Mike Allen’s got a great and sometimes perverse sense of humour but when it comes to playing jazz he’s one of the most serious and hard-working guys I know. When he’s not on the bandstand or teaching he’s unceasingly exploring new ideas through frequent shifts in group composition with challenging yet sympathetic sidemen, and seeking out playing opportunities wherever they take him.
Mike was born forty-two years ago in Toronto, studied at McGill, and has lived in Vancouver for about a dozen years where he’s become one of our most consistently exciting improvisers. Known mainly as a tenor saxophonist, he also plays alto and soprano saxes, and piano.
The following interview was conducted online over a period of several months.
did your interest or inspiration to play music come from? Can you
tell me a little about your childhood? Where were you born? Was
there music around the house? Did your parents or siblings, or anyone
else that you grew up around play?
Mike: There was always
music around me when I was growing up. My mother played (and still
plays) the piano, and recently taught herself the violin she inherited.
My father played (and still plays) piano, guitar and flute. He had
a preference for lyrical music of different genres, stuff that you
could sing along with. Singing a melody just isn't challenging enough
for him, he liked (and still likes) to harmonize a different line
below the melody to show off his baritone range and try to add something
personal and "now" to his enjoyment of music. That's something I
picked up on. When I played along to any records we had I'd try
to learn the melody first then come up with a counter line, which
I guess is like improvising. We had sing-songs at Christmas and
during camping trips and car trips. My grandparents loved music,
listening to recordings and singing when we got together; there
are several professional and amateur musicians in my extended family.
My mother's mother, Virginia, and her three sisters formed an Andrews
Sisters-style a cappella group years ago, performing the odd function
in South Dakota where they lived, and until recently, a hit at every
family reunion. One of the sisters passed away in the past couple
of years. The remaining three don't sing anymore, even when we manage
to get everyone else together. Actually they never did start singing
until after the fourth Scotch and soda went down. But it was always
great to hear them get through a few songs, despite never practising,
then they'd laugh with each other for what seemed like hours.
My father's family is upper middle-class Toronto WASPs but from
a long line of some damn kind of church minister. My grandfather
rejected religion because of WWI and my father didn't have to go
to church, but there was always music around. In some ways I think
music may have supplanted the church as the new religion of the
Allen family. As it is with many other people, I think I became
obsessed with music when I realized it provided a powerful escape
from difficult times during my childhood. At the time my parents
were splitting up, just thinking about practising piano (and later,
saxophone), hearing music in my head, and fantasizing about musical
projects allowed me to go to a happier place than reality provided.
Successes I had in music, such as my leading roles in school musicals
"Donald, The Boy Who Couldn't Sing" (1975), and "Little Drummer
Boy" (1976), classical piano recitals at the Kingston Rotary Kiwanis
Festivals, etc. were how I began to identify myself as an individual.
In my mind, it was a forgone conclusion that I would be a musician,
I knew it since I was 12. Most nights as I was falling asleep, my
father played jazz standards on the piano and sang along. I think
the joy he felt was that moment of tranquil aloneness, having my
brother and I finally tucked away in bed, a glass of scotch in hand,
and singing his favourite songs. It certainly stuck with me. I remember
it actually competing for acoustic space with what I was hearing
in head as I was drifting off on many nights. I liked to practise
piano technique on my legs, and vocal pieces at a whisper as I was
falling asleep. It was almost impossible to do when I could clearly
hear my Dad singing and playing piano downstairs. But usually my
inner musical voice would give way to what was happening outside
and I'd drift off to the sounds of "Someone To Watch Over me". I
could go on. Every time I remember some way that music was a constant
in my early life, more memories flood to the surface.
Mike in the studio.
and when did you start playing professionally?
I played my first professional
gig in Kingston in January of 1984. There were a few of us jazz
lovers going to Queen's University. A great tenor player named Rob
Frayne had recently graduated from the music department there. He
was an inspiration for me. Anyway, I was playing alto saxophone
in a jazz/fusion quartet with electric piano, electric bass and
drums. We played a couple of sets of standards and some original
tunes (which was mainly the work of our pianist and leader Peter
Hum) at a university bar called the Grad Club. The night was recorded
and I still have some cassette tapes of our performance. Can't bear
to hear myself on those tapes, though the playing was spirited.
there a particular player that inspired you . . . someone that,
when you first heard him (or her) ignited your passion to play music,
or to play jazz, or to play the saxophone?
Aside from Rob Frayne,
there were very few players who caught my imagination in Kingston.
I used to love listening to all kinds of recorded music, especially
the fusion jazz of saxophonists David Sanborn, Michael Brecker and
Jay Beckenstein of Spyro Gyra. When I arrived in Montreal in 1985,
I heard Janis Steprans, a great saxophonist and all around musician.
He was my private instructor at McGill and a big inspiration. As
far as tenor players go, it was Yannick Rieu, Mike Murley. Phil
Dwyer and Rob Bonisolo who blew my mind when I heard them at various
gigs around town in 1986. I wasn't anywhere near that level of saxophone
playing when I first heard those heavies. My main man on recordings
has always been John Coltrane. My main man to see live in Montreal,
was Sonny Greenwich. Both of those musicians play jazz on a higher
plane than most.
we talk about guitarist Sonny Greenwich for a minute? In my opinion
he's the most under-appreciated musician on the face of the Earth.
I know he won't travel, which probably accounts for his not being
as well known as others in the pantheon of modern guitar geniuses.
It's interesting that you mention him in the same breath as Coltrane
because when I was going to see Sonny on an almost nightly basis
in Montreal in the mid-sixties I felt that he was the Coltrane of
the guitar. You've played and recorded with
him. How did that connection come about?
Sure, I can't say enough
about Sonny's music and the influence it's had on me. I first heard
Sonny Greenwich play in Kingston in 1984, as a guest of the Kingston
Jazz Society. He came by himself and played with local players,
who I imagine had never heard of him (I hadn't either) and, understandably,
weren't "up" on his playing. Still, he completely soared over the
situation with grace. He played standards . . . his guitar sound
was a cross between a human voice and a screaming tenor sax. He
used (and still uses) a slightly over-driven amp to give his sound
a primordial quality. I remember asking Sonny a few pre-planned
questions for a paper I was doing for a course at Queen's. I don't
remember the question, but his answer was very important. He said
"there are no mistakes in music, just opportunities". After moving
to Montreal, I used to go see his band at Club 2080, for a while
they were playing every Sunday night. Sonny had several friends
. . . "groupies" . . . who attended every one of his shows in town
and were very serious about listening to every note he played, like
part of a sermon. The sort of devotion they had for Sonny didn't
go unnoticed by me. His music spoke to them, they needed to hear
it, it was essential to them. I loved to see that his music was
as important to others as it was to me. It gave me hope that if
one day I could play as well as I hoped to, that maybe I could connect
with listeners on such an intimate level. Chuck Israels often talks
about the intimacy of playing music together, especially between
rhythm section players, how bassists and drummers need to connect
on a deeply rhythmic level that is akin to sexual. I think that
sort of intimacy is also possible for audience and performers to
achieve given the right conditions. Sonny proved it for me. A couple
of years after I graduated from McGill, then performing gigs around
town with lots of local musicians, I got a call from Sonny asking
if I wanted to record with him for a CBC show he was working on.
I had dreamt that I might get a chance to share in his music one
day; certainly I didn't think it would be quite so soon. I wondered
how he even knew my playing; he hadn't used a tenor player in his
band since the seventies when he was in Toronto. I wondered: "What
did I do, that he felt would contribute to his music?" We recorded
a CD called "Standard Idioms" and then another a few years
later called "Fragments Of A Memory". He seemed to like
the fact that my playing was (and still is) on the wild side. It
suited his taste to have a tenor player who got himself into musical
situations that presented opportunities, sometimes realized, other
times abandoned for safer avenues. I guess we're cut from the same
cloth as musicians. We love the same music, we play from the same
place in our imaginations and we accept and welcome the results.
The current trio with Adam Thomas (bass) and Julian MacDonough (drums).
wonder if he spoke to you about how he might have been influenced
by Trane - or not. It's interesting to think of the possibility
that you absorbed Trane's ideas both directly and through the "filter"
of Sonny Greenwich's guitar playing.
Sonny and I used
to spend hours talking about music, usually on the telephone. Often
our conversations were about the moments that occurred when the
music was "peaking", what was going on to create a sort of lift
that made the music soar. Those were moments in Coltrane's music
that we both loved, and we knew it about each other without having
to discover it through conversing. Sonny told me a story about hearing
Coltrane's band in Buffalo, near the end. He was sitting with friends
of the band. What I recall about that particular conversation was
Sonny's amazement at how the audience literally rose out of their
seats while Coltrane was reaching a peak in his solo. He said that
people had tears in their eyes at the end of the song. Sonny also
told me how he sat right next to Trane after the show, but didn't
talk to him because there was nothing to say; nobody was talking,
they just sat there in relative silence. Sonny mentioned that he
and Trane did exchange a look that he interpreted as mutual understanding.
In terms of Sonny's guitar sound, there is certainly a saxophonistic
approach to his line phrasing and articulation. He mentioned that
his approach to harmony and technique on the guitar was highly influenced
by Cubist painting. I really never understood how that translated
for him, but there is a strong rectangular component to his left-hand
movement when he is soloing. Whatever that means, it sounds great
fascinates me. Iíve always thought there are equivalents, I guess
you could call it . . . that artists in different mediums can be
expressing the same or similar things and so Iím always curious
to know what a musician, say, connects with or relates to in painting,
or dance, or literature, or what have you. Is there something along
these lines that you can describe in your own creative life?
It's a good question,
whether or not what I do connects or relates to another medium.
Definitely not in my mind. However, I've known other artists from
different disciplines to have unique ways of relating to my music,
something that connects for them, but they might disagree.
have no idea how many musicians think about that, consciously or
unconsciously. I don't very often as a listener but, when I do,
it's interesting. You mentioned Sonny and the Cubists, and I recently
read a biography of Lenny Breau which discusses
certain painters, particularly the Impressionists, that interested
and influenced him.
So . . . you recorded your first
album in Montreal in 1995, I believe. It seems to me that every
album you've put out has displayed a different concept or approach
to your music, and I want to get into that a little more later on.
But this first one comprises two groups, a quintet and a quartet
. . . very unusual, I think, for a first recorded outing. Tell me
how and why that came about.
You are right about the date of my first commercially released
recording. It's called "Quintet/Quartet" and has been out of print
for some years. (There was also a 200 unit cassette tape pressing
called "Escape Yourself", with trumpeter Brian O'Kane, pianist Jon
Ballantyne, bassist Alec Walkington, and drummers Dave Laing and
Ted Warren: that was done closer to 1990 and was, I believe in many
ways, a superior release to the one in 1995. In fact, it contained
the same mix of quartet pieces and quintet pieces; though both groups
had piano, whereas my later disc had no piano on the quartet portion.)
Anyway...I had just returned to Montreal after a year in New York.
I had played with a few young cats living down there and really
liked how it felt. CBC offered me an in-studio recording session
so I decided to record with a couple of the guys (bassist Doug Wiess,
and drummer Marc Miralta) I had played with in NYC, adding a longtime
friend and musical cohort, trombonist Dave Grott. I asked Marc and
Doug to train it up to Montreal. We recorded five or six tunes,
enough for a half hour show, as is the norm. The next year, I was
offered another show by CBC (something that I've had every year
since 1992, until this past year when they began phasing out the
"in-studio" sessions). That time I chose to do it with a group I
had been using around Montreal with pianist Tilden Webb, guitarist
Benoit Charest, Alec Walkington and drummer Dave Robbins. Each session
produced four or five good cuts, so I decided to put it all together
for a disc. I left Montreal for the west coast shortly after that
CD was released. Some people tell me they like that disc best of
all the ones I've done.
a great album . . no doubt about it. I don't know if it's my favourite
but I haven't played it much since your newer stuff's come out.
I'll listen to it again. Maybe it is the best. That would be kind of depressing for you, though, wouldn't
Oh, I don't know if
I'd call it a great album....I don't think I've made a great album
yet, but it's coming eventually. In the meantime these albums kind
of bookmark my work as a leader of various bands and as a composer.
would have to happen for you to feel you've made a great album?
The biggest thing that needs to happen for me to make a great "Mike Allen" album, is to fully impose my musical vision on a recording session. One might wonder how this could be so difficult but it's really tricky to prod musicians to do what you need them to do to realize a fully conceived musical idea, without adversely affecting the vibe of a session. And there's rarely enough time in studio to even try. I've made my share of recordings that sound unfocused and I've settled for much less than I know I'm capable of. Relationships, which are so important to maintain for the sake of future employment on the local jazz scene, can be fragile. Many players feel they have earned the right to be "left alone" to do whatever it is they do, so you just make sure you've got the "right" players and hope you get close to your envisioned results. I'm hoping that age and wisdom will eventually provide the means to meet the challenge of making a great album.
was your New York stay? Did you get to play much? Presumably you
took lessons while there. Joe Lovano . . . I think you mentioned
studying with him at one time. If so, was there one particular thing
that stands out, that you learned from him?
Most of my time
was taken up studying for a Master's degree at NYU. I did attend
several jam sessions at Visiones, The Village Gate and at a club
in Brooklyn, for which I can't recall the name. There was a few
gigs outside the university, but mainly I was returning fairly frequently
to Montreal to play with Sonny and in Pete Magadini's group. I did
study privately with Joe Lovano. He gave some great advice and was
a treat to just be around. He talked about rhythmic things, specifically,
playing a bigger beat. It took a while for that to infiltrate my
playing but it certainly has made a tremendous difference in how
I relate rhythmically to the music. Otherwise, I found NYC and its
jazz scene to be pretty hostile.
Hostile? Really? Why
do you think that was?
You sound surprised.
not really surprised. I've heard this from other players who felt
they had to go to New York to "make it" as a jazz player.
It worked out for some, not for others. I was just curious about
your own experience. I haven't been there in many years but I can
tell you if you're not there competing with other artists, in any
field, who feel they've got to make it there, New York is far from
hostile. That's been my experience, anyway.
I was also especially curious because
I'm planning to ask you, later, about choices you've made regarding
carving out a career as a jazz musician outside "The City". It's
probably not as important today as it was thirty or forty years
ago and more, and there have always been great, professional musicians,
who stayed in their home towns or or other cities - Von Freeman
is a great example - but it still must be a question to be grappled
with if you've decided to make a life playing jazz. And of course
being a jazz player in Canada is altogether another question.
Overall, my year living in New York City was a very positive experience. It was really good to leave Montreal for a time to get some perspective. I found New Yorkers to be generally very friendly and I loved the part of the city in which I lived and most of what it offered. But I don't agree with you that "New York is far from hostile". NYC runs on hostility, for better or worse. Some people use it successfully to fuel their artistic drive, but for others like me it was a distraction I didn't need. I'm pretty sure I'd do what I'm doing no matter where I lived, so to keep moving forward I don't feel I need that kind of motivation/energy. In fact, it's probably why Vancouver is such a good match for me, generally the musical environment is relaxed and the players are very serious.
New York can be intimidating as many people find out when they go there to pursue careers. In my experiences there, with some of the people I was around, there was quite a lot of posturing that made me uncomfortable. At that time the scene was somewhat divisive along lines of skin colour. Hopefully it has changed over the past 15 years. Maybe I just wasn't tough enough to live there as a jazz musician. I certainly haven't become any tougher since. If anything, I hope that I have become less tough.
went back to Montreal after about a year in NY, is that right? How
long did you stay - when did you head to Vancouver, and why Vancouver?
I stayed in Montreal
for two years after NYC and eventually found it to be too small.
Not that Vancouver is bigger but it does have a less confining element
to the way most people approach playing jazz. In fact, we didn't
mean to stay in Vancouver at all. Donna and I were en route to San
Francisco where we planned to settle. My green card was taking weeks
and months and we ended up getting jobs and an apartment in Vancouver.
Settling here is something I've never regretted. We were going to
SF so I could study with Joe Henderson and live in the Bay area
where there is quite a good music scene. I made a few trips to meet
with Joe in 1996 and 1997. His music was such an influence on my
playing and composing - it was hard to not be a starstruck while
hanging with him. He was always beautifully dressed, ironed pants
and shirts and nice leather shoes. He seemed so calm and yet somewhat
distant. He would begin talking about some time in his life (say,
when he was in NYC in the 1960s, co-leading a big band so he could
get his charts played) then he'd skip to something remotely-related
that happened in Japan in the 1970s. He didn't try to speak so that
you could understand him, he was a tangential thinker. I remember
being exhausted after each of our three-hour lessons, trying to
take in everything, following his stories, and still attempting
to ask questions that I had stored up for months before each visit.
talked about Lovano's influence on your rhythmic approach, or sense
- "playing a bigger beat". Can you say in what way Henderson affected
your playing and composition?
has had a greater influence on my playing and composing than anyone
except Coltrane. His tenor sound which I hear as a perfect
synthesis of Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and his melodic approach
in building those long, interesting solos, really stand out amongst
the tenor players of his era. His tunes move harmonically in ways
that make sense to me, ways that sound natural, though often they're
not really. Tunes from his early Blue Note records such as "Punjab"
and "Serenity"; I really studied those tunes when I was starting
to play piano and compose my own tunes. I feel that Joe didn't really
get the attention he deserved for his music until it was a little
late in his life to enjoy the benefits. Long live his music!
What you said a minute ago:
"I was starting to play piano and compose my own tunes" - did you take up the piano after
you'd already been playing sax for some time?
I started playing piano
at the age of 4, taking Royal Conservatory lessons for 10 years.
By the end (age 14) I was playing Beethoven, Chopin and Bach. So
I had a fair bit of technique but I was restricted to playing written
music, albeit some great works. In Grade 6 we got assigned wind
instruments for the school band (clarinet for me, mainly because
my brother was doing so well on clarinet just a couple of grades
ahead, and there was a shortage of people interested in that instrument).
I was allowed to switch to alto sax after complaining for a few
weeks. Practising for two instruments (piano and sax) took too much
time. At that level of piano, expectations were that I'd have to
work quite hard to learn the many difficult pieces assigned to me.
But I wanted to play music with other people, so I was allowed to
quit the piano lessons to focus on learning the sax. I knew I'd
keep playing piano for fun, and it was a relief not to have to perform
long classical works from memory anymore. I used to get so anxious
before performances, thinking I'd forget the music and just be sitting
up there, embarrassed. Later (age 20) when I started getting interested
in composing tunes for my jazz groups, I returned to the piano,
and found it frustrating. 50% of my technique had evaporated, and
none of the training I had was very useful for what I had gotten
into. It took me several years to gain some comfort playing jazz,
and I'm still trying to improve.
are the piano players you've listened to a lot, that you've admired
or have influenced your piano playing? Is this even a relevant question?
I mean, I just wonder if there are players other than the ones you've
mentioned who have had an influence specifically on how you approach
I have really never
been asked that before, probably because I'm not known as a pianist.
I guess the biggest influence on my piano playing is/was Jon Ballantyne.
I used to go hear him play solo often in Montreal in the late 80s.
I loved his feel, his melodic solos, and choice of tunes. He really
got into it when he played solo. Red Garland and Wynton Kelly have
always been favourites, as they were for Jon. You know, I'm a bit
embarrassed to admit it, but Bill Evans has never really done it
for me. Nor has Monk. They are great, no question. But I've always
prefered to hear guys playing really swinging lines and tearing
it up. The prettier chordal stuff isn't what I like to play but
it sure would be nice to be able to do.
told me once that you don't listen to records that much. That in
itself is kind of interesting, I guess. When talking about your
influences you usually mention guys you've played with or or heard
locally before going on to the big names, which is cool, I think.
If you were a student now I'd probably stop talking to you till
you went home and studied those guys and other masters. But the
proof is in the pudding, right? I mean, you don't seem to run out
of ideas when you're up on the bandstand.
It's funny you say "if
you were a student now I'd probably stop talking to you till you
went home and studied those guys and other masters" because,
to a degree, I feel it would be justified. The guys I have studied,
I've really studied. But
honestly, there are quite a few great recordings I haven't even
heard. I feel I have to be careful not to over-indulge; they can
have such a huge effect on how I want to play. I don't play with
the rhythm sections on those recordings, or in the eras they played
in, so I remain focused on what it takes to make the best music
with the guys I play with. There are a lot of players of my generation
who would declare outrightly that nobody's doing anything as good
these days as in the glory years of the 50s and 60s. For me, that's
a pointless way of looking at it. We have to make our own jazz.
For me growing up in Kingston, great jazz recordings awakened my
imagination from a cultural coma of mostly shitty, commercial AM
pop music. Our jazz has to be true to our own life experiences or
it's pretty much culturally irrelevant.
you think that listening to a lot of other music, classics on records
or whatever, would deepen your own music, rather than influence
you in a way you didn't like? Just as checking out other art forms,
reading, travelling . . . etc., in other words all experience .
. . don't you think that would enrich you as a person, thereby enriching
your music? Or have I misunderstood? I do that sometimes.
No you don't misunderstand,
but to clarify, people don't get to where I am without listening
to, studying, and absorbing a ton of music. It's just that, at a
certain point you figure out what it is you love or need to do with
music, and sometimes (like in my case) it isn't helped so much by
doing the same things that got you there in the first place. The
things that I need to do to produce my best playing don't have much
to do with listening to classic recordings anymore. It's true that
I do feel enriched by other art forms, from time to time. And sometimes
I hear a player who really ignites my imagination, and I'm thankful.
I guess there are a lot of different ways to grow as a person and
continued on Page 2
Top photo of Mike, and the current trio by Victor Dezso
Mike in the studio by Brian Nation