Talented Brisbane multi-instrumentalist Jenni Bell has been a good friend of mine for the best part of a decade. I met her and her artist husband John through a church we both attended. Such a warm and instantly likeable couple, they both have a deep passion for the arts and for people. You can catch them regularly hitting the live music scene around Brisbane. In September 2016, out of the blue Jenni wandered up to me, shyly clutching a bag. ‘Look at this. It’s finally finished!’ she said, and opened the bag for me to see inside. To my surprise inside were a few dozen CDs, looking sleek and fresh off the production line.
For more than two years, Jenni had been labouring away at a special project – composing music and recording an album. Called ‘Around the Town’, the album is in the Choro style of music, considered the first Brazilian urban music that began in Rio de Janeiro. Jenni features on the album playing flute, piccolo and violin, together with the other members of the Café Do Choro group she is part of. I snapped one up right on the spot, keen to be one of the first to listen to her creation. I was also curious about how the flute features in Choro (a style of music I admit was unfamiliar to me then).
As soon as I got into the car I popped it into the player and listened to it the whole way through on my way home. I loved it! The next Sunday I pounced on Jenni and asked her if she would mind if I featured her album in my blog. I’ve always been curious about the process of composing music. So I sat down with Jenni to gain some insight into how she makes her magic composing music…
Jenni, how long have you been playing musical instruments, and particularly the flute?
I was trained in classical violin at the Victorian College of the Arts, but I also play piano, recorders, viola, plus a little guitar. Occasionally I get to play a 3 string Brazilian violin called a Rabeca, and I’m also giving the mandolin a go! I took up the flute as an extra tertiary study, over 30 years ago now! But I haven’t always played it regularly. I started coming along to Choro jam sessions about four years ago, and have had to put in plenty of practice to play this stuff! I only had a limited amount of formal lessons as the violin was my primary instrument, so I don’t really consider myself a high level flute player! I’m always interested in more flute though, so if anyone has an unwanted alto or bass flute lying around they might want to donate…
Do you have a favourite style of music you like to play or listen to?
Whilst I’m classically trained I’ve also played various other styles including Irish, folk and a bit of bluegrass. Involvement with Brazilian music has only been fairly recent via invitation by my son Jason who plays drums/percussion in various bands. I’m very eclectic in my musical tastes. I love listening to so many different styles of music including rock, jazz, indie, all kinds of ethnic music and occasionally some pop excites me. But J. S. Bach has always been ‘the other man in my life’. My husband John knows he has to live with this…
What is your fascination with the Choro style of music?
Choro is a cocktail of diverse genres – primarily jazz and classical. I think it’s the rich, evocative harmonic to-ing and fro-ing that I first hooked into. It’s clever and sophisticated, fun and free. The melodies are intricate but full of light-hearted humour. It features little unexpected tricks and musical ‘sleight of hand’, sort of musical ‘in jokes’. The chord changes are usually standard diatonic progressions but they have a loveliness that somehow gets to my heart. Like jazz, there’s freedom in how each player can handle the melody. Improvised solos are a feature. I find the actual sonority of the instruments, especially the acoustic guitar and in particular that wonderful deep ring of the Brazilian seven string guitar, very appealing. The other aspect is the social one. A Roda de Choro (Circle of Choro) or “Chorinho’ (little Choro gathering) is primarily about the sheer joy of playing music together!
What are your inspirations for composing music? Can you give an example for one of your tracks?
I’ll often get a bit of a melody or a few chord changes running around in my head. If the idea seems worth pursuing I’ll see where it takes me. The melody of ‘If Only’ came drifting through my mind after one of the most memorable days of my life. On the boat trip home after an incredible day snorkeling at the Great Barrier Reef. I madly scribbled ideas on a scrap of John’s drawing pad. My own musical shorthand that I use to jot down my ideas can be handy in an emergency like this one! I had a similar experience in a deep, beautiful, deserted forest in Tasmania. Mostly I get ideas at some absurd hour of the night… sometimes I’ll wake up in the morning with a tune drifting around in my head. Playing Choros with other musicians seems to ‘prime the pump’ for ideas to flow.
Where do you begin when composing music?
Many people just start with a snatch of a melody or a hint of a chord progression. I used to notate ideas on manuscript by hand; now I sing them into my phone. I compose at the computer, not at my instrument; I find that keeps me more open. Later I’ll check progressions on the piano or melodies on the flute. Some just flow in one hit, others need to be wrestled into shape.
The title usually comes after writing the piece, not before. Sometimes the hardest part is assigning a title to best capture its essence! Most of these pieces weren’t written with a particular story, picture or theme in mind; the titles are just what the music seemed to suggest to me. So the music leans towards the abstract rather than being literally descriptive.
How long did it take to produce the album?
Longer than expected! It took 2½ years, just from when I started recording! It was originally going to be a short demo EP and I thought it would take about five or six sessions. As we progressed I started to think “Why not make this a proper album?”
What did you find were the most challenging aspects of composing and recording your own album?
For the composing, notating the tunes clearly takes lots of time. Especially getting them to sit right on the page and adding all the additional markings. For the recording, playing my parts in the tunes to my satisfaction! Knowing when to stop making adjustments and call it ‘done’ – even though I’d play them better now.
How do you prepare for a live performance?
Over-prepare, ignore all housework, and don’t stress about the floordrobe on the day.
Where can people purchase the album or see you perform live?
We play with Brisbane Roda De Choro on the last Thursday of every month at ‘Can You Keep A Secret’ – a great little Lounge Bar and community hub in Woolloongabba, Brisbane. http://www.canyoukeepasecret.net.au/ “Around The Town’ can be purchased via Bandcamp as a digital download or CD www.cafedochoro.bandcamp.com. Get in touch on Facebook and Instagram using facebook.com/cafedochoro and instagram.com/cafedochoro/
And finally, are there any more flute projects in the pipeline?
This album is the first of three – I already have enough tunes written for two more with similar material. We’re already working on the next one now that this one is done. And of course I hope to keep writing more. I’m also keen for other musicians to play my compositions. I’m working on arranging some of them for flute & piano accompaniment.
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