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Renee Rosnes: Chasing Spirits

Piano great Renee Rosnes has made a name for herself playing alongside a Who's Who of jazz greats over the past 20 years. But as her piano playing has flourished, her search on a more personal level has proven fruitful as well. Renee was adopted, and on one fateful tour, she met her birth mother - and came face to face with her own identity.

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Transcript of the audio documentary

I’m Ross Porter and welcome to the documentary, 'Renee Rosnes, Chasing Spirits’.

Speaker 1: The greatest artists are always not just a little bit better than their peers in one area. They're very far ahead of their peers in every area. It's always that way and Renee is that way.

Speaker 2: She's known because of her originality and brilliance of her playing. That is why she has taken her rightful place in maybe a list of top ten piano players.

Speaker 3: I can't say enough things about Renee. Renee is wonderful man in every way. She is. Wonderful music, wonderful to be around. Anybody that wants to have a good group, like they would want to have Renee Rosnes.

Ross Porter: Through her 20-year playing career, Renee Rosnes has truly become the jazz musician's jazz musician. She has been tapped to play alongside legends and in turn has quickly become legendary herself. He has played with JJ Johnson, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, and James Moody, to name but just a few.

She has been featured on over 50 albums, 9 of which were projects she has led and released on the acclaimed Blue Note Record label. She has become a mainstay at many of New York's hottest jazz venues, delighting audiences with her passion and grace.

She is delicate. She is soft-spoken and when she sits down to play, what emerges from the piano is nothing short of magic.

Renee was born on March 24, 1962 and quickly adopted by a couple living in Regina, Saskatchewan. At four months old, this featured jazz great moved with her family to Vancouver. As a child, she studied classical piano.

Renee Rosnes: My parents didn't listen to jazz at all. My mother had CBC on most of the time, but her preference was definitely in the classical arena.

Ross Porter: It wasn't until Renee was 13 that she was introduced to jazz. It was through her high school music teacher in Vancouver, Bob Rebagliati.

Renee Rosnes: He was in need of a piano player to be in the jazz band in Grade 8 and I was a classical pianist who enjoyed playing Paul McCartney and Elton John by ear, and he recruited me for the jazz band. And I knew nothing about the music. And he was not only very passionate and enthusiastic and imparted that in a very good way, in an inspirational way, to his students, but he was also very knowledgeable, which I think I was very fortunate to have had somebody like him.

Bob Rebagliati (vancouver music teacher): She was this really bubbly, enthusiastic, young 13-year-old who was obviously extremely musical.

Renee Rosnes: It was really Reb that introduced me to the music and he was not only very passionate and enthusiastic and imparted that in a very good way, an inspirational way, to his students, but he was also very knowledgeable, which I think I was very fortunate to have had somebody like him.

Ross Porter: For homework, Bob would regularly give Renee jazz albums to take home and listen and suddenly, for Renee, her ears opened up to a whole new world that she had never known existed. She listened to these records over and over and began to develop an understanding of the inner-workings of the music she was beginning to play.

Bob Rebagliati: I've always been a big exponent of playing the real thing for my students and so she got to hear the real thing. You know, I guess, it was probably Oscar Peterson ... Keys Chart and Bill Evans.

Renee Rosnes: And Count Basie, and then I would hear, you know, Herbie Hancock playing 'Chameleon'. I mean, it was a vast array of styles of the music that I realized right away, wow, between the big band music and the small group music and the electric music, I mean, it was really, "Wow, there is a lot to this music." You know, it made me have an immediate respect, even though I didn't understand it. And I don't even know that I necessarily, you know, fell in love with it right away. I think more than anything I was intrigued with it.

Bob Rebagliati: An interesting thing about Renee in her ability to improvise, she always had the ability to improvise, but like many beginning improvisers, she didn't have a lot of confidence in herself and she would frequently say, "Reb, give me something to play. Show me something." And, of course, I loved doing that because anything that I showed her, she had it immediately in her grasp and after a while, you know, I started to think and I started to say to Renee, "You don't need me to show you things. You know, you're at the stage now where you can start to come up on your own." And by that time she was in Grade 10 for sure, that was happening. In 11, absolutely. And in Grade 12, she was blowing them away with improvising.

Renee Rosnes: In some schools, perhaps kids take jazz band to goof off, but if you're going to be in Reb's class, it was no joke. You had to do the work and then he would also make a point to take the students out to hear live music. I remember we all went to see- got in the old van and went to see Buddy Rich and the big band.

And, of course, at that age when you're seeing the live musicians play, it's an entirely thrilling experience, if you've never enjoyed it before. I mean, it was just jaw-dropping. To see Buddy Rich's energy and the way he drove that band and musicians standing up and soloing and the clapping and the lights and being in a club and I mean, it was all kind of a little intoxicating.

Bob Rebagliati: Renee was in the top 1%. There was no question about how masterfully she was going to play and as a music student, very keen. You know, always a hundred percent with the program, so to speak. For some reason, one day, you know, her shoe laces, either weren't done up yet or they came undone or one of them came undone and I said, "Renee, you've got to tie up that shoe before you trip." And she did one of her usual giggles and looked a little embarrassed and said, "I don't really know how to do that." Because her mother, God bless her soul, a wonderful lady named Audrey, she looked after Renee so thoroughly that it actually included the shoe laces, I guess, fairly frequently when they were needed to be tied. And the reason for that, I'm sure, because Renee was so busy as a high school student or as a young teenager doing music. I mean, she was into classical music lessons, piano lessons, violin lessons, playing in groups, playing in recitals and all of the school work and everything, so Mom just kind of doted on her and made her ready for all of that sort of stuff and really didn't have to stoop to the mundane, such as tying her shoe laces.

Ross Porter: After finishing high school, Renee traveled East to attend the University of Toronto where she continued her studies on the piano, then it was back to Vancouver where she played occasionally on the clubs around town, and finally, in 1985, to New York City where on a Canada Council grant. She had the opportunity to immerse herself fully in the city's vibrant and contagious jazz scene.

Renee Rosnes: I was very much looking forward to being in the city and being in that environment, that musical environment. But I didn't even think too much about breaking into the scene or getting work as a jazz pianist. I really had the mindset of being a student and soaking it all in and just practicing a lot and, of course, I would expected that I would meet peers and play in jam sessions and that sort of thing, but I didn't have any expectation of, you know, becoming a professional jazz musician in New York. I didn't really aspire to that. That was something that kind of came my way more so than I sought it out. I didn't really seek it out.

Ross Porter: In Brooklyn, she found an expat community of transplanted Canadian musicians, including Toronto drummer, Terry Clark.

Terry Clark: I've watched the whole sequence of events where she started playing after hours at the Blue Note Club, a very famous club in New York and it was in after hours from one o'clock til four in the morning and it was ran by a trombone player named Ted Corson who used to play with Charles Mingus. He would have a rhythm section and people would sit in. It was a jam session. The great tenor saxophone player, Joe Henderson, came in one night and heard her play. Wayne Shorter came in and heard her play. Practically everybody used to hang out there very late, so all of a sudden, Joe Henderson decided that he wanted an all-girl band, so Renee got hired. Joe had the all-girl band playing at the Vanguard and everybody began to listen to Renee and they just absolutely, you know, loved her and so Renee really became in demand.

Ross Porter: One by one many of the city's top jazz musicians became admirers of the talent of this up and coming piano player. After Joe Henderson, next in line to hire Renee was saxophonist Wayne Shorter. And through playing in the groups of Joe and Wayne, she was given an opportunity to play in front of one of the greatest jazz trombonist of all time, JJ Johnson.

Renee Rosnes: There was an agent named, well is an agent named Mary Ann Topper who was handling J at the time and I believe it was Stanley Cowell who couldn't make a tour with JJ and he was looking to hire a pianist. And it was a Sunday afternoon at the Village Vanguard and Mary Ann invited, I don't know, probably 10 to 15 pianists to come down and play for him, and I was among the musicians that she invited. And I was pretty nervous. It was my turn, so I got up on the piano bench and I was waiting for instructions to move ahead and Jay was taking a break and he came and sat back down close by, looked up and saw me. He said, "Are you the next piano player?" In a very loud kind of authoritative tone and I looked at him and I said yes and he said, "Hmm, okay. All right then. All right, let's play." I mean, it was just ... I think he was taken aback that I was a young lady. But it didn't seem to affect anything in terms of him desiring to use me in the band.

Ross Porter: A couple of years later, she would also attract the ear of another jazz legend, saxophonist James Moody.

James Moody: The first gig she worked, I had just had an album released and it was an album with synthesizer and different things on it and it was kind of involved. And so we gave Renee the music and when she came back it sounded exactly like it did on the album. I said, "Wow,” she really, you know, so I was really impressed with that. Eighteen years ago, like she has been with me eighteen years.

Ross Porter: One of the people watching all this progress was Renee's best friend, flautist Shelley Brown.

Shelly Brown: I wouldn't call it luck. You can be lucky the first time, but unless you're exceptionally good, you're not going to be lucky the second time. So I think it's fairly safe to say that a great musician recognizes another great musician of any age and that's what Renee is.

Ross Porter: As Renee's recognition grew, so that her realization that her temporary move to New York City perhaps wasn't going to be temporary after all.

Renee Rosnes: There came a distinct realization that the opportunities that were coming my way and my growth as a musician were in such a positive state that I realized that if I was going to move back to Canada I would likely miss out on some of these opportunities and not only that, I could feel myself developing. I really couldn't, I couldn't fathom moving back to Canada and still have those opportunities and still be able to do that kind of work. So I made a decision to stay and still feel that way.

Ross Porter: In 1998, Renee had attracted the attention of Blue Note Records, the celebrated recording company that has at times been home to fellow piano greats, Thelonius Monk, Bud Powell, and a man who go on to have a tremendous influence on Renee's life and career, Herbie Hancock.

Renee Rosnes: I first met Herbie Hancock in Japan when I went to perform as part of the Blue Note Band at that time, OTB, 'Out of The Blue'. And it was a festival at Mount Fuji and I remembered one evening where they had a reception for the musicians. This was at the hotel at Mount Fuji and there was a little upright piano, kind of underneath the stairwell and Herbie was playing and he invited various pianists to sit down and play duets with him. And I got to play with him and, of course, it was totally thrilling and when I came back to New York, this young man who was working for Herbie, Donny was his name, he said, "Well," because I was getting ready to do my first record for Blue Note and he said, "Why don't you do a duet with Herbie?" And I just dismissed it completely at first. I just said, "Well, you're crazy,” you know. “You're nuts,” you know. And he said, "No, you should do it. I'm sure that Herbie would do it. You should do it with him. Do you want me to ask him?" And I started thinking about it and I thought, 'well, gee, that would be kind of stupid to turn down an opportunity like that because I'm absolutely terrified.' I should embrace it and do it and I thought well, what would I've got to lose? Sure, you know, if he does it, he does it. If not, nothing lost.

Ross Porter: Herbie said yes and on the appointed day, Renee traveled into Manhattan from her home in Brooklyn where she and Herbie got into a car provided by the record company. They were headed to Englewood, New Jersey in the studio of Rudy Van Gelder. Rudy, an optometrist turned recording engineer is largely considered one of the jazz world's greatest backroom figures. His studio was where many legends have laid down some of their finest tracks, including landmark recording sessions by John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley , Bill Evans and Stan Getz.

Renee Rosnes: I had never been to Rudy's before and we got out there and it's in Englewood, New Jersey, kind of amidst the trees and the studio itself doesn't or didn't even seem or like it seemed very modern to me. You know, I imagined it being something a little different, brick and the wood and very open space and I didn't even realize this before getting there, but Rudy and Herbie hadn't seen each other since, I don't know, 25 years or something. When Rudy opened the door and the two of them hugged and started reminiscing and laughing and, you know, it was really, really a magical moment. I felt like I was kind of watching some history. In that room, there were two Steinways set up. One was new and one was the Steinway that made ‘Voyage’ and many other great recordings had been actually. You know, this piano had been used for... Herbie said, "Which piano do you want? I don't care whichever piano." And I felt like, 'Oh, I've got to play the old one.' You know, that's the sound and it's Rudy and it's the studio and Herbie was completely fine he didn't mind which piano I played.

Ross Porter: From her self-titled debut released on Blue Note, here is Renee Rosnes playing in a duet with Herbie Hancock in 'Fleur De Lis'.

[Music Playing]

Ross Porter: I'm Ross Porter and you're listening to the documentary, 'Renee Rosnes Chasing Spirits' on Canada's premiere jazz station, JAZZ FM91.

Great artists have always gathered muse from events from their lives and used it to shape their art. Renee is no exception. Some of her work is playful, some of it swings, and some of it tugs at your heart with its depth and power. She has been able to draw inspiration from all places in her life, but there was one time in particular that stands apart for Renee, one that shaped and shook her into coming to terms with her identity and forced her to say goodbye to someone who had always been there for her.

Renee Rosnes: Well, I'm adopted and in 1994, I had a very tumultuous year. My mother that brought me up was diagnosed with cancer and passed away about six weeks after her diagnosis. And about a month before, I met my biological mother whose name is Mohinder. We call her Minda. So there was a lot there, a lot of adjustment and a lot of sadness, a lot of gratitude, all, all, all of them, a lot of opposite emotions that were, that came to the fore. It was too overwhelming that all of these should happen in a space of two months.

Terry Clark (drummer): When we were all living in New York, she decided to put a band together of Canadians who lived in New York and we'd come up and got a Canada Council grant and tour Canada. Now, all at the same time, Renee was searching for her biological mother and it turns out that she lives on Vancouver Island, so one of our stops was in Victoria, so she had really coordinated, not only a tour, but you know, this whole thing with her. She had been looking for years for her real mother.

Renee Rosnes: We met in a hotel room in Victoria and we had spoken on the phone briefly before then and I had written her a letter as well, but we, you know, physically met one - I think it was the last day of March 1994 and my feeling was I think she was nervous to meet me that my instinct was just to pop the bubble and just ... it felt natural just to be warm right away.

Ross Porter: Did you have any inkling as to your ancestry?

Renee Rosnes: No, I didn't, not really. I did have one page kind of info sheet from the government of Saskatchewan that said some varying things about my background, my biological background, but it turned out to basically be all untrue. So it was a great surprise to me to find my mother was Indian, from India, East Indian. And it was a great relief to, in some ways, even just visually to see people who resembled me physically.

Bob Rebagliati (Renee's high school music teacher and friend): I remember a correspondence from Renee expressing shock at the fact that she had discovered that her parents were East Indians, because Renee's skin is so fair.

Renee Rosnes: I always felt a little bit like a fish out of water and no one in my family had my nose or my eyes and I guess, as a young woman, I wasn't so comfortable with my appearance and after meeting the family, somehow there was contentment that spread in my gut. I have just ... just merely from the fact that laying eyes on these people who are my relatives and I understood the context of my nose and my eyes and, you know, where I came from.

Terry Clark: So that was quite an event, so all of a sudden, she's got 500 relatives that all live on Vancouver Island and they all came down at the club to hear music they knew nothing about.

Renee Rosnes: So it was kind of overwhelming.

Ross Porter: The next night, Renee traveled to Vancouver. It's the last stop on her Canadian tour. In attendance was her adopted mother, Audrey, who had just recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Terry Clark: She kind of lost it. That last night, it was, you know, all the stress of putting together all of that and she kind of broke down. I remember I had to go out and do a drum solo for about half an hour until she got herself together, but she deserved it. I mean, if she got that worked out, she could certainly weep.

Renee Rosnes: You know, I didn't know at the time that that was going to be the last time I saw my mother well. The next time I saw her, she was in a hospital bed and she has, you know, two weeks to live. So I chose not to inform her or tell her that I found that out, but because she was terminally ill, I didn't feel that it was the right thing to burden her. If it was going to be a burden, I didn't want that there is going to be a chance of it being a burden. She had enough to deal with with her illness and so I made a decision not to tell her that I had met Minda. That's why I just said that 1994 was rather just a roller-coaster of emotions.

Ross Porter: Renee's tumultuous year left her feeling both raw and inspired, inspired by the discovery of a whole new family that was able to answer many questions she had been asking for years, and raw at the loss of a woman who had raised and helped her to become the person she was.

Renee Rosnes: I was able to take a lot of these emotions that were whirling around inside of me and I made an album called 'Ancestors' and almost all of the songs on it had something to do with either meeting my new family or the loss of my mom. So it was cathartic, I think, to be able to at least get some of those emotions out in a musical way, in a non-verbal way, shall we say.

Ross Porter: Did you feel complete afterwards? Did you feel that you achieved that?

Renee Rosnes: No, I think it took me years to adjust and come to a place of peace and contentment about everything that had happened. Because my mom's death was so quick. She was angry at being sick and angry at leaving the world. She wasn't ready, not that everyone ever is, but I think it was really hard for her to let go. She was not ready to go.

Ross Porter: From the album, 'Ancestors', here is Renee's tribute to her adopted mother, Audrey, 'The Ache of The Absence'.

[Music Playing]

Ross Porter: I'm Ross Porter and you're listening to the documentary, 'Renee Rosnes, Chasing Spirits', on Canada's premier jazz station, JAZZ FM91.

As Renee's list of professional accomplishments grows, so do her legion of admirers. She has played in the bands and on the recordings of some of the greatest jazz players of our time and in return, she has had many accomplished players line up to play on her recordings. And even as Renee's career and status on the jazz scene seems to have matured, she still strives for more.

Are you the player that you want to be?

Renee Rosnes: Well, I'm aspiring to be the player that I want to be constantly. I mean, there is always more to learn and, I mean, it's just an ongoing process. And sometimes, I hear myself back on a recording that I may not have heard in a long time if I'm just listening to the radio and sometimes, I'm pleasantly surprised if I figure out, "Hey, that's me." And I liked it before I realized it was me, then it's always a nice feeling. But I think any great musician is highly critical of themselves and it's also a way of continuing your growth and to keep working at your craft.

Ross Porter: Renee plays with a beauty and elegance that has earned her a place amongst the top jazz piano players in the world. She has had a career that has taken her around the globe and a respect among the jazz community that continues to thrive.

Terry Clark (drummer): Everybody knows her in the music industry, but the public doesn't know her. She hasn't managed to catch on, but I think it's about to change. She is starting to get work it as herself. She's a kind of like Diana Krahl. She's very shy and retiring. You just don't expect when you see Renee to hear somebody play like that. She doesn't look like ... she doesn't sound like she would - like she looks. Do you know what I mean? It's that strange juxtaposition, but I mean, you know, if there was a magic formula, we'd all be millionaires. You know, there is no reason. She'll just continue to play and there are a lot of great female piano players out there and some of them have big names and some of them don't.

Ross Porter: One of the people who has had a chance to watch Renee and her career closely is noted pianist, Bill Charlap, who was not only Renee's colleague in the clubs, but her partner in life.

Bill Charlap: You know, Renee is not one of the greatest female jazz pianist in the world. She is one of the greatest jazz pianists in the world period. Do I believe that she has got the recognition that she deserves to get? I think she could be recognized even more. But you know, she's not a show off in any kind of way and it's always music first. It's always for the music first and for the other musicians first and in service of the music. Now, she is a virtuoso, a virtuoso improviser and a virtuoso pianist, but she would never do something that would take attention off of the music and put the attention on her, which I believe is true for all great artists.

James Moody (saxophonist): For me, there is no such thing as female and male musicians. I mean, if you can play your butt off, you can play period. Because I don't look at people. If I hear something and it sounds good, it sounds good.

Ross Porter: Several years after the death of Renee's adopted mother and the discovery of her birth mother, Renee became a mom herself, to Dylan, a boy she had with her first husband, drummer, Billy Drummond.

As a mother, what have you found out about yourself that you didn't know before?

Renee Rosnes: I thought I was more patient before I had a child. Mind you, I have a wonderful boy who is 8 years old now, and he's a very centered and a kind of naturally calm individual, so I think I'm lucky. It's fun. I think he's having an interesting childhood because he has seen a lot of the world and he has been around some very interesting characters. I remember, I was doing... after Peter Jennings died, passed away very sad and obviously, he was a lover of the music and we did a kind of a tribute spot to him on, I guess it was Good Morning, America. I get all those morning shows mixed up, but I think it was Good Morning, America. Anyway, and Clark Terry was playing and Dylan came. Dylan had his mouthpiece with him. He has a mouthpiece. Wynton gave him a trumpet as a gift, so he has this mouthpiece that he carries around. He's learning how to buzz on it. Anyway, so Clark was, you know, surprised and I think happy to see Dylan with the mouthpiece and he started showing him different things about the embrasure and how to relax and I didn't have a camera with me and I was just, you know, Dylan doesn't realize the import of what's happening right now. You know, this is something that's... how fortunate is he. Now, Clark Terry is giving him an impromptu trumpet lesson.

Ross Porter: And rounding out Renee's household is her husband, Bill Charlap, a man who critics have called one of the strongest mainstream piano players on the scene. It's a relationship that works well with Renee, even if having two piano players in one house can, at times, be, well, crowded.

Shelley Brown (flautist, Renee's best friend): Renee is as happy as I've ever seen her. It's all good. It's hard to have two grand pianos in your living room, but aside from that, I think that's about the only inconvenience.

Bill Charlap: We love playing together. It's automatic. Our time is very comfortable, completely comfortable. I can feel her beat perfectly. She can feel mine and the touch and the sound at the piano and the instincts and harmony are often similar, but different. So you have a journey that's extemporaneous and filled with surprise.

Ross Porter: One of the projects that has recently been keeping Renee busy is her work as part of the San Francisco Jazz Collective, an all-star ensemble headed up by current jazz heavyweight, Joshua Redman.

Renee Rosnes: It's a big project and actually it's one that takes me away from home a little bit longer than I like to be, but it's the one thing that out of the year I try to balance my schedules, so that I'm not away all the time. So this is kind of the one project where I am away more than I really want to be, but it's been a very fulfilling band to be a part of.

Ross Porter: The San Francisco Jazz Collective tours for a few months out of every year. The goal of each season is to focus on the music of a major American composer, as well as commissioning new original works from each of the members of the collective. Here is the piece Renee wrote for their third annual concert tour called, 'Mirror Image'.

[Music Playing]

Shelley Brown: In any field, there is always room for exceptional people and she is going to be adding to the world of jazz and the world of music as long as she is playing.

Bob Rebagliati: Renee has certainly carved out her career based on her playing and her personality, her straightforwardness. She doesn't put on pretensions. She is not acting. She's not political. She does what has to be done career-wise. Don't get me wrong. She knows that it's dog-eat-dog in terms of marketing, but as a person, you know, she rarely has a bad thing to say about anybody and because she is the real thing, personality-wise and playing-wise, I believe that's a good reason why she has gone as far as she has.

James Moody: Renee makes me smile, period, when I see her. Yeah, I mean, period. She makes me smile.

Ross Porter: Great jazz artists have always recognized a fellow musician's greatness when they see it and Renee's talents are no exception. She has played with many of the finest jazz musicians living in the past 20 years and in doing so, has become a legend herself. As her profile rises, so does the daring quality of her compositions and improvisations, often incorporating the influences she hears and feels around her and the stunning heartfelt music that is at times breathtaking. It's a journey that is very much still in progress. There is music still to be written, inspiration still waiting to be captured, experiences still waiting to be lived. Renee's family, new and old, have left their marks that will continue to inspire and guide her. It's been a journey of learning in a path of understanding. As she reaches a comfortable middle age in her career, Renee gives no indication of slowing down. As her playing gets bolder, her legion of fans continues to grow. Renee Rosnes has taken her place as one of jazz's finest living piano players, a virtuoso who will continue to move audiences for years to come.

I'm Ross Porter and you've been listening to ‘Renee Rosnes, Chasing Spirits’, an original documentary on Canada's premier jazz station, JAZZ FM91. The documentary was produced by Geoff Siskind and executive producer, Ross Porter. We recognize the financial support provided by the Department of Canadian Heritage by the Canadian Cultural Online Program.




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