another layer and abstraction, which I really love,” said Haynes.

The minimalist spirit of Freedman has already seemed to leap into other realms of Haynes’ professional life.

“I really think there’s a lot to the approach of limited means,” said Haynes.

At other gigs, he’s started to show up laden only with a guitar, and maybe the occasional pedal.

“It allows me to focus more on the moment, rather than being distracted by: ‘when can I bring out my melodica?’” said Haynes.

The sometimes awkward decorum of live concerts easily flies out the window when instrumentation is just a suite of micro-instruments.

“You play festivals and there’s all this mystique; you come out on stage, nobody talks ... dark lighting—you start making these weird sounds and it gets really loud, and then you finish, and you bow and you leave,” said Haynes.

A ukulele, suitcase and streetsweeper-bass concert makes for a bizarre spectacle.

The instruments are not loud.

For audiences used to the effortless strumming of an electric guitar, the sight of three hardworking musicians coaxing a mere trickle of sound from castoff instruments is a unique contrast.

The sight of trio, bent and sweating over thrift store relics, often derailed rehearsals, sending the musicians into fits of contagious laughter, said Haynes.

The most obvious benefit is the portability of the Martin, Haynes, Driver ensemble.

“Carry-on all the way,” said Haynes.

Martin, Haynes and Driver are playing Saturday, May 8th at the Old Fire Hall at 8 p.m.

On Sunday at 1 p.m., the trio will host a workshop at Music Yukon.

Contact Tristin Hopper at