Thursday, 19 May 2011

Who is Cameron Chu?

It's a Friday night and Cameron Chu, the Bearfoot Bistro's resident pianist, is making love to his piano., no. Get your mind out of the gutter. Let's say he's making that piano love. Better? The piano loves the room, with sweet, sweet jazz, rolling through the restaurant like a leaf riding on the wind. The patrons - they sit at their tables, enjoying their wine, yakking at their wives, boyfriends, whatever. Few of them, if any, are paying any direct attention to this amorous piano but once Chu lifts his fingers from the keys, there's a noticeable shift in ambiance. It leaves a void to be filled by recorded jazz numbers playing over the P.A.

It's not the same thing at all. Like all professional musicians, Chu knows how to command a room. A musician needs a certain kind of emotional intelligence, or instinct, to feel if the room is, y'know, "happening." Chu is always looking around.

"Every gig is different," he says. "If you want to stay working, you just have to be flexible. What I do here, I won't necessarily do somewhere else."

Chu's repertoire is massive - it's too big to even put a number on how many pieces he knows by heart. He plays show, swing, jazz, pop, reggae and top 40. He could play heavy metal if it were necessary but would prefer not to. The man is a professional musician win the purest sense - classically trained, astute and skeptical of modern pop.

"Regardless of what the gig is, you have got to be looking around, even if you're on stage," he says. "A lot of performers now, they have a set list and that's it. But a lot of the older performers, they had a set list but they'd watch the crowd. That set list gets changed on the fly."

Born and raised in Vancouver he studied - surprise! - piano music at the Vancouver Academy of Music. After completing that program, he earned a degree in biology at UBC but the ivory keys kept on a-callin'. He's played in dozens of bands over the years and has met some of the great jazz musicians: Ray Brown, for one, would steal his bass amp, preferring Chu's to his own. That was all part of travelling with a band - the circles are small and all the players travel along a circuit. Chu says great connections are made during layovers.

But Chu never warmed up to the travelling thing. He says he never felt settled. He never had the time to practice properly, so he eventually settled in Whistler, where he'd played in the 1980s. Opportunity presented itself in the form of a promising new restaurant - the Bearfoot Bistro. Fifteen years later, he's one of the restaurant's original team members.

And tonight, well, tonight seems like a good night. He's feeling a bit playful.

"I'm playing a bit more aggressive tonight," he says.

Righto, but...wait....what? In what sense? He's not rolling out Metallica tunes here. His fingers flaying those keys, heating the room with his warm, supple jazz can hardly be described as particularly aggressive...can it?

He nods. "It's a little bit quick paced. The last tune was a bit quick for this time. Normally I would save that for later in the night. Sometimes you just have to see what the room's going to do."

It's taken hard work, a lot of years - not to mention a whole lot of practicing - to get where he is. He practices three to four hours, every day.

"You need to master your instrument," he says. "Before you even get into the musicianship, you need to master your instrument. You should be commanding your instrument, not the other way around. You have to own the guitar you should be able to make that guitar talk. That guitar should not make you struggle."

The instrument - like the camera for a photographer, like the brush for the painter - should be an extension of the fingers. The way Chu manipulates those keys - So clean! So smooth! - It's a wonder Chu isn't playing some prominent jazz bar in Manhattan.

He could have gone to New York. The opportunity is always there. He knows plenty of people there but there's something about Whistler that a New York, a London, even a Vancouver can never provide. Call it quality of life. Call it a measure of security that a talented jazz musician, only one of a handful in town, can work on the regular. He's earned his reputation in town.

It's why the Bearfoot, an internationally recognized fine dining restaurant, calls him week after week. It's why his name appears in the music listings of this paper. It's why he's worth doing a story on. The man is worth the price of dinner at least.

No comments: