Here’s an excerpt from a chapter in my forthcoming book, Journeys to the Bandstand — Jazz Musicians in Vancouver:
On a warm August night, Bruno Hubert is in classic form. Bruno sits behind the upright piano that’s next to a brick wall at the Libra Room, the restaurant on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive where he’s been ensconced for years. He’s hunched over with his head bowed near the keys. Perched on the piano is a wide piece of tattered paper with curious markings. It’s not sheet music, but it’s all about music. Written in different shades of felt marker are around 40 song titles, along with the names of two jazz artists and one classical composer. Some of the songs and artists have blue highlight on top, and some have solid or broken lines above, below, or beside them. He doesn’t look at the paper. Bruno’s concentration remains on the keyboard, where his fingers create beguiling sounds that are uniquely his.
Over the course of about 20 minutes, Bruno cycles through a dozen or so songs, playing their melodies beautifully and improvising gorgeous inflections. Among the tunes he explores: Keith Jarrett’s “The Windup,” Charlie’s Chaplin’s “Smile,” the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life,” and Bach’s “Prelude and Fugue No. 6 in D Minor”. In lesser hands, this song cycle would be a shmaltzy mess. Not with Bruno. There’s a carefully conceived aesthetic at play where he simultaneously interprets and creates anew. And please don’t call it a medley. It’s an organic flow. The renditions segue seamlessly into each other. The curious paper now makes sense. It’s both a road map and a treasure map that’s a reassuring guide for Bruno. When he completes his solo odyssey, there’s a smattering of applause, mainly from me and one other man — the only ones listening. The 10 or so other people in the restaurant are drinking, talking, and totally oblivious to the art that just transpired. He acknowledges the clapping by putting his hands together, prayer-like, in a sweet gesture that’s pure Bruno. Then he starts again on another solo flight.
Just over 24 hours later, Bruno is on another bandstand with his trio — bassist James Meger and drummer Joe Poole — at Vancouver’s main jazz joint: Frankie’s Jazz Club. Bruno doesn’t typically play gigs two nights in a row. In a perfect world, he would present his craft multiple times a week; in this imperfect world, Bruno performs for audiences here and there when opportunities arise. So for Bruno fans, it’s a lucky week. Tonight he’s wearing a black shirt, red pants, and a colourful novelty tie.
Brunoisms #1: Instead of following tie etiquette and having the narrow end of the tie almost the same length as the wide end, Bruno often asymmetrically keeps the tip of the narrow end not far below the Windsor knot.
He starts the set with “Fly Me to The Moon,” reshaping the familiar melody in dense chord clusters and mining far below the surface for harmonic insights in his solo. Next up: “Love For Sale,” with a robust “Night in Tunisia” intro. As the set proceeds, he plays “Take Five,” “Birdland,” “My Favourite Things,” “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat,” and other standards either in their entirety or as quotations within tunes. Just like in the solo setting at the Libra Room, Bruno’s interpretations uphold integrity and a cliché-free hipness. Those who know his approach would very likely identify his playing in a blindfold test — his musicality is that singular. Plus if you just say “Bruno” to anyone in Vancouver’s jazz scene, chances are the person will instantly conjure a mental image of the man, whose character can’t be properly distilled with prosaic words like “eccentric” or “unconventional.” Understanding Bruno’s persona requires peering into his creation story.
Bruno Hubert at Frankie’s Jazz Club. Photo: Vincent Lim
It all began for Bruno in a town in southwest Quebec at the confluence of the Désert and Gatineau rivers: Maniwaki. In 1925, Joseph-Olivier Hubert founded the J.O. Hubert general store in Maniwaki. J.O. Hubert evolved to become a modern department store and an institution in the town. Hubert’s 12 children, including his son Armand, worked in the store. Armand, who became one of the store’s owners, raised with his wife Bernadette a large family. The youngest of eight children, Bruno was born April 22, 1964.
In Maniwaki — population approximately 4,000 and a 100-minute drive north of Ottawa — Bruno grew up in a milieu of strong French, Irish, and Algonquin cultures. He played hockey with kids from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, an Algonquin First Nation reserve where future NHLer and Vancouver Canucks fan-favourite Gino Odjick was born. Bruno was a decent and somewhat tough hockey player who made the local all-star team. “I’m a defenceman, so the puck can go through me but not the man,” he said. “The man is going to go flying up in the air.”
One day, when Bruno was about 12, he was sick and stayed home from school. Because his parents were working and couldn’t look after him, he went to his brother Pierre’s apartment. Pierre had a powerful stereo system, including two gigantic speakers and a massive record collection. Bruno sat in a La-Z-Boy chair when Pierre cranked up the speakers as Keith Jarrett’s The Köln Concert played on the turntable. After ECM Records released the live recording of Jarrett’s bravura solo piano improvisations as a double vinyl album in 1975, it went on to become the best-selling solo album in jazz history. At the time, Bruno knew nothing about Jarrett, jazz, or piano (other than tinkling on the family upright at home), but he reacted viscerally. “This to me … it was a revelation,” said Bruno, who clearly remembered his response to the music: “My God, piano can actually sound like this?”
Though he wasn’t at all ready to act on the inspiration that Jarrett’s soaring improv gave him, Bruno was already devoted to music. His passion was being among the ranks of La Fanfare de Maniwaki, the town’s marching band. He initially played trumpet and trombone in the band, which had about 75 members, before earning a coveted spot on the drumline. Young Bruno played snare and bass drum in the band for about five years, and he was proud of his contributions to La Fanfare. But his path was far from set.
Bruno playing bass drum in La Fanfare de Manawaki.
The Incredible Escapades of Bruno #1: Aside from going to school (which he enjoyed), playing hockey, and drumming in the marching band, Bruno took part in the family tradition of hunting and fishing. He was in the forest with friends on a hunting expedition, armed with his father’s double-barrel shotgun, when the unthinkable happened as darkness was approaching: the 16-year-old tripped and accidentally shot himself in his stomach. One friend ran to the nearest phone to call an ambulance while the others carried Bruno out of the woods. He was taken by ambulance to the only hospital in Maniwaki, where surgery was performed on him. “I am very lucky to be alive,” said Bruno about surviving that horrific day. Although the surgery and post-op treatment were successful, there were limits to what the Maniwaki medical team could do. Bruno and his family were advised that there was essentially an expiry date on his treatment, and he would need to be re-checked and possibly operated on again later in life.
Bruno resumed his carefree life that increasingly focused on music. Within a year of the hunting accident, he became the drummer in Ad-lib, a rock band playing gigs in local venues. By the time he graduated from high school, Bruno envisioned pursuing a career as a professional drummer. But he wanted to study music first, so Bruno enrolled at Cégep de Sainte-Foy in Quebec City. Thus began his protracted trek through post-secondary music schools.
Like all drummers at the cégep, Bruno had to take piano. He soon realized that piano resonated with him more than drums and Bruno decided to switch instruments. As an inexperienced pianist, he wasn’t at the requisite level to enter the classical piano program. But Michel Franck, a pianist on the music faculty at Cégep de Sainte-Foy, agreed to teach Bruno privately and help him meet the standard. Another teacher at the cégep significant in Bruno’s musical development was Réjean Marois, a trombonist, guitarist, singer, and composer/arranger. There’s a group photo taken of the Cégep de Sainte-Foy stage band, directed by Marois, at the 1985 Canadian Stage Band Festival in Quebec City. Bruno is in the front row, with afro-like hair and wire-rimmed glasses, looking blissful with his life ahead of him. The following year, Marois took an ensemble including Bruno to Vancouver to compete at the same festival, which was held as part of Expo 86. The trip foreshadowed career and life directions for both Marois and Bruno.
Cégep de Sainte-Foy stage band, with Bruno in the front row, third from right, and Réjean Marois in the middle row, far right.
Bruno did stints in university music programs in Quebec City and Montreal and met bassist André Lachance in 1988. They played together for the first time when Bruno was brought in to perform in the rhythm section of the vocal jazz choir at Lachance’s Quebec City high school. Lachance said Bruno was so busy as a musician that he needed two keyboard rigs to play gigs at different venues on the same day. “He was involved in many different things: a lot of jobbing stuff, a lot of casuals,” said Lachance. “It wasn’t all jazz. Over the years he has gradually dropped that whole jobbing thing and just worked on his own voice and his own sound, and he has been crafting that ever since.”
By 1988, Marois had moved across the country to teach at Capilano College in North Vancouver. Marois encouraged Bruno to apply there. He did and was accepted. Bruno thought Lachance should go too. All he had to do was convince both Lachance and the bassist’s mother that it would be wise to travel more than 5,000 kilometres to attend an English-speaking music school. “He came to dinner at my house and gave this whole speech on why we should go to Vancouver,” recalled Lachance. It worked. At the end of the summer of 1990, Bruno, Lachance, and three other friends moved to Vancouver. Bruno and Lachance becoming Cap music students, and then working musicians in their adopted west coast city, would greatly impact Vancouver’s jazz scene.
At Capilano College, Bruno studied with pianist Miles Black for five years, and that was an illuminating experience. Black plays gorgeous jazz piano and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of standards. So he was an ideal mentor for Bruno. “He was definitely the one that opened all the doors for me,” said Bruno about how Black helped him unlock jazz harmony, interpreting standards, and much more. He also re-connected with Marois, who led the college’s Nitecap vocal ensemble that Bruno played with. Another influential Cap teacher was veteran pianist and tenor saxophonist Al Wold, who taught ensembles. “Al would say, ‘From one to 10, your playing is at 8, 8.5. Your reading is at two. You have some work to do there.’” This was part of a recurring theme in Bruno’s schooling. He was a quick learner on piano; Bruno’s playing far surpassed what his experience level suggested. Contributing to an ensemble’s sound, accentuating fellow players, and improvising are at the heart of jazz performance, and he excelled in these areas. But he struggled with sight reading and was befuddled by theory, composing, and arranging.
The Incredible Escapades of Bruno #2: Bruno’s father Armand was incredibly supportive of his son’s pursuit of music and helped him financially for years. After Armand died, when Bruno was struggling with a large student loan debt, he visited Quebec City and met with the Dean of Music at Université Laval. “At the end of our meeting he opened his chequebook and wrote me a cheque for a very significant amount of money,” recalled Bruno. “He just gave it to me. And he said, ‘Go back to Vancouver. I hope you’re going to graduate someday.’” Bruno was floored by the generosity and faith shown by the dean and told him straight up that he wouldn’t be able to repay him. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about this.’ This was a present to me to say, ‘Go and become a piano player.’”
After years of being away, Brad Turner returned to Metro Vancouver in 1992 with an impressive resumé. He left in 1985 to complete undergraduate and graduate music degrees, including a master’s from an institution with a lot of cachet in the jazz world: the University of North Texas. In addition to playing at a high level on three instruments, Turner showed a knack for arranging and composing. In other words, apart from both having big curly hair and a hunger for jazz, Turner and Bruno were polar opposites. Despite all of his schooling, Bruno hadn’t earned a single degree, and composing was his kryptonite. Yet after Turner started teaching at Capilano College and encountered Bruno, he heard something in the pianist. When Turner formed a quartet in 1993, he chose Bruno for the piano chair. It was an astute choice. Right from the band’s first recording, a four-song cassette, there was an unmistakeable chemistry between Turner, Bruno, Chris Nelson, and Dylan van der Schyff. That rapport deepened on the quartet’s full-length album debut, Long Story Short. Bruno contributed enormously to the group’s engagingly thought-provoking sound. Then Nelson left the band and Lachance replaced him. They didn’t know it at the time, but the Brad Turner Quartet was poised to go on a long and fulfilling run.
Bruno at 30 was making progress in his jazz vocation. He also had bigger ambitions. Bruno heard about the Great American Jazz Piano Competition that was part of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. This was a prominent event — Marcus Roberts (who would go on to play with Wynton Marsalis before becoming a solo artist) won the first edition, and Harry Connick Jr. came in second. Bruno was among many pianists who auditioned for the 14th edition of the competition, and he was selected to be one of five finalists to perform in Jacksonville in November 1996. Each finalist had to play three tunes: one solo piece and two trio songs with upper-echelon players — drummer Danny Gottlieb (who was in the Pat Metheny Group) and bassist Jay Leonhart (who had played with Duke Ellington and many other well-known artists) — after a 20-minute rehearsal.
There’s a low-quality video on YouTube, taken from WJCT public TV, of Bruno’s 18-minute performance in the competition. A skinny and short-haired Bruno, in suit and tie, walked on to the Florida Theatre stage and absolutely nailed all three jazz standards with a stirring performance. Winning could have changed the course of his career, but that didn’t happen. He came in third, which was still an outstanding accomplishment. While the strong showing didn’t elevate Bruno’s status, it gave him affirmation of his personal conviction that he was on the right track. That fueled him moving forward.
The same year as the piano competition, Bruno applied for a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to study at the University of North Texas. Inspired by Turner, who spoke highly of his experience at UNT, Bruno wanted even more education. His application was successful, and he went to Denton, Texas in 1997 to work toward a degree. It’s hard to imagine Bruno, with all of his irregular traits, in conservative Texas. But he studied there with UNT piano guru Dan Haerle and other faculty for two years. Bruno fell short of getting a degree, once again, because he couldn’t pass the required arranging and composing classes. Plus, after his Canada Council funds ran out, staying in the expensive program was out of the question.
In the late ‘90s, when Bruno wasn’t in Texas, he gigged around Vancouver as much as he could. With the Brad Turner Quartet, his own trio, and other groups he played at the Blue Note, the Mojo Room, the Glass Slipper, the Purple Onion, and other long-gone venues. Cory Weeds’ opening of his Cellar jazz club in 2000 gave Vancouver players a desperately needed boost by providing a welcoming place where they could play and hang. Bruno was on the bandstand with Turner’s quartet and Seamus Blake September 28-29, 2000 for the club’s grand opening.
The Incredible Escapades of Bruno #3: The following didn’t happen to Bruno per se, but a tangential connection to fires that gutted jazz venues only adds to his legend.
The Glass Slipper, in East Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood, was an important venue for creative music. Housed in a former church at 2714 Prince Edward, it was a thriving hub for jazz — from straight ahead to avant-garde — roots music, and more. On December 19, 1996, Eastwind — led by Henry Boudin and including Bruno — performed what would be the musician-run club’s last show. The next morning, at 11:37 am, 15 emergency units responded to a large fire at the Slipper. They couldn’t save the turn-of-the century building, or the musical instruments and other equipment valued at about $20,000 inside it. Losing the Glass Slipper devastated Vancouver musicians, including Bruno.
The Blue Note, at 2340 West Fourth in Kitsilano, was an upstairs restaurant that featured jazz in the late nineties. While it wasn’t beloved for paying less-than-generously (not unlike the Libra Room), the Blue Note was a dependable source of gigs for some. Bruno played at the restaurant’s previous location and performed regularly at the Blue Note on Fourth after it opened in 1996. On July 3, 1999, Bruno performed there with his trio. Just a few hours after his last set, at around 3 am, about 24 firefighters responded to a two-alarm blaze at the Blue Note that started in the rear stairwell and caused extensive damage to the interior. Bruno had borrowed Turner’s rare 54-key Rhodes electric piano, used it at the Blue Note on that fateful night, and left it there. “I went through the police tape a few days later to go in and get it, and it was sitting there,” said Turner. “It was like angels had guarded it. Everything around it was charred but it wasn’t burned.” Was Bruno a fiery bad luck charm or a bringer of good fortune because the precious Rhodes was spared? Only the jazz gods know.
Turner wasn’t thrilled that Bruno left his Rhodes at the Blue Note. But there were no hard feelings. There never are with Bruno because it’s impossible to stay miffed with him. As part of Turner’s quartet, Bruno played with the great saxophonist Joe Lovano in a September 2001 concert at Capilano College Performing Arts Theatre. “He played his ass off,” remembered Turner about Bruno’s performance and Lovano’s reaction. “That was an instance of, ‘Who the fuck is this guy? Where did this guy come from?’ Because he’s that unique.”
At one point Weeds gave Bruno and his trio a regular Sunday night gig at the Cellar. Weeds even sprung for an ad, featuring Bruno, appearing in 99 B-Line express buses that stopped near the club. “There was this picture of me at the Fender Rhodes, and it was all in blue,” said Bruno. “It was very well designed. A lot of times I would go to my gig on Sunday on the bus and find where the picture was, and I would just sit right under it. Eventually some people would be sitting and watching and go, ‘That guy looks awfully like the guy in the picture there.’ And then some people asked me, ‘Is that you?’” Quintessential Bruno.
Weeds, who has a propensity for thinking up ideas and acting quickly on them, suggested recording the Bruno Hubert Trio live at the Cellar for possible release. It happened January 13-14, 2002, with Bruno, Lachance on bass, and Turner on drums. The recording was much more than good enough for Weeds to release on his new Cellar Live label. Bruno’s playing those nights was a magical display of his interpretive artistry — the fruition of years of work to absorb the elements of jazz piano and develop his self-expression. Get Out of Town, the second release on Cellar Live, hits hard from the first notes on opening track “Cost of Living” by Don Grolnick. Bruno transforms the tune that Grolnick, Michael Brecker, and others played as a ballad. He starts alone with a vigorous left-hand pattern before Lachance and Turner join in at a brisk pulse. Bruno suffuses the melody and his improvising with kinetic soul. On that tune, and others like “Simone,” the title track, and “The Man I Love,” Bruno and the trio enter an enchanting and affecting realm. No wonder Get Out of Town was unexpectedly a strong selling album. (Quirky fact: it sold exceptionally well in Japan.)
“I think what we all try and do in this world of music is have a unique voice,” said Weeds. “So if that’s the criteria, he certainly reached the top of his game because you know Bruno the second you hear him, whether it is his touch or whether it is the lines he plays. Just listen to that first record. There’s nobody that really plays the piano like that. There are so many influences coming into play.” In his liner notes to Get Out of Town, Ross Taggart cited some of those influences: Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Cedar Walton, Kenny Drew, and Keith Jarrett. “He is, however, his own man musically and in turn has influenced countless players that have heard him,” wrote Taggart, a fellow gifted pianist.
Bruno at Cory Weeds’ Cellar Jazz Club. Photo: Vincent Lim
Brunoisms #2: Since he was young, Bruno has worn glasses. “If I don’t have glasses on I feel totally naked.” For years, however, Bruno has worn just the frames with no lenses in them. The lack of lenses is primarily due to not having enough money to buy them, he explained, alarmingly. The result is blurry vision; he can’t recognize people across the street and can have trouble reading music. But, as with many other aspects of life, Bruno experiences this unlike most of us would. He believes that merely wearing frames helps each eye focus. “Just having a circle around your eye helps,” claimed Bruno. A number of people have offered to buy lenses for Bruno. Mike Allen did exactly that while on tour with Bruno because he was standing up behind the piano and leaning over so he could read Allen’s original music. (Those lenses are long gone.) I’ve come to the conclusion that he prefers to be lensless. “I started to appreciate the fact that [without working glasses] you can’t see that far,” said Bruno. “You’re just concerned about what you have around you, and everything else is kind of blurry. So then it doesn’t disturb you. If I’m performing, if I look around, I don’t see anything, I don’t see anybody. So it helps me focus on only what’s in front of me.” Which is the sublime music within him.
Brunoisms #3: “Even though he can’t really see, he has to have music on his piano stand,” explained Turner. “And not only that, he has to have the music but he folds the title over so he can’t see it, which he couldn’t see anyway because he can’t see. All these strange, idiosyncratic tendencies just developed over the years. And the beautiful thing is, maybe in a different scene, somebody who’s a unique personality like Bruno might possibly get marginalized a little bit because of his eccentricities. But not here. Bruno is a fixture.”
Thanks for reading this excerpt from one of more than 25 chapters in my book. If you have feedback, I would love to read it in a comment. Thanks also to Dave Ronald for transcribing interviews, David Ferman for editing, Vincent Lim for his photos, and Bruno for generously putting up with my incessant questions. If you’re interested in reading the rest of the chapter — chronicling his experience with Gino Vannelli, a piano tuning incident that ended in tears, the offbeat feature film on Bruno, his stellar performance on Brad Turner Quartet’s Jump Up, Bruno’s optimism about how his best is yet to come, the end of the Libra Room run, and how Bruno has survived the pandemic — and the other chapters, please look for my book when it’s out.