Lache Cercel and his Roma Swing Ensemble performing at the Harmony Art Festival on the Pacific Arbour Garden Stage Sunday, Aug. 5 at 1 p.m. For complete schedule visit harmonyarts.ca.
LACHE Cercel, the great Romanian jazz artist, almost had to be a violinist.
His father took violin lessons from the man who became Cercel's grandfather, and a relationship blossomed between the young musician and his teacher's daughter.
Cercel, now 50, first held a violin and bow when he was five years old.
The same grandfather who helped his father become a conductor showed the child the violin's strings, bow, and bridge, encouraging Cercel to memorize the anatomy of the instrument.
"He kind of bribed me with candies," Cercel recalls. "It was introduced in a really nice way."
Preparing for his August 5 afternoon performance on the Pacific Arbour Garden stage, Cercel reflects on the many lessons that shaped his brand of Roma jazz.
"When I discovered the violin sound . . . I heard this tremendous velvet, round tone," he says. "That sound got music into my ears."
Cercel uses words like clear, healthy and warm to describe the violin's voice.
"Everything has to be spotless, clean, everything has to be organized, everything has to be brilliant, like a crystal. You have to hear that sound exactly how you look through very clear glass."
For Cercel, playing the violin incorrectly is tantamount to drinking expired milk.
"I wasn't allowed to play any bad notes or any unhealthy sounds," he says. "Any investment in the wrong side is not good. It's not good to study and accept a sound that's not healthy, strong, clean and clear."
Cercel didn't study violin according to a clock, he played slowly, tuned in to each note, searching for the beautiful sound that accompanies technical precision.
"It's not an easy job, it's like making an operation on a brain. Violin doesn't have any guides like the piano or guitar," he says.
Internationally, Romania is well known for gypsy music, which has led to Cercel's ensemble being mistakenly dubbed "gypsy jazz."
Far from the sorrowful melodies that recount centuries of gypsy oppression, Cercel's jazz swings from the celebratory to the hypnotic.
Cercel's albums, Rhapsody of Romania and Musica Konkordo, each evoked distinct sounds, with some songs steeped in classical Romanian music and others, like "Egyptian Girl," combining a multitude of influences to create a distinct sound in which each instrument is heard with a singular clarity.
Cercel studied classical music at the Academy of Arts in Bucharest, but his sound changed when he heard Stéphane Grappelli through a short-wave radio at 3 a.m. one morning.
With no access to Western CDs, records, or tapes, Cercel convinced a pilot to bring him a Grappelli tape, and a few months after the initial radio broadcast, the pilot obliged.
"I got in love with his music. I said, 'This is great, he's something else besides just playing classical," Cercel recalls.
Following his parents' split, Cercel stayed with his father, who was performing for tourists at hotels.
Cercel soon became his father's apprentice, playing for vacationers from France, Germany, and North America.
"I kind of realized a total new life. I said, 'Wow, this is how to live. Somewhere in the western world, you have more freedom.' And I decided to do this for my freedom of creation and liberty."
Shortly after capturing the Artist of the People award in Romania in 1986, Cercel first arrived in Canada at the age of 26.
"After 2002 I decided to refresh my mind and also experience how people study here in North America," he says on his decision to enroll at Vancouver Community College.
During most of Cercel's early life, Romania was under the leadership of the country's communist party, led by Nicolae Ceausescu. The political climate impacted musical instruction, according to Cercel, who says his studies in Bucharest were weighted toward music and composers that resonated with communist teachings.
"Studying here was a great challenge for me," Cercel says. "Now, I understand this life, which is more relaxed here in North America and people don't rush."
Cercel says he attempts to combine both teaching techniques when playing, but perhaps the largest change in his music stems from his maturity, and from the sorrow, happiness, love, and loss that are part of growing old.
"All these changing in your life and daily emotions and moments . . . they change your interpretation and your way of viewing the sound, especially in a violin."
Presently, Cercel's playing is focused on creating space and infusing the music with a sense of breathing.
"My best time is when I perform, because then I am in control," he says.
On stage, Cercel's playing challenges his ensemble to match his dexterity and musicality.
"I know I'm going to ask them a lot through my sound," he says.
Between regular gigs on Main Street and prepping for his third album, Cercel studies the history of music, from the improvisation of Grappelli to Johanes Brahm's decision to write symphonies in G minor.
While his tastes and influences seem diverse, Cercel sees music as something singular.
"Changes in your life, which is basically sorrow, happiness, tragedy, losing your parents, love of your wife . . . do affect you a lot in playing," he says. "Everything is music in the end."