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Take 5 : Mark J. Nyvlt

Mark J. Nyvlt draws from world travels on his latest folk-jazz gem This 'n' That

While listening to Mark Nyvlt’s music, it’s easy to picture the many places he’s visited around the world. For the Ottawa-based singer/songwriter, exploring different cultures has always provided endless inspiration, and on his latest album This ‘n’ That, Nyvlt thematically retraces some of his steps, along with acknowledging the various musical styles that, combined, define his distinct sound.

In broad terms, it’s a mix of folk and jazz, with some classical elements present as well that recall Nyvlt’s teenage musical training. But overall, This ‘n’ That offers an unpredictable sonic journey wherein a standard such as “La Vie En Rose” can sit comfortably next to a complex rhythmic excursion such as “Pandora’s Box.”

Nyvlt has always embraced a broad worldview as the son of a Czechoslovakian father and Egyptian mother. It’s led to his songwriting encompassing the essence of the stories he’s accumulated over the course of his travels, which he hopes convey some of the hope and wonder they’ve provided him.

In keeping with that notion, many of Nyvlt’s original songs on This ‘n’ That deal with some of the bigger questions all human beings are faced with from time to time. On “Dreams,” it’s the importance of having the ability to escape reality whenever it’s necessary to rejuvenate. On “Flipside”—inspired in part by Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness Of Being—it’s learning how to appreciate the positive surprises that can come during the course of any given day. And on “The Tree,” it’s about taking the long view and not getting bogged down in immediate ideological disputes.

For those who might think this isn’t the usual singer/songwriter fare, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Nyvlt is also Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at Ottawa’s Dominican University College, a vocation he ultimately chose rather than pursuing a career as a classical musician. However, since picking up the guitar again in his thirties, Nyvlt has released three albums (This ‘n’ That is the fourth) that have demonstrated his renewed, open-minded approach to music.

Indeed, even though Nyvlt still admires the work of Bach, Mozart, Brahms and other masters, his sound now contains more echoes of Dylan, Lightfoot and Cohen, along the with the guitar stylings of Jerry Garcia and Dave Matthews. In fact, Nyvlt tips his hat to the former with This ‘n’ That’s version of Irving Berlin’s “Russian Lullaby,” a longtime Garcia favourite, as fans of his solo work can attest to.

As he did on his world travels, Mark Nyvlt doesn’t follow a map on This ‘n’ That. And by doing so, the end result adds up to a musical experience that appeals equally to the heart and mind.

How did the process begin making This ‘n’ That?

This album has a bit of an eclectic mood to it. The cover songs, Russian Lullaby and La vie en rose are songs of my childhood. I wanted to record this in our own way. Our version of La vie en rose was my gift to my mother, for whom this is one of her favourite songs. The original songs in this album carry with them separate themes. The storyline of each song reflects a distinct theme, but the musical style of each song is also unique. In this album, we experimented with a folk-jazz style throughout the album. The cover of the album captures a festivity in an English Court – live music, dancing, conversation, laughter. This is the general feel of this album.

What was your overall artistic vision for this recording?

The overall artistic vision for this recording was to create a wide range of stories that people experience on a regular basis: the dating life (The Wand of Eros), philosophical reflections on the world (Xenophanes, Dreams, Pandora’s Box, The Tree), separation and divorce (Liberty), and the easygoing life of a happy-go-lucky attitude (Flipside). Again, the cover of the album captures a festivities of the human community. This ‘n’ That also captures an array of a richness of musical techniques and styles that are appealing to the ear.

If you could highlight one or two songs on the record, what would they be and why?

I am partial our rendition of Russian Lullaby. We captured the nostalgic feel about this song. Also, instrumentally, we took full advantage of the open space in this song to add improvisation and musical melodies. The song is very colourful from all angles. I am also partial to Dreams. It’s not supposed to speak about our personal dreams. Rather, it is a song about the fact that we can dream in the first place. We have our own entertainment reel inside of us. Musically, we captured the airy feel of a dream, along with a simple form of instrumentation. In fact, trumpet was to feature quite prominently in this song, but, in the end, we opted for electric guitar.

How would you describe where you are based to someone who has never been there?

I am based in Ottawa, the capital of Canada. French and English are spoken regularly, and many representatives of cities throughout Canada find themselves here. While the city benefits from this regular ebb and flow of political representatives from all over the country, it, unfortunately, sets a bureaucratic tone that dulls the surface of the city. Fortunately, there is a vibrant underground arts culture in the city that allows artists to gather in some key and strategic pubs and taverns. Performing in these places is a wonderful honour. It brings the best out of the Francophone and Anglophone communities that intersect in the city. Ottawa is also the home of the National Arts Centre, where one can attend the remarkable Ottawa symphony, or the National Art Gallery, where one can see paintings of the Group of Seven.

Can you name a record or concert experience that was life-changing for you?

One of my favourite records is David Bowie’s Hunky Dory. It’s brilliant in its raw, acoustic presentation. I don’t always listen to the record, but it has remained as a stylistic staple of much of my music.

I also had a profound experience after having heard for the first time Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. Like many, I was deeply moved by the musical and intellectual space that it created. I try to capture this mood in my music, also.

Finally, another record that was transformative was The Dave Matthews Band, Big Whiskey & the GrooGrux King. The array of musical styles, the love they showed for LeRoi Moore, their saxophonist who died prematurely, and the incredible rhythm this album presents. I find that this album captured a range of emotions and musical diversity that is rarely heard in a full album.

And Kenny Burrell, Midnight Blue. It speaks for itself.

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