Interview with David Bertrand #3

by Zeenat Qanoongo

David grew up in the Cocorite district of Trinidad, which is located four lanes of roadway from the sea. Before a fortuitous BBC jazz broadcast at midnight on his grandmother’s General Electric radio forever transformed his relationship with music, he played a wide spectrum of classical and folk music. He was inspired by Joe Farrell’s and Kent Jordan’s talent to join the ranks of performers who have championed the flute as a viable jazz instrument. 

His own voice has been largely inspired by the field of jazz tenor saxophone, an instrument to which he’d always felt a strong connection but which he couldn’t play because it wasn’t offered in his band program at the time. His attention was initially drawn to the renowned figures of John Coltrane and Joe Henderson, but he soon moved on to other musicians.

Since moving to the United States and graduating from Queens College’s MA jazz program, David Bertrand has established himself as an unique voice in the New York jazz scene, performing with a rapidly growing generation of artists on multiple flutes and woodwinds at venues and festivals across the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America.

  1. Besides artists that you listened to that inspired you, was there anyone in your personal life (family, friends) that inspired you?

           Yes, I think there have been people in different points of my life that have inspired me. At hand I know that there is a gentleman in my church back home named Calvin Man, i think he was an engineer, I’m not sure, but he is an amazing human being. One of the things that I admired about him was how he was able to correlate faith into everyday life, and it’s not that he’s referencing one source. He, in our conversations about music, talked very often about being clear about your sources, in terms of what you gravitate to. And finding your own position as to what degree your influences have an impact in your music. I think because he was so content with life and comfortable in his own skin that for years i would watch him respond to music and worships that would happen in trindadian churches, Calvin did this kinda old school groove thing that was the coolest thing to see. But to have something that moves the body is universally appreciated. Another person that inspires me daily is our daughter Aila, she was born 4 months before the pandemic and life after has been a blur. But seeing how curious she is about the world and things that people take for granted like the birds, butterflies, the sky, random people, right? It’s actually inspired me to write a few songs, not in the sense of oh my daughter is so beautiful and lovely, but I think of life events and perspectives and the fact that she’s in our lives. It’s more about life through the lens of parents. So I do think that Aila is a huge source of my inspiration. 

2. How did the artists or people that inspired you impact your musical career and where you are right now?

           One of the things I enjoy doing is searching for interviews of the artists who inspire me, i feel that the previous generations had to deal with this inscrutability in terms of a personal perspective to who’s making the music. In the jazz world, biographies are a big thing. There’s the infamous bio of Miles Davis, but past generations didn’t really have anything aside from interviews that were topical, didn’t have that deep narrative coming from the musicians themselves. So in the 21st century we very much have that so I love to dig into interviews of musicians that inspire me. And one of the most current take-aways is the idea  of process in terms of the musician that you are and are becoming and being patient. So with proces is the idea that the musician you are seeing in the present didn’t just arrive, he or she would’ve had a range of experiences separate from music as well as thousands and thousands of hours of practice honing their personal voice figuring out what worked, what didn’t, what had to be refined, what has to be discarded, what has to be embraced. And they are alway so honest in their interviews. Stating I didn’t always sound this way but this is how I overcame it. Within that correlated the idea of patience that this music especially takes time because it’s such a personal expression, and it changes with how we perceive and respond to things. And because we are in such an age of Instagram, snapchat and toktok we think things are instant and we sometimes forget how many decades it takes for someone to get really good and those perspectives really inspired me. And I suppose also the idea that career trajectory specialty in music it’s not linear, nothing is guaranteed. 

3.(i’m sure you’ve gotten this question a lot) Did you ever hit a slump or a writers block during covid and if so, how did it affect you and how did you manage to get back on your feet?

          I love that you referred to writer block because very often that and your will and memory can feel disconnected and that happens often to us. During covid i would say i couldn’t practice my art, my craft. I wouldn’t say i was in a slump, i couldn’t practice my craft because all of humanity was quarantined. Still are and moreover as jazz musicians we are constantly putting our musical reflexes in the way of what we call sessions so a group of musicians will gather together and play through the pantheon of jazz. As a means of staying in the game like a martial artist or an athlete putting themselves in a real time situation to see how creatively they’d respond. Because I wasn’t able to play with real people, I felt that there were aspects to my musicality that wouldn’t be there if things were normal. In terms of overcoming it, it was the whole “hey” reaching out to a fellow musician saying that we need to plan a session together. But i also think what got me through ir was the perspective of having a family, as much as my position felt angsty everyone was going through it. There were people who were getting sick, dying because of covid. I recently lost my uncle to covid, december 2021, that one kinda hit home. Folks were going through so much tragedy, and i had my health, my family was safe and I could still play, and that I knew that my position was one of hope, that no matter what the situation looks like in the present tense, that once there’s a tomorrow there’s hope. But even if things can’t get better, there’s still a place for music in human existence that makes us feel various emotions that make us human. I thought about how I could use my gift, my ability to help other people in need.

4. How do you make sure that each of your pieces tells a different story or how do you manage to incorporate different feelings and emotions into each piece to make it stand out?

       Constantly reference the albums of artists that influence me throughout jazz history and theres a way in which you want to approach it with your analytical mind and emotional sense. Appreciating the records and how they were programed, in the sequence of songs, why was the swinging up tempo number here, so when ive had to record myself, that was a big thing i discussed with my friend Chris (whose an amazing musician) whose a decade older than me, so thats atleast one generation ahead of me. I go back to the record i listen to, and i still do and to appreciate how those players made those specific choices over the songs. There are ways folks consider the factor in terms of playing pieces together, where the uptempo numbers where you play your fast and exciting stuff and in ballads you play your slow stuff. And the ways in which you can flip your expectations as to what song you want to play based on what story you want to tell. Very often, the very predictable arcs that become no pun intended, architects for how it should be. In terms of playing pieces, I follow some traditional arcs, or if it’s a ballad, I have a more calm and serene approach to things. Maybe on a ballad I want to deal with angst, there’s this turmoil in your soul, with lots of different emotions, i may play a lot of fast and energetic things that relate to the emotions. On an uptempo post modern song with lots of harmony and interesting rhythms and it’s fast, I might start off serenely, the equivalent of manhattan. Play a sustained note to juxtapose against all the activity going on in the piece. To answer your question, when you’ve written a composition, what is the initial story, deciding how your statement will be conveyed.

5. As a performer, you tend to be anxious or nervous to some degree, is there anything that you do, maybe a routine of some sort to help yourself overcome those emotions?

       I used to drink lots of water before performing. I’d look for a restroom so i’d be done with my business beforehand. I don’t tend to get nervous so much.