MacEwan University’s Bent River Records a haven for musicians and students

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MacEwan University’s Bent River Records a haven for musicians and students

Bent River is having an artists showcase Thursday at the Yardbird Suite that will see two groups play a selection of tracks off their new albums

Paul Johnston, assistant professor and section head for recording at MacEwan University, at the console of the school label, Bent River Records.
Paul Johnston, assistant professor and section head for recording at MacEwan University, at the console of the school label, Bent River Records. Photo by Larry Wong /Postmedia

Where once record labels were a necessity in having an artist’s work released to the general public, the modern digital age has upended the process. Smart labels pivoted to serve not only musicians but the community as well.

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Based out of MacEwan University, Bent River Records’ mission statement is to be a catalyst for artists while also acting as a learning lab for students. Since its inception in 2014, the label has released nearly 20 albums.

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Bent River is the brainchild of Paul Johnston, head of recording for MacEwan’s department of music, and Rose Ginther, associate dean for the faculty of fine arts and communications. Johnston moved from Montreal to teach at MacEwan in 2014 and upon arriving saw all the necessary tools in place to start up a record label.

“We found quite a number (of university record labels) in the U.S. and some overseas, but really there were no active record labels attached to universities in Canada at the time,” said Ginther.

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Capitalizing on Johnston’s professional background as an in-demand music producer/engineer in addition to his history of forging record labels, they set out on shaping Bent River to become a welcoming hub for new and established musicians while also providing learning opportunities for MacEwan’s various students. From recording the music, to designing album artwork to promoting the release, MacEwan students are involved throughout the entire process.

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“We decide on projects that would be beneficial to the students and to the artist,” said Johnston, who adds the label is careful to not compete with the local industry and take away work from businesses.

Johnston said the original concept of Bent River was to follow the path of similar labels such as Nonsuch Records, which releases a variety of music but is primarily a classical music label. His deep connections with the local jazz scene have attracted a variety of artists to release music through Bent River, since he is often one connection away from any music genre.

Johnston jokes, “Even if I’ve done a heavy metal record, there’s probably a jazz musician on it.”

Tom Van Seters, left, and Chandelle Rimmer.
Tom Van Seters, left, and Chandelle Rimmer. jpg

The latest offerings from Bent River are a pair of jazz albums, Chandelle Rimmer and Tom Van Seters’ Be Kind and Up and Over Trio’s self-titled debut.

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Rimmer and Van Seters are both long-time MacEwan music department professors who found their talents complementary, leading to regular jams they found fun and productive.

“After we’ve accumulated a certain amount of repertoire that we were familiar with and we were playing together, then we branched out into composing music together and writing arrangements,” said Van Seters. “We decided to do our first record (2018’s Stillness Falls) and then after the success of that, we decided we were going to do another one.”

While Stillness Falls was a full band outing, Be Kind finds them exploring jazz music as a duo, necessitated by performances that saw them distilling their songs to just piano and vocals.

“We realized that the duo combination provided a whole new perspective to music making and collaborating so we really kind of leaned into that work,” said Rimmer.

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Be Kind finds Rimmer and Van Seters rearranging songs and putting their own spin on them. Drawing on a well of jazz favourites, they apply pop music influences while keeping the arrangements pared down.

Chandelle Rimmer and Tom Van Seters’ Be Kind is out on Bent River Records.
Chandelle Rimmer and Tom Van Seters’ Be Kind is out on Bent River Records. Supplied

“The duo setting really provides for a certain level of kind of intimacy in the music … you’re listening to two people interacting,” said Van Seters.

To maintain the album’s intimacy, it was recorded live off the floor on MacEwan’s Triffo Theatre stage in Allard Hall off a suggestion from the Johnston. With no isolation or potential for overdubs, Van Seters says they performed for an invisible audience, eventually producing a real, authentic record of their performance.

Having the album released via Bent River was a boon to the duo, who credit the label’s support for helping to shepherd their idea to a final product.

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“It’s a way for us to continue to be connected to the university through our creative work,” said Rimmer.

Up and Over Trio’s debut album is the other new release from Bent River this month. The trio — Chris Andrew on piano, Rubim de Toledo on bass and Jamie Cooper on drums — is a who’s who of Alberta jazz talent, producing a unique blend of contemporary acoustic jazz.

Up and Over Trio: Chris Andrew, left, Rubim de Toledo and Jamie Cooper on drums.
Up and Over Trio: Chris Andrew, left, Rubim de Toledo and Jamie Cooper on drums. Photo by SUPPLIED

They formed after finding themselves backing a lot of the same jazz artists, said de Toledo. Finding their music together fruitful, they formally formed a trio two years ago to take a stab at their own music.

“People would ask us to apply for a festival or gig and they would ask if you had any recordings or anything released. So the natural evolution was just to take this material that we had written to perform live and document it and release it,” said de Toledo about the album’s inception.

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With the three of them teaching at MacEwan, releasing the album on Bent River was a no-brainer, which was also recorded at the university.

“The great thing about that is because it is a university and as the studio has a large part to do with the recording program there, that a lot of students were able to also be involved in the process. Paul Johnson was overseeing the sessions and kind of directing traffic but all kinds of hands-on setting up of mics and pressing buttons and things were taken care of by students who were getting their work experience doing this,” says de Toledo. “It’s a great opportunity for the students to get some real-life experience working with a professional ensemble and doing a high-quality, professional recording.”

Bent River is having an artists showcase on Nov. 24 at the Yardbird Suite that will see Rimmer and Van Seters and the Up and Over Trio play a selection of tracks off their new albums. Physical copies along with other merchandise will also be available for purchase.

Up and Over Trio’s debut album on Bent River Records.
Up and Over Trio’s debut album on Bent River Records. Supplied

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PREVIEW

Bent River Records 2022 Artist Showcase featuring Chandelle Rimmer and Tom Van Seter, Up and Over Trio

Where Yardbird Suite, 11 Tommy Banks Way

When 7: 00 p.m., Nov. 24

Tickets By donation via QR code at the event with proceeds going to Students First Campaign