March 2008

Kaiso Blue
An Interview with Jeremy Ledbetter
Conducted March 18, 2008 by Roger Humbert
On March 13, 2008, Small World Music presented an evening of Caribbean Jazz at Toronto’s Lula Lounge. We were first treated to some high-octane Caribbean jazz by Toronto’s CaneFire. For the second set, New York steelpan master Andy Narell took the stage backed by musicians from CaneFire. A few days later I met with CaneFire leader Jeremy Ledbetter.
Roger Humbert Can you tell us a little about where the concept for CaneFire originated?

Jeremy Ledbetter The concept of CaneFire was born out of the travels that I have been on over the past decade or so but especially the time that I spent in Trinidad. I went to Trinidad in 1999 on a student exchange from York University. I went there to learn to play steelpan for one semester. One semester turned into three and a half years (laughs). I ended up living down there, playing with calypso bands, soca artists, producing and getting right into the music scene. I ended up falling in love with the place and its music, especially the steelpan.

RH With CaneFire we can see you at the keys, do you still play the steelpan?

JL Yeah I do. Not on live gigs with CaneFire, although for our CD I played steelpan on a couple of tracks and I still do the odd gig on the pan.

RH So, you’re in Trinidad and…

JL I was learning to play the pan down there and calypso, the music of the Caribbean. After Trinidad, I spent some time in Cuba taking lessons, going to clubs, checking out music, meeting musicians and trying to learn as much as I could. Then I visited a bunch of other Latin countries, soaking up the music. I’ve always been a big believer in the fact that you can’t just sit in Toronto or New York or wherever you live and learn to play Latin music, the same way that you can’t really learn to speak Spanish here. You have to go to the source.

RH You are a classically trained pianist, how did you get from there to Latin music?

JL When I was a teenager I got into jazz and blues – mostly blues, passed through a bit of rock – some rock bands and stuff. Then I studied jazz at York University, went to Trinidad and fell in love with calypso and other Caribbean music. While in Trinidad I saw Tito Puente play… and that was it for me, I was hooked on Latin music. There were a couple of salsa bands in Trinidad back then and I was the pianist for both of them for a while.

Jeremy Ledbetter
RH Travelling is very important to you as a musician.

JL Yes it is. When I travel it’s always about… well, it’s about a lot of things but one of the main reasons, one of the main things I am doing is music. Looking for music and trying to explore and learn as much as I can about the music so I generally choose destinations based on music that I want to learn.

While in Trinidad I was exposed to the music of Andy Narell and specifically the work that he did with the Caribbean Jazz Project. The albums that he did with Paquito D’Rivera and Dave Samuels inspired me to form a group to play Caribbean jazz. After leaving Trinidad I spent a few years travelling around looking for the place where I could put this band together. Someplace where I could find Cuban musicians, a pannist from Trinidad, guys familiar with jazz… I tried Miami for a while, lived in Miami for about a year and a half kind of scouting out. I tried to do it in Trinidad, I tried to do it in Cuba, I was looking around in Venezuela… it just wasn’t happening… and then I hit upon it here (Toronto) of all places.

RH So when was that?

JL That was in 2004. It just kind of happened. Somebody booked a gig for a calypso band without having a calypso band… then called me “could we put something together?” “Yeah OK sure” I had some tunes I had written in that vein. So that was the start of CaneFire. But the band didn’t really get put together until 2005.

RH How would you describe CaneFire’s sound?

JL CaneFire is burning Caribbean jazz. It’s jazz that puts together influences from all over the Caribbean — the English, French, and Spanish Caribbean. The idea was to create new sounds by mixing all of these influences, always featuring the steelpan as the lead instrument. We also set out to play music that is a lot more energetic than most Caribbean jazz. Most Caribbean jazz artists tend to create music that is very laid-back, almost relaxing. Especially when the pan is involved, because the pan has a natural soothing mellow tone, so they go with that. But all these rhythms from the Caribbean, they are inherently hot, there is a lot of energy there, and there is a lot of potential for creating very exciting music. That was the big thing that I wanted to do with CaneFire that would be different, infuse that energy back into the music.

RH The fire!

JL Yeah the fire. Caribbean jazz with fire. So we just turn up the heat… a bit. We combine a Trini pannist with a Cuban percussionist and a Cuban drummer and jazz-trained horn players. Writing in the jazz concept of playing heads, soloing and a lot of improvisations… playing really heavy music.

RH During the second set, we saw CaneFire backing Andy Narell. Although you introduced him as one of your major musical inspirations, the music we heard was very different from that of CaneFire. Can you say a few words about that?

Andy Narell

Jeremy Ledbetter
JL We’re both playing Caribbean jazz but we’re almost at opposite ends of the spectrum in a lot of ways, even though the music is coming from the same roots. When they’re playing with Andy Narell, the band has to find a whole other side of themselves as a group. Andy’s music is a lot quieter a lot more settled, it breathes and has a lot more space than the CaneFire stuff. In its esthetics, Andy Narell’s music is closer to what you traditionally think of jazz.

RH David Rudder, who had been sitting in the audience, was called to the stage during that set. You work with Rudder I believe…

JL I started working with David just before I left Trinidad. I played for about six months with his group Charlie’s Roots. Then I came back to Toronto to finish school and he moved here three months later. I’ve been working with David for about five or six years now, as his musical director and arranger, playing and travelling with him. David and Andy go way back, so that’s why Andy was able to ambush him like that and bring him up on stage.

RH What's next with CaneFire?

JL We’re working hard on new material right now, preparing for a new recording, that’s the focus.

RH We heard three new tunes during your set at Lula.

JL Yeah, we premiered one that I don’t have a name for yet and one called “Coconuts And Doubles” written by our trumpet player, Alexis Baro, and then the killer, the burner (laughs), I always have to write one insane tune. It’s patterned after a gospelypso but we crank the tempo to about triple what it would normally be, it’s called “Baptism By Fire”. That’s the big insane closer.

RH This was controlled chaos.

JL Yeah, bordering on complete chaos. I love this period when we’re playing new music for the second or third time, it’s all fresh and it’s the best it’s ever gonna sound. It might not be completely tight; the older stuff now is very very tight but there is a magic in the new stuff. I love it, I wish I could write faster so we could be always playing new stuff, but I’m just really slow.

I’ve done some travelling lately to Asia, to Venezuela and most recently to the Amazon so there are a lot of new sounds, new instruments and rhythms that I’m trying to see if they can be incorporated into the Caribbean jazz framework. So we’ll see how that goes.

RH You might have to start another band.

JL Yeah exactly, there might be another band but I’d really like to do it with this band, I really like where we’ve gotten to after playing together for two and a half, almost three years. Music is about expression and about connecting to the music and yourself and to the audience. You won’t necessarily achieve that connection playing someone else’s music, but over the course of playing my music for the past few years the other guys in the band are inside it. We’ve come together and defined our sound enough that they can feel the music is theirs as well so everybody is connecting and everybody is expressing now when we play together. This wasn’t happening before. Before, we were playing my music but now it feels more like our music. We’ve jelled as a band… I guess that’s what that’s called.

RH So where are your travels going to take you next?

JL Well, I’ve never been to Africa and I’m trying to get there. You see it’s difficult for me to travel because I don’t like to go anywhere for a short period of time. I wouldn’t go to somewhere like Africa for less than six months. It’s about clearing the schedule… and the bank account. I’m trying to get back to Burma as well and see what’s been happening there.

CaneFire is
Jeremy Ledbetter – piano
Mark Mosca – steelpan
Alexis Baro – trumpet
Braxton Hicks – saxophone
Yoser Rodriguez – bass
Chendy Leon – drums
Alberto Suarez – percussion


We welcome your comments and feedback
Roger Humbert
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