Chris Church is sweating out a three-month tour around the continent. It started on May 4 in Scottsdale, Arizona, including stops in such far-flung places as Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec, and Pomona, New Jersey, winding up in Boulder, Colorado, on July 29.
Halifax isn’t among the 25 stops listed on the tour schedule at chrischurch.ca, but all the same he will be here on July 20 for a show at Ginger’s, as part of the Atlantic Jazz Festival.
You see a North America tour schedule and think it might be all in place, but, says Church on the phone from Toronto, “It’s fucking hard to get it together to come down and play.” In the course of the few days last week when I speak with Church on the phone he is variously in Toronto, on a bus from Montreal to Ottawa, actually in Ottawa and at Pearson Airport in Toronto, flying to Philadelphia to play in Atlantic City. He’s touring with different musicians; with Jesse Cook at the Montreal Jazz Festival and in PEI, just before he hits Halifax. Also joining him here are flamenco guitarist Nicolas Hernandez and the Egyptian-Canadian vocalist Maryem Hassan Tollar, who works often with composer Christos Hatzis, plus Tom Roach and Tony Tucker.
“It’s all insanely busy,” says Church. “On Canada Day I played on Parliament Hill and took a charter to Toronto that evening and to Montreal the next day to rehearse for a DVD and then did six shows in three days at the Montreal Jazz Festival, with Jesse Cook and guests like Ron Sexsmith, Sophie Millman and Melissa McClelland.”
Halifax is his hometown. Church’s violin career began here, in grade four or five at Sir Charles Tupper school. He joined the Halifax Schools string program, where kids take violin, viola, cello or bass, mostly as part of their school day. Pat Wyman was his first teacher. “What I remember,” she says, “is his wire-rim glasses. He was small and really keen and he had those glasses. He showed a real ability and it was recommended that he take private lessons.” Church did, from Symphony Nova Scotia violinist Anne Rapson. He was part of a crew that came through the program in those years, including Paula Caballero, John Scott, Molly Read, Laura Conrad, Gillian Smith, Shen Tan (who is principal second violinist in Oregon) and Debbie Miles (who now plays in the PEI Summer Festival and as an extra for SNS). Church has three brothers. “Everybody plays something,” he says, “and my parents are very supportive.”
Church went to Dalhousie for a degree in violin performance. In the summers he studied at the Cleveland Institute of Music and the Meadowmount School for Strings in upstate New York. He played with SNS off and on for eight or nine years, and did some orchestral arranging. “I just whored around,” laughs Church, “for SNS and Big Picture and Lennie Gallant.” He moved to Toronto, continuing to write arrangements for SNS and other Canadian orchestras.
In Toronto, Church found sounds and influences to add to his foundation in classical music. He became more and more interested in improvisation. “I was drawn towards other musical styles,” he says. “I got into jazz, pop, rock and more avant-garde improvisation with a range of talented musicians. I liked performing classical music but I was more passionate about music when I improvised in these other groups.”
The composer in him didn’t surface until late. “I am a latent bloomer,” he laughs. “The composer was always there in me but I never put time into him until my late 20s when I found more peace.” Church will turn 34 on October 16.
“It was kind of frustrating,” he says. “For a long time the stuff I tried to convey through the violin was roadblocked by my classical training, but as I lived more life through music and learned to express myself on violin, it got better.” In the winter of 2003 he decided to start working on a record that would reflect the last few years of his life.
That CD, here, came out in 2004. Church describes it as being songs of himself. “The songs on here are stories, moments, thoughts and various ideas that were going on in my life at that time. I coloured these stories with the sounds that surrounded me as I toured the world and collaborated with other artists.” here contains styles from bossa nova to Irish lament, sounds from the Middle East to more familiar sounds from back home in Halifax and the co-writing input of Ian Janes and Gordie Sampson.
Church continues to grow as a musician. “I’m only now beginning to feel that I sing on the violin,” he says. “To tap the surface. Being on stage is such a joy, I try not to think about anything and to let it come naturally.” He plays with the improvisation group SuddenlyLISTEN with the likes of Dani Oore and Norman Adams. “Classical music is ingrained in my head but now I can leave it there and really go for it.” Church is passionate and forceful as he talks, and the same on stage.
To see and hear Chris Church play the violin is to see and hear the work of someone with a terrific amount of what classical musicians call intent, the going beyond the page, going beyond the notes in performance and giving up more than the head and the muscles to the making of music and its delivery. Intent, at a basic level of string instrument work, is to put the bow to the strings intending to make a particular sound and then making it, like calling the shot in a game of pool and then sinking the ball. This technique, getting out the intended notes (or a reasonable facsimile) will take a musician far enough; often a display of high notes or fast notes or loud notes gives an audience something it feels is out of the ordinary, but it’s a deeper and higher calling to give something extraordinary—to intend particular inflection and phrasing—to do this, musicians must venture further within themselves, further off the map that is the page of musical notation.
Church does this. He calls on all of himself when he performs. He scouts deep into himself—heart, soul, gut and entrails—to mine a glittering nugget of emotion. And then he brings that chunk to the surface and delivers it into the audience. He moves with the music, standing, swaying, flying. “I fucking sweat a lot,” he says. “On the DVD shoot probably 17 people were playing. I was the only one with matted, wet, sweaty hair. I’m on a four towel system.” Church thinks for a moment. “That’s what I need,” he laughs. “I need a towel check! Like I need both a sound check and a towel check.”
Chris Church, July 20 at Ginger’s, 1662 Barrington, 9pm, $8.