Drummer, songwriter, teacher and bandleader James McRae has played with everyone from Colin James to Marc Atkinson and Miles Black. He was born in Toronto but moved to Vancouver when he was fourteen. He’s lived on the Island since the 1980s and has long been an important part of the jazz scene here, including his time in the 1990s with the popular Victoria group Loose. In 2011 he released Slow Down, an album of original songs with a Brazilian flavour that received praise from across Canada. I interviewed McRae by telephone from his home in Nanaimo. An edited version of the interview follows.
How did you get into jazz?
Between twelve and nineteen I played along to records – Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top, The Who – I was more into prog rock actually which was off the beaten path. When I came back from travelling in Europe when I was nineteen, I decided to ask the Musician’s Association who the best drummer in Vancouver was so I could take lessons. They recommended Al Wiertz who played with Lenny Breau and a number of prominent people. He and other drummers in Vancouver, including Terry Clarke, had studied with Jim Blackley. When I went to Al, he said I’m going to teach you to play drums but jazz is the music I grew up on. I would go in and he would play the same three musical groups – the Miles Davis Quintet, the John Coltrane Quartet and the Bill Evans Trio – and show me how to play along through the Jim Blackley method and teaching ideology. After about half a year I realized I was enjoying that music. That was my indoctrination into jazz music.
What’s your musical philosophy?
There’s all these myriad influences you pick up as a musician. I think it’s a reflection of my own personality that I’ve never latched onto one particular sound or style that felt like that was it and that I had to cut everything else out of my life. On the food level the analogy would be liking all kinds of food and being really adventurous.
Everyone is different and you have to find your own place. Most of the people I play music with were born in some kind of suburb in urban Canada and they grew up with a bunch of different North American cultural influences. If you want to be someone who plays bebop – that’s coming out of a whole different cultural backdrop. Not to dishonour someone who wants to pursue a particular musical style … but I want to honour the fact that I live in a relatively small community on the west coast of Canada. What are my roots? What’s my heritage? And how do I incorporate that? That’s really my philosophy – getting into who you are and what’s unique about you.
How did your album Slow Down come about?
Ever since high school I’ve always dabbled on the piano – I’ve never taken lessons or studied with anyone formally but over the years, especially when I was living in Jordan River, I noodled on the piano to the point that I learned how to play jazz voicings on my left hand while I could solo on my right hand and that was just a part of me developing my songwriting ability. The evolution of that album is just the ongoing evolution of my ability to have an idea and present it to other people. The idea of Jennifer Scott singing without any words is very much coming out of Chick Corea’s Return to Forever, which goes back to the early influence of the Wayne Shorter album Native Dancer.
How did you choose the musicians for that album?
I had a longstanding relationship with Miles Black – I remember doing gigs with Miles when he was living in Victoria and I always had a positive rapport with him in terms of his outlook on music and so I felt Miles would be a good person to engage. He’d been working with Jennifer Scott and Rene Worst and they’d done some recordings together and I liked what I heard. I’d played a little bit with Rene – in 2000 I did a tour with Barbara Blair up to the interior with Tom Vickery and Rene was on those gigs. But basically it was the rapport Miles had with Rene and Jennifer – I liked that synergy and I thought it would be really good to include them all.
Talk about the recording process.
At the time in 2010 I was doing A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline – we did a lot of shows in the Vancouver area. Going in to do the recording I remember doing a bunch of country gigs and so we never rehearsed for that CD. We basically went into the studio and did the CD in a day. Miles layered some B3 organ on one or two of the songs but with the exception of that it was from the floor onto tape. We did mostly just two takes of the songs.
What about your role as drummer on the album?
When you play drums, especially in commercial music, you’re playing mostly a supportive role…there’s not the chance to improvise and play out. One of the reasons I think the CD worked really successfully is that I was coming out of that headspace of playing a supportive role [on the Patsy Cline gigs]. I was thinking of that CD as more an opportunity to do my songs, not as an opportunity to say ‘hey, look at me I’m a great drummer.’ Never really felt that way anyway and again that’s a reflection of my personality I suppose.
Notable Quotes from the Interview
“We’re all different and we all have a different place to go and I just want to try to honour that in other people.”
“I do enjoy working with young people maybe because they’re generally more open and less crystallized in their approach to what they’re doing.”
You can visit James McRae’s website, listen to his music and check out his playing dates here.
One of the things that distinguishes Jim Hall from other jazz guitarists is his originality.
Many guitarists take a lick-based approached to improvisation. Over time they develop a vocabulary of licks – usually gleaned from other players or transcribed from records – and thread them together to create a solo. Some rely heavily on such licks while others will play improvised-on-the-spot melodies perhaps half the time.
Jim Hall does neither. He considers improvising an art form and likens it to painting. As a result he favours motivic development in his solos, meaning that he will improvise a “motive” or musical idea on the spot and then build on it and explore its variations as he develops the solo. The result: a new canvas each time he sits down to play.
In fact he has only transcribed one or two solos in his entire life and that was many years ago. When he listens to other players – often horn players – he does so to get the feeling, not to pick up specific phrases or licks. He’s just as likely to get his musical inspiration from other art forms, especially painting and poetry.
You can hear this approach in this wonderful 1981 recording with Don Thompson(piano) and Terry Clarke(drums):
It’s an understatement to say that Jim Hall, who turns 82 this year, is the most influential jazz guitarist alive today. Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, Ed Bickert and many others all put him at the top of their list of influences, and many jazzers, regardless of instrument, see him as an iconic figure in modern jazz. Metheny calls him the “father of the modern jazz guitar.”
These accolades are well deserved. Starting in the late 50s Hall played with the very best including Ben Webster, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Ella Fitzgerald, Paul Desmond, and Art Farmer. His early period includes seminal recordings with Evans (Undercurrent and Intermodulation) and Rollins (The Bridge).
He also has interesting connections with Canada.
When Paul Desmond came to Toronto in the early 70s, Hall recommended that he hire Ed Bickert as his guitarist. Hall had played in Toronto a lot and had gotten to know Bickert well. I’ve never been able to verify this story from a primary source but apparently Hall said to Desmond that Bickert was so good he scared him when he came into the room.
(A side note: the story is believable since Bickert has that kind of reputation amongst guitarists. When I interviewed Pat Metheny for a CBC documentary on him and Linda Manzer, Metheny told me after the interview that he was in complete awe of Bickert and didn’t really understand how he did what he did.)
Carrying on with Hall’s Canadian connections:
He played in a trio with Don Thompson and Terry Clarke and recorded an album with them.
Vancouver (formerly Montreal) guitarist Bill Coon chose studying with Hall over doing a graduate degree.
Mike Rud, another great Canadian guitarist who spent time in Vancouver and Victoria (he’s now in Montreal), also studied with Hall.
There are more connections and more to say but for now I’ll leave you with a recording featuring Hall playing All the Things You Are with Pat Metheny, Chistian McBride and Antonio Sanchez:
“Josh’s cymbal beat made you want to smile and dance. Don’t need much more than that.” – Nicholas Payton
Josh Dixon was only 41 when he died of heart failure in his sleep, but judging from the response to his passing so far, he has several lifetimes worth of accolades to send him on his way, all of them earned through his masterful drumming and positive personality.
Pianist Karel Roessingh, who has known Dixon since he was four years old and has been a major figure on the Victoria jazz scene for years, says Dixon was not only “a really, really great drummer” but also a terrifically positive person with a wonderful sense of humour who took delight in everything he did, whether it was playing music, whacking a ball around a golf course, or painting a house.
“He had an almost boyish wonder about him,” says Roessingh, adding that Dixon was always friendly, humble and respectful and “clearly had a hugely deep love for his family.” Roessingh recalls him talking about his family “all the time.”
As a player Roessingh says Dixon was “a kind of trickster” who would get a sly smile on his face and then do something totally unexpected that would surprise and delight his fellow musicians. “He had such a simple little drum kit – like something from a toy box – but the stuff he did with it!”
Antoine Drye, a renowned New York trumpeter who has performed with many of the best jazz musicians in the world, says Dixon was a “natural drummer” and a “swinging dude” who fit very well into the New Orleans and New York scenes that he joined in the early nineties with his best friend, bassist Sean Drabitt. “That’s a hell of an achievement in itself,” says Drye, noting that to become a working musician in New Orleans and New York, the very breeding ground of jazz, “takes balls.”
Drabitt calls the years in New Orleans with Dixon “a golden time” where a group of young players learned together under the tutelage of the great Ellis Marsalis. He remembers playing up to three gigs a night, gigs that sometimes included members of the Marsalis family – Ellis, Wynton, Branford, Delfeayo, and Jason – in different configurations. Nicholas Payton and Brian Blade were also part of the scene, as was Jason Stewart.
Stewart, now bassist for the Ellis Marsalis Quartet, says Dixon was “a great drummer” and a clever person with a particularly dry sense of humour. He had “a great feel” and was clearly well entrenched in “a certain tradition” of drumming, he adds, noting that unlike some drummers who overwhelm the bass, he meshed really well because of the quality of his sound.
Drabitt says that everything Dixon hit sounded good and that he had a “masterful” ride cymbal on the level of Claude Ranger’s, the iconic Canadian drummer who mysteriously disappeared in 2000. “He got the colours he needed.”
Dixon had little formal musical education beyond high school but studied with Ranger, Jeff Hamilton (Diana Krall’s frequent collaborator), and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, a famous drummer who toured with everyone from Sonny Rollins and Dave Holland to Sting and Willie Nelson.
Mostly, though, he got his musical education the old-fashioned way by listening to records, playing gigs, and immersing himself in the scene. Drabitt says he was heavily grounded in the early sixties both “soundwise” and “approachwise,” citing drummers like Elvin Jones, Grady Tate, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins and Philly Joe Jones as major influences.
Multiple Juno winner Hugh Fraser, who played his first professional gig in Victoria with Dixon’s dad George and eventually would mentor Dixon, says that even before he traveled to New York and New Orleans, the young Dixon “sounded like an old spirit,” and had a “wide open” swing feel that distinguished him from other drummers, not only in Victoria but also in Canada.
Fraser feels that his immersion in the New Orleans and New York scenes simply magnified qualities that were already there. “He had such traditional flare and drive” says Fraser, crediting Dixon’s listening to a lot of different recordings and growing up with his drummer dad, for the great feel he possessed.
Fraser adds that Dixon’s enthusiasm made him fun to play with. “He was always up for playing in the true sense of the word.” He fondly recalls the young Dixon pulling up to his (Fraser’s) mother’s house in a convertible MG with the top down and his dad’s drum kit stuffed in the back – a scene right out of the 40s in Fraser’s mind – ready and excited to play.
He remembers, too, that while teaching in London he would get phone calls from Dixon and Drabitt at 4 am in the morning, excitedly telling him they were at Mary’s (his mom’s) house jamming.”I thought jams happened only when I was there, ” laughs Fraser, adding that Dixon “was a sweetheart we’ll all miss so much” who infused his music with a playful, magical spirit.
Phil Dwyer, another multiple Juno winner, met Dixon and Drabitt in the summer or 1988 or 1989 when they played together with Dave Keen at Pagliacci’s in Victoria. A precocious musician himself who had journeyed to New York a few years earlier to immerse himself in the scene when he was only 17, Dwyer says “it was pretty clear they were (real) musicians who were in it for the long haul. “I was really pleased to hear that they had both struck out for south of the border.”
When Dixon returned from the U.S., Dwyer says you could tell he was someone who had “been sitting at the feet of the masters and paying attention.” He describes him as “a real groover” who “hadn’t checked his ego at the door – he’d checked it at the building down the block.” Dwyer adds that he had great respect for the jazz tradition “without pandering to it,” and when he played, he made things feel good and gave back “the right kind of energy.”
Vancouver pianist and trumpeter Brad Turner, who met Dixon in the early nineties and played with him in various quartet and trio gigs in Victoria and New Orleans, says Dixon was one of those rare drummers with both great technique and great musicality, making him a tasteful accompanist and a formidable soloist who played flawlessly with passion and fire.
He recalls a night in 1994 when The Sean Drabitt Quartet (Drabitt, Dixon,Turner and saxophonist Terry Deane) played the entire John Coltrane A Love Supreme album. “Josh was on fire that night,” says Turner, adding that he was the kind of guy who would “give you the shirt off his back” and was a “gregarious, generous and intelligent person.”
Tom Vickery, who gigged with Dixon around town and played with him at the Hermann’s jam every Thursday night for the last few years, says ” he had a passion for those drums”, and “he made me play,” adding that he was always upbeat when he arrived, could play any style, and “had a special touch.”
Dixon also made an impact outside the jazz world. Victoria Juno-nominated bluesman Bill Johnson credits Dixon with stretching him as a musician:
“As I’m a blues artist, playing with Josh Dixon was an experience that left me feeling both guilty for restraining him, and on the other hand, free from the blues form. If I felt the inspiration to take off into uncharted territory, he would be there ready to fly. He was like a springboard for my imagination. Those gigs were among the most musical experiences of my life.”
It’s not only older, established musicians who have great things to say about Dixon. Mitch Fisher, a 12-year-old student of Dixon’s who studied with him for five years, says Dixon was “a very nice guy” who in their weekly sessions focused more on “on playing than just learning,” and had “a really good positive attitude.” Fisher says other drum students had the same experience and always looked forward to their lessons with him.
Those words might have been spoken by Vancouver drummer Jesse Cahill who has written on his blog how important Dixon was to him as a young drummer growing up in Victoria and trying to make his way in the jazz world.
“Josh was one of the first real jazz drummers that I ever saw perform live. I’ll never forget him coming to my high school when I was in grade nine and playing in a trio with pianist Louis Rose and bassist Russ Botten. After that I made a habit of going to check him out at the restaurants and cafes around town whenever I could. Eventually he started giving me the opportunity to sit in on his gigs, always offering encouragement and advice. He gave me a few formal lessons but most importantly he was always happy to hang out and talk about playing music.”
Evidence of Dixon’s impact can be found in the press, too. A glance through journalist Joe Blake’s old Backbeat columns in the Times Colonist shows that Dixon, with Drabitt, had a major impact on the local scene very early in his career. “Ferociously swinging,” and “concise, joyful, orchestral” are just a few of the descriptors Blake used as early as 1991 in praise of Dixon’s drumming.
The last word, though, must come from Sean Drabitt who has been with Dixon on his musical journey since they were 16-year-old’s playing the music of The Police and forming their first jazz group. “I was always impressed with his ability to be so nurturing,”says Drabitt. “He always seemed to care.” And of his general approach to life and music, Drabitt adds, “He had an old wisdom to him…he was very accepting and a genuinely nice guy.”
Needless to say Josh Dixon will be missed by many people, not least among them is Grammy-winning New Orleans trumpet and piano iconoclast Nicholas Payton, who put it succinctly when he expressed what Dixon meant to his fellow New Orleans musicians:
“Josh’s cymbal beat made you want to smile and dance. Don’t need much more than that.”
The Victoria jazz community is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of drummer Josh Dixon last Wednesday at age 41. The coroner’s report identified a congenitally enlarged heart as the cause of death.
Tributes to Josh are pouring in not only from the Victoria community but also New York and New Orleans where he lived for a number of years and performed with some of the top names in jazz including Herb Ellis, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
An informal jazz jam tribute is planned for this Thursday, January 26, 8 -11 pm, at Hermann’s Jazz Club in Victoria.
A formal memorial service will be held at Hermann’s on Saturday, March 3 starting at 4pm.
Josh’s wife Jennie is creating a website to honour him. It is up now and will be completed in February.
I’m currently working with Sean Drabitt on an extended article that will pay tribute to Josh and document his life as a musician. Stay tuned.