When classical rigour meets improvisation

For Peggy Lee, it’s been an amazing experience living, working, and composing in Vancouver. | Photo courtesy of Rita Taylor

Cellist and composer Peggy Lee will be featured in two upcoming performances this month. On Nov. 1, Coastal Jazz will be re-airing a performance by the Peggy Lee Band from this year’s TD International Jazz Festival, and on Nov. 19, Handmade Blade, featuring Peggy Lee, trumpeter JP Carter and guitarist Aram Bajakian, will be performing live at The Ironworks as part of Coastal Jazz’s IronFest jazz concert series.

The Peggy Lee Band performance sees the group performing many of Lee’s own compositions, while the Handmade Blade show will consist of songs written by all three of its members.

“I’m very much influenced by the players that I’m working with, their sounds and their language of improvisation. I don’t write freely for people that I don’t know. I think I’ve always just really tried to hear people,” says Lee.

A winding path

For someone whose musical oeuvre is more influenced by jazz, folk and improvisation than by classical music, a cello might seem like an unlikely choice of main instrument. But it makes more sense when Lee’s musical journey as cellist and composer is viewed more as a winding path than a straight and narrow line, as she has collaborated with different bands, met new artists and taken on a variety of gigs.

While Lee grew up listening to classical music, learned the cello for a middle school orchestra program and even went on to complete a degree in classical cello performance at the University of Toronto, an unexpected opportunity presented itself and proved to be an important detour in her professional trajectory.

“One of the turning points was when, after I’d finished my degree, I spent a year at the Banff Centre [for Arts and Creativity] and I was working with a string quartet. There was a lot of encouragement to collaborate with other artistic practices, and I jumped on that,” says Lee. “I had never really improvised, but I found myself improvising with all kinds of art installation type situations and just felt very comfortable with that.

For Lee, the opportunity to reach out, explore and collaborate was a moment of deep discovery, one that compelled her to reconsider her path as a musician and composer.

“I decided not to go back to Toronto after Banff because I knew exactly what my life would be in terms of professional practice,” she says. “There were a lot of shows happening at that time: Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, all those. And a lot of the people I went to school with were making good money playing in the [orchestra] pit. But I just had a feeling that I would hate that. So I was drawn to a place where I could just write my own chapter.”

Room to improvise

Lee would continue heading west instead, eventually making it to Vancouver where she continues to collaborate with both her regular bands and one-off opportunities alike, with each concert and project representing a new opportunity to explore her creativity. One thing that’s nearly constant in Lee’s songwriting, however, is her love of improvisation, whether that’s for herself or other people she’s writing for.

“Even if you have two people playing something that’s written, I love having the third person as a wild card that can just play what they hear,” says Lee about co-composing and performing with Handmade Blade. “It could be textural or it could be melodic, but just leaving it open. Even in a small group I think you can achieve [a layered sound] if you trust your fellow musicians.”

In all, she says that it’s been an amazing experience living, working and composing in Vancouver given how much opportunity there is to collaborate and explore.

“That’s the beauty of Vancouver; it’s this community where we all play in different configurations. There’s this ever expanding pool of great, creative musicians. So I’m lucky to have been able to develop both as an improviser and as a composer,” says Lee.

For more information, please visit: www.coastaljazz.ca