Mike Allen
interview by Brian Nation
May 2007

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.  

Brian: Where 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.

Where 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.

Was 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.

Can 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).

I 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 to me.

This 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.

I 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.

It's 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 it?

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.

What 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.

How 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.

I'm 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.

You 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.

You 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?

Joe Henderson 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.

Who 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 the piano.

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.

You 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.

Don't 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 musician.

continued on Page 2

Photo credits:
Top photo of Mike, and the current trio by Victor Dezso
Mike in the studio by Brian Nation