Until recently, I had never heard of the influential Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau.
But after talking about the guitarist with Ottawa writer and actor Pierre Brault, who has based his most recent solo show on the life and death of the legendary musician, I certainly wish I’d discovered Breau sooner.
“It seems that people have either never heard of him, or can tell you exactly where they were the first time they heard him,” says Brault.
His own obsession with the “other little guy called Breau” began a few years ago when he picked up a copy of one of Breau’s CDs in a second hand bin.
“It was 5 O’Clock Bells and when I put it on I was astonished by what I heard. Not only was he an amazing guitar player technically, but I was immediately struck by the honesty and magic of his playing,” Brault explains.
While perusing the liner notes he discovered that the guitarist — who grew up in Winnipeg, and inspired other famed Canuck guitar heroes like Randy Bachman — had lived a turbulent life, battled drug addiction, and was eventually murdered. But he was also beloved by his friends, family, fellow musicians and his devoted fans.
It was the kind of life story that Brault knew would make for an interesting solo play, and so he approached Great Canadian Theatre Company artistic director Lise Ann Johnson with the idea.
After two years, and many hours spent researching and reworking, Breau’s life comes to the stage in the play 5 O’Clock Bells, a co-production of GCTC and Sleeping Dog Theatre.
You might expect that the play is Brault speaking as Breau. But instead the writer and actor has shaped the musician’s life through the memories and stories of the people who loved him. Breau’s voice is expressed through the accompanying music, played by Paul Bourdeau.
“I have chosen to take those memories of seven close friends and lay them like strings on a guitar, because Lenny played a seven-string guitar,” Brault says of the play’s structure.
“They are at times narrators and at times full characters. Those seven strings speak as a chorus, or a chord to tell his story.”