Ernesto Cervini trio Tetrahedron releases debut album with Nir Felder

You’re probably familiar with Ernesto Cervini’s name, whether we’re talking about Turboprop, Myriad3 or TuneTown.

And there’s even more from the dynamic, Juno-nominated drummer, composer and bandleader. Tetrahedron is a chordless trio led by Cervini and featuring alto saxophonist Luis Deniz and bassist Rich Brown, two of Canada’s finest improvisers.

The groovy, energetic band plays both originals and funky arrangements of jazz standards. For Cervini, it’s yet another praise-worthy project from a Canadian talent who has made a name for himself as a consummate bandleader, an infectiously energetic drummer and a razor-sharp composer.

Cervini and Tetrahedron just released their eponymous album through Anzic Records. Featuring special guest guitarist Nir Felder, it’s a collection of originals and covers that “brings out the strengths of each musician and provides a wonderful backdrop for us to explore and improvise.”

Cervini joined us for a conversation about the creative process by which his many bands are formed, and the sense of freedom and experimentation that comes as a result.

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What is it that gets you to a place where you feel you need to do something new and creative all the time?

It’s not a matter of wanting to make sure I’m doing new stuff all the time; I think a lot of it is just [that] I try to pay a lot of attention when I’m playing with different musicians, and when I find something that works, I grab it and don’t let go. I’m in a number of bands that I either co-lead or I’m just a part of, but all of them came from a gig that just felt right.

That clears it up for me, because I thought it was more intellectual, thinking about a sound that you want. But it’s more about people — making music with people and wanting to make it with them again.

There are certain times when you play with people when there’s a spark. There’s a magic there. It’s hard to explain, but musically and emotionally, you can usually feel it right away.

Does it matter the instrument?

No. [Tetrahedron] is the only band I’m in with electric bass. It’s Rich Brown, so it’s a pretty good person to choose. With TuneTown, there’s no comping instrument; I love playing with piano or guitar, but it just so happened that that arrangement of people was special. To me, it’s about the instruments but it’s more about the people and what they bring musically and personally.

Tetrahedron started out as a chordless group as well. Tell us more about the origins of the band.

I played with Rich in a different situation first, with Elena Kapeleris. It was awesome. Luis, I don’t remember the first time we played together, but same thing. Once we put the three of us together, I felt really strongly that this was something I wanted to pursue. I don’t always take my time with things — I get excited and I say we’ll record and we’ll tour — but with this band, we played all this music for about five years, played a lot in Toronto, and let the music grow. And then about a year and a half ago, I went OK, now it’s time.

Once you have the folks together and you bring in the material, could it just be standards or is it stuff that you’re specifically conceptualizing for this particular ensemble?

It depends on the group, but I would say even if it is standards, it’s probably standards that I’m specifically thinking about for this group. Myriad3, we do mostly original music, and that’s just something that we all felt strongly about. In TuneTown, the concept was to play standards, but then we thought rather than play standards, why don’t we write music that’s in that vein but can be more personalized, With Tetrahedron, we do one standard on the album, but it’s mostly original music, and some of it is stuff that I wrote ages ago that I thought would be really good for this group.

So you wrote stuff a long time ago thinking it’ll work down the road?

For a lot of people, when you’re composing music, it’s not necessarily always about how you need to write music for this band. Sometimes it comes to you, and then you go OK, where does that fit? There was one song that I wrote specifically for this band that didn’t work at all. So, put it back on the sidelines. After a couple tries, if it’s just not happening, then it’s OK. There are other things.

The other person we’re talking about here is the special guest, guitarist Nir Felder. Tell us about your relationship.

We met through my friend Dan Lumas, a wonderful bass player. We met because Dan and I were going to play Frisbee together, and he knew that Nir liked playing Frisbee. This was before Nir was a guitar phenom guy. He had just moved to New York and I had just moved to New York. We started playing together, and it’s not like we played together weekly or anything, but we probably played five or 10 gigs together, and I always loved him as a human being and as a musician. He has a beautiful personality and he’s a really giving musician, too. Sometimes when you bring in a special guest, it can be a little vibey, not enough from the special guest but sometimes from the band when you’re bringing in this all-star to come play. But that process was non-existent when I brought him in. He fit right in.

You mentioned Rich Brown being the first electric bass player you played with. Deconstructed in the most user-friendly way, what is the difference for you as a drummer playing with an electric bass versus an acoustic bass player, or specifically Rich in this case?

The thing about Rich is that he has such an incredible feel. I feel like I can do anything on the drummers, and he’s going to be there laying it down. It gives me so much freedom. That’s not a thing that’s specific to electric bass, because there also some acoustic bass players on the scene where I feel that same freedom.

So there’s a sense of safety there, that he’s got your back and you can explore wherever you want to go?

I can go anywhere. I can start playing at a completely different tempo, and he’ll probably look at me — like, really? OK, do you thing — but I know that I can go on any tangent and I don’t have to worry about it. I think he has the same trust in me, so that the music gets really, really free.

It would have to go two ways for it to work.

Yeah, otherwise he’d be bored out of his mind, because he’d just be babysitting me the whole time.

So there are times when you’re taking it places and he’s being foundational, and times when he’s taking it places and you’re being foundational, and you know in that moment that that’s the role to play?

You can feel when someone’s going off, and it’s not even something that you’re consciously thinking about. It just happens.

That push and pull, that freedom and that ride you’re on, that must be what’s exciting, when you’re with a musician who is able to do that seamlessly. You’re being creatively scratched the whole time, and that’s the relationship.

It’s also the fact that you never know what’s going to happen. That’s the excitement. Because there’s so much freedom, it can go anywhere.