How Ernesto Cervini turned Louise Penny’s mystery novels into music on his ambitious album Joy

Ernesto Cervini is one of the busiest artists in jazz.

The Juno-winning drummer, composer and bandleader is an influential presence on Canada’s modern jazz scene and beyond. He has documented his vision with the Ernesto Cervini Quartet, the innovative sextet Turboprop, numerous co-led trio projects including MEM3, Myriad3 and TuneTown, and the quartet Tetrahedron.

Cervini’s ambitious new album Joy brings together many of the groups and musicians he’s worked with in the past in one place.

Thematically inspired by Louise Penny’s award-winning series of mystery novels, the album features Turboprop, Tetrahedron and TuneTown, along with the talents of vocalists Felicity Williams, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Alex Samaras and his sister Amy Cervini, clarinetist Virginia MacDonald, saxophonists Tara Davidson and Kelly Jefferson, trombonist William Carn, pianist Adrean Farrugia and bassists Dan Fortin and Rich Brown.

Cervini joined us to talk about the new record.

It was a series of books that inspired Joy. Can you tell me more about how this project came to be?

There’s a series of detective novels by this wonderful Canadian author named Louise Penny. I started reading these books about five years ago and I absolutely fell in love with them. They take place in a fictional town in an eastern township of Quebec. The town is called Three Pines, but really it’s inspired by an existing town where Louise Penny lives called Knowlton, Que. It’s kind of close to the border with Vermont. They’re detective novels, so someone always dies, but that’s not really what they’re about. The books are really about community, decency, love and joy. They’re really wonderfully written. The characters are so rich. They’re just stunning. I fell in love with them. So, I was about halfway through reading the series and I read a book called The Beautiful Mystery which takes place in an abbey, and it’s all about monks. There’s a lot about the Gregorian chants that they sing. As I was reading this book, I thought man, I want to write something to try to portray this. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that I wanted to write a whole bunch of music about these stories and these characters. From there, it happened pretty quickly. I got really inspired. I got in touch with Louise Penny and asked her if it was okay. She was really sweet, and she said yes. She was very encouraging.

Does having a written narrative make it easier to compose? Can you see the music as you hear it?

It certainly did for me. This did make it easier. I sat down and said okay, I’m going to write a song and I want it to be for this character. I would think about what that character means to me. I had brainstorming sessions where I would grab a piece of paper and write down adjectives describing different characters.

I think this is the first album you’ve made where there are vocalists on it. Did it seem like there was no way to tell this story without the human voice being part of it?

Definitely. For sure, [the song] The Beautiful Mystery, because I wrote it about these monks and their chants, I wanted a male voice singing on that song. I heard Alex [Samaras], and he’s one of my favourite musicians on the planet, so that was a no-brainer. There’s poetry weaved into all of these novels, and there was one that I really loved, so I wrote a melody to that to have Alex sing it. Three Pines was actually Amy [Cervini]’s idea. She’s the one who introduced me to these books and loves them as much as I do, so she co-produced this album with me. I couldn’t think of doing it with anyone else. She’s a huge part of this whole project. She said we should do [that song] with voices. I asked her if she would do it, and I asked Felicity [Williams] and Emilie-Claire [Barlow], and I was thrilled that they all wanted to sing this one song. I never heard the three of them sing it together until the day we recorded it in the studio, so I was pretty nervous about how it was going to work. But I think that’s my favourite song on the whole album now.

Asking Amy to be co-producer, was that about her knowledge of these stories specifically, or was it about looking for a great excuse to work on a project? What brought you two together on this one?

I think it was probably a little bit of both. Amy and I are really close, so I love working with her in any way possible. She’s my older sister, so she’s someone I go to for advice. And musically, Amy and I work together a ton. So you’re right, it was an excuse to work again with my big sis. But she also knows these books so well, and she knows me so well. So, [I had] her at the studio managing… me, mostly, but also managing all the people. There were a lot of moving parts. There were people coming, people going. Having her there to help with all of that was amazing. And even still, any time anything comes up about the album, she’s my sounding board. I couldn’t have done it without her.

Recommended Links

There’s someone on the record I’ve been hearing a lot about, clarinetist Virginia MacDonald. I know you play clarinet at a high level, too. Tell me a bit about her.

She’s amazing. She’s really wonderful. I think we played together at a session in my basement five years ago or something. I remember being like man, she sounds really great. I started seeing her play, and she just sounds so amazing. I studied clarinet for a really long time and I absolutely love the instrument. So, I was so excited to ask her to do this. The song that she plays on is a song called Ruth’s Rosa, and it’s about a duck. Ruth is the crazy poet that I was telling you about, and she has a pet duck that lives with her. They’re very funny books. It sounds odd, but they’re full of humour. Rosa’s the duck and instead of saying quack, quack, quack, it says the F-word. I wanted to pick two instruments that would kind of sound like a duck. It’s Virginia on clarinet and Jim Lewis on trumpet, and there are these semitone crunches that are supposed to sound like the duck cursing. Again, it’s a quirky little song. But when I was thinking about the instruments, I thought clarinet and trumpet would be perfect. She was my only choice. I’m glad she did it.

I look at this list of musicians, and I’m guessing this is going to be a hard one to take on the road or play at gigs.

What I’ve done is I’ve rearranged whatever I needed rearranging so I could do the whole thing with Turboprop and a singer. So we are actually taking it on the road.

This interview has been edited and condensed.