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DAVID WARD - Host of CKUA’s Sounds Live and Time for Jazz

Music that I would love to receive:

1) Don Bradshaw and Rhonda WithnellOnce Was
A soon-to-be-released tour de force. An acoustic bass and a voice, that's it. But prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by the power, intimacy, and the delightful twists and turns of this beautiful musical conversation between two friends.

Edmonton Sun

ENTERTAINMENT Fri, January 28, 2005
Jazz singer mines new musical territories



A man is stranded on a desert island. Day and night, he hears drums. When he asks the natives why, they say, "Drums stop, very bad." This goes on for months. The natives keep saying, "Drums stop, very bad." One day, the drums stop. The village is in a panic. People run for their boats. The man is confused and shouts to a fleeing tribesman, "What's happening?" The native replies, "Drums stop, very bad! It's time for the bass solo!"

This is a very old musician's joke. Perhaps it speaks directly to our topic today: the debut album released by local jazz singer Rhonda Withnell and her bass-playing partner Don Bradshaw. Unveiled with a show at the Varscona Theatre Sunday night, it's called Once Was and was originally planned as an instrumental album of bass solos. It turned out to have been a good idea to include some singing. You know, just so it wouldn't have all been bass solos.

Withnell says, "Don decided a duo would be neat. He and I had started doing a couple of things together and it turns out we came out with all these ideas of tunes to do."

Once Was contains a jazz treatment of Madonna's Beautiful Stranger, which might take Madonna fans a while to identify, nestled near the bluegrass standard Don't Kneel at My Graveside, to give you an idea of the variety of music included here.

Withnell and Bradshaw stopped short of going whole hog on the wacky covers - which could've sold CDs on novelty alone - but they seem more concerned with artistic merit than commercial appeal. They just wanted to do something different. You will not hear songs like Don't Get around Much Anymore or All of Me or My Funny Valentine or any number of hoary old standards in the big jazz fake book that is the bible of the Grant MacEwan College music program, where Withnell happens to have been trained. People still want to hear them. They're just not going to hear them from this particular jazz singer.

"That's been the problem with me, that I don't choose the standard tunes," she says. "I'm always looking for something different to do and it's great because I have an interesting book of music. Sometimes people say, 'Don't you do this tune?' Yeah, I could sing it, but I'd rather not. It's been done eight billion times. How could I possibly improve upon it?"

There is enormous potential with a project like this. Live, it's different than the usual piano lounge act, and could make an intimate opening act. A jazz duo is flexible. Withnell could sing any of the hundreds of songs she knows through her various projects, and the bassist can follow along because he's a jazz musician and that's what jazz musicians do.

For recordings, a sequel is definitely in the works, Withnell says, the working title Once Again being obvious. The wacky cover potential is limitless. The Bad Plus earned attention for jazzifying Iron Man and Heart of Glass. Withnell and Bradshaw are already getting attention for Beautiful Stranger and the album isn't even out yet. Can Like a Virgin be far behind?

Withnell says, "So far people seem to be fascinated by it. We've had people request Beautiful Stranger at the gigs. And we've been getting requests for Persephone, the weird little one we wrote. So people seem really surprised, which is fun."

All they need now is a catchy name for the duo. How about Drums Stop, Very Bad?


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Infinite loop
Mobius craft their own intricate full-spectrum jazz magic
Sun, Feb 19, Varscona Theatre (10329-83 Ave.), Info: 433-3399

"We have no formula," declares Mobius guitarist Don Ehret, "We just look at what the members of the band bring in and go from there. That’s how our name came about as well. Someone suggested the idea of the Mobius Strip and applying that to our music–an ever-changing, ever-evolving musical concept."

The local jazz collective is officially (and finally, after four years) launching their debut album, Served!, this weekend at the Varscona Theatre.

Explaining what makes Mobius what it is, who the "Mobians" are, and why you should give them an attentive listen is as complicated as figuring out where the legendary Strip begins and ends.

Logically, we have to start with the Mobians themselves: four Edmonton-based musicians who have taught, written, played, and composed music for well over a century–if you add them all up as one entity.

"I got together with them for a concert and it just clicked," says drummer Dan Skakun, a former Grant MacEwan student and Masters graduate from the Aaron Copland School of music. "We all write, we’ve never played a cover tune, and the idea of a band that was compositional in nature appealed to me."

Influenced, as he says, by all the Jones’ in jazz (Philly Joe, Papa Joe, and Elvin) as well as Bill Bruford, King Crimson, Alan Holdsworth, Tony Williams, and Yes, Skakun is a well-rounded percussionist.

Bill Damur (flute) has been a teacher at Alberta College since 1983 and his musical interests cover everything from early music to the avant-garde. In addition to teaching, he’s active in a variety of musical groups including Chanticleer, The Amati Trio and Boreal Electro Acoustic Music Society. He’s also well known as a composer, arranger, and festival adjudicator

"Bill and I did our first concert together back in 1998 as the Alberta College Jazz Quartet," explains Ehret who, like his buddy Damur, teaches at Alberta College. "It was fun and we got a gig at Jazz City. Dan came on board we worked the Yardbird Suite, Four Rooms, and have had great response from audiences everywhere, so we just decided to finally make that album."

From the Dick Dale surf music meets the Mahavishnu Orchestra sound of "Spy Story," to the moving flute/bass duo "2 Planes," by way of the hard bop sound of "For Opa," there’s recognition of a myriad eclectic influences on Served!–without the band ever sounding derivative.

"Here I was in the mid-’70s," says Ehret, remembering his formative years at Boston’s Berklee College of music. "I got to see Pat Metheny just after he released his first record and you could see some of the best talent in the world just walking down the street or playing in the local clubs. At the time my influences were the Beatles and Eric Clapton, but I soon became a true fan of Django Rienhardt, John McLaughlin, Mike Stern, and Kenny Burrell–really, any kind of music that’s played well. I listen to virtually everything. I’m steeped in jazz but love the tonality and fast lines of some country players."

Rounding out Mobius’ sound, bassist Don Bradshaw has been active on the Edmonton scene for years, working in rock, jazz, R&B, and bluegrass, in addition to composing and arranging music. He’s also part of a unique voice/bass duo with local singer Rhonda Whitnell. The pair recently released their own album, Once Was, and will be opening Mobius’ CD release show.

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Mobius stripped
A naked look at Edmonton’s hot jazz combo

Sat, Feb 7
The Yardbird Suite (10203-86 Ave).

So, there I was, in the change room after swimming a mile at Coronation pool with my friend Bridget, telling her about the concert I saw the previous night when a woman across the room, who was toweling off her legs, said, "Are you talking about Möbius?" And I answered that, yes, we were, and the woman said, "I know the bass player." And I said, "Well last night he played this song. It was so beautiful–sort of Yo Yo Mah meets Eberhart Weber, y’know?" And she did. So as the three of us dried off, wrung out our suits, dried our hair, and got dressed as we discussed Möbius, their eclectic original music, and their profound musicianship. I’ve had some pretty good conversations in the change room with Bridget after a swim, and this one stays in my memory. I remember thinking that three naked women discussing Möbius, just by chance, must provide some sort of claim to fame.

But that’s the way it is with good music: maybe its only definition is that it lingers in your mind until you have to tell somebody about it, and then it weaves its way into that mutable record of your life, your memory.

So, just over a year later I invited myself to a Möbius rehearsal–outwardly for the purpose of this article, but inwardly I wanted to find out what good music means to the musicians who play it. Don Bradshaw (bass), Bill Damur (flute), Don Ehret (guitar), and Dan Skakun (drums), four of Edmonton’s better-known sidemen on the jazz scene, make up the composers’ collective that is Möbius. Their educational credentials range from Berkeley to New York, and all have busted their chops extensively playing every kind of gig imaginable–from rock bands to jazz troupes, from symphonies to bluegrass bands.

They unloaded their instruments and set up their equipment with ease refined by many years’ experience, but when they began to play it was with the open creativity of children. The music varies in form and mood–some structured and serious, some entirely improvised and playful, and all mutations in between. The range is remarkable, but even more notable is their total commitment to and delivery of the material. There is something about this combination of players that goes beyond the norm.

"We’re a composers’ forum," says Damur of the band’s unique structure. What they write is a kind of fusion, the scope of the material informed by the influences of their combined experiences. "Artists are cultural pack rats," explains Damur. "I’d love to write a pop tune," adds Skakun: "if it worked," he quips. And therein lies the crux of the matter.

Within Möbius, no idea is taboo. The genius of their process is that each player commits fully to the spirit of each other’s concepts. Each idea is an open ended question. "I can come to rehearsal with a concept more or less worked out and whatever that idea is it gets airtime," explains Don Bradshaw; "I know that their frame of reference is so deep that they will get it and be able to make something of it."

It’s apparent that, for Möbius, the joy is in the playing. That they consider themselves performers first is evident to anyone who has heard them play. "We’re like musical high wire art," says Damur. "You have to have a passion for it," remarks Skakun, "for trying to make every performance as good as you can."

"A live situation is total communication and when you’re playing your own material–it’s the centre of why you do it," says Don Ehret. "It’s more mentally satisfying. Sure it’s risky, but maybe that’s what makes it more interesting."

Möbius plays the Yardbird on Saturday (Feb 7). I’m going with some friends. Sunday morning I’m going to the pool.