Jon Bentley
interview by Josephine Ochej

Saxophonist Jon Bentley’s been on the Vancouver jazz scene since his days in Capilano College’s Jazz Program in the mid-90s, as both a first-call player and leader of his own groups like Diversions (formed in 1998) and the more recent Jon Bentley Quintet. Bentley talks about his two years spent studying in London, England, his thoughts on the state of the Vancouver jazz scene and recording the JBQ’s new release, the reflective and reverential “Motions”. The Jon Bentley Quintet is: Jon Bentley, saxophones; Bernie Arai, drums; Chris Gestrin, piano; André Lachance, bass; Brad Turner, trumpet.

Tell me about recording your brand new CD, "Motions".

What prompted it at this time? Last December, a dear friend of the group passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer. The loss of the great bassist Chris Nelson saddened the Vancouver music community deeply. For the past ten years, Chris had been building a beautiful home recording studio but tragically, he lost his life shortly before its completion. In an effort to ensure that an album would be recorded in his studio, we recorded "Motions" a few days before new owners of his house took possession.

Do you consider “Motions” your first true disc as a group leader?

It seems that way because of the group name, but... no, I would consider Diversions my first disc as a leader.
[1999’s “American Prophecy”]

Your name is on the group, but the compositions on “Motions” are by each musician individually or in collaboration with the others – I sense this is more a democracy than a dictatorship. Explain the dynamic of the JBQ in this sense. 

Well, it's definitely more of a democracy. I try not to give the guys too much instruction. I don't want to handcuff fantastic players like that. As far as the compositions, I think I would be foolish not to take advantage of the fact that these guys are all great composers too.

L to R: Chris Gestrin, André Lachance, Kenny Wheeler, Bernie Arai, Jon Bentley, Brad Turner.

The Jon Bentley Quintet played a fantastic gig with legendary Canadian trumpeter Kenny Wheeler at the 2003 Jazz Fest. What was the experience like for the group? And for yourself, as a musician and a composer?

Well, I can't speak for everyone, but I think it was pretty special for us to play with one of our main musical inspirations. Kenny is one of those guys who inspires me to play music, and so to stand next to him on stage and play his music was an exceptional experience.

Why these players? Tell me what it is about each of them that makes you want to make music with them?

I really like them as people first and foremost. The longer I play music, the more I realize the importance of the personal relationship between musicians in a group.  Secondly, all of these guys are involved in many different genres of jazz. I love the wide variety of influences that come out in their playing. I don't take for granted the opportunities that I get to play with them. We'll miss André for the time that he is back East, but hopefully it will be a short trip.
[Lachance is spending the Fall in Montréal.]

You play in a lot of different situations with these same guys, including several regular or fairly regular gigs (as far as jazz goes, anyway) – how does that inform the music you’re writing?

For me, I have to be inspired to write music. I'm not very successful if I schedule an arbitrary time to compose. Playing with these guys musically inspires me and helps get me in a better state to compose.

Name all the groups you regularly play in.

Chris Gestrin's  Stillpoint, UGETSU, To Be Ornette to Be, Jillian Lebeck Quintet, Adam Thomas Quartet, Fred Stride Big Band, Wheelmouth, Elevatorhead, Bernie Arai Trio.

Do you think that playing in multiple groups with the same players is partly a result of Vancouver not being all that big a town, as such a relatively small jazz scene?

No, not at all. There are so many great jazz musicians in Vancouver. I would consider the pool of pro players to be quite large, and we all overlap in many different projects.

What is it about you that you think makes them want to make music with you? (and no, you can’t skip this question)

They need the money.

What’s the point of music for you? What’s your ‘Why’?

Not to over-intellectualize it, but I suppose my ultimate goal would be to create music that reflects our time. My favourite artwork is always innovative for the era it was created in.

You spent almost two years in London in 2001-2002. What effect did that have on you as a musician?

I learned too many things to even list, but primarily I learned more about Vancouver and the opportunities here. As a musician, it's refreshing to be exposed to the hundreds of jazz musicians that a city the size of London contains.

How (if so) did your time in London change your perspective on Vancouver’s jazz scene?

Without any question, it made me appreciate all the great things about the scene here. We have so many opportunities in Vancouver. We can rehearse for free, record demos for cheap, apply for recording and touring grants. All this and the standard of living is so high for a comparatively inexpensive city. I did a bit of playing in continental Europe and everywhere I went, musicians knew about the strong scene in Vancouver and almost always expressed interest in living here.

Have you become a Vancouver lifer or are you reserving the right to leave to pursue music?

I love this city and the musicians here, so this will always be home. But... for me, I have found that living in a different place and experiencing a new culture can be inspiring and refreshing... so I would like to do similar trips in the future.

Any plans for your creative and sonically exploratory trio with Gestrin and Arai called Diversions to resurface?

Yeah, we're going to do it eventually. We have some new stuff, but it always seems to come down to money. If I had the cash, I wouldn't even hesitate, but I can only owe so many thousands of dollars at a time. Every year that goes by as a musician, I go further in debt. It always reminds me of that joke... ‘How do you make a million dollars playing jazz? Well, you start with two million...’

In an interview we did five years ago (!!) you said: “With the amount of work available in Vancouver, it’s not easy to go out and play every night at a gig, and be able to express yourself just because that work is non-existent. In place of that writing is an excellent outlet.”  Has that perspective changed at all with the amount of original, creative music you seem to playing more regularly now?

Maybe a little, although it's still not easy to be playing every night. With more projects come more responsibilities, so it is harder to find the time to write.

Ok, another throwback to what may be a lame question, but I’m curious as to how you’d answer now. Five years ago I asked you if you’d found yourself as a musician. You said: “Improving is such a gradual change it’s hard to step back and look at how far you’ve come or not come. I’m in the practice room every day because I can hear where I want to get to and hopefully I’ll never get there. That’s the inspiration: to get your physical ability to try and match that up with what your ears are hearing and at this point I have definitely not gotten it to that stage. But that’s what I attempt to do.” How would you answer that same question now?

Unfortunately, the only thing that's different is the part about being in the practice room every day. I desperately wish I could be shedding every day, but time-wise it's tough. My ears are so far beyond my horn ability that I certainly won't ever have to worry about room to improve.

What are you listening to lately?

I love Peggy Lee's new record "Worlds Apart" and Chris Gestrin's "Varuna". I can't stop playing them. I have also been listening to a lot of electronic albums on the Warp label (Boards of Canada/ Aphex Twin/ Squarepusher/ Prefuse 73 etc.). Anything by Miles/ Kurt Rosenwinkel/ Mark Turner/ Wheeler. I've really been enjoying the Glenn Gould Anniversary Series discs, in particular the French Suites.

What was your favourite gig at the 2004 Vancouver Int’l Jazz Festival?

Probably the Peggy Lee/ William Parker double bill. I was blown away. I also loved Kurt Rosenwinkel's band both at the Cultch and in Victoria.

Any plans to take the JBQ out on the road?

The band toddler count is currently at three, with another band member threatening to increase that number. That makes touring tough, but maybe we could go on the road on a double bill with Raffi. I know Brad's kids can't get enough of Baby Beluga.

What other musical projects/recordings have you got on the go?

I just participated in Chris Gestrin's latest small group recording project for Songlines. I am excited to be part of it. Elevatorhead continues to play improvised electronic music every Monday night at the Cellar (no cover, cheap drinks). And Brad Turner is getting a new trio off the ground with myself, Adam Thomas on bass, and Brad on drums.

The Jon Bentley Quintet official CD Release for "Motions" is Friday, August 27 at The Cellar. See Calendar for details.

Photos by Josephine Ochej

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