Kevin Hearn [piano]
There & Then: Solo Piano Improvisations (Available February 11, 2022)
Nearly every element was specific: one artist and one producer; just three hours on three days in three distinct spaces on three particular pianos.
Such was the architecture of the latest project from acclaimed pianist and composer Kevin Hearn; in fact, the only parameter left unspecified was the music that would be performed and put to record on each of those days, in each of those places, on each unique instrument.
There & Then: Solo Piano Improvisations is a collaboration between Hearn and decorated producer/engineer Mark Howard, whose credits include career-defining recordings by Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris, and The Tragically Hip. Each day, the latter would inform the former where and when the piano would be ready, and that was about it.
“I would, go, play, and leave,” Hearn explains. “Very little was said during the sessions, and there were no demos, run-throughs, re-dos, or edits. What you hear is what happened, there and then.”
Beyond capturing the performances, Howard would at times add flourishes atop Hearn’s compositions – delay effects and other sound treatments – reciprocating inspiration between one another.
The seeds of There & Then were planted amidst an earlier and much different recording session. While he’s earned accolades over the years as a multi-instrumentalist and musical director with the likes of the late Lou Reed, Canadian icons Rheostatics, and most recently, carrying on the benevolent legacy of Gord Downie with the Secret Path Band, Hearn is best known as a member of multi-platinum rock outfit Barenaked Ladies, and Howard was tapped to produce the band’s 2021 offering, Detour de Force.
One morning amidst their work, Howard commented on a piece Hearn was playing to warm up. When he learned that it – like many such morning musings during those sessions – was made up on the spot, he was adamant that they make an album in that vein.
“After the record was finished and we’d all dispersed, Mark got in touch with me and reiterated how much he’d like to try that,” recalls Hearn. “I suggested we find pianos in old hotels and other cool haunts and, especially in the middle of a pandemic where we were limited in what we could do, Mark was really drawn to the idea.”
The sessions were, like many things at the time, rigidly insular. On their first mid-December day of recording, they were in Montreal’s decommissioned Notre Dame de la Defense Church, notes drenched in the prolonged decay of its ample and immaculate space. Two days later, they entered the sublime acoustic environment of Studio Pierre Marchand, anchored by its stunning Fazioli grand. The third and final day was in nearby Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts at the famous StoneHaven le Manoir inn, with its antiquated piano set up fireside in a stately and serene lounge. After each session, Howard would isolate and distill the most powerful segments.
While every captured passage was created in the moment, There & Then carries bits and pieces of Hearn’s experiences, influences, and emotions past and present. Ad-libbing on the upright Heintzman in his childhood home, a long love of Debussy, collaborations with genius throughout his career, and of course, the forced introspection of a global pandemic – all and more manifest themselves, intangibly but certainly, in these carefully curated 13 movements across 53 minutes.
The recordings themselves can be described as pristine and pure in how they capture the bare essence of these spaces, these instruments, two artists, and all that emanated from and within each. Sometimes airy and playful, others intense or conflicted, but always compelling.
Owing to the unique nature of the project and all that’s woven into it, Hearn admits he enjoys hearing about other people’s interpretations of the music – or, in the case of artist Willo Downie, seeing them. The paintings she produced while listening to the record ultimately became its cover art, encasing one creative interpretation in another.
“This was a direct plug-in to emotion, and I’ve never made a record that way before,” Hearn shares in closing. “I wanted to create something beautiful, though it partly came from painful memories and the overwhelming feelings many of us were faced with during the pandemic. It wasn’t always right or perfect, but when it worked, it worked. The whole experience left me with a sense of renewed confidence, and a reminder that something that happens and then disappears within a moment can be really special.”