Monday, July 11, 2011

The Calgary Scene - Jim Brenan

Today's "Calgary Scene" interview features our very own local tenor titan Jim Brenan. I've known Jim since I moved to Calgary in 2004 and have had the pleasure of playing drums in his band co-led with his twin brother trombonist Craig, The Brenan Brothers, with Jim's own groups and currently in a collective trio along with bassist Rubim DeToledo. Jim brings a wealth of experience, knowledge and a very high level of musicianship to the scene here in Calgary. Jim was nice enough to grace us with an insight into his musical mind and creative ethic.

1) Can you tell us about your musical background? How did you learn to play Jazz?

Growing up music was always present in my house. My father was a huge fan of Soul and R&B, (and later Rock) so we constantly had music like Ray Charles, Etta James and Sam Cooke on the record player. Apparently the only thing to get my brother and I to settle down was music and I recall listening to the Jungle Book a lot! I never aspired to play a musical instrument until grade 7 when the choice for electives was Drama, Art and Music, we had to choose two. Art was a definite as I had decided to become an artist when I grew older (drawing comic books). The first day of music class I started thinking about what instrument I might like to play, I chose the saxophone due largely in part to a concert band performance of "The Hustle" that I had heard the year before.

Local Edmonton musician Murray Smith was my junior high school band teacher and he suggested the tenor saxophone. Fast forward to grade 10, Grady Tate was in town and visited our school, he suggested that if I liked playing in the Jazz band I should listen to the music, so a friend and I went to the Public library and took out 20 records (all with saxophones on the front cover), we came away with some real gems (some music that I don't really listen to anymore), and some music that I would eventually grow into. (Phil Woods/Ritchie Cole: side by side, Tom Scott, The Brecker Brothers: "Heavy Metal BeBop", Spyro Gyra, Grover Washington Jr., John Coltrane: "Sun Ship")

By the time I was in grade 12 I was definitely into jazz music. I knew what chord changes were and I had been told what "Licks" and "quotes" were but I never really put it all together, so I started to look around and discovered that there were some teachers that knew how to put all of this together. Enter Gordon Towell, the first teacher to start to fill in some gaps. Studying with Gord was mostly about language, and was an excellent introduction to playing. He pointed me in the right direction as far as listening and transcribing were concerned-I didn't always listen to what he said but looking back he said all the right things!

After High school I was accepted into both music and art programs but chose art, and began to fulfil my dream of drawing comic books, but somehow music kept entering the picture. In the summers I auditioned and played in a jazz band at Grant McEwan for four months on a minimum wage grant. I really liked it and eventually the director Ray Baril enrolled me in the music program. 

I studied with Ray Baril for saxophone and Rick Garn for improvisation and really enjoyed playing with like minded musicians.

I eventually moved on to St. Francis Xavier University and received a Bachelor of Music degree. I met a lot of great musicians and played as much as possible and even took some fantastic lessons with some great teachers but it wasn't until I started my masters degree with Ralph Bowen at Rutgers University that I started to feel like I was learning how to play. Ralph took a no fear approach with me. He was not hesitant to pile on the work, requesting I transcribe to memory a Coltrane solo each week eventually requesting I memorize two per week. On top of that he spent the time with me filling in the gaps. The work was demanding and his expectations were extremely high. He expected everything done correctly each week and I had nothing but time to sit in a little room and work it out.

 I ended up studying with Ralph for about 8 years. He is constantly evolving and had a ton of material to show me. Even now if I have any questions I call and we talk it over. Ralph is/was key in my musical development and I am happy to call him my most influential teacher and good friend!

My last teacher was the legendary Charlie Banacos. I studied with him through the mail for four cycles. His lessons were also great. I really enjoyed the process of being analyzed by someone who can only "hear" me and then being prescribed a series of exercises to help re-direct my approach. Charlie unfortunately passed away but I have plenty of material to continue focusing on and I hope to find a new teacher soon.

2) Who are your musical influences and why?

This is a tough one to answer as I have gone through so many phases of listening and transcribing. I would say that it would be easier to list the people I haven't been influenced by but I'll try to list the main influences. I think it's important to say that even though I am influenced by these musicians I don't feel like I sound like any of them. I always wished I would sound like Cannonball or Stitt but it just doesn't happen...here's the list in point form:

-Ralph Bowen: I love his control and expression and his command of harmony is second to none. Period. I've heard people say he is too controlled but I hear a certain beauty in that. His fluid playing reminds me of the simplicity and complexity of Stan Getz plus his is the first sound I was drawn too as a kid


-Michael Brecker: When I first heard him on the ablum Heavy Metal Bebop I thought he was a guitar player! I really like Brecker's energy and I like the blend of pentatonics with everything he does and that he used the same language over his entire career and it never seemed stale to me, even though you knew it was coming.


Joe Henderson: I have always been drawn to his recklessness. He seems to me to always be on the verge of collapsing but at the last minute makes it work out. I like that he is his own player and I'm sure he was influenced by Rollins and Trane but to me he has his own voice equally as important as the "Big Two".


Eddie Harris: I hope to capture his effortless flow and relaxed tone. It doesn't always happen but I sure do love it. Plus he has a fantastic altissimo sound.


Sonny Stitt: He's my favorite of the bop era guys. I love his time feel and his lines. They seem so obvious and always feel so great. I have spent many many hours transcribing him and every so often something comes out.

-John Coltrane: Of course, that sound and approach!

-Steve Grossman: I spent a lot of time listening to Steve (with the Stone Alliance!!!) and even transcribed the entire "Love is The Thing" album. I learned a lot doing that and love his Rollins/Coltrane approach to everything.


Joel Frahm: I got to play in a blues band with Joel over a two year period! he can certainly play the blues and has one of the best time feels going plus he's a sweet heart!!

I definitely have checked out a lot of other fantastic musicians and transcribed some of their stuff as well: Jerry Bergonzi, Chris Potter, Phil Dwyer, Mike Murley, Donny McCaslin.....the list can go on and on.

3) Name your top 5 favorite albums and how they have influenced you.

Ok. This is tough. I am going to try and be legit. No box sets! I know as soon as I commit to five I'll think of five more. Hulk smash!!!

-John Coltrane: Lush Life

To me this is the most beautiful Trane record. Everything is perfect: his sound, melody, harmony, time, everything is perfect for me on this album. I used to spend hours playing along with this one. It definitely defines Tranes' sound for me. Purchased at Borders books, New Jersey.


Michael Brecker: Two Blocks From The Edge

Something happened here. Brecker got a new younger band and his playing is re-energized for this album. There is new material here and it feels great! The writing seems more finished without being over done or too clever. Just a good swinging album. This record really feels buoyant to me. Purchased at Blackbyrd music - Edmonton, Alberta


-Elvin Jones: Live at the Lighthouse

I bought these with Larry Gerow in Toronto at Sam the record man. Man!! I couldn't stop listening to these. I managed to transcribe a bit of Fancy free. I think these influenced me as a realization that something could come after Coltrane. These guys were really going for it and having fun doing it (at least it sounds fun to me). I love that type of energy and I love the 'four note' grouping style of playing


Steve Grossman: Love is the Thing

I mentioned this one above. I learned all of the sax solos on this record and I think the language from this album is still present. I'd have to say I learned a lot from this one record. Bought for me in Miami by Kent Sangster


-Sonny Stitt/Gene Ammons: Boss tenors

A great album. Every solo is like a work of art and the lines are fantastic! Purchased at South side sound Edmonton, Alberta.

4) What sort of things are you practicing or developing musically these days?

I definitely still practice everyday, well... nine out of ten days. I love playing and I spend a lot of time working on facility and learning new material. I don't know a million standards so I am always working on new tunes. I still keep a practice journal and have a specific warm-up that I follow. I make changes to it every now and again, but it is a constant. I just got a new mouth piece (an Aaron Drake "son of slant") so I have added long tones with a tuner back into my daily routine. I added an hour of clarinet to my routine for the summer and I have a few solos I am transcribing (first up Eddie Harris on "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah"). I am also reviewing some Charlie Banacos material. I am noticing that his material is just starting to become more prominent in my playing (finally). But my big project for the last six months has been to work my way through the slonimsky book in all keys. I have a goal tempo for each exercise. Some exercises take a bit longer than others to master but I love this type of work. I think it will take another few years to finish.

5) What interesting projects do you have on the go at the moment? (gigs, recordings, etc.)

I have a few projects happening. The first is my band with my brother: the Brenan Brothers and we are starting to write a new project for a recording in the winter. I have a quartet (with Chris Andrew Rubim de Toledo) and have invited drummer Dana Hall to come and record with us in November. If you are not aware of Dana check him out. I am getting ready now for the inevitable. And I also have a new trio project started (with Jon McCaslin and Rubim de Toledo). It's definitely in its infancy but it has started out as an opportunity to play Joe Henderson's music and has evolved into a power trio of sorts-its very fun!

6) As an educator you've had a diverse experience from teaching in such places as Fort McMurray, New Zealand and now Mount Royal University. 
What can you tell us about your philosophy towards teaching Jazz music to students?

I have had some excellent teachers and some poor teachers and I can definitely say I have learned a lot from both. To me the best teachers may not have had all of the answers but they knew how to point you in the right direction to find the answer. So I would say I try to approach teaching with a lack of ego. I also try and approach each student a little differently as far as motivation and/or style of learning while maintaining a set of reasonable expectations. I also try to use a lot of humour and try to create a relaxed environment while I definitely try to celebrate the music with each student.

7) Best burger in Calgary?

Currently the best burger in Calgary is 'Five guys' but (as you know) we have been on the hunt for something truly spectacular. I look forward to trying many more places and after burgers: Pizza

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