Drummer, drum instructor and band leader Jon Miller lived in Montreal, Philadelphia and Amsterdam before locating to the west coast in 1999. He holds a B. Mus in Jazz Performance from McGill University and has studied drums with Alan Dawson, Martin Bradfield, Peter Magadini, Louis Williamson, Marvin “Smitty” Smith and Barry Elmes. He’s shared the stage with (among others) Jeff Healey, Charlie Hunter, Skip Bey, Vic Vogel and Hugh Fraser. Jon currently divides his time between teaching drums at Groove Studios and the Jon Miller Drum Studio as well freelance playing and leading his own groups including the Jon Miller Quartet. He released a new album this year Three Days in Winter which has enjoyed a lengthy stay on the college jazz charts. Island Jazz interviewed him recently by email.
How did you get into jazz and what are your main influences?
My parents were into jazz, though not in a major way, still my dad talked about getting a huge kick out of hearing the entire Basie orchestra in a tiny club in New York, and there were Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey and Charlie Bird records in the family record collection. This was the backdrop I guess but jazz really happened for me because of a drum teacher I had in Sudbury, Ontario named Philip May. Phil had been to Berklee School of Music and was headed to York University in Toronto at the time he was my drum teacher. His drumming was really flamboyant and had a lot of personality, and he is also a really friendly, funny and intelligent person. He kind of opened my eyes to the idea of jazz as a living art form and he got me listening to drummers like Tony Williams and Al Foster with Miles Davis, Max Roach with Charlie Parker, Peter Erskine with Weather Report and Jack DeJohnette with Pat Metheny and others, and I also started to appreciate the my parent’s Brubeck and Blakey records. I wasn’t anywhere near understanding most of what was going on in the music yet but I was starting to appreciate it and to hear beyond what I had been listening to and playing up to then (punk, rock, prog rock and country, touring with a country band as a teenager). This led to studies at York University and eventually McGill. Along the way I got to study with Peter Magadini, Barry Elmes, Lou Williamson and Alan Dawson who were definitely influences along with the musicians I’ve already mentioned.
Do you have a particular musical philosophy?
This might seem like a roundabout answer but here goes: my dream radio station would play an eclectic mix of just good music regardless of genre or whether it is considered to be art music or commercial. Of course this is highly subjective but to my ears most music stations whether commercial or not tend to play one good track and then a lot of relative duds because they are locked into a format where they have to keep that style or particular vibe going…My dream station would cherry pick stuff played by all of the types of stations from all genres, along with things you never normally hear on the radio so as to just keep the good stuff coming.
In playing music I resist the idea that anything is off limits for the sake of fitting into a particular format. For example I think its great that one a reviewer described a track from 3 Days in Winter as channelling Captain Beefheart while picking up on a Miles Davis reference in another.
I love playing things that people know and are familiar with but its also very rewarding to play new music for the very first time. Playing a wedding or something is not a big a deal for me, I’ll shoot for the best bossa-nova I’ve ever played in moments like that, even if the audience is not in a position to pick up on this intent. In a different setting I’ll want to dig a little deeper to try to express through music something I think really needs to be said.
You’re originally from Montreal and have spent time in Philadelphia and Amsterdam. What inspired your move to the west coast in 2003?
Saying I’m from Montreal is a shorthand since where I’m from and grew up is more complicated. I was born in Pullman, Washington, and lived in Alberta and Ontario as a kid but spent a lot of time in Montreal later and I feel very at home there despite (or in part because of) the language thing. (I learned French in my 20s, nearly verging on fluency on a good day.) Also my wife April is from Montreal and we go back fairly frequently. Moving to the west coast was supposed to be temporary so my wife could do a one year teaching position at Uvic. Now 16 years later she’s tenured in the Department of Anthroplogy and we’re still here! I love the West Coast but I have no illusions about Victoria being any match for the dynamism of a larger center, but by the same token the larger cities I’ve lived in don’t have a lot of the things we take for granted here.
How do you find the jazz scene here compared to other centres you’ve lived?
Of all the places I’ve lived Philadelphia has the richest heritage of jazz. While there I studied with a drummer who had studied with Philly Joe Jones and another who worked regularly with Pat Martino. At a jam session I met an older drummer who had just gotten a call from Sonny Rollins who wanted to do some playing. Also the Eubanks family are from there and Orrin Evans was an up-and-coming pianist at that time. Drummer Ralph Peterson and pianist Uri Caine were around and playing a lot, and drummer Mickey Roker had a house gig at a club called Ortlieb’s JazzHaus. Sun Ra had passed away by then but the remaining members of the Sun Ra Arkestra were all living in a house in the Germantown neighbourhood and Rashied Ali who had played with John Coltrane hosted a concert at a Jazz and Cultural centre where I was doing some teaching. So the scene was very active and had a proud history but it was an eye opener for me to see how many of these great players were really struggling to get by. But there was also a dynamism to the scene there that I haven’t seen in other places, for example a neighbourhood bar featuring live music by a senior-citizen organ trio called Nate Wiley and the Crowd Pleasers which was “discovered” by a young art-student crowd and transformed pretty much overnight into a hip and bustling hangout where the live music was actually the real deal. (https://vimeo.com/36992448 for 4 minute documentary on this impossible-not-to-like band and bar in Philly)
I would say Victoria like many of the other scenes I have witnessed has many fine players and groups who are just as good and sometimes better than people you could hear in larger scenes on a regular basis. It’s not hard to find good players to play with -there’s no shortage of talent here- but many musicians I know echo the sentiment that it if feels like you have to create your own scene. A jazz warehouse collective is an idea people talk about, although it would be a lot of work to get off the ground.
Tell us about the music on your most recent album Three Days in Winter. How is this album different from Orchidology which you recorded in 2009?
As a group we functioned more as a collective going into this latest project, with everyone contributing music equally and each member essentially leading the band when we rehearsed their compositions. I really love the diversity of writing voices; I think it creates something that is more than the sum of its parts. Also we knew we were making an album going in! Orchidology was a fun and rewarding project for sure but it really started out as a demo which got expanded along the way.
You recorded it with Brent Jarvis in his studio. Tell us about the recording process. Mostly live off the floor?
Brent has a great ear for what we wanted to do and knew implicitly the type of sound we wanted to get, so recording at his studio was the easiest thing. So yeah, mostly live off the floor, a little editing for the better ending here, a better solo there. There were a couple of tunes we wanted to get into the right mood for, studio day time vs club at night has some differences. We made the CD in three sessions, hence the album’s title. I’ve lost track now but it would be interesting to note which takes come from which days….I have a distinct memory of the blustery yet sunny weather out the studio windows when we recorded the opening track Vitamin D on the last day.
What motivates you to make an album, particularly in this age of Spotify?
Something I haven’t figured out yet is how can you attract attention or create excitement for an online-only release? People who enjoy our live show and want to hear more can download or stream my albums or individual tracks at Bandcamp (sounds like a plug because it is!) which is a wonderful option but many of them still want to take home a physical product. It would feel weird not to have this option to offer off the bandstand. That said on a strict dollars-and-cents point of view I might need my head examined for making a CD (but it depends on how you look at it).
If (or when) the CD disappears I think musicians will still continue to format their output in albums as opposed to singles. Personally I don’t understand the appeal of buying music in singles-only form but I’m old school, having grown up with vinyl. In the 1970’s a great album was one you could play from beginning to end and would take you along with it. Of course many one-hit-wonder artists ruined it by having one good song and the rest duds but jazz artists and musicians like Stevie Wonder, the Stones, Zeppelin and on and on where in the habit of making albums as a set of songs you could enjoy from beginning to end (and want to flip the album over for!)
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.
I haven’t reviewed albums for some time on this site but one crossed my desk recently that I feel seasonally inspired to write about.
It’s a wonderful new Christmas album by Victoria’s own Bob Watts Trio recorded in the sanctuary of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay and featuring the piano work of the sublime and fiery Pablo Cardenas.
Many of you will know that drummer Watts moved to Victoria a few years ago from Winnipeg (although he still spends a lot of time there for business and music) and established a monthly jazz vespers series at St. Philip. During his tenure at the church he’s worked with the likes of Karl Roessingh, Joey Smith, Rob Cheramy, Tony Genge, Bruce Meikle and Tom Vickery.
Watts most often appears with Cardenas and bassist Ross Macdonald in a trio and indeed they are the personnel on Jazz for Christmas 2.
Before you say, ‘do we really need another jazz Christmas album?’ you should know there’s something unique about this one and its companion Jazz for Christmas 1, recorded in Winnipeg in 2010. According to Watts, these are the only two jazz albums around devoted strictly to interpreting Christmas carols.
That’s right, all the other jazz seasonal albums – there must be thousands of them – offer the odd carol but mostly feature arrangements of popular Christmas songs like that old Mel Tormé classic – you know the one I mean.
This new album includes a deeply blue and soulful Silent Night, a lively jazz waltz version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and a fast-swinging Good Christian People Rejoice which burns along at 220 bpm – a tempo which apparently left Watts exclaiming an unprintable and unreleasable (but humorously appropriate) “Holy s–” when they made it through what turned out to be a gem of a first take.
You’ll want this one on top of your Christmas CD stack. The tunes may be familiar but the arrangements are fresh, original, and deeply swinging.
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.