Petr Cancura the ultimate imroviser

Petr Cancura is the Programming Director of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, prolific jazz musician, and a teacher. His face is a graced with an easy smile and I can understand why it’s there – he simply loves what he does! An improviser at heart, Petr has brought together his passion for jazz along with a vast knowledge of Balkan, African and American folk traditions to create a truly unique, grounded sound.


Petr Cancura in his living room. (Jean Levac/ Ottawa Citizen)

Tell me a little about yourself?
I was born in Czech Republic and lived there until I was 9 years old. I actually escaped with my family we lived there during communism and went to Austria, spent a year there and ended up here as landed immigrants in Ottawa. I went to Carleton for music, I toured around a fair amount and then I ended up in Boston at the conservatory for a masters and immediately moved to Brooklyn NY which is a common migratory pattern for musicians. I was there for the last 10 years. I moved back to Ottawa about a half a year ago.

What brought you back to Ottawa?
I play jazz, I sax, banjo, mandolin and woodwind instruments. I am an improviser but I also play bluegrass and have played in a lot of world bands. I like combining a lot of roots music and jazz and improvising. My personal project Down Home it uses a lot of characteristics from Mississippi and blues and Appalachian music along with high level of jazz improvisers. About 6 years ago maybe even more I started working with Catherine at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, I pitched her a few projects and she always liked them and hired me to do them. I had a jazz composers collective for a while and then I would do this workshop series that’s more like a folk festival style, and eventually Jaque Gimon who started the festival retired and she suggested I apply for the position and got it. So I have been doing that remotely from Brooklyn for 5 years. I would come up once a month for a week and down there I would be mostly touring and recording. What came up last year is I have a position at Carleton as a artist in residence which is amazing, I kind of get to do “what course would you like to teach” and I came up with a course I teach developing your own style through jazz and roots which is exactly what I do. I started an ensemble, I do a series of master classes and concerts and I teach a handful of students. Then I have the series at the NAC to mix jazz and roots. i am still touring and recording.

What is it that attracts you to blending those genres?
I had a bit of an epiphany a couple of years ago when I realized I could really make a difference to connecting people. I know that seems silly because I played music for a long time but it was more form the arts perspective for me for enjoyment. About four years ago I went down to the Othar Turner festival. Othar Turner was a legendary fife and drum blues musician – it’s very obscure – it’s this thing that has been part of Mississippi and deep south tradition for a 100 to 200 years but it is really obscure but it’s really unique it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. It’s a whole bunch of drummers playing kind of a mix of African and marching/military but then these fife players play the blues. It was in a bunch of movies like Martin Scorsese and others. We went down, it was an hour south of Mephisi, tiny little signs, it was not advertised at all, you drive on dirt roads to get to this place which turns out to be Othar Turner’s shack where he lived his entire life and in the backyard they had a flatbed truck and that was the stage and local blues guys played and the marching band would play a set every few hours. This went on from Friday to Monday nonstop all night. It was one of the first times that I saw musicians play because they had to for survival. It’s very impoverished there. The toll of racism and segregation is really obvious down there, it’s very in your face. To see these people get up and sing about hard times and be on stage because its survival I said ‘this is what music is about’.

I went back home and wrote the entire album of the first record that we put out. Before that I started playing mandolin about 8 years ago and I did that because as a saxophonist I went to a camp with a bunch of my musician friends and they all had guitars and signing and I decided to pull out the saxophone for about 30 seconds and I put it back, this is not happening at a campfire and that’s when I decided I wanted an instrument I can sing with and I like the mandolin, I like blue grass and I love that connection of folk music of raw expression, that’s what drives me. The blues in Mississippi. Then later on I realized the connection why I am drawn to that is because of a lot of the Romani music in Europe a lot of the gypsy music is raw. It’s the eastern European blues. But I have that with the saxophone in the jazz aspect puts it all into context a little more for me. I am around some of the best improvisers in the world so I had to combine those two. Music should inspire people. It’s a really fun time in music for me.

What has moving to Ottawa been like?
It’s been really nice. One of the other reasons we moved is we have a four year old. Once you have a kid things change a lot. The things that used to be really attractive about NYC you just don’t do anymore because you don’t have time and it is extremely expensive. My parents are here and a lot of those things start to matter. And the claustrophobic thing we love the outdoors so going from Brooklyn to go for a hike is like $50 in tolls and gas and the entire day just to get there.  I am busier than ever. I was really afraid, I miss the music scene in NYC a lot and that was the hardest part to leave I don’t miss anything else. I am in NYC in the next three months 4 times I just condense things when I go there. I would rather do this.

Do you think this move/change will impact your ideas/creativity?
Yes, absolutely. The thing with Brooklyn is that I was able to find musicians who do what I do and I found a scene. I have a number of projects that I am involved down there that are all kind of combining improvising and folk music. I am in a band that just released a CD called the Brooklyn Blowhards I am also in a bad called Old timers and we play fiddle music on two saxophones and a rhythm section. I found all this scene of musician who are really good at what they do and who like what I like to do. I don’t know anyone who does what I do here. Having said that at this point in my life I am OK to bring up people from NYC combine them with in Toronto and Montreal and I like the idea of combining all that. It’s hard to do locally. I also want to get involved locally and want to start up a project that is purely local. I think it’s important for me to have something regular wherever I am living. It is going to change. The music will be different.

How would you describe Ottawa’s music scene?
There is a lot of talented musicians here. Everybody is really versatile. New York made me focus because when I came from here I played a kelzmer wedding, a pop gig, I could do a rock gig, I could do a straight ahead jazz thing but I got the New York and I realized very quickly that there are people doing these things really well and unless I wanted to put my energy into that I should probably not do that. Same thing goes for everything. Very quickly you realize ‘OK, well this is what I am about, this is what I will invest all my energy into’ so you become very good at it. I think that is the big missing thing here however the positive thing of this is that I got to check out all these different music while I was young which if I grew up in NY I might be forced to go down a path. And I like variety. I I am like a ‘me too’ person. There is a lot of knowledge in Ottawa and people have specific skills and specific expertise and I am re-entering the scene and re-learning what kind of colors and musical personalities there are to deal with and what to make with that but that’s how I see it. There is a whole slew of young musicians that is really healthy now and I feel like it’s on the verge of something bigger happening. There is a large number of young musicians that are very active now. That hasn’t happened in a long time. If we can get more pople to stay or come back like I did I think we can really build this up, we can make it really great.

What would help people to stay?
It’s collective effort. It’s a critical mass thing. I have this advantage that I am involved all these different scenes. If I came here just as a musician it would be really hard. I also have all these different connection so it’s OK if I don’t play here for a month because I have five other gigs in Toronto and NYC again if I came here to be just in the scene it would be really hard. It’s a beautiful city and I love the lifestyle here, I can bike everywhere in the summer, everywhere, and I love all that, its very important to me and I loved being based out of here I would rather be based here than in Toronto or Montreal or new York for that matter at this time in my life I don’t mind travelling in those places and start to build something here. the scene is on the up and up if you can base yourself here and figure out how to make enough money.

Why is it challenging to get folks to attend local stuff when they show up in great numbers for the festivals? A lot of the smaller local stuff doesn’t get the same uptake from the folks who come to the big festivals?
That happens everywhere.  That is not unique to Ottawa. People don’t go to see the local stuff when there is a festival they go see big names they want to see something unique. Even with what I have done I will eventually become a local and people get tired of it and that’s OK. The advantage of that is you have an opportunity to build something and that is why I want to get an Ottawa project happening for me. You build an audience which in turn helps you build the music. It all comes together. And that’s kind of the future of it on the local level. It’s gotta be grassroots. There is that and then there is collaborating with bigger names. That’s the whole idea behind guest artists on CDs, it just helps sell the record if you get someone more or less famous on your CD. It just works. I hate to admit it. I am a proponent of building music from the ground up rather than throwing together a project that will sell but that in turns helps you make money which helps you do what you do. The older I get the more sensitive I am to being true to myself but within that allow for things like that.

That’s also what I have been trying to do with the festival we have for example for the winter jazz festival we have a thing called special projects and the whole incentive for initiative like that is to get local musician to work with someone from outside of Ottawa and we are able to fund that in a way that here is an x amount of money which you don’t have to risk by inviting someone flying them over because I did find that the working musicians are frustrated in the city they don’t have a lot of capital to work with so I really wanted to give people the option. It’s like helping people step outside of themselves and do things that may appear scary. John Geggie came up with a project that is really interesting and he put together the most interesting projects. Fet.nat they are my favorite local band they are like an improv punk thing they are really great and the last year it was more to do something that we haven’t done before and they did a concert with a quire with a directed improved quire. I like seeing people really go for it. That’s what I took away from new York and that’s what I want to do here.

Can you give me an idea of how you are going to inspire yourself to bring this kind of innovation to your music?
I am going to continue to play with all the groups that I play with. That’s what I have built up and I am not giving that up by moving here. I am recording another album with this Mississippi live group probably in the summer. I just basically get projects and tours happening and I keep writing music just keep pushing. If I stop then that’s when it will be over. I need to do that. Right now it’s just insanely busy so I don’t have time to start what I want to start here. I want to start a small orchestra that I conduct and play with and arrange a lot of the music I already have that mixes a lot of this and I know exactly how I am going to do it and who I want to get I just need a bit more time and I want to get a series somewhere to develop that. That is something that I am planning to do here. I am setting up concerts with my groups here I am just going to put myself out here.


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