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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Grundman, Jan. 2005
A Conversation with Will Ackerman, Dec. 2004
A Conversation with Ottmar Liebert, Dec. 2004
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Converation With Mark Dunn
August 2005
Playing the music that's in your heart is both the toughest and the easiest
thing to do. This is especially true for artists with as wide ranging a talent
as composer/pianist Mark Dunn. In listening to Mark's latest release, Return To Peace, I can hear someone who has a relaxed command over his instruments (piano and pennywhistle) and over music in general. This is someone who obviously has many musical options. As Mark says in our conversation: "After having been deeply immersed in my jazz studies and composition for a few years, Return To Peace represented a returning to simplicity for me, musically and emotionally." I'm happy, as I'm sure many others are, that Mark returned to the music in his heart.

Recorded in San Jose, Costa Rica and edited, mixed and mastered in
Springhouse, Pennsylvania, Return To Peace features an absolutely terrific
group consisting of Mark (piano and pennywhistle), Peter Nitsche (violin),
Randall Najera (acoustic bass) and Carlos Vargas (percussion). This is
first-rate ensemble playing that never loses sight of the importance of
Mark's heart-felt melodies.

You can learn more about Mark by visiting

Mark Dunn
"Being at peace with yourself is being truthful with yourself, and the truth is always simple." - Mark Dunn
Jamie: You write in your bio that Return to Peace, your latest CD, "represents me returning to 'simple' music and also becoming at peace with myself knowing that I can do this type of music as well as jazz. It's a reconciliation of conflicts." What do you see as the conflict between the music on Return to Peace and jazz? And how has your background in jazz impacted your work in this other form of music?
Mark: 1st part of your question -

After having been deeply immersed in my jazz studies and composition for a few years, Return to Peace represented a returning to simplicity for me, musically and emotionally. This music is not jazz. It's very simplistic. There is nothing extra. The melodies are exactly the way I heard them in my head the first time. I didn't try to embellish anything. I wanted to present this stuff in as true a manner as possible. I wanted to get down to the essence, and keep it there. This was an intense period in my life - my father died, I had my 30th birthday, and these were times of serious reflection. Being at peace with yourself is being truthful with yourself, and the truth is always simple.
Something else, which was happening to me, was this: I had always cared about the acceptance of my peers. I was afraid I would never be accepted in the jazz community if I were to put these simpler works out there for everyone to see first. I was afraid of being stereotyped. And for good reason. I have in the past sensed a sort of boredom in my jazz friends about my tastes outside of the jazz idiom. Even Kenny G, who is very successful as a smooth jazz artist, is not accepted by the traditional pure jazzers.

I've matured a lot since I released my first album, which although is composed of entirely original tracks, heavily respects and pays homage to the traditional jazz genre. At some point, I'm not sure when, I stopped seeking recognition as a jazz artist. I wouldn't mind a little recognition as a composer, but what I'm really driven by, is a deep desire to share what I have inside of me. I want to share this music with any who'll open their hearts to it. It's not intended for those who's hearts are not open for it, so I don't mind if they don't get it.

(Finally I'll answer your question) - I don't really see any conflict between simple music and jazz. They are the same thing for me. I'm really going for the essence always. The truth. In my jazz composition, the essence is presented in a slightly more sophisticated or intellectual way. With this new album, I mean to present the essence, almost nakedly, and let it speak for itself. The simplicity of these melodies is compensated for by the intense emotion they pack.

2nd part of your question -

Very subtly. There are some chord voicings on "freedom's debt" that are truly jazz voicings, but it's subtle, and would probably get past the average listener. If you were to pull the end of the B section from "Dunn's Dream" out of the tune, and listen to it just on piano, it's a little reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, but really doesn't sound at all jazz to me when listened to in the context of the tune. In the last track "Cahuita", I play a solo on the pennywhistle, as if it were a flute. This is definitely not traditional whistle playing, and is in unquestionably straight out of the jazz in me.

I'd say that having learned to make music on a pennywhistle, a very early instrument which pretty much only plays an eight note scale (there are a couple notes that are fakeable) has had a greater impact on my jazz, than the jazz has had on my Celtic/New Age playing and composition. My mentor (Jimmy Amadie), would often relate sound to color. I'm not an artist, but I can imagine what might happen if one would restrict themselves to painting with only a few colors, let's say green, blue and brown, for the sake of forcing one's self to develop an ability to say more with less. By necessity you would learn how to illustrate with those three colors, what you previously needed the whole color palette for. Then imagine what kind of empowerment one would feel when they were given back the rest of the colors again.
"...Return to Peace represented a returning to simplicity for me, musically and emotionally."

- Mark Dunn
Jamie: You're the first person to bring up the power of one's peers in these conversations. I think all artists feel, or have felt, to some degree, the need to belong to a community - be it the Jazz, Classical, Metal or Blues community. I know I have. The challenging part is balancing the support that a group of your peers can offer with your own needs as an artist to explore beyond a certain genre. And I've run across the same "sort of boredom" that you talk about from some of the mainstream/traditional jazz community, but it's definitely not specific to them alone. Every genre from Punk to Classical has their gatekeepers.

Return to Peace reflects much of your background, both musically and personally. To me, the album feels beautifully natural - your influences are present, but the music shows your own aesthetic. What role do you feel dividing your time living in the United States, Costa Rica and Brazil had on Return to Peace and your music in general?
Mark: Brazil didn't become a part of my life until after the music on Return to Peace had been written. At this moment I'm doing the final mixing on a project I finished recording in Brazil last year. By the time I put that out, I'll probably be in some other corner of the world, recording something else. I'm never where I was by the time I get the music out.

I had been working on cruise ships for a few years, and during that period a certain frustration had built up in me, which was really the catalyst for the journey through Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean from which Return to Peace came. Some people keep a journal, put together scrapbooks or photo albums. It seems I wind up recording an album wherever I go.

I record the music where I feel it makes most sense to do so - where the events which inspired it, actually occurred. With the musicians who give it's first voice to it, and amongst the people who become important to me. I bring the material back to the US for editing and mixing because the available technology and facilities are superior.

I've performed with my Costa Rican and Brazilian ensembles, compositions which I'd originally written and performed while living in Philadelphia. And I've gone back to Philly and performed music I wrote while living in Brazil and Costa Rica. I always give the musicians a lot of freedom so as not to miss out on anything they could add to my music, so one of the outcomes is that many of my tunes have been played in so many styles that would otherwise have never occurred to me. There's a tune, "Buccerias" which is on the Brazilian CD to be released later this year, but that tune was originally going to be on Return to Peace. I wrote it on pennywhistle, in a little town near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, but it's now this full-blown horn thing with sax, trumpet and trombone and a Brazilian rock beat. Some other tunes on the Brazilian CD were originally conceived while I was living in Costa Rica. We performed them in a salsa style in Costa Rica, but they wound up recorded as boss novas and sambas in Brazil.

What I'm getting at is that performing music in these very different settings has really been an education. I can't even begin to explain what it's done for my composition. I'll just tell you this, I've learned first hand how a beautiful melody has the ability to transcend the rhythmic style you play it in. If the melody has substance, what works as a ballad, will also work as a Salsa, Samba, Swing, Reggae, etc... It's pretty hard to experience that without traveling. We try, but are sometimes fooled by our own limitations.
"I always give the musicians a lot of freedom so as not to miss out on anything they could add to my music..."

- Mark Dunn
Jamie: I've been fooled by my own limitations once or twice... : )

I've never played on a cruise ship before - I've heard good and bad things about them. You mention that a certain frustration built up in you working on cruise ships. What was the cause of your frustration?
Mark: Cruise ships are great for anyone who just wants to get away from their lives for a few days or a week or so, party with strangers, drink margaritas, gamble, get some sun and be taken care of. It's a resort, and there's really no reason to go anywhere, because it's all there. But because it's also a boat, you can go places, and they do. But after you've been on one for a few months you start to see it a little differently, and it gets old.

There is an incredible industry built up around the cruise ships. All the ports are so carefully planned out. If you manage to successfully resist the hard sell of this and the other tour the company pushes, and you leave the ship on your own in the various seaports, you'll have to fight your way through more tour pushers that wait like sharks at the pier. If you manage to make your way off the pier on your own, you only have a few hours to explore. That's not enough time to acquaint yourself with any place, not to mention the fact that in many cases your still a few miles or so from the real town. Often, the town you're in is just one that's been built there for the ships. Nobody lives there and there is nothing about it that reflects any of the culture or history of the place your in. it doesn't matter where you are - Cozumel, Aruba, Jamaica, Puerto rice, it's all the same. Souvenirs, cigars, jewelry, and hard rock cafe. Most of the tours are the same too. If you grab a taxi to go to the town, who knows where you will wind up. It's frustrating. Maybe you want to go to the best seafood restaurant, so you ask your driver, but where he ends up taking you is where he's got it worked out that he earns a little commission for having brought you, and the food might be the worst.

I love people and cultures, and I'm thrilled when I have a chance to interact with people and learn things and broaden my perspective, but you can't expect that in this environment. You're seen as an object in these places and it's really tough to break through that, and make a meaningful connection with anyone. The average tourist never experiences the same frustration, because he only has a few hours, and wants to buy cigars and t-shirts and drink some margaritas, so he never takes notice that they only see him as a potential object to sell these things to. But when your in these ports day after day, week after week, month after month, the tourist welcome starts to feel more like isolation. When you do talk to these people, often their preconceptions are so thick. There's them and us, and us is everyone that's not them. American, European, Latino, Asian, we're all the same to them - tourists.

Ship life was also very confining as well. Don't get me wrong. My cruise ship years were some of the best years of my life and I often miss them, but it was this frustration that had built up in me which jump started the journey and laid the ground for my new CD. I knew it was time to close that chapter of my life and start the next. I wanted something new, somewhere new, but I didn't really know what or where. I knew that I wanted it to be real. When my contract ended, I left the ship in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. I had read about a school with a TEFL certificate program in a little town called Buccerias about 40 mins. from there. So I went through the TEFL program, thinking I could finance my travels by teaching English. So I went to Costa Rica first and found work at a private catholic school teaching 9th, 10th and 11th grade English. Those kids were precious, and the experience was inspirational.
Jamie: One thing I loved on Return to Peace is the way your compositions, and in particular your melodies, evolve. Just when I think I know where a melody is going, you take me somewhere else! A tune like "Don't Cry Paola" has a lot of the complexity that I'm talking about - a long, beautiful melodic line. Many pianists seem to think about music in a vertical, harmonic manner -- with melodies emerging from the harmony. But, to my ears, your playing, at least on Return to Peace, is melodically centred.

We talked earlier about how the pennywhistle has affected your approach to jazz, but how specifically do you feel the pennywhistle has impacted your piano playing?
Mark: For me, the melody should always be the center. The melody is the storyline, and I try to let it develop itself.

With Return to Peace, most of these melodies evolved on the pennywhistle. I love the sound of the pennywhistle, but what excites me even more, is what happens when the whistle is used to double up a melody already being played by another instrument or instruments. It's magical. On most of Return to Peace, what you here is the whistle, violin and piano playing the melody together. Just the three instruments, but it sounds much bigger. I don't know, but it sends chills down my spine when I hear that. And it's nothing I invented. It's a pretty common device in traditional Celtic music.

So anyway, when I recorded Return to Peace, I didn't just want to use the piano to play an accompaniment for the whistle and violin, I wanted to double up the melodies that the whistle and violin were playing. This really did force me to play the piano a way I never have. There were some ornaments that are very comfortable on whistle and violin which were not at all on the piano.

Also, I found that playing chords on the piano to provide harmonic accompaniment, really filled in too much space for my taste. I wanted a more open sound. These melodies really didn't need a harmonic accompaniment anyway, because they spell out the harmony. I'm probably getting a little too technical, but what I mean is that these melodies outline or create the harmonic backdrop on their own. So I didn't want to spoil that, and I tried to stay out of the way, and what I ended up playing on the piano was very minimal - the melody in the right hand and a very sparse left hand playing nothing more than the root and fifth most of the time.
"With Return to Peace, most of these melodies evolved on the pennywhistle."

- Mark Dunn
Jamie: I think that's one of the toughest things a player with good chops can do -- staying out of the way of the music. On Return to Peace I can hear you're not playing 'from the wrist down' - that there's emotion and thought behind the technique, and the music speaks for itself.

We talked earlier about the record you're currently finishing up recorded in Brazil. How does it differ from Return to Peace?
Mark: It's very different in every way from Return to Peace except that simplicity and truth remain common themes, but in a Brazilian jazz context. The melodies are center stage again, but they are driven by Brazilian rhythms. It was my love for Brazilian music and those rhythms which inspired and drive the album. Return to Peace is more intimate for me. It's my story, which I recorded in Costa Rica, where I had lived it. The instrumentation on Return to Peace is much more intimate and delicate as well - violin, piano, pennywhistle, acoustic bass, and delicate percussion work. The Brazilian album is much more extroverted, and a much larger group - piano, acoustic guitar (nylon strings), acoustic bass, drums, percussion, saxophone, trumpet, trombone and vocals on some tunes. The Brazilian album goes back and sort of takes up where my self-titled debut jazz album left off. My fascination with Brazilian music goes way back to before I had even traveled to Brazil, and a taste of that came through on the first album, but on the Brazilian album it's fully blown. There were several things explored on the first record, which I have delved into much deeper on the one I just finished recording in Rio. "The Brazilian album is much more extroverted, and a much larger group..."

- Mark Dunn
Jamie: So what happens in a live setting? Do you play the music from Return to Peace along side your Brazilian jazz material? Or do you play separate gigs for each style?
Mark: Every gig is different. When I put a group together for a performance, it's usually either one or the other, but there've been many exceptions to that. In Costa Rica, I've often performed with Peter Nitsche (the violinist on Return to Peace). Peter's also a great jazz violinist, so we play the material from Return to Peace as well as some jazz standards and tunes off my first jazz CD.

I also work a lot with my good friend Lalo Rojas when I'm in Costa Rica. He's got to be the most talented musician I've ever had the opportunity to know. He's a jazz saxophonist but also loves Celtic music and plays the pennywhistle. It was I who gave him his first pennywhistle and a couple tips, and within ten minutes I decided to never play pennywhistle again. Of course I did, but I really was devastated at the time. He completely blew my mind, and I really did put the pennywhistle down for a few months. So Lalo and I have played lots of jazz gigs together, but he always at some point pulls out a whistle and we end up doing some jigs and reels and some of my tunes. You can check out Lalo's playing on the last couple albums by Latin Grammy winner Ruben Blades.

I mix it up a lot when I play solo gigs. All of my more New Age/Celtic material works really well on just piano and some of the jazz and Brazilian jazz pieces do as well.
Jamie: I think it's interesting that many artists have interests and skills that go beyond their main genre or style -- both you and Lalo are great examples of that. But what I think is equally, or even more, interesting is that listeners have far broader tastes than the industry has been willing to accept. Personally, I know of no one who listens only to one style. Almost everyone I know listens to pretty much everything. Of course, my groups of friends, a lot of whom are musicians, may be different (I'm sure they're happy that I'm calling them different!) than the norm. Do you find a jazz audience responds differently to your Celtic/New Age music? And oppositely, does a Celtic/New age audience react differently to your jazz material?
Mark: It really depends on the setting and that particular audience. When I go out and do a concert to showcase my music, it doesn't really matter much whether I'm playing jazz or something else. The audience has an idea what we'll be playing from whatever slant I've given in promoting it, but they're really there to see me, and slipping into another genre just makes it more interesting. I've always received positive feedback from the audience on that.

But some venues are a little different, a jazz club for instance. They have jazz every night, and you may have some fans in the audience, but other people will have come in off the street expecting jazz, and you've been hired to play jazz, so it's harder to step outside in that situation. All in all, audiences seem to be more open-minded than musicians.
Jamie: So you've just released Return to Peace, you have a Brazilian jazz record coming out and you're regularly gigging. Do you have any other projects on the go?
Mark: I've been doing a lot of writing lately - follow up material for Return to Peace and the jazz album as well. I've also been gathering and working on material for a jazz trio album on which I'll probably sing a few tracks.
Jamie: That sounds great! Thanks for taking the time to do this artist-to-artist conversation and please stay in touch!
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