At only thirty-one, Vancouver-born James Danderfer has already established himself as a mature voice on the clarinet. His having spent almost half his young life studying, traveling, and playing around the world, including a long stay in Shanghai, has surely done much to deepen and broaden his musical conception. Sadly for us here in Vancouver, Danderfer has again taken off, this time to attend McGill University's Jazz Studies program in Montreal. Guy MacPherson spoke to him just a few days before his departure.
Guy MacPherson: You keep talking about yourself as a clarinet player. What happened to the tenor sax?
James Danderfer: I finished. I finished ahead of schedule.
Thank you. Yeah, I was really pleased with myself. No, I just always felt like the clarinet was more my voice.
So that's what you started on, other than piano?
That's right. I started on clarinet in grade six and then started taking lessons in grade eight. Then I picked up saxophone two years later just because I wanted to play in the jazz band and the band director wouldn't let me play on clarinet. So that's how the saxophone thing started. Obviously it's a great instrument and I still enjoy playing it from time to time, but I just feel like when I play the clarinet it kind of resonates more with me. And even though it's been a long struggle to try and play the kind of music I want to play on that instrument, it's still more rewarding. And I found that I couldn't really do both.
Was it also a factor that fewer people play clarinet so you'd stand out more?
Yeah, that definitely occurred to me. But it's such a bear of an instrument there's only one reason I think people would make that decision. A business reason wouldn't be enough motivation to pursue jazz on that instrument.
When did you make the decision to retire the saxophone?
I made that decision my second year in Shanghai when I got the Canada Council grant to go back there and write music for a year. I was teaching [music] a little bit at international schools, which I wasn't really crazy about, and I was playing a lot of commercial gigs, which were good but it was starting to get kind of old doing the same thing every week. And when I got that government support, I knew that was my chance to leave the saxophone in Canada and go back there just with the clarinet and focus on that instrument. Because as much as I was working on it, I just never got calls for it because people are just so used to hiring a saxophone player, and it's such an iconic instrument for jazz. I wasn't getting calls to play clarinet and I needed that experience just doing casuals, doing any gig. Just playing more. So that was it. I've since picked up the saxophone here and there for commercial gigs or anything to make some money but not for any projects, so to speak.
Do you foresee a time when you might pick the sax up for projects again?
Um... maybe. I don't know. It's a lot of fun to play it and I think I can pick it up pretty easily since I'm sticking with the clarinet. It's not too hard to pull the saxophone out of the closet every so often and play a gig on it. I don't know. We'll see. I'm kinda just diggin' on the clarinet at the moment.
Your sister designed your last CD, Accelerated Development.
Yeah, she did the artwork.
It's so good.
Is everyone in your family artistic?
My mother is very artistic. She studied painting and as of about ten years ago shifted over to fabric arts. My dad is the one who supports the rest of us! (laughs) He's the great patron of the arts. He studied law and worked as a lawyer for 20 years before quitting law and going into business with a friend of his, which he's still doing today. He really supported us. Really just amazing when you think about it. I've met a lot of people whose parents would not support that, especially if they're coming from a profession like law, which is such a steady income. But yeah, they both were really supportive. I mean, my dad's kind of artistic as well. He likes music. He used to play guitar. He brought home the first jazz albums that I listened to, so I think he kind of understood and obviously saw that I loved to do it. So, yeah, they were both there, 100 percent.
I know he brought home Michael Jackson albums, too.
Did they steer you into jazz or was it just something that you also heard and just took to it yourself?
I think it's something that I also heard. There was more bluesy stuff, like BB King, that was around, there was the Michael Jackson [albums], Quincy Jones records. And when I started playing clarinet he brought home a Benny Goodman album and this Eddie Daniels album called "To Bird With Love". I think that's one of his best so it was a good place to start. But I don't think that they steered me in that direction; it was just more available to me in school.
Why did you choose the clarinet?
I started just kinda by accident in grade six with the clarinet. The band director picked the instrument for me. I didn't even know what it was. (laughs) It was one of those classic band-director-needs-more-instruments stories where he takes everyone outside of the classroom and you get to choose what you want. So I said, "I'd like to play drums. And if I can't play drums, I'll play the saxophone." And of course you know he's already got, like, two dozen drummers and sax players and he needs other instruments. So he looks at my hands and then he looks at my teeth and says, "You know what? I think I know exactly... Looking at your hand structure and your teeth structure, I think clarinet is the way to go." (laughs) So he wrote clarinet on the little blue slip and that was that.
He apparently knew what he was doing!
Good thing he didn't pick tuba.
Yeah. Well, who knows? Maybe there'd be more work. (laughs)
Obviously hearing Benny Goodman and Eddie Daniels at such a young age didn't scare you off.
Yes and no. Those two albums and one CD called The Dukes of Dixieland... I would say they were more inspiring than depressing. Definitely more inspiring. Then I got a Charlie Parker album shortly thereafter and that was a bit depressing at first, but then also became inspiring.
Were you the kid who was always inside practicing when your friends were outside playing?
Yep. That was me. Not so much with the piano. Starting the piano was my choice and I practiced hard for about a year and then kind of lost interest.
You went to an arts high school in Michigan. Was that difficult to leave home at such a young age?
It was actually pretty easy because my closest friend was there and we were roommates. And he had already been there for a couple of years so he had lots of friends and I connected with that community pretty quickly. So that first year leaving was pretty easy. The next year, when I went to North Texas University, was a bit of a struggle. I didn't know anyone at North Texas. I didn't know any of the teachers, any students. So I just kind of flew down there and started living in the dorm. I went from high school [in Vancouver] to Interlochen [in Michigan], both of which were small music programs and I'm not going to say I was the star but I was, you know, kind of... on top (laughs). And then I went to North Texas and it was a real wake-up call just because there were so many burning players there.
How did it wake you up? You must have had some self-doubt.
Yeah, definitely. I just felt kind of insignificant (laughs) among so many other players. Especially at that age technique wasn't really my forte. Playing a lot of notes, playing fast... I mean, it still isn't my strength. But at North Texas there was more of a focus on that, more value put on that in general so I was really kind of coming up short in that area, burning big band tenor solos.
So you had to do some wood-shedding.
Yes. Yeah, it was another long year of practicing. And in the end, it was really good. I mean, it was a great experience. I think after the first semester I started to kind of settle in. I made some friends and found some musicians that really inspired me. So it was a good year. It was a tough year. I didn't get a scholarship to go back and I didn't really want to spend another three or four years in Denton, Texas, so I transferred. I transferred to Western Michigan University. Back to Michigan. Some of my jazz musician friends from Interlochen went there and said it was a really good program. So among other places, I applied there and I got a scholarship to go there. So I did. And that was a good move for me just because it was a smaller program. So I got to play more, I was able to record with the top big band. It was a nice balance. I definitely was not on top but the program was small enough that I got to play more often and just do more and be a part of it.
Three years back in Michigan, then back in Vancouver for how long?
Getting established in the scene as a pro?
I don't know if I was ever established in the scene. I think two years of practicing all the information I'd been given in university. Because you're given so much information in school and you don't really have enough time to digest it, so it was two years of trying my hand, for the first time, at teaching privately. Yeah, and kind of getting into the scene a bit, starting to connect with some musicians here. I was never working that much just as a player, but I started to make some inroads, I suppose.
Was teaching privately a better experience than later on when you went to Shanghai?
No, not really. I'll tell you what it is: I really enjoy teaching students that want to learn, that come to me with a desire already. But I'm not a good motivator. Most of the students I had were kids that kinda had to be there. I tried, obviously, to get them more interested and showing them recordings, but I'm just not good at motivating kids to learn. So, yeah, I didn't like it at all. And the more I did it, the more depressed I felt about music because I had to, like, force these kids to do something that I naturally loved to do.
Was there ever a time you were forced to do it? Or did you just take to it right away?
I took to the clarinet lessons right away. The piano, like I said, I kind of lost interest in it, so then I was forced to practice for maybe a year or so when I didn't really want to. But after that, once I started with the clarinet, pretty much I was self-motivated.
You wrote in your blog that Michael Jackson was a musical influence.
Hell yeah! (laughs)
Obviously you have eclectic tastes.
Yes. I'm full circle now. When I started playing, I liked all these different types of music and then I became a serious jazzer, with large air quotes around it, and so I basically sold all of my Beatles tapes and my Led Zeppelin and Red Hot Chili Peppers CDs and Michael Jackson and just used that money to buy Charlie Parker CDs and Coltrane and whatnot. And then, as of five or six years ago, I started kind of opening my mind up again to other types of music and rediscovered Michael and all the bands I used to listen to, plus a lot of contemporary bands today as well. I've got a Discman. It's all I need. I'm the last one. It's lonely out here with the Discman, but I'm sticking to it.
It'll come back.
That's right. (laughs) I listen to a wide range of things in general but if I have to get ready for a gig like the ones I've done at the Cellar this past year, then I'll try and just listen to music in that style at least for a few weeks before the gig so that it's really in my head.
How did the electro-acoustic project come about?
That's a good question. How did that come about?... Oh, yeah, okay. I think I can trace this. Back maybe five or six years ago on cruise ships I had this roommate, a drummer, from Minnesota, who listened to a lot of electronic music. Guys like The Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk and Zero Seven... Air, Bjork. He was just listening to this music all the time and he was also writing some of this music on his laptop. At that time it kind of caught my attention just realizing all of the possibilities and hearing all of the different styles of music that could be utilized within electronic music. So that's where it started. I just listened to bands. And when I was in Shanghai a year later, I had an Apple laptop computer that had Garageband in it. So I just started fooling around with that. Actually, I started messing around with that program after I met this burning alto player in Shanghai from Boston who was also experimenting with writing music in GarageBand. So I checked it out and just tried a few different things and it was so much fun to write something totally different, totally not me, not jazz, not even clarinet. Just writing songs in any style. You can just be as creative as you want to, you can be as ridiculous as you want to, and it was all in the privacy of my own apartment, so I could just have fun with it. So I think that's how it started. Then I had this vision of putting together a band that had that sort of creativity where you could really just do anything but still groove. Obviously in electronic music you can quantize the beats. It's mechanical, but it's also groove-y because it's so consistent. So it's a different kind of groove than jazz music.
How is it different from the last show you played at the Cellar, which also grooved?
That was definitely more acoustic. What I call the electro-acoustic thing is totally different.
So I won't like it.
(laughs) You'll hate it! Yeah, I don't know. I don't know what people are going to think of it because often when you try and bridge two types of music you just end up alienating both audiences. But this music is fun. It's got definitely Michael Jackson elements, it's got Herbie Hancock elements, I sing on it, I wrote the lyrics, the tunes. It's just totally different and that's why it's fun. Because it's just not me.
Tell me about that last show you played at the Cellar.
That, my friend, was the New Orleans Soul B3 Project... I guess. I don't have a proper title for it. Let's just call it New Orleans Soul. That was basically lifting contemporary New Orleans brass band music and adapting it for a smaller band that included the clarinet and B3 organ. So the organ kind of assumes the role of the tuba in the left hand and then helps to fill out the horns in the right hand. And the clarinet is just there because it's gotta be there.
Because you're the leader.
There's no other reason.
And the concert before that was a tribute to the great clarinetists. Even though that was old music performed in a modern context, I sense a bit of a populist trend with you. Your recordings in the past were more cerebral. What happened?
Just life. I dunno. Getting out there, seeing more of the world, meeting more people. Just meeting people from all different places and realizing that music should communicate something even to people that don't know anything about music. I believe there's room for every style of music, so cerebral music is great, too, but I just found that I just wanted to play more human music, you know? I think also my generation of musicians largely have been trained in university. Learning in that environment is really good in some ways but you're also very insulated and you're surrounded by people that understand more complicated or more cerebral music. There isn't really any focus on the basic human elements of music. So I think I'm far enough removed from that training, in a good way – I mean, that training was great, don't get me wrong, but I'm far enough removed, I've lived a little bit more and I don't want to lose the intellectual element entirely but I really want to work that into music which communicates with an audience, that goes more than halfway and will reach people.
You told me you were tired of playing for jazz musicians.
Yeah, that's also true. I mean (laughs) that might come across wrong, but you know what I mean. I'm back-pedalling now! (laughs) It's an honour to play for musicians! (laughs) Which it is, but once you see a scene in which most of the audience members are other musicians, there's a problem. It's not going to last long once that happens.
So it's a wish to reach out and get a larger following?
Yeah, well, that's also part of it. Because I'm not really looking to teach, I want to play more. I don't want to struggle so much to fill a small club. So that's an element of it, as well. But it's definitely secondary. It's like focusing on the clarinet. It occurs to me that there are benefits beyond just the artistic ones, but the artistic one is the key reason otherwise why bother? It's not like it's a great money-maker either way.
You're singing on your latest project and vocalists seem to have more fame, get more press, and make more money. Was that a factor?
Yes, it does factor into it. When I think of my reasons for starting singing, the initial reason was because the music that I wrote for the Shanghai project, when I listened back to that music as I was writing it, I felt like it needed lyrics. I heard a singer in my head. It wasn't a particular singer but a certain sound. And I just wanted to see if maybe that sound was me, if I could fill out that sound that I was hearing in my head. That's kind of how it started. But yes, to answer your question, it does factor in. I do think about the fact that people connect more with lyrics, with vocals, when something's being said to them. And in the last few years, having listened to more of that music, and connecting with it, I feel like I can use that element to communicate even more. And hopefully the more you communicate feelings and inspiration, the more people you get to come out to the shows. And then the more you can play. So it kind of follows that pattern.
Were you always a private singer? Or was it completely new for you?
This was pretty much new. This sounds hokey (laughs), but I did sing when I was a little kid. I just kind of made up songs. Yeah, I know. (laughs) It's stupid.
Who would you compare your style to as a singer?
I wouldn't be bold enough to compare it to any really good singer at this point. I would just say that my influences would be – just influences, right? I don't sound like any of these people unfortunately – Stevie Wonder, BB King, Chan Marshall from this band Cat Power.
No jazz singers there.
No jazz singers. I mean, I do have my favourite jazz singers but for this style it's not really influenced by jazz singers.
So we're not going to see you scatting on standards anytime soon.
(laughs) You never know. I'd do it just because I never do it. But, uh, probably not.
When you talk between tunes, you're like a stand-up comic. Did it take a while to get comfortable talking to an audience or were you always like that?
Yeah, it's definitely taken me time to get comfortable with that. Absolutely. After university when I started playing around town a bit and leading groups, I was really nervous about talking so I would just avoid it as much as possible. Then after working on cruise ships and being part of the show band and playing for so many entertainers, like night after night, I think that definitely rubbed off on me a bit. Because you're sitting there on stage just watching the audience while the featured performer has got his ass on the line and is trying to entertain or tell jokes or explain something about the song in an entertaining way, and you can see how they react. So that helped quite a bit. But then just forcing myself to do it. I just wanted to communicate more with the audience, especially if it was original music and there was some kind of story behind it, but was contemporary jazz so it wasn't maybe the easiest thing to tap your toe to, so I wanted to explain the story behind it so that people would get into it more. And the more I did it, the more feedback I got that it was really making a difference for people, especially imagery, explaining thoughts and feelings behind the composition. People really related to it.
Lots of musicians get up there and tell the back-story. But you're also reaching them through humour.
Well, that's the other thing. I really like comedians, I like watching stand-up, and I think over the last couple of years I've started to laugh at myself more on stage, as opposed to feeling embarrassed about mistakes, just embrace them. I really like listening to a good comedian. I think it's very similar to the process of playing music in terms of timing and giving them something. Not saying too much. There are similar elements.
Any teacher or prof who could use humour effectively, you tend to remember the lesson more, too.
Exactly. Good speakers or teachers, good articles or books, they stick with me if it's entertaining. So I try and do more of that. I still haven't actually written anything down, like written a joke or anything. It's just getting up there and trying to do it more. And the more I do it, the more comfortable I am and I think it comes across better the more comfortable I am. Because I'm not up there trying to tell jokes; I just want to relate to people and feel like we're all in this room together and it's an inclusive experience. Rather than just explaining a song, the details, more like an inclusive group.
It is, after all, show business.
Yeah! That's the other thing. Yeah, exactly. It's still a show. That's another thing, getting back to the university schooling, that is maybe a bit frowned upon – the element of show business... No, frowned upon is too strong a word; it's not emphasized so you forget that that's actually a big part of it.
Show business has certain connotations, but you're putting on a show and the introductions are just part of that show.
Right. And the show biz part can be genuine or it can be fake. And people usually know the difference. And that's why so far I haven't written material trying to get laughs. I just enjoy doing it now so I stick with what I enjoy doing. I enjoy talking a bit about the songs – I try not to do too much – and get people involved a little bit. And it's fun. So I just kinda stick with what feels good.
It gives a fuller experience for the audience.
Yeah, I think so. I think it does. I know I appreciate that when I go to a show. It doesn't have to be funny, either. I just appreciate when the performer really makes an effort to meet you halfway, or to give you something to hold on to. Yeah, I know I like it.
Who are your favourite comedians?
I really like Stephen Colbert. Jon Stewart, also. I like his work. Chris Rock. Bill Burr. Louis CK – he's just outrageous. Lewis Black. The pit-bull of comedy, what's his name? Bobby Slayton.
You tend to go in projects. Or do you see the electro-acoustic project as an ongoing thing?
I see a three-pronged attack, Guy. (laughs) I see the electro-acoustic thing, keeping that going and going and going and working on it and producing many records--
Hit records! Many hits. (laughs) And then I see the New Orleans Soul project continuing and projects like that that may involve a little bit more of a compositional element and maybe more horns, but that style of jazz. Incorporating elements... Okay, so it's not a three-pronged attack.
It's two-pronged, but hey, that's one prong more than most people.
Your New Orleans Groove project has a large jazz component to it. Will the electro-acoustic
project have, as well? Or will it be mostly pop-based, rather than
jazz-based pop, if you get what I'm saying? George Benson, for example,
was a smoking jazz player who turned to pop music to reach the masses
and was played on commercial radio all the time. Is this music a cross-over that
might get radio airplay, I guess is what I'm asking?
Yes, it is a cross-over. If all goes well, there's going to be a five-song EP.
I think two or three of those songs could be played on the more popular
radio stations. They're not so much jazz. And the other two songs are
definitely more on the jazz side. They're taking beats, like R&B or
hip-hop beats and using that rhythm but the music is still harmonically
more complex, they're instrumental tracks and there's more improvising.
It would be nice if the lay jazz audience could still enjoy that
because of the beats behind it but realistically I think probably not.
The two tracks I'm thinking of right now would appeal more to
contemporary jazz fans. And then the other two or three would appeal
more to pop fans. So basically nobody's going to buy this record (laughs). That's what I'm saying!
charge that's always levelled against artists that move in that
direction is that they're selling out. Say this does get lots of
airplay, how would you take to that charge if it came about?
exactly right, that's the charge that is laid against pretty much every
jazz musician who decides to make that foray into more popular music. I
remember hanging out with Cory Weeds when he was interviewing Kenny
Garrett right after his album came out that had a lot more pop stuff,
and asking him what he thought of that. He said something to the effect
of, "That's just what I'm hearing. I'm hearing more popular type
sounds." So he's writing that music. It was Kenny Garrett. He didn't
really have anything to prove. But the sell-out thing? Yeah, I dunno.
It's so far removed from my reasoning for doing it and so far removed
from the music itself. Like, when I listen to it, it feels genuine to
me because I know it is genuine, but I think other people will pick up
on that as well. So it's so far removed from those things that it
doesn't really matter. It doesn't really matter. We talked about this
idea a few times of taking a more popular direction and the reasoning
behind it. The wider appeal and the idea of making more money from
these projects definitely factors in, but it's not the primary reason
for going in these directions. Because if it was, then I would just go
into banking. My odds would be much better. Or go into the
communications business. Or the drug companies or some other business.
Was I out of line in bringing it up so often?
no. Not at all. No, it's a good question. It's something that I would
be interested in if it was a musician that I liked: Why go that
It is a fine line between, as you say, not wanting
to play to just other jazz musicians while trying to reach a wider
audience, and pandering to the masses.
Yeah. I saw some shows
like that on cruise ships where it was more pandering. They were doing
commercial shows and they didn't really believe in it. It was
embarrassing. It was really tough to see those shows. I mean, I was
playing in them but to see those entertainers. And then you saw the
entertainers that had shows that were commercial and kind of gimmicky
but they believed in it in terms of believing in the entertainment
aspect. It's not like they took themselves too seriously. They believed
in the entertainment part of it and the communication part of it.
I think you can usually tell when an artist is just trying to do
something that's popular just for the sake of the popularity but it
doesn't mean anything to them, and when the artist is doing, like Kenny
Garrett said, something that he's just hearing but also happens to be
popular, but it means something to him.
Right. So if someone were to say I was a sellout, I would just say bring it on. (laughs) Yes, alright, absolutely, whatever you want to think. That's fine, because I know. And I will enjoy it. Maybe not (laughs) being called a sellout but I will enjoy the music that they're labelling a sellout. And that's the only reason I'll make it.
I didn't mean to suggest that will happen, or that I will call you a sellout.
(laughs) Bring it on! The electro-acoustic
thing is a serious departure from contemporary jazz. Even the jazzy
tunes with the more hip-hop rhythms and the synthesizer sounds, even
the ones that I thought would be more jazzy, are a departure. And
that's what's so refreshing about this project for me. It's a complete
departure. And the freedom that goes along with that. It gets back to
being locked into a certain way when people
know you for a certain thing and sometimes you've got other facets. So
this is a chance to explore those things. Because of that, I love it. I
love it. It's so much fun. Yeah, I haven't even thought about that. At
this point I'm just kind of hoping that it'll get enough radio play so
that I can cover some of the costs to record it.
Is radio still a factor these days?
should know, but I don't. I've been reading interviews of up-and-coming
more popular musical acts and they're saying no. Radio play doesn't
really mean anything anymore. I think those acts that say it doesn't
matter anymore are in a different realm. If you're just an independent
jazz musician, then it does mean something. At least the CBC does mean
something because you get some money from that. So it's something. But
for wider appeal, I don't know but it seems like it's all about touring
and establishing connections with people, with the audience so they
come and see you and hopefully after the show they feel like they have
some sort of connection with you and then they want to support what you
do. I don't know. CDs
are not your ticket to a steady income. It's such a weird market now,
isn't it? It's like people giving their music away for free in the
hopes it's going to get them some recognition. They're just giving it
away as promotion so that they can get people to come to their shows.
But it's such a strange business model. You don't make widgets and then
give them away. There's value on it. I see the reasoning behind both
arguments but they're both such solid arguments in today's market that
I really don't know who's right. It's so depressing on one hand and so
optimistic on the other. You know what I mean? With everyone flocking
to the internet, it's unprecedented. The audience is so wide. The potential is huge now. It's global now.
Would you do a video for the new project?
think that's a good idea. Yes, I will definitely do that. Partly
because it's good marketing... I don't know, is it? Again, you're
giving it away for free. I guess you have the opportunity to make them
associate your music with... to capture their attention somehow whether
it's a good-looking video or a creative video, then they will associate
that with the music. So I would do that. I usually work with a kind of
visual aspect when I'm writing music. It's either an image that spurs
the musical idea or I start playing on the piano or whatever and then
some idea gives me an image. So I would love to express that. And
actually, I would love to work with my sister on that. Have her
paintings, oh man, that would be off the hook! (laughs)
Do you hold back at all when you solo on the project?
No. Maybe I should.
So you're not compromising yourself at all; you're just doing something completely different.
Yeah. On one of the poppier
tunes, when I was blowing over that, I just did what felt right for the
tune so it's a little bit more sparse, definitely more groove-y.
Simple, groove-y ideas, but it just felt right. It felt good. And on
some of the other tunes, it's definitely more complicated, really
dense, and that's what felt right on those tunes.
You're listening to more non-jazz music these days. You recently posted on FaceBook that you're listening to Metric. I also started listening to pop music as an adult. We got it backwards.
you start with fun music when you're a kid. And then you get into more,
let's say deeper music, which has more of an intellectual aspect to it.
It can still be fun but it has the intellectual thing. You get deep
into that, and deeper and deeper, and then all of a sudden you don't
know what the fuck's going on and (laughs) everything sounds kinda complicated and you want to hear Billie Jean. Then you go back to that.
You have an appreciation for the early masters. Did that come to you later in your development?
I came to it later. I started listening to music like that, the Dukes of Dixieland and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. I could get into that more easily than anything else, any of the modern stuff, when I first started. And then got into Bird and then Trane and then I was kind of just on the contemporary track for a long time. And throughout university still listening to Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, but my music, the music I was presenting, was more contemporary. And then the same desire to play music that communicates to an audience, it's the same kind of thing that drew me to this classic jazz. Not thinking, okay, I'm going to put a show together like this and I'm going to sell out the Cellar, just listening to that music and just getting back to the raw emotion of it and what it communicated. Not so complicated. But I felt more from that music than a lot of contemporary music that I had heard at that time and that I hear today. I often don't feel anything. Intellectually I listen to a lot of shows over the last few years and can really appreciate what they're doing, but in my heart I don't feel it. At the moment, really, that's the most important thing, and I trust it implicitly, is do I feel something? As heavy and complicated as this music is, and as impressed as I am with the fact that people can play it, do I feel anything from it? And if the answer is no, for me it doesn't really matter how unbelievable it is. It's just a simple gauge.
This early jazz is kind of forgotten. It seems a lot of people start and end with bop. So was it a chance for you to expose some of this great early music?
Yeah. It was that and I just wanted to get more of that musical element in my playing. So I talked to Cory Weeds and just booked the date and told him what it was going to be. This is just what I've done in the last year. I just book a date and then I have to get ready for it. I have to get all these recordings and check out all these clarinet players that I've never heard before. It worked out. I'm really happy with all that I've learned this last year being back in Vancouver. It's been a really good year.
I love your blogs on your website. You appear to enjoy writing. What do you get out of it?
(laughs) Yeah, what do I get out of it? I don't know. I don't get a lot of readership out of it. That's a really good question. I get a chance to air my thoughts sometimes, and I also just put things out there. Like say I'm going to do this project and then I feel like I'm somewhat accountable because now it's out of my brain. Instead of just thinking something, I write it and then people read it and they ask me about it: "How's that project coming?" or "Did you ever check out that Irving Fazola record?" I just feel like it's out there in the world outside of my head. I think all the time about things that I should be doing and once I put it out there, it's just kind of relaxing. It's out of my brain, it's on the net, and then some people read it and I do feel accountable, like I gotta do these things because I'm telling people that I'm doing them.
Is there a book in you, do you think?
(chuckles) Uh... I don't know. I don't know. I would like to write a book for the same reason that I book the gigs at the Cellar – just to kick my ass. Just to do it, set the date. I would like to write a book about, for example, the history of art. And I'm sure it's been written, but I just want to learn more about it, so I think forcing myself to write about it would be a great way to learn about that subject. Yeah, the history of art and, kind of getting back to what we were talking about before, the basic elements of art and expression and communication. Just learning about how it's developed over time and things like that. So, yes, I would love to. Will I? I dunno.
I'm sure the history of art has been written, but it's probably really dry. You could infuse it with your trademark wit. So you could make it more accessible, like you do with your music. You see, I'm bringing this all together.
Yes, you're putting it together for me. This is good. I like it. Yeah, that's a good idea. I gotta get on it.
I know you write a lot about achieving goals and how to go about doing that. Maybe you could do a self-help book. Self-help for the lazy man.
For the lazy jazz clarinetist. It's a very niche market.
It would speak to everyone who, in their heart, is a lazy jazz clarinetist.
(laughs) That's right. When I started writing that blog, it kinda was self-help. It was a lot of elements of planning and the stress of not knowing the next move to make and how to make a living at it. And I did connect with a lot of people in different areas of art and beyond art. I think they appreciated the honesty. A lot of people share the anxieties. That sounds obvious but it was kind of a revelation to me: "It's okay and this isn't that unusual and I'm not a complete fuck-up so let's just get back to it. Let's hit the drawing board again. Let's get back up and just keep going." So I think that was a really good thing. I've left the organizing and planning thing for a little while because I felt like I was just talking about it too much. But I will get back to it. There's lots more to do.
Are you satisfied with the direction your career is headed in?
Yeah. Yeah, I am. I feel good about the direction I'm heading in now. I wish that I would have started in this direction earlier, but what's the use in regretting that? That's just the way it goes. So now I just want to work on these directions as much as I can and further them as quickly as I can because, yeah, it feels good. I think I'm onto something here, Guy! (laughs)
Do you find many of your musician friends as goal oriented as you are?
Not openly. I find a lot of people, like I said, share my anxiety but I don't think a lot of people see planning as the key to solving these anxieties. I've talked to a lot of people who feel these anxieties, and they know that planning is part of it, but they don't share my view that that's all of it.
So if you plan, things will happen?
Yeah, that's right. You plan for it, you set ambitious deadlines – things you don't think you can do, or that feel uncomfortable often – but you set them, you make them part of the plan. Things that you can't cancel on. Yeah, I think that's 95 percent of it. If I spent an hour a day every day just working out a plan – coming back to it, editing, adjusting, more thoughts, more directions – if I spent an hour a day on that every day, that would make sense to me. I don't do that. But I can definitely see the purpose of that. I really believe it's 95 percent of it.
You say you're not good at motivating young music students who aren't interested already, but you could be a motivational speaker.
(laughs) Yeah! I like that. Yeah, well, I think the blogs have motivated some people. I know they have, actually. I know they have. Some people have been inspired the Saturday Morning News Post and I love to hear that. So if I could share that even more than the blog, yeah, I'd love to.
Are you still working eight hours a day, five days a week on your own, which your goal was?
Yeah, that didn't work. No, that did not work. The hours can change and shift around a lot and then things never actually happen. Like, I can say, "Well, I slept in today but I'm going to work until midnight tonight." It doesn't happen. So another friend suggested that instead of setting the number of hours, you just set the times. The start time and then the finish time. But even that didn't work for me. The only thing that worked was setting ambitious, bordering on ridiculous, goals so I just had to get up and go. I had no choice. This recording [I did this week] was silly ambitious. It was so much work to do the last few months. I've had the motivation from these ambitious goals where I just have to get up and go. There's so much to do I've just got to do it. It's a bit stressful but so far that seems to work best for me because I can't stick to the eight hours a day.
Was working on cruise ships a positive experience for you?
How long did you spend on the ships?
Three years. Three years doing six or seven month contracts and then having six to eight weeks break in between. Yeah, I'd heard a lot of horror stories about the ships. I can see why a lot of musicians would not want to do it because the music's really commercial stuff and oftentimes hokey. And the living conditions are not ideal. But I found a lot of positives. It was great to be playing every night. It was great to be a part of entertaining shows. Like, after university studying music and all the complexities of contemporary jazz, I found it refreshing to be a part of music that served the purpose of entertaining, of communicating. And then I loved the travelling. And I loved, also, having a steady paycheque. That was kind of cool. It was my first, and last, time. (laughs)
So you would recommend this to other musicians.
Yeah, I would. I recommend to all of the friends that I have who are studying jazz in university right now is to go out and work on a ship. You don't have to do it for three years, but at least one contract. Maybe two or three contracts, six months at a time. Because it's a great way to get out there, live a little, meet different people, see some different parts of the world, and play commercial music.
Did you go all over the world?
Yeah. I went all over the U.K., through the Baltic as far as Russia, tons of time in the Caribbean and Mexico, up to Alaska, along the east coast and Boston, around Hawaii.
How did you end up in China?
It was after the cruise ships. I went to New York for three months to give it a shot and see what it was like to live there and see if I wanted to continue living there. And after a few months I decided that I really wanted to go out and see more of the world. So I thought it would be ideal if I could find some place where I could be a part of a totally different culture but also find some work, so I could stay there. And I had a friend in Buenos Aires and another friend in Shanghai, who e-mailed me around this time and said, You should come over here and check it out. And I ended up going with Shanghai just because it seemed like there was more work. Obviously I was really interested to see China, but it seemed like a place where I could sustain some extended travels.
What kind of work is there in Shanghai?
There was teaching at the international school, there was playing at clubs – more commercial stuff, like R&B. Jazz-ish stuff. I ended up playing, like, four or five nights a week pretty quickly. There was a lot of work.
Do you miss it?
Yes. Yes, I do. I really enjoy being in Vancouver, but it's the element of excitement and craziness in Shanghai that I do miss. And the food. It was awesome. I'm telling you, nobody does Chinese food like the Chinese.
Or as the Chinese call it, "food".
(laughs) That's good.
You went on this fact-finding mission to New York, Toronto and Montreal to see where you might like to be based. That assumes you wanted out of Vancouver.
Hmm... How can I put this? It wasn't so much that I wanted out of Vancouver, because I don't believe that it's significantly easier to make a living in Montreal or any other city in North America. But it's just that I want to keep travelling and go to different places, but I also want to be in places that have more of a music scene. Like a larger music scene than Shanghai, which was a good scene but it was really little – the jazz scene. So that's it. I want to keep travelling but I also want to make sure that I can be part of a music community. I love the community here and I'm always sad to leave because I've found some musicians that I just love to play with but I can always come back here. For now I just want to keep moving, keep seeing different places.
And you chose Montreal because of the jazz program at McGill.
Yeah. I guess it's a jazz degree with an emphasis on composition. Yes, I chose that place because McGill was interested in having me there. They kind of pushed to get me in there and gave me a scholarship. And Montreal's a cool city, as you know. And it's close to Toronto and New York. So it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
You'll be closer to the action, and closer to the voters. Maybe you'll finally nab one of those elusive national jazz awards.
That's right. Who knows? Anything's possible. I mean, there's only six of us so one of these days I should get it.
Does it really bother you to lose?
No, not really. Nah, it's okay. I mean, it is what it is. It's a popularity contest because anyone can vote. That's not to take away from the winners but I'm just saying that I think there's other elements at play... Ah, jeez, I sound like a total prick now, don't I?
Don't stop now!
That's right! Yeah, maybe I should stop now before I insult someone. Uh, no, the answer is no, it doesn't really bother me that much but I do like to make fun of it. And I like to make fun of the fact that deep down it bothers me a little bit. (laughs) And that's worth making fun of because it's kind of ridiculous.
You're a thinker. Has that held you back?
It slows me down. Definitely. Because I question things a lot. I just question everything: Is this the right thing to do? Just thinking down the road too much instead of going with my gut. Thinking is good. I'm not saying it's all bad. But for better or for worse, it slows me down a bit.
One of your written resolutions was to read more classic novels. Can that sort of thing influence your music?
Yes, it definitely can. Because I don't really have a set system of writing music, anything can inspire: a place that you see, a great movie, a book, a conversation or someone that's inspired you, or a feeling. I would just say all of it. All of it can lead to inspiration.
Another of your resolutions was to not worry about what others think about your artistic direction. Are people giving you grief about your career choices?
It's not usually an issue but with the electro-acoustic thing, especially the singing, I gotta say, that took some balls. (laughs) I'm just going to put it out there because I really had to let go of my pride and just do it and not think so much about what other people would say because your friends and people who know you, know you as a certain person. In reality, we can have a lot of different facets and you just kind of get going along one path, and that's also true to you but then you kind of ignore other facets and then you look ridiculous when you start developing those. Or you could look ridiculous to your friends. And certainly I've gotten no end of jibes and harassing from friends who found out I was taking singing lessons. And in this project when Joe Poole came in to lay down the tracks for the electro-acoustic thing, I had to just grit my teeth when he first heard the tracks and just endure. So, I don't know, does that answer the question?
Yes, it does. Had you come out as a singer-clarinetist from the beginning, no one would think twice about it.
Yeah. To kind of pull this card out... I'm not going to say late in the game, but... you know, somewhat, yeah, late in the game... I definitely have to work on that, on not worrying so much about what people are going to say.
Objectively, are you happy with the way it sounds?
Yes. Yes, I am. It's really hard for me to be objective about how I sound singing so I'm probably going to show it to a few close friends and get the yay or nay and then I'll make my decision based on what I feel.
What will you do with the recording?
That kind of depends on how I feel about the music, but I really want to get it out there so I probably will. Since we were only able to do five tracks, I'm probably going to put out an EP. Just do a limited pressing and try and get jazz festival gigs across Canada with this EP.
Because jazz festivals don't have jazz anymore. So you'll fit right in!
Yeah, that's right. (laughs) So a limited pressing to media and jazz festivals then do some more recording around Christmas time and complete a CD. I think. I don't really know how this is done with the EP, but something like that. You will definitely get a copy.
Excellent! I'll play it at my raves.
(laughs) Yeah! That's exactly what I want.