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.
Dan Brubeck on Growing Up in a Famous Household, Living in Canada, and Recording a New CD with his Vancouver-Based Quartet
Drummer Dan Brubeck, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, will tour the Island with his Vancouver-based quartet in November to promote his latest CD, The Dan Brubeck Quartet: Celebrating the Music and Lyrics of Dave and Iola Brubeck. The double CD, recorded at The Cellar shortly before it closed, features bassist/vocalist Adam Thomas, saxophonist Steve Kaldestad and pianist Tony Foster. It’s a gorgeous live recording that sheds new light on Dave Brubeck’s compositional brilliance and the unheralded beauty of Iola Brubeck’s lyrics.
Island Jazz recently conducted an email interview with Dan Brubeck. I started by asking him about his childhood and how he ended up in Vancouver.
I’ll give you a brief history of my comings and goings. I was born in Oakland, California – pretty much everyone knows my dad was from the Bay area. We moved to Connecticut, outside of New York City, when I was very young. There were six of us kids and my dad was not getting enough time at home living in California, because he spent so much time traveling to Europe.The move to the New York area cut travel time in half, which allowed him to spend more time with all of us. I think that move was hard on my parents because they’d been in California for generations.
What was it like growing up in the Brubeck household?
People often ask me that. Obviously it was a very different upbringing than most people have had but to me it all seemed pretty normal. All of my brothers are great musicians, and when I was young, we spent a lot of time checking out music and playing together. The house was like a conservatory of music. There were a lot of different bands between all of us brothers and so that brought herds of other musicians around the house. Some of these guys are really successful now like Jerry Bergonzi and John Scofield who was in a high school band that my Brother Chris and I played in.
Then, of course, my dad had a lot of rehearsals at the house and so from an early age I got to hear great drummers like Joe Morello and Alan Dawson. We heard musicians like Gerry Mulligan and Paul Desmond from a very early age. Eventually we got a chance to work with these guys quite a bit. Of course, when I was really young, I had no idea how great these guys were. They were just friends of my dad that all happened to enjoy playing music together. The fact that they were some of the world’s greatest musicians eluded me at a preteen age.These guys were great mentors to all of us and very patient, I might add. They really encouraged us a lot.
How did you come to live in Vancouver?
I spent time in New York City and around Woodstock, New York, and then I got married and my wife at the time was very California-oriented, so we moved around California, up and down the coast, and wound up near Mendocino. After a few summers on the cold California coast we started getting interested in a warmer climate during the summers at least. Several friends I had mentioned Nelson, BC, and so we got a place there and eventually put our kids in school and ultimately got residency in Canada. Once we had our residency we felt like we needed to be closer to an airport and have more education choices for kids, so we decided to move to Vancouver. After about three years in the Vancouver area, I moved back to Nelson for a little while and then to the Sunshine Coast where I reside now. I think I’ve been in Canada at least eight years now – maybe longer. The physical climate and the political climate I guess is what brought us to Canada initially. I started getting active about moving when George Bush got elected for a second time. At that point I figured the chances of America recovering from that were pretty much zero.
How did the new CD come about?
At some point, I realized that there was a hole that wasn’t being filled, especially in the two family groups I work with. I was interested in doing something different with my dad’s compositions and I really wanted to shed some light on my mother’s lyrical contributions. People were not really aware of her. As it turned out, the bassist that I enjoyed working with so much, Adam Thomas, just happened to be a great vocalist as well. We played a whole lotta gigs together before I figured that out. Once I heard him sing, that opened a lot of doors. It’s kind of like having another gear having a vocalist to add to a jazz quartet. I’d never really done this with my dad’s music before. It is a completely different way of approaching his music. It’s also a very accessible way that adds a different dimension to his compositions.
Was there a particular moment you realized you wanted to showcase your mom’s lyrics?
I guess after my dad passed away, there was so much attention being put on him. My mom had put in an enormous amount of energy as a manager of his group in the early days and as a lyricist. My mom did a lot of the text for my dad’s classical compositions. They were a team in every sense of the word, but she always stayed behind the scenes. She passed away about a year after my dad and it became important to me that people realize that he would’ve had an extremely difficult time without her being behind him for seventy years. When she started to get sick, I felt it was important for her work to be recognized. That’s what prompted me to get a move on and get the CD out. It turns out she wrote quite a bit of the liner notes in her last days.
Why did you decide to do a live recording?
We recorded the CD at The Cellar in Vancouver. Adam had said that we could record our concerts with his portable studio. This was very early on in the project. I think we’d really only done one other gig at that point where we were featuring my mom’s and dad’s work. We realized that we needed a tape to get gigs with and to move the project along. I guess what we didn’t realize was how good it was going to come out. I was certainly happier with the results than I expected. I hadn’t done a live album in a very long time. In 1977 I did a Live at Montreux record with my dad and brothers. As a drummer, live or in the studio doesn’t make a hell of a lot of difference because you really can’t overdub to fix anything anyway. In the studio you lose the audience factor which really helps to generate energy and feeling.
Can you talk a bit about the Vancouver musicians on the project?
First of all, this project would really not have happened without Adam Thomas. I think he did a great job as a singer. He brought a soulful sweetness as the voice of this project. He has a great sense of pitch and doesn’t overplay the singing role. Critics have commented on his unpretentious approach to the music. I think that’s quite refreshing to hear from a jazz singer. I think we were all trying to respect and maintain the integrity of each of these compositions. So, it was not a “Look at me I’m singing kind-of-thing.” He simply was trying to convey the message of each lyric in a musical context.
Adam has a minimalist approach to his bass playing. That’s not to say that he is lacking in any ability, it’s a very musical approach. This is exactly how Gene Wright, the bassist with the Dave Brubeck Quartet approached this music. It certainly worked for them. As my dad used to say, “Someone’s got to hold down the fort.” When you hear Adam solo, there’s no mistaking that this guy’s got a ton of chops.
Steve Kaldestad brings a lot of fire to the group. His sax solos launch the band into another gear. It allows me to pick things up a notch as well and we can then create a lot of energy and excitement. You can hear the history of jazz sax playing in Steve, although his sound is completely original. He is certainly not copying anybody out there that I know of.
Tony Foster is a great pianist. He’s one of the most swinging piano players I’ve ever worked with. Tony has a difficult chair in this band since he’s in my dad’s role, but he manages to keep his identity in a music so associated with my dad’s style of playing. I find Tony’s open style really refreshing and relaxing to play with. It’s great to just fall into a groove and let it sit for a while. Tony is the king of that concept.
I guess I could say for all these guys that you can really hear a lot of history in each of their playing. I really love playing with all these guys.
How did you choose the tunes? There must have been a lot of material given the length of your dad’s career.
When Adam and I started looking at material, we were just looking for things that resonated with Adam. It was important to both of us that he could feel comfortable singing the lyrics and the message the lyrics were conveying. He needed a soul connection with each song, so he could really get behind it and be genuine with the music. There is a lot of music to choose from. Some of the songs which had lyrics we decided just to play as instrumentals, mostly for the reasons I mentioned above.
What were your main goals with this project?
One objective was to have the world hear this great group of musicians that I have the honor to work with. It was also important to me to present this music in Canada in a concert-like situation where people would actually listen and appreciate it. I would love to be able to work in Canada as opposed to flying around the world all the time. I also wanted to have my own group and expand as I go. Play whatever kind of music that pleases me. I think the music we are playing now is really important for people to hear. I also think people are interested in the history of this music. They want to know the story behind its creation and I have a lot of stories to tell.
The band is growing into this music and we are continuing to expand our understanding of it. There’s an amazing amount of depth to it lyrically and compositionally. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of playing it. Of course, it’s always changing and moving and that’s the nature and beauty of jazz improvisation.
Editor’s Note: The Dan Brubeck Quartet plays Hermann’s in Victoria on Thursday, November 12. On Friday, November 13 they appear at the Simon Holt Restaurant in Nanaimo. Many thanks to Kerilie McDowall for setting up the interview.
I want to thank Ken Lister for filling me in on the details of the upcoming show at VIU in Nanaimo because this is a concert that jazz fans up and down the Island won’t want to miss, particularly those with a hankering to hear a Hammond B3.
The Nightcrawlers, fresh off a WCMA win for the best jazz album of 2011, appear at the Malaspina Theatre on Wednesday, January 18 at 7:30pm.
Dedicated to recreating the sound and feel of the great B3 bands of the ’60s (think Booker T and the MG’s), this Vancouver quintet, led by drummer Jesse Cahill, has been praised in Downbeat magazine for its authentic sound, swagger and swing.
The WCMA win is for their latest album “Down in the Bottom” which features not only the quintet but also a big band, which they’ll have with them at the VIU show.
These guys sound awesome. Have a listen and get yourself to the concert. Doors open at 7pm. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students.
First on the list is Phil Dwyer’s appearance this Saturday January 7 at Hermann’s in Victoria as part of Kelby MacNayr’s new “Night of the Cookers” series. I’ve written plenty on this site about this great saxophonist, pianist, composer, and educator, and so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice to say that with the subtle and sympathetic support of Ken Lister on bass and MacNayr on drums, Dwyer will deliver an amazing show. Don’t miss it. It will be one of the best of the year (8pm/$18,$15, $10).
The jazz vespers folks have lots going on too. Drummer Bob Watts welcomes Andrew Slade on piano and Bruce Meikle on bass this Sunday, January 8 at St. Phillip Anglican Church on Eastdowne in Oak Bay. Watts is doing something different with his series in that all of the music played by his rotating trio is sacred music. Makes for a relaxed and contemplative Sunday evening in the intimate setting of a small church (7:30pm/by donation).
On Sunday, January 15th, Ken Gray’s and David Enns’ series at the Church of the Advent in Colwood welcomes the Bruce Hurn Jazz Orchestra Collective, a reincarnation of the Monday Night Big Band that used to perform at Hermann’s. They sound big and bold and brassy and with the likes of Monik Nordine as a featured soloist are sure to deliver a rousing show (7pm/by donation).
Also on Sunday, January 15th, Ron Hadley’s The Old School House series in Qualicum presents An Historical Tribute to the Jazz Clarinet with not one but three outstanding Vancouver clarinetists. Francois Houle, Tom Colclough, and Liam Hockley, supported by Hadley on piano and Joey Smith on bass, will cover everything from traditional New Orleans to contemporary sounds in this unique show. Houle alone has released more than a dozen albums that have garnered a string of Juno and West Coast Music Award nominations. Highly recommended. (2:30-4:30 pm/ $16).
While I’m at it I should put a plug in for shows at the Acme Food Company on Commercial St. in Nanaimo. They are running live shows every weekend and have some good jazz coming up. You can check out their calendar here. Incidentally, despite the name, this is a restaurant not a warehouse!
Stay tuned. There’s more to come.