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.
In the spirit of giving here’s a few ideas for the jazz fans on your Christmas List:
1. Buy a local jazz album. Here are a few suggestions: Saloon Standard by Joe Coughlin, The Ian McDougall 12tet Live, The Measure of Light by the Kelby MacNayr Quintet Look for the Silver Lining by Phil Dwyer and Don Thompson, Christmas Is by Maureen Washington, Lucky So-and-So by Melinda Whitaker. Those are just a few options. Search your favourite local jazz artist at iTunes or CD Baby and you’ll find many more choices. Ask at Lyle’s or Ditch Records in Victoria and encourage them to stock local players.
2. Buy a ticket to a local jazz event. U-JAM’s Jazz at the Gallery is a good bet and sells out every year. Check out the local jazz vespers series around Victoria as well as the Victoria Jazz Society’s offerings.
3. Take your friends to the annual New Years eve show at Hermann’s featuring the Victoria Jazz All Stars. It’s always packed and a lot of fun.
No need to wait for JazzFest to hear elite international musicians. Two shows at Hermann’s this week promise performances that will stand with the best.
First up is the Jennifer Scott Jazz Quartet, featuring Scott on vocals and piano, Rene Worst on bass, Monik Nordine on saxophones and James McRae on drums. Scott and Worst are both highly regarded musicians with international reputations. Worst’s performance credits are a mile long and include names like Chet Baker, Ernestine Anderson, David Bowie and Joe Pass. Scott is no slouch herself with major performance credits in the U.S. and Canada that include Clarke Terry and Kenny Wheeler.
The Tom Vickery Trio welcomes saxophonist Mark Lewis to Hermann’s on Saturday night. Lewis has authored more than 1,600 compositions and recorded and produced over 20 albums. He’s played with the likes of Bobby Hutcherson and Randy Brecker and was a regular sub for Stan Getz and John Handy when he lived in San Francisco, putting him in pretty lofty company. 8pm, $10/$15.
Both of these shows are highly recommended.
Vocalist Melinda Whitaker, who moved to the Island from Vancouver a few years ago, performs this Friday night (May 24) at Hermann’s with the Brent Jarvis Trio and guitarist Henry Young. Island Jazz posed five questions to Melinda so we could get to know her a little better. Here’s what she had to say:
1. If you could take only one jazz album with you to a desert island, which one would it be and why?
I’d take Seattle jazz vocalist Ernestine Anderson’s “Never Make Your Move Too Soon” with Monty Alexander on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Frank Gant on drums. Ernestine is my all time fave. She is soul incarnate.
2. What was your worst gig ever?
I was playing a gig with top drawer jazz players when we were confronted by inebriated, furious guests who were expecting a heavy metal band. Thankfully the piano player defused hostilities with the now legendary remark, “Don’t worry, we’ll play something with a lot of the same notes.”
3. What was your best?
That’s got to be when I was opening for The Ray Brown Trio at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, 2001.
4. How has your move to Vancouver Island worked out musically for you?
To my delight, I’ve found Vancouver Island to be a musical oasis. Some of the country’s top jazz musicians have chosen to make their homes here, and I count myself fortunate to be sharing the incredible Island vibe. Every player but one on my recently released album Lucky So-And-So!, produced by iconic jazz Islander Phil Dwyer, is from the Island and all are West Coasters. In a very real sense it’s a Pacific Northwest tour de force. So I’m happy to say that my move to Vancouver Island has, in your words Rick, given me the ‘expansive musical sandbox’ of my dreams.
5. What should Victoria fans know about guitarist Henry Young?
There is literally nothing that jazz guitarist Henry Young has not accomplished in his career. He spent decades touring with the legendary Nina Simone and has played with some of the biggest names in the industry, Ray Charles and Roberta Flack among them. Add musical director, composer, arranger and recording artist credits and he brings a brilliant depth of technique and soul rarely accessible to jazz aficionados these days.
The show gets underway at 8pm. Tickets are $25. You can read more about Melinda at melindawhitaker.com
May always seems to be a good month for jazz on the Island. Here’s a few noteworthy upcoming shows:
The Crofton Hotel Pub continues its weekly series just a stone’s throw from the Salt Spring Island ferry terminal on Sunday, May 19 with an appearance by Courtenay-Comox vocalist Dale Graham backed by a quartet featuring Rick Husband on guitar, Mike Eddy on keyboards, Don McKay on electric bass and Ron Joiner on drums. (2-5 pm, $10).
Kelby MacNayr’s Art of the Trio series welcomes Juno-winners Phil Dwyer(sax/piano) and Ken Lister (bass) to Hermann’s on Friday, May 17. The trio will explore new selections from the Great American Songbook and the legacy of great saxophone and piano performers including John Coltrane, Bill Evans and more. (8pm,$20,$18, $15)
The Barracuda Saxophone Quartet (Monik Nordine, Tom Ackerman, Chris Watt and Rainer Roth) will be joined by Pablo Cardenas on piano and Petra Kixmoller doing spoken word to perform The Threepenny Opera at Merlin’s Sun Theater, 1983 Fairfield Road on Saturday, May 18th 7:30pm. $20/$22 contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Vocalist Melinda Whitaker appears on Friday, May 24th at Hermann’s with guitarist Henry Young. Young is a Vancouver guitarist well known for his work with Nina Simone. Joining Young and Whitaker will be the Brent Jarvis Trio. (8pm, $25).
There’s lots more great jazz going on. Check the calendars and upcoming gigs page (above) for more info.