Friday, February 10, 2017

In Conversation with singer - Stacey Kay!

It was the summer of 2010 when a message arrived on Facebook from a gentleman who knew my work with singers and had come across a recent graduate from Sheridan College in the music theatre performance program he thought I should have a look and listen to. At the time, he was semi-managing and borrowing her voice for his original songs.

Everybody needs someone champion their abilities and push out beyond the breakfast table.

A video existed of the young singer on YouTube and a couple of comedy skits. First up – the music video – the May 2, 2008, Sheridan College Awards show. Surrounded by percussion, acoustic guitars, 23-year-old Stacey Kay sounds off on a Tom Waits song, “Jesus Gonna Be Here.” The video quality is of the time – blurred and low-res - you can barely see her face. But then the voice comes into play. What a set of pipes – perfect pitch, big emotion absent affectation and senseless embellishment. A full, rich soulful tone. A voice that could ring up Broadway or command the radio airwaves. And what stage presence!.

I replayed, and replayed and searched around for more videos. I then convinced her acting manager to put us in contact with each other. Facebook is deep in marauding predators and one understands that a formal introduction is mandatory. Stacey responded and invited me down to Kensington Market to a performance of her with a comedy/vocal troupe. Damn, was she ever stellar! One of a kind.

I have never wanted to manage an artist, that being a skill I prefer to dodge – so I invited Stacey to sing background on a single I was producing with Jane Bunnett & the Afro-Cuban Blues Project, “War on Poverty.” Shakura S’Aida had already laid down a testifying lead vocal and I figured the best way to introduce Stacey was to include her in the background vocals. Honestly, this could have gone either way. Both singers were on equal footing! Shakura, being the kind of person who welcomes and promotes young talent, made this a comfortable fit.

Eventually, Stacey came aboard with the Rockit 88 Band – played a few dates – even Canada’s Walk of Fame and recorded a single, then in the first year of Rhythm Express. Throughout, I kept Slaight Music appraised of this talented young woman and they signed her.

Stacey has big dreams. Early on, she’d confide in me that appearing on SNL was her goal or to simply meet Martin Short – which she eventually did. She also worked day and night driving a van loaded with promotion items to keep her dream on course. We’d both scour YouTube for the most outrageous laughs. Then comes the big question. What to do with Stacey Kay?

Stacey is Bette Midler wrapped in Etta James. She’s got big soul pipes and a polished theatrical stage presence. She can rap, she can belt, she can ballad, she can reinvent a song - she can! Eva Cassidy could sing anything; Stacey falls in the same category.

The past few years she’s been driving her a cappella group Eh440 all over North America and having a blast. Kay reserves ample time covering current pop hits a capella, and posting videos. Since 2010, the volume of video work is remarkable. Kay understands the medium and toys with it judiciously. The new single is called “Never Stop Lovin’ You.”

Rather than include a video of her making, I’ve chosen a special night at the Orbit Room, October 2011. Gary Slaight coaxed me into a CD release party behind my piano, bass and drum trio side, Five Aces. Somewhere during second set he insists Stacey and John Finley get up and sing together. That’s Jon and Lee & The Checkmates' legendary John Finley. The impromptu performance is pure magic. Everything I imagined of her potential was there to witness.

Stacey’s back home for a breather and I posed a few questions. Here’s that conversation.

What was the first song you ever sang?
“Can You Feel The Love Tonight” from The Lion King. It was also the first song I sang in a singing competition and won first place! My mom and dad tell me that it was after that day that they knew this might be a serious career for me.

Was there anyone you saw on stage you wanted to emulate?
Growing up in the '90s, I always loved the Spice Girls - they sang, danced, wore crazy clothes, they acted in their own movie, they had a really cool “show” that wasn't just about the singing. They all had different personalities, different stage clothes; they were five different characters. It was at that point when I realized, 'I am a character in real life, why not do it on stage too?' I was obsessed with watching their every move. I knew one day I would be on stage, just like those five girls.

Did you have early formal training?
Yes, a little. I was trained in Cambridge, Ontario, on-and-off with various singing teachers and dance teachers! They mainly taught me how to warm up, etc. Much later I found out (at the age of 18) that I had nodules on my vocal chords… because I was singing and speaking improperly throughout my childhood. I had to take a year off from singing to heal. To all the children out there learning how to sing properly? Training and practice are very important if you want to become awesome - but you need to constantly check in and see if you are receiving the proper training and your voice feels okay. It’s so hard to know! My parents knew I needed singing lessons, but how were we to know I was singing improperly?

How did you come to combine singing, theatrics with getting comfortable on stage?
My parents made me practice all the time. My dad is a counselor and we talked a lot about our feelings growing up - this truly helped because we also talked about confidence and individuality. At an early age, my parents put me in singing competitions (country music singing competitions, actually)! These were in front of huge audiences with a live band - and I did these competitions every year starting at nine years old. These competitions are truly the beginning of why I am so confident on stage. I had to learn how to perform with a band. I was all by myself up there and had to sing my heart out! From that point on, I also became a member of the local theatre in Cambridge (Galt Little Theatre) and acted in many plays. These opportunities combined are the beginning of the person I needed to be, coming on stage.

You’re incredibly outgoing. Do you ever get any flack for this?
I am lucky that I am outgoing because not everyone is. Being outgoing also makes me fearless on stage. But most outgoing people also have very strong-minded opinions. Which I think is amazing! But sometimes you can also take it too far. Example: I have something to say about everything even when it has nothing to do with me! Sometimes in certain situations, I need to learn to just… shut up! There are pros and cons to being outgoing - but  99% of the time, it has been a positive thing in my life.

Your time at Sheridan College. What were those years like?
Sheridan is an amazing but scary place. Coming from the city of Cambridge, there weren't many performers who were going to pursue a career professionally in the entertainment business. I remember the first day walking into class, hearing people warm up, watching people stretch a leg over their head, listening to a room filled with intelligent people speak: I realized from that moment it was going to be harder than I thought. If I wanted to keep up with all the amazing talent in this school, I was going to have to work my butt off. I did exactly that - but it meant I didn't get a lot of sleep and didn’t have much of a life outside of school. We had 22 classes a week, six days a week. When were we supposed to do homework? That’s why no one slept. They have since changed the program to four years instead of three years (phew)!

There was also an interesting dynamic between students and teachers. Some teachers didn’t like me, didn't like that I wanted to sing like Christina Aguilera and rap like Missy Elliott! They thought I was a joke and I wasn’t pristine enough for the program. They were trying to change me, and I had to make the decision to fight for the person I am. Teachers are not always right, and sometimes you only realize that after you’ve graduated. The Music Theatre Performance Program not only taught me about music, dance, and theatre, it taught me about life and how to deal with high-stress situations. It taught me how to deal with other human beings. I feel like I can do anything after graduating that course. Although I have made it sound like the hardest, scariest place to be, I would recommend it to anyone who wants to pursue a career in music or theatre…. because the real world is harder and scarier!

What was your first performance after graduation?
I was really lucky and got a part in a play at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto - an amazing professional theatre people would die to be a part of. I had no idea how awesome it was until someone got mad at me for not knowing. It’s not like I was being unappreciative in any way. I had no idea the people I was working with were Stratford actors, award-winning playwrights (Morris Panych), and how much of an honour it was to be a part of this theatre. I just didn’t know how big of a deal it was at the time! At the same time, I was singing and writing my own music and trying to figure out where I “fit” in the music scene in Toronto. My friend Lili Connor put on a show in Kensington Market and asked me to sing in it. It was that show where I met Bill King (the awesome guy writing this article) and he showed me a whole other bigger, (and slightly scarier) world in the music industry! (Thanks Bill!)

Have you always been fully confident of your career choice?
Yes. Yes. Yes. Not everyone can say that, but yes. This is what I have to do! I am a performer, I was born a performer and I will die a performer. Have I been confident in every single choice I’ve made within this career? Absolutely not. It’s tough to know the right and wrong thing to do… but I try to mix up “the feeling in my gut” with a little common sense, and so far, that has worked out for me.

You worked a series of odd jobs while staying focused on your career. Would you recommend all aspiring artists find outside work?
Yes! This career is awesome, but most of the time you don’t make a lot of money. There are certain gigs where I’ve made tons of money, but then an opportunity doesn’t come up like that again for a while and you can’t live life just waiting for those big paycheques. It’s a very inconsistent career - and I had to accept that.

When I was first starting out, I was a server at many restaurants. I did promotional work and handed out free samples on the side of the road while driving a big van shaped like a Hershey’s chocolate bar. Crazy jobs that put money in my bank account. This money paid for my photo-shoots, the songs I recorded, the videos I made, the equipment I needed. These things helped me get to the point I am at today! This life is not for everyone - I have accepted that there is always going to be an “unknown” with my job. BUT I would rather that, than do a stable job I don’t love, just to make money. I would be so unhappy.

You distance yourself from distractions and stay focused on your career. How have you been able to say no in an industry littered with mishaps and big loss? 
You mean distractions… like alcohol and drugs for example? Well lucky (and sort of unlucky) for me I have a slight allergy to alcohol. I get red and itchy and I lose my voice immediately. If I take a sip it sounds like I have strep throat. I don’t drink at all. But I will also be the first and last person on the dance floor - so it’s not like I ever needed it to have fun! This has forced me to be confident in every situation. This career is filled with that kind of life - drinking at parties, drugs in the bathroom, getting high before shows - it’s never been the Stacey Kay way. I want to point out that I’m not against any of it at all, it’s just not the right thing for me specifically. I should figure out how to be myself, and be my confident self as this is happening around me.

When are you the most satisfied?
I recently had a satisfying night: I did a show and my boyfriend (my bass player), my best friends (other bandmates) were with me on stage. My boyfriend and I made up a dance to do to one of my songs and everyone in the audience went crazy because they’ve never seen him dance! (He’s awesome by the way). My whole family was there, and then I got to hang out with my family after and laugh, talk about the show, and analyze the night. It’s very satisfying for me to analyze things. I am very close with my family and don’t get to see them all the time because of my career choice. When I get to do all these things at once? Very satisfying.

You are signed to Slaight Music. How has the experience been?
Slaight Music is a company who funds artists, and I have been with them for a long time now. They are really great people and have introduced me to awesome people in this industry. They have invested long-term in my career and partnered me with great producers and songwriters. They genuinely care for their artists!

You embrace social media. What’s the upside for you? The downside?
I’m going to be brutally honest. I hate social media so much - I think it is the thing in the future that is going to ruin relationships. But it is part of my job. One thing with this industry is that you have to constantly change with the times, and if you don’t you get lost in a pile of musicians who want the same thing as you. I have to post pictures and videos and hope that I get likes and views - because that has turned into the 2017 way of measuring success. Facebook is a crazy thing, though. Facebook is now highly competitive with YouTube, because Facebook wants to be the most popular place to watch videos. They hide posts with YouTube videos in them or a post that even mentions YouTube! (I’ve done many tests). This has changed a lot for me. A video I would usually get 50K views for is now being hidden and no one can see it. But that’s a change I’m trying to get used to and I will figure it out :) Okay okay, I’m being a Debbie Downer.

The more positive side to social media is that I love making videos with my bandmates. I love singing music, I love that I can share what I’ve done with people all over the world! But I must know when I post videos; for every two amazing comments, there is going to be a very rude one. Once again - a test of confidence, and it’s the hardest one of all. People forget that there is actually a real person reading, 'You’re fat, you sing bad,' on the other end. But, Beyoncé gets those same comments and she is freaking amazing! I always think about Beyoncé when I get mean comments. I also was lucky enough to have a video go viral when I rapped in a Walgreens in South Carolina! (Comment from Debbie Downer: a guy stole the video and called it “Mum raps at Walgreens,” didn't put my name on it, and he has collectively over 35M views on the video.) Still cool though :)

EH440 – how did this come about?
Eh440 is my a cappella band! Young Stacey didn't ever think that she would be singing a cappella in a band that pays her bills! Those country music singing competitions I spoke of earlier? I met Janet Turner there. She was my biggest competition, but we were also friends because she is the nicest person of all time. Years later, I get this phone call asking if I would be interested in joining this a cappella band. I thought to myself, 'a cappella is lame' and imagined myself singing doo wop in a barber shop. But I never turn down any adventure! I met with Janet, Joe Oliva (bass singer), Mike Celia (a singer/songwriter from Toronto, who also didn't know anything about a cappella) and Luke Stapleton, aka, “The Human Record,” who is a beat-boxer. Once I heard beat-boxing in real life, my mind was blown. This sounded amazing to me, and they said, 'sing whatever you want, rap, riff, be yourself' and I knew that this would be something great. Joe said they were looking for 'five voices that didn’t have any earthly business being together.' They wanted the opposite sound of a typical a cappella band. We have been in a band together for five years now and travel the world. We are constantly on tour and it’s so much fun. Eh440 is also very respectful of my solo career, so I can do both things!

What are your long-term goals? Is there someone’s career you’d most like to channel?
Long term goals are: keep performing. I used to think, 'I’m going to be famous one day' and that was my goal as a teen. But that goal has changed. I’m okay with not being famous if I keep doing what I am doing. I want to mash up the career of Martin Short, Tony Robbins and Beyoncé. Ha! Sounds crazy, right?! Let me explain. I love the kind of concerts that Beyoncé puts on; full production, dancing, singing, videos, and lights. She is the boss and knows what she wants and I love that. Martin Short was on Saturday Night Live (my dream), and he had a one-man show called, Fame Becomes Me (but with a full cast - hilarious right)?! Lastly, I also do motivational speaking at high schools around Canada and the US, and speak about positive body image, staying confident and working hard. This would be something that I think I could make a business/career out of after I stop touring with Eh440 and my solo band. Right now? I keep pushing forward, and keep working as hard as I can to do what I do and be the best that I can be. I want to do everything! 

You participated in America’s Got Talent. Good? Weird?
Good and weird. It was a reality TV show. So yes, they made me fake cry. Yes, they tried to get me to argue with other contestants. Yes, they edited the show in a different way, than it actually happened. But how cool is it that I got to be on national television? I got to sing for Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and one of the original people who inspired me at a young age: Mel B from the Spice Girls. They also said, how many people are in your band? I told them nine. That’s a huge band. But I got to bring every single one of my friends and band mates to perform on stage with me, and my sister and Janet sang backups for me! Why not, right?

There is no doubt you have great pipes. How do you preserve and protect?
Not drinking alcohol “reallllly” helps. But also, because I sing so much, it’s like I am working out my voice at a gym every day. I can sing higher and lower than I ever have before. I can sing for two hours straight and not be tired. Having good sound onstage is also important to me because then you are not straining your voice. Technology and in-ear monitors really help. Warming up is also important. When I don’t warm up, I can’t sing for as long. I can’t hit notes as easily and I can’t rap as fast! If I don’t do certain mouth exercises before a show, I would never be able to rap as fast as I do. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Case Against La La Land

I’ve verbally slapped myself more than a few times trying to coax an emotion anywhere near the excitement academy members lustfully oozed awarding the motion picture La La Land a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations. “La La” is being touted a great musical – a breakthrough homage to musicals past and blueprint for future adventures.

Going in, I was willing to let the hype carry me as far as dignity would allow. I’m the guy who bought the score book for West Side Story and sits in front of the piano and marvels while flipping page to page at the notes scattered before me. How the hell did Leonard Bernstein come up with these glorious melodies, spectacular transitions, the orchestrations, and out-worldly harmonies? This is a page turner up there with the greatest novels ever written.

Late summer I caught Woody Allen’s Café Society. Reviews were all over the place from hate to love. Allen deserves our respect – at least that of musicians. Woodman plays honest with the music. Café Society is set in 1930s Hollywood and stays true to the moment with classic’s such as “Manhattan, My Romance, This Can’t Be Love, Mountain Greenery”, perfectly situated underneath the sumptuous visuals. For a film that received little fanfare and less publicity, it’s still pulled in $43,700,000 at the box office so far.

My partner and I fought for a clear view of the giant screen at the Varsity Cinema and fixed eyeballs straight ahead. “Bam” – the big opening – a lavish dance number in, around and on cars. Yes! This is grand. Wait! What the hell is going on with the song? I’m hearing this shallow vacuous non-stick sing-a-long that could have been borrowed from a mid-1970s Saturday Night Live skit. Remember the one with the Andy Williams like sweater kids, bopping to a white rhythm? Or at least one invested in humor much like those Lawrence Welk bip-alongs. Loved the title, “Another Day of Sun.” O.K. – move on. Here comes the story.

Jazz boy meets coffee shop girl. Jazz boy thinks about the big jazz jam; coffee shop girl wants to get into film. Jazz boy suffers for his art so he repeatedly plays this insipid whole tone piano riff as if this chunk of nothingness needs mastered. Where’s “All That Jazz?” I’m ready and willing.

Boy lands gig in super-club. Christmas time – Christmas music. Boy wants to blow some far-out jazz. Owner demands he play from a restricted list. O.K. Let me digress a bit. I’ve played at least fifty-five Christmas seasons and jazz-upped the songs. Never have I been fired for freshening the music up with a jazzy embellishment or harmonic rewrite. In fact, that’s when people drop by the piano and give you that –Wow! sign and the owner says thanks, “Great night!” Maybe west coast Christmas gigs in La La Land are quite different than the social parties we on the east coast are privy.
Composer Justin Hurwitz crafted the score for La La Land and last year’s other celebrated music film, Whiplash – another fairy tale of teacher abuses student to greatness. Bullshit!

I have greater animosity towards Whiplash than I do for La La Land. “La La” doesn’t reside in an institution of greater learning.  And nobody’s getting slapped around or demeaned – it’s just good old jazz suffering. I think?

As a film La La Land is fun. A diversion from day to day brain sucking Trumpettes. It’s sweet, likeable and a must needed reprieve from the dullness of work. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are perfectly cast and benefit from a finely tuned and witty script. That said – I gave the film a second and third try. Second visit lasted ten minutes; the third – 44 minutes. Couldn’t do it. One thing kept nagging at me – the fucking music! Beyond tolerating.

I’m neither here nor there with musicals – usually middle ground. I loved the musical Chicago – the songs were out of my love zone but I could sing them and got their choreographic purpose and occasionally perform with aspiring and celebrated vocalists. Serious craft!

I really enjoyed Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge set in 1900 in the Montmarte Quarter of Paris – the grand old cabaret house. I loved it so much it was a first stop when visiting Paris, a couple years back. Even the academy bought in, awarding it eight Oscar nominations back in 2001.

Golden Globes! This is when I hid in my imaginary mind shelter. No – say it ain’t so! Word leaks in - “La La” captures Best Original Score and Best Original song for Hurwitz.

I can get past the score thing even though I’ve heard grand music coming from Moonlight and other nominees. And let’s not forget Toronto’s own – Michael Danna’s Oscar win for Best Original Score from Life of Pi in 2013. Sheer brilliance!

But “Best Original Song”, this is where I push my damper pedal to the floor. “City of Stars “had me pulling my ears and lips off in the cinema. It was if the melody was produce-clichés run through a Veg-O-Matic - then formalized by a thought computer. How do you make something from nothing? You don’t. You just pretend it’s something. From the song’s introduction to film’s end that galling melody poked at me like an implement of Inquisition torture.

Movies are made to entertain and carry us beyond the normal and help us temporarily escape. My partner hates war movies and anything that has to do with Nazi’s. I appreciate. Anyone who has spent their life as a working musician has entertained every tone, chord, melody, score, chart, recording the ears could handle. We are somewhat sensitive to bland. Shitty? Bring it on. Never bland. The greatest crime of all.

Until recently I’ve lived mostly alone with my impressions of “La La” until I came across a musician’s forum on Facebook. Not an ordinary gathering of bar band musicians or weekend hopefuls – but the crème of the industry. In parting, here are a few of their thoughts. The names have been withheld to protect the not-so-innocent and that potential film composing gig.

“Watching all the nominations for the SAG awards I was transported by Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight and Lion, I had a great time watching Hidden Figures and Girl On A Train....but when it came to La La Land - I was embarrassed - it seemed like a high school.”

“Horrible songs. Well, you can't have anything.”
“The "jazz" was very white and west coast, totally lacking in soul or character or edge.”
“I totally agree, La La is an insult to singers, dancers, songwriters, and arrangers.
“Couldn´t agree more. His "jazz theme" was a joke.”
“The word, according to Zappa is, "Sears" - are those real musical songs or are they Sears songs? i agree. They were shallow and plastic; nothing memorable.”
“Totally agree. It's like when people ask me if I liked the movie Whiplash. FAKE!!!!!!!!”
“That's the best description of those songs I've heard yet. "Pretend Songs." Although I greatly appreciate everything that went into that movie, you can't really compare those particular songs to an actual, bona fide songwriter's songs. Just my personal opinion; so no haters please. I'm thrilled they made a movie that employed so many musicians & dancers.”
“Cruise ship quality. Typical of Broadway musicals. Trite clichéd lyrics.”

“Exactly. Nothing melodically memorable, nothing harmonically logical or interesting and absolutely nothing lyrically to say. (I nudged the woman next to me and said I would tell my 8th graders to try a new angle, find a catchy melody.....something ...”

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Conversation with the Late Doug Riley - 1988

Music scenes are the creation of players with great ability and draw power. I’m sorting through stored cassettes and recall with nostalgia and sadness the names passing between my fingers; pause and reflect on the moment I interviewed. The big six band leaders and community organizers are all there – Moe Koffman, saxophonist/flutes – gone since 2001, Doug Riley, keyboards – 2007, Jeff Healey, vocalist/guitar – 2008, Rob McConnell, arranger/trombone - 2010, Jim Galloway, saxophone/TD Jazz - 2014 and Archie Alleyne, drummer - 2015.

Noise keeps a community alive. All six made big noise. Rooms were packed, international artists dropped in; there was always a buzz. Those days are far behind with the closure of music venues, a fractured music scene and the lack of engaging bigger-than-life personalities. There was always apprehension musicians bred in classrooms would be short on life experiences, favor blandness over edgy, and fail to build a following. It seems those predictions are playing out in real time in the jazz scene.

With that in mind, I thought I’d revisit an interview from 1988 at CIUT 89.5 with one of Canada’s and certainly Toronto’s most revered and celebrated musicians. Galloway and McConnell took some shots from detractors; Riley, took no bullets or heat. It was always a lovefest!

BK:  You seem to have a firm footing in all idioms of music.  Is this what stimulates you?

Doug:  Yes, it does.  It helps me in all aspects of my writing – film, scoring, commercials, or the various recording artists I work with.  I try to touch as many bases as possible.

BK:  What would a normal work day consist of?

Doug:  A normal workday begins with me waking up, which can be the most difficult task of the day.  I usually go to my office around 10:30 a.m.  Once there, I examine my mail, review any video cassettes that have come in and then decide on what I want to work on that day.  I always try to write for three or four hours.  If I’m going into the studio that day or the following day, I prepare myself for whatever is happening recording wise.

My day is usually a combination of things, but much of it is dealing with priorities and focusing on which projects require the most attention immediately.  Also, setting myself up for whatever sessions I may have that week.  I often have to book contractors, orchestrate, arrange, and get the music off to the copyist.  I try to prepare for sessions with three hours of homework for every hour spent in the studio.

BK:  I remember you took a sabbatical from doing commercial work.  Has that ended?

Doug:  I’m doing a lot of commercial work now.  It’s lucrative and I find it very challenging.  Every project is different.

BK:  Your Company is called Dr. Music.  Is this the same title used by your band in the ‘70s?
Doug:  I actually had that name, Dr. Music, before the band came into existence.  It was when we were touring and recording that the band adopted the name.  I left the name in limbo but when I formed the new jingle company, I decided to use it because many people associated Dr. Music with me.
BK:  What motivates you to take on a project?

Doug:  Apart from the financial end, I think the script and the concept make the difference.  If' it’s a recording project, obviously, the artist and the material make a big difference.  If it’s a film there are a lot of different things.  A film takes a lot of time to score properly, spot it and go through all of its various aspects.

BK:  Do you choose which films you score?

Doug:  I have turned films down, but there are not that many to pick and choose from.  I wait for the right one to come along before I commit myself to the project just because of the amount of time a film project takes.

As far as writing chamber music, or so-called “serious music”, those kinds of projects come along in the form of grants, either Canada Council or Ontario Arts Council grants.  They are, for the most part, commissioned by artists or conductors of orchestras.  Again, it’s a major commitment.  I wrote a piano concerto for Elyakim Taussig and Mario Bernardi, for the National Arts Orchestra, which basically took six months of my free time to compose.

BK:  How do you maintain a balance between the various projects you’re involved with?
Doug:  You have to be very selective.  Otherwise, some projects that are peripheral prior to taking on a major commitment would automatically go by the wayside.

BK:  You received your Bachelor of music, in composition, at the Faculty of Music at the University of Toronto in 1967, and then completed half of your master’s degree in ethnomusicology.  Is there a certain period or culture that interests you most?

Doug:  I was particularly interested in Canadian Native music and I spent two summers living on Iroquois reservations, collecting and transcribing music in the field.  I am also very interested in the music of Java Bala because of the Gamelon Orchestra techniques.  I’ve incorporated a lot of their orchestral techniques in the modern music I write.

BK:  Have you collected any artifacts along the way?

Doug:  Yes, most of them are with the university in the faculty of Music, and all of my transcripts are in the National Archives in Ottawa, but I have some items I collected when I was on the Iroquois reservation’; water drums, turtle rattles, mating flutes.  These are all authentic items, not the kind purchased in souvenir shops.

BK:  In what period of your life were you involved in this research?

Doug:  This was while I was a student in my last year as an undergraduate and during my post graduate year.  My professor felt I was equipped to handle something like this so he procured a Canada Council grant for me, which meant it was a commissioned project.  I’ve always been interested in ethnic music of any kind.

BK:  when did your interest in rhythm and blues surface, and what was the first group you worked with.

Doug:  I can’t remember not liking R’n’B.  The natural evolution, I’m not sure which comes first, whether the blues and jazz influences came out of R’n’B or R’n’B influences came around as a result of the blues and jazz.

I guess my first major influence in R’n’B was Ray Charles.  Later, I ended up arranging an album for him called Ray Charles – Doing His Thing.

BK:  When was this out?

Doug:  1969

BK:  What styles of music were on the lp?

Doug:  Jazz and R’n’B compositions plus a couple of ballads backed by a big band consisting of four trumpets, four trombones, five reeds, a rhythm section and a full 16 piece string section.  There was a lot of leeway to do pretty much what we wanted.

BK:  There are a lot of gospel influences in your playing.  Many of the radio and TV commercials of the ‘60s and ‘70s were rooted in this tradition and much of what was heard can be attributed to you.
Doug:  My father played a lot of Mahalia Jackson in the house and, of course, Ray’s influence was always a present.
BK:  Did you listen closely and try to absorb the spiritual feel of the music?

Doug:  I used to play along with Mahalia’s records.  At the time, I wasn’t thinking about how this would be useful later but, as it turned out, that kind of playing fits remarkably well into R’n’B settings.  People like Billy Preston brought it to the forefront.

I was also involved with Tommy Ambrose in a series of shows called Celebration, on CTV.  Every week we would have gospel guests from the U.S.; a lot from the bible Belt.  We had a cookin’ gospel band with a choir of eight which had to adapt to each artist.  Boy was that fun.

BK:  The pianist Bill Evans played an important role in your musical development.

Doug:  During my late teens he became a major influence in my life because of his musical way of thinking.  It was much more introspective than the gospel, R’n’B thing, which is based more on feel and high level musically.  It consists of very complicated structures with rhythms within rhythms.
He’s always fascinated me with his complete control of the instrument.  Technically, he could do about anything.  His playing was influenced by the classical composers:  Ravel, Scriabin and Chopin.  Evans certainly affected my playing, there’s no question about it.

Bill and I also became close friends and we spent a lot of time together.  He’d stay at my house on many of his trips to Toronto.  He always told me not to copy, because it could be the worst thing for me to do.  What I did get from him, in terms of melodic and harmonic conceptions, I tried to apply to my own style of playing.

BK:  Were you and Shawne Jackson in the house band at the original Blue Note Night Club?

Doug:  Yes, The Silhouettes.  It was a band that I had when I was 16 years old.  When the original house band, The regents, left the Blue Note, saxophonist Steve Kennedy stayed on and Al Steiner called me while I was playing at The Peppermint Lounge on Bay Street and we brought our own band in.  Steve joined the band, along with Diane Brooks as a vocalist.  We were there for three years so Shawne used to come and sit in with the band and perform in the floor show.  Later, she came in as a soloist with a band called The Rogues.  That was Domenic Troiano and Whitey Glan.  This was The Blue Note, on Yonge and Walton, just south of Gerrard.

BK:  That was quite a hotspot...

Doug:  It was unbelievable.  Everybody who came into town like The Band, Jesse Davis, Junior Walker and the All-stars would come to The Blue Note after their performance to jam.  Stevie wonder would drop by, and the Supremes, Jimmy Reed and all of the blues legends.  It was the best education you could ever get.  We backed most of these greats.

BK:   Where would they be performing?

Doug:  The Colonial, Le Coq D’Or, the Zanzibar, the Edison Hotel, the Brass Rail.  On our breaks we’d go listen to them play.  We’d play until 3 a.m. so they’d have an opportunity to loosen up after their engagements.  No alcohol, just coffee.  I was only 16 years old then.

BK:  What were the most impressive performances you can remember from those days?

Doug: There’s three I’ve got to mention that come to mind immediately.  One was Miles Davis with Jack DeJohnette on drums, Chick Corea on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Wayne shorter on tenor.  Weather Report was another and the other one was the Bill Evan trio with Marty Morrell on drums and Eddie Gomez on bass.  Bill’s thinking is more melodic and harmonic.

BK:  Did you catch Bill Evans’ last performance here? 

Doug:  Yes, I did.  Marty wasn’t playing with him then; Pat’s brother, Joe LaBarbera was.  Marty was sitting with me at the table and said, “This is the best I’ve ever heard Bill play.”

BK:  Were the Blue Note years also the beginning of your recording experience?

Doug:  Yes, this is when I first started in the studio.  Ben McPeek gave me my first job in the studio and I remember how scared I was.  I went in all the hot players in town were on the session; Moe Koffman, Guido Basso, Rob McConnell and Ron Pullen was playing drums.  I was just shaking.  They wanted me to lay an organ solo in the track and I can remember trying to control my hand long enough to play a solo.  When I had finished, all of these guys came up and congratulated me.  After that I was called for other sessions.

BK:  When was Dr. Music formed?

Doug:  In 1971.  I was approached by Allan Blythe and Chris Beard to put together a background, on camera, choral group for the summer replacement of The Andy Williams Show, which was hosted by Ray Stevens.  The show was called Who is Ray Stevens.  Ray had quite a few novelty hits, but not many people knew his name.

For thirteen weeks I was the choral director.  The group consisted of musicians from the Blue Note and from the original production of Hair, which I was also involved in.  That’s where the singers came from, four guys and four girls.  They sounded so great together that we started getting asked to perform on other shows:  The Barbara McNair show and Kenny Rogers and The First Edition’s Show, Rolling on the River, and the very early pilot series of Music Machine, with Moe Koffman as musical director.

Then we were offered a recording contract from GRT Records and along with that, requests for concerts.  We put a band together with four rhythm players, four horns and eight singers.  When it came time to determine the name, it was suggested we use the name of my company at the time, Dr. Music.

BK:  You had a few hits from the first lp, which consisted of a rich blend of harmonic and melodic textures.

Doug:  Steve Kennedy’s tune, Road to Love, interested Bell Records in the States.  They were the company who were successful with the Fifth Dimension, so we signed with Bell.  Actually, Sun Goes By became a hit south of the border.  Rosalie Tremblay got it off the ground in Windsor and it took off in Detroit.  She was so strong in radio that on the second album I took it to her, and when she didn’t like one of the mixes, I went back and remixed it.

BK:  Do you have any plans to record a new jazz lp soon?

Doug:  I have had plans for the last four years to do something.  The closest I’ve come is a duet thing I did with the flutist, Jeremy Steig.  We’ve recorded the whole thing but I haven’t secured a label.  It’s just flute and piano.  He came up from New York and we recorded in my house with my Hindeburg Steinway.  We had all the equipment set up.  It was done on reel to reel through a Fostex eight track board.

BK:  You’re playing on the soon to be released Brass Connection album.

Doug:  It was fascinating because Doc Hamilton brought in trombone players from all over the place to appear as guest soloists.  Ian MacDougall flew in from Vancouver, Carl Fontana and Bill Watrous came up from L.A., and Bill Holman arranged two of the charts.  I think it’s going to be a benchmark album.

BK:  Do you enjoy composing for dance and is this a complicated process? 

Doug:  I like writing for dance and movement, or something that has theater involvement.  It is even more satisfying than working in film because it’s in your imagination, rather than viewing frames of film going by.  Working with a good choreographer, as I did on two ballets, is a very exciting and creative process.  It’s time-consuming and very complicated.  The movement has to be choreographed as the music is written.  Each segment of the music has to relate to a place in the ballet.  We would have preproduction meetings that would last for hours as the choreographer relates what he sees and how the story unfolds.  Then, I would go away and write the music as I conceived it.  After this, we would get together again and begin working on the movement.

The second ballet we did was based on a string quartet.  I had written and was composed in three movements.  This was called sessions for Six or Sessions for Twelve, depending on the number of dancers to be used.  This became a piece that the National Ballet performed on tour in Europe.  The music was already written, but Rob Icove came up with the idea that in between each movement of the string quartet we would have a completely different band, So I wrote three rock movements which were played by rock musicians in between the string pieces.  The string quartet was a twelve-tone sound which added stark contrast to the rock, but I’m more interested in doing a solo piano album now.  I’m presently writing music for it, and it will be jazz.  It’s fairly atonal type music but with melodies.

Blues Summit Eight and Those New Faces

Pops drove his boys to gigs the first few years. I was 16 and have no memory how I copped a $15 gig in Corydon, Indiana – the second capital of Indiana Territory in 1813, with a very popular one-armed trumpet player. I do remember weeks prior, I was immersed in the blues, having returned from studying with Oscar Peterson in his summer program, 1963 in Toronto. I asked Oscar what he listened to and he handed me two jazz piano albums, Claire Fischer - Surging Ahead and Junior Mance - Live at the Village Gate.

Once back across the border and situated behind the family, far-from-tuned spinet piano, I began to punch out a blues scale. But it took a trip across the bridge from Indiana to Kentucky and a record store on Liberty Street in Louisville, to find the Junior Mance side.

Drop the needle and my world changed. Oscar played me this slow blues from Mance’s soulful recording called “Smokey Blues.” Peterson speaks, “everything you need to know about the blues is in that track.” I took his words to heart and played over and over and over and copied lick after lick.
Meanwhile, that gig? I’m on the bandstand with my employer. Trumpet man starts calling tunes, of which I knew three or four. Rather than demean and kick my ass all over the bandstand he says, “Blues in F.” At that moment, the body settles and I exhale a big sigh of relief.

We play 15 minutes of easy-flowing blues: trumpet man blowing a raggedy New Orleans style and me stabbing between all those white notes for blues gravy.

We finish the jam and a big smile gets tossed my way. “Kid, you can play the blues. Let’s try one in B flat.” So, goes the night. We may have played “Satin Doll” or “Take the A Train” another time or two, but the engagement, in whole, was given over to the 12-bar blues.

During set breaks, the folks in the lounge patted me on the back. Night’s end, Mr. Trumpet man invites me come again. Best part, I had $15 in my pocket. How big was that? I used to dream; if I only had $10 in my pocket.

Whenever surrounded by - or working with - young aspiring artists, I always keep those first gigs in mind, that sensation – the meet and greet with heroes.

I was thinking about this over the weekend as I sat at a table in a room of talent buyers from festivals and events spread across the country, all participating in Blues Summit Eight. It was the “speed pitch:” – four minutes to convince and sell yourself sessions.

Representing the Beaches International Jazz Festival, now in year 29, is always a pleasure. We have a limited budget but plenty of venues and big crowds. My go-to point person on reviewing young talent, and talent in general is a passage lifted from an interview I did with Warner president Steve Kane.

Bill King: What qualities do you look for in a new artist?

Steve Kane: As we hear a new artist, we hear the songs. We see their work ethic and see their drive. It’s that self-assuredness.

BK: Is there a checklist?

SK: Yes, there’s a mental checklist.  I’ve got to tell you at the top of this checklist – Does this artist know who they are? Do they have a sense of self? Do they have a sense of where they want their career to go? There’s a lot of manufactured pop in this world and we all live in that world and have since the days of the Bobby Rydells or Bobby Shermans. It’s always existed. Sometimes I think the modern era - the current era - takes a lot of hard knocks, as if we invented this. It’s been going on for years and there have always been those two tracks.

When we sit with a young artist we need to know how fully developed they are in their sense of self. Sometimes this takes time."

From “speed pitch” time,  it was then onto mentoring sessions. The same thinking was applied.
Music is always in need of renewal. Players are always in need of renewal: far too many become stagnant and unwilling or incapable of shedding old ways and bad habits.

The pitches? “We can play anything; a blues set, a Bossa Nova set, we known Latin songs, great dance music, lots of swinging jazz...” To me, that’s not a band looking to break from the pack. That’s treading in bathwater.

Here are four newcomers who made an impression on me this past weekend. By impression I mean, how they handled themselves in one-on-one sessions. Where they go with their careers is still a matter of luck, big breaks, talent and perseverance.

Seventeen-year-old blues guitarist/vocalist Spencer MacKenzie: Spencer lives and breathes his passion. He also plays with great confidence and reverence for tradition. The Mackenzies are dedicated parents who cart Spencer from point A to B. The young prospect has a gentle, easygoing manner that comes across in crowds. Spencer took home a trophy from Maple Blues Awards night – New Artist or New Group of the Year. MacKenzie comes from the Niagara region of Ontario.

  River City Junction. Here’s a band that plays around two hundred dates a year in Brockville, Kingston, Smith Falls, Perth, Gananoque, Ottawa and Montreal region. The husband and wife team of Jason Fryer – guitar/vocals – Caroline Addison – lead vocal/drums – and bassist Tom Joanisse exude big charm and sincerity. River City Junction is a working-class band. They borrow from the classic rock and blues songbook and stay honest to their loyal fans. It’s the spot-on lead vocals of Addison that stands out and gives the band a fighting chance.

Pianist/singer Jenie Thai from Edmonton, now residing in Toronto: Jenie came with questions and loads of confidence. Living in Toronto and playing in an atmosphere of high expectations and big competition should bring even greater maturity. Here’s what we know about the fine young pianist. From her website: “In 2008, Jenie diversified her education attending Grant MacEwan's Jazz and Contemporary Music Program as a performance major. Upon graduation, Jenie was offered a part-time teaching position at Grant MacEwan University and gained acceptance into Paul McCartney’s international music school based in Liverpool. In January 2014, Jenie Thai represented Northern Alberta as a semi-finalist in the 30th International Blues Challenge held in Memphis.”

Guitarist/singer Lucas Haneman from Montreal: Lucas sat down front of me with a broad smile cutting from ear-to-ear. Lucas is sightless and at no time during the presentation did he release his grip on me: Positive, engaging, and one hell of a fine musician. More about Lucas.  “While in high school, he performed in many national jazz bands and received a CBC Galaxy Rising Star Award at the 2005 Ottawa International Jazz festival.  In 2010, he graduated from Concordia University with a BFA in Jazz Studies (where he received the prestigious Oscar Peterson scholarship in 2008.) “Haneman (is) a guitarist with an almost frighteningly broad stylistic reach and tone that ranged from clean and warm to distorted and aggressive.” - John Kelman, All About Jazz Magazine website.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Testimony of Robbie Robertson

An exceptional read often winds its way through one’s life. Such is the case for Robbie Robertson’s memoir – Testimony.
Brooklyn, New York bassist Stu Woods and I roomed together on the road from 1968 - 1969. "Road," being those weeklong jaunts up and down the Atlantic coast; others -upstate New York - Poughkeepsie, the Catskills – even Tony Mart’s Showplace in Atlantic City. We played non-stop soul music for dance crowds. Monday to Wednesday, the house was usually good. Come Thursday to Saturday, there were lineups down the block.
Stu and I loved listening to music. I mean... every breathing moment we were spinning discs on my portable Hi-Fi - one of those $40 traveling companions you detached two speakers, spread them apart and assumed you were hearing in stereo. Not a chance! Volume was minimal as was bottom end. Who cared? It was always about the LPs that traveled with us. Packed in a carry-with-you bag, a few jazz sides – Miles Davis Kind of Blue – some Jimi Hendrix – a couple soul sides and the prize: The Band, Music From The Big Pink – summer 1968.

Woods and I replayed and replayed the LP, nearly scrubbing the grooves away. Big Pink was light years beyond the psychedelic yarns spun by San Francisco bands or the Long Island jams of guitarist Leslie West and Mountain. This was roots music with a different vibe.

Robertson’s autobiography, Testimony, sat nearby weeks before I cracked it open. A good book talks back at you, if you keep ignoring it. Christmas Day, it practically screamed, “Stop for a minute, put down that fucking iPad and read me!” That was it – me, Robbie Robertson, the recliner and a whining dog at my side.

Where to begin?
I believe this is the first time I’ve got a historical sense of the true soul of Toronto’s music scene. Robertson spells it out through the first hundred pages. You hear and visualize Robertson’s memories of growing up around an oddball assortment of characters... his first guitar and searching out mentor musicians. The early days with his own band, The Rhythm Chords, with local entrepreneur and bassist Pete Traynor... the mean streets of Toronto...the neighborhoods... the small-time criminals... a tight-knit family, are all there. Then the big break with Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. The pace then quickens and rolls.

Robertson paints with words. Testimony isn’t a dry read – “back to back facts and figures” and self-absorbed trope: It’s the story of us; our city and the young players who ventured beyond, but never strayed too far.

Robertson’s take on Hawkins is priceless. More than a few of us were Hawks at one time and can attest to the posse of crazies, starry-eyed girls and the sheer laziness of the big chief. You didn’t just play in a band, you were part of a traveling circus. At times, a big musical jolt; at others, a night at “Caligula’s retreat,” as Ronnie would call it.
The early days with the Hawks, Scott “Magoo” Cushnie played piano. Robertson and the “encyclopedic” Cushnie became solid companions. Scott and gang (guitarist Bob Yeoman, bassist Rick Birkett, and drummer Frank DeFelice) would form their own fan-band - Jericho - back in 1970. We lived as a commune in an eight-room apartment complex above a grocery street on Hallam Street. A good eight hours by day were reserved for a complete runthrough of the Band catalogue. “The Night the Drove Old Dixie Down,” still reverberates the back of my skull as if Jericho was on a band break.

Robertson’s departure with the Hawks and bond with Bob Dylan is worth the price of admission. These chapters detail a friendship – a learning forum for anyone close by. Dylan gone electric and the details of those painful nights on stage absorbing insults, demeaning as they were, cleared a path for Robertson, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko into the next life. It’s a wonder any of these players would seriously take to the big stage again.
Big Pink – Woodstock, New York – the basement recording studio; hours and hours at the typewriter writing lyrics and experimenting with sound. Garth Hudson fiddling with his souped-up Lowrey organ; Dylan drop ins - more lyrics – words and melodies coming fast and furious. “I Shall Be Released," "Chest Fever” with Hudson’s Bach-like organ intro; “The Weight," "Tears of Rage," "To Kingdom Come," "This Wheel’s On Fire.”
It's rare for a group of musicians to rent a space, isolate themselves and get busy. Distractions are always close by. We tried it with the first Canadian band I was part of, Homestead. We moved to a farm owned by Bobby Orr in Newcastle, Ontario. It was four months of hell and few moments in the music room. Robertson and crew stayed focused, passionate and kept a rigorous writing schedule.
It was playwright Neil Simon’s memoirs that most impacted me on the way a good writer seeks discipline. Simon set a time – early morning to noon or so, then walked away. Robertson and cast booked early afternoon until nightfall and kept with the schedule and Dylan in the mix. Work gets done.
The beauty of this read? There are no greasy salacious details. People smoke pot, others have serious drinking issues and flirtations with heroin. Unlike the miserable Greg Allman book (My Cross to Bear) – Robertson keeps the narrative running as if in real time; absent long nights of debauchery. Spare us all.

Greenwich Village of the '60s - Andy Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Allen Ginsberg - they inhabit Robertson’s world. The record deal – negotiations, manager Albert Grossman, producer John Simon, the Hit Factory with Jerry Raganov, the Beatles, the Stones. A world of new music became home for a Scarborough boy whose mother Rose Marie Chrysler was a Mohawk raised on Six Nations Reserve south-west of Toronto. He then later discovers his biological father, David Klegerman, was Jewish and a professional gambler. Those chapters read like the epic film, Once Upon a Time in America starring Robert De Niro, James Woods, Joe Pesci. The friendships, strong family bonds, hooligans, and petty crime. There had to be a song or two in there.

Robertson and the Hawks held down a steady gig at Tony Marts – Showplace of the World in Atlantic City. This was one huge nightclub with three bandstands and thousands of teens. Stu Woods, me and the Brooklyn band played during the last days of October 1968 as the cold winds off the Atlantic were blowing in. As we were hauling equipment, Marts pulls us aside and reads the riot act. “You’re on an hour, off an hour, don’t be late or you’re gone. I expect class and no grass. And lastly, see the girl over there? Hands off, she’s my daughter and she’s a teenager.” I turn around and witness this young woman carrying more weight than Marts himself, and respond. “No problem.” Marts looks at me with a scolding eye. “Hands off!”
Stu Woods and I along with drummer Roy Markowitz auditioned for the Janis Joplin gig at the old Atlantic Studios owned by Herb Abramson. Albert Grossman was present. Roy and I got in and Stu found a home with Grossman and company playing bass on Dylan’s Self-Portrait, then Don McLean’s American Pie, the Pozo Seco singers, Tony Orlando and Dawn’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Janis Ian, Jim Croce, Bette Midler, Todd Rundgren and on. Not bad!

As with Robertson’s Testimony, I thoroughly enjoyed Levon Helm’s at-times bitter read – This Wheel’s on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band from 2000. Together, we get a complete view inside of the hearts and minds of one of the great bands of this past century. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

A Conversation with composer/arranger/musician Chelsea McBride

How extraordinary to celebrate a 25th birthday with a concert/CD release of original music of one’s own invention with a 19-piece big band? That occurred last night in Toronto at Lula Lounge for saxophonist/composer/arranger Chelsea McBride’s latest undertaking - The Twilight Fall.

Vancouver’s McBride is a member of an expanding women’s movement that is enriching the Toronto jazz scene. It’s been a long, challenging history for women instrumentalists in a music once governed by patronizing, chauvinistic men. Inclusivity is a result of hard-fought victories dating back decades when saxophonist Jane Fair and bassist Rosemary Galloway fronted their own bands. The late 1980’s and the ascension of bandleader/saxophonist Jane Bunnett began the dismantling of barriers and the break with the “ boys only club”. The lineage of women bandleaders locally is impossible to dismiss: Dr. Kira Payne, Carol Welsman, Colleen Allen, Laila Biali, Brandi Disterheft, Tara Davidson, Elizabeth Shepherd, and, most recently, Alison Young, Rebecca Hennessy, Naomi Higgins, McBride and others.

Thursday past, McBride dropped by CIUT 89.5 fm (The Bill King Show) and we settled in for an hour-long chat.

Bill King: Chelsea, you are working a series of bands – the Socialist Night School, a big band jazz unit – fusion pop band, Chelsea McBride and the Cityscape – The Achromatics, a Latin/soul music nonet – a video game cover band called Koopa Troop and not to long a go you were a graduate of the Humber Bachelor of Music Program. What gives?

Chelsea McBride: Chelsea and the Cityscape is a pop band formed first with a couple classmates. I was looking for a place to play my tunes and I didn’t know what I was going to do at the time. So I called people I trusted and brought them together and said, 'here are songs that don’t make much sense, but they’d be fun to play.' I started the big band after I ran out of school-sanctioned opportunities to workshop my big band writing. Something else I was trying to get into – so I just started my own. The Achromatics is the brainchild of Jay Vasquez, who is a guitarist and vocalist I play with a lot. It’s very much a collective project and the theme of that band is diversity and mixing cultural influences. We come from very different musical backgrounds. The Koopa Troop is the idea of the guitarist in the band, Wilson McLeish. We all dress up as video game characters and play your favourite tunes from classic video games and current video games. Anything nerdy is fair game.

B.K: You are having too much fun. I discovered you from the TD Discovery Series Special Projects initiative. Created by Toronto Downtown Jazz, this encourages the creation, development and presentation of special projects by jazz musicians in the City of Toronto. I was impressed with your writing for big band. Where does this come from?

C.M: I’ve been songwriting a long time and been around music all of my life. I was like nine or 10 and thought I’d try writing. At that time, it was whatever a 10-year-old‘s attempt at writing a pop song is. Not particularly sophisticated or exciting, but that’s what got me into it.

When I was in high school playing saxophone a few years and starting to double instruments, I was getting into “honor bands” - new territory for me. I played in a high school “jazz intensive” at the Vancouver Jazz Festival for three years. I thought about saxophonist Eli Bennett, who is very good - he played in the band for three years - and I thought maybe I should try out. I got in, but, by far, I was the weakest person. I then knew I had to practice and practice.

Playing in that setting allowed me to take what I was working on with songwriting and start writing for large ensemble. I think it was Grade 11 or 12 when I started writing for big band. I was then picked for the national honor band in Grade 12 and I remember flying across the country for my first meeting with Terry Promane (associate professor and jazz coordinator at the University of Toronto) and he explained what was expected and the plan. When he got to the end of his talk, he asked if we had any questions and I said, 'well, I’ve brought this chart in for big band, can we try it?' He did let me try it and it was fine and I decided then I was going to write for big band.

I workshopped some charts with the B-band at Humber under faculty member Mark Promane and he was awesome. Second year, my big band director wasn’t as enthusiastic. It was a huge shame. The entire point of being at school is to learn. I mean if the chart is so terrible and not worth a read, I get that. I got the runaround and it was not fun. I couldn’t get it played in class so I started my own band.

I called 18 people and said, 'let's all get in a room together.' I wanted to hear how it sounded. I wasn’t the only one – you could count them on one hand. It was me and my charts. It’s mostly been that over the history of the Socialist Night School big band. It’s open for others to bring in music too.

B.K: Are there arrangers you draw inspiration from?

C.M: I’ve played so much big band music throughout the later years. At 16 and not playing much big band, it was an interesting place to start. I played a lot of classic Count Basie, Sammy Nestico arrangements. I remember playing a lot of Duke Ellington charts in high school because of the Jazz at Lincoln Centre program. I remember them being really demanding. The clarinet parts of Ellington’s “Diminuendo in Blue,” which is super virtuosic and in a high register, I couldn’t play most of the notes at that age. Being assigned that music and told to play was a great way to get good fast.

I was also getting introduced to composers/arrangers Maria Schneider and Daniel Jamieson, who I ended up studying with and working for. We played music from the Jazz Institute in Chicago, then run by Nicole Mitchell when I was in it. I discovered arrangers Bob Brookmeyer and Vancouver’s Darcy James Argue, who became somewhere between influence and hero for me.

B.K: How did you read his charts? They are so complex.

C.M: His charts are so impeccable. He’s so focused on the copy side of it. Just because it’s clear and easy to read doesn’t make it any easier to play. My band will say this about my charts as well. It looks hard on paper but easier to play.

B.K: The concept of your new big band album, The Twilight Fall?

C.M: It’s about this odyssey – the life cycle of you. It’s the story of your life – the dreamland you may inhabit the rest of your life. It started as commuter dreams. What happens when you fall asleep on a long train ride. This is you re-experiencing everything you’ve lived.

B.K: What about the recording process?

C.M: When we were in mixing and recording, I found myself conducting myself – trying to remember all of the cues – the parts – the long score. I must have a visual association to this music. I must see what the measures look like as they pass.

B.K: Your dad was in radio
C.M: He’s been in the business, I think, 30 years. He was on the radio when I was very young. He was morning man at z95.3 in Vancouver. Matthew McBride.

I grew up listening to the music he played on radio. A lot of  '70s and '80s pop music. I remember being quite young and Dad went in to do a blindfold test of five-seconds-a-song and you had to guess what it was and he knew all of them. I thought to myself, of course, my Dad knows everything. He was the kind of guy who would break new artists on the radio. It’s a unique upbringing, for sure. One you don’t realize until you pause and look back.

B.K: What’s his thoughts on your music?

C.M: He says I’m responsible for getting him into jazz. I came into the music through the singers; listening to Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. Then it was the saxophonists – Coltrane – Charlie Parker – Lester Young; because I listened to the Basie band.
My parents are super supportive and enthusiastic about the whole thing. They’ve been following me through this journey.