Register Thursday | June 20 | 2019

Riffing in the Present Moment

Is improv the road to Nirvana?

"A sage steers by the bright light of confusion and doubt," intones poet David Budbill. A seven-piece improvisational jazz band honks and hoots in assent. Onstage at Casa del Popolo, together they’re kicking off Montreal's first Zen Poetry Festival.

Budhill’s statement seems apt and somewhat comforting at an event called "Words Have No Meaning." If wise old sages can let confusion guide them, I reason, I can too. At least for one weekend. Organised by The Centre Zen de la Main, the city’s first Zen Poetry festival features events with Chinese poetry translator Red Pine, poet and storyteller  Steve Sanfield and Beat generation Buddhist poet Joanne Kyger. Friday night’s opening show embodies a juxtaposition of peaceful melody and explosions of sound . . . a mix of intention and the lack thereof.

Budbill, who says he's not really a Zen Buddhist but "kind of a Taoist-Methodist from Ohio," is the author of eight poetry collections and a CD: Zen Mountains, Zen Streets. The musicians backing him are mainly from Montreal's Murray Street Band with some additional guests from this city's roster of free-jazz luminaries, including Malcolm Goldstein on violin and Lori Freedman on bass clarinet.

Buddhists, poetry enthusiasts, jazz-heads, curious folks lured in by the red festival posters plastered up and down The Main and a few Casa regulars listen attentively to Budbill's musings. He talks of ancient Chinese poets, life on a dark mountaintop, finding beauty in the minutiae of daily life, mortality and aging. The older woman sitting beside me smells like roses and is sketching pictures of the band in a notebook resting on her up-folded knees.

Many of the musicians keep their eyes closed for extended periods. As Budbill reads, they offer the occasional trill, squawk, squeak or moan— sounds drawn from somewhere beyond the limits of time signature and scale. From time to time, Budbill lays down his book and plays breathy tones on a bamboo flute along with the band. At one point, the kit drummer taps his sticks against the wall while Freedman cups her detached mouthpiece like a small bird singing a gentle, repetitive and somewhat mournful song. From her bass clarinet, she extracts alternately surprising, jarring, lyrical, breath-defying and virtuosic riffs all night long.

From the get-go it is hard to separate the poems from the music—everything seems to blend together into the kind of charged calm one might experience in the eye of a storm. "My face is falling off," Budbill announces at one point, interrupting an extended musical interlude. The crowd barely flinches. If they don't know exactly where he's heading with that thought, they're still content to go along for the ride.

Throughout the show, the performers almost bear the expressions of people in prayer. Is this a spiritual experience for them, I wonder? Is this Zen? What's the connection between Zen and improvised music, anyway?

"There's something in both free jazz, especially creative, improvised music and Zen, like the guys were playing tonight,” says Budbill after the show. "You have to be absolutely in the moment—not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow or even two minutes from now—and that's essentially the same as in Zen. In a situation like this, everyone is listening to each other. They're like these big ears—there's no body left, it's all ear. You have to be totally focused on what you're doing otherwise you'll get lost and never get found."

The musicians also see a correlation between Zen and their music. John Heward, the kit drummer, says that for him, "the connection is in the indirection of Zen. It's about concentration, to find the moment, to see nothing but be ready to do. It's about focusing so you are open and receptive."

Michel Bonneau is Murray Street's hand drummer and percussionist, as well as the band's connection to the Centre Zen de la Main. He practiced meditation there for over eight years. "There's definitely a connection between improvisational music and Zen," he says. "[When practicing Zen meditation] essentially what you want to do in sitting is quiet yourself down without forcing silence upon yourself. But you never quite make it there, because as soon as you do that, your own internal noise rises to the surface, and you have to ride that and just be a witness to it. When we are improvising, we are essentially taking in what we hear from our fellow musicians and riding it, using it in a very humble and convivial way.”

Are these performers religious? Heward says he's not, but that "it's definitely a very spiritual experience to play this music. Improvisation is interesting because you have to call on yourself more." Bonneau agrees. "I wouldn't define myself as a spiritual person but playing music has a definite spiritual dimension to it," he says. "It's part of the experience for me, absolutely."

It's late, the music on the stereo post-show is noisy and the band wants to go home. I bid Bonneau farewell and walk out into the waiting snowstorm with its welcome silence and sparkle. Weaving silence into noise, meaning into obscurity, this evening's show straddled the 60s and the 00s, the Beats and the hipsters, the picturesque mountaintop and the dirty city street. I feel ready for a weekend of paradox, doubt, confusion and whatever else the festival has in store. But first I need to sleep.