Clarinetist James Danderfer is no throwback
It was an awkward start to the conversation. Rattled by events earlier in the day, I asked James Danderfer an abstract question—does music have to be about something?—and he gave an opaque answer.
“No. Not really,” was the clarinetist and composer’s response, on the line from his Vancouver home.
Nonetheless, Danderfer’s just-released Swingin’ at the Patricia is inspired by jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton’s lost years in our fair city, almost 100 years ago; it’s obviously about memory and the enduring power of the past. In contrast, the clarinetist’s fusion-inflected 2008 release, Accelerated Development, is clearly a musical response to the time he spent working in Shanghai—one of the most futuristic places on Earth—earlier this century.
“I like stories, and I like the idea of music that conveys a story of a sort,” Danderfer countered. “But I don’t think it’s necessary. The only thing that’s necessary is honesty—from any musician, no matter what they do.”
But you can’t have honesty unless you’ve got something to say.
“That’s a good point,” he admitted. “I guess I was thinking more in terms of a story or an angle or a spin. Does it need to have something that it’s about? I don’t think so. But, yeah, when you put it that way, you’ve got to have something to say if you’re going to be honest and make an album.
“Or, actually, you don’t have to. Not everyone does.”
Point taken: just look at the charts.
This wasn’t how I expected the conversation to go. But once the fencing match was over, our talk got even more fascinating. The temptation is to take Danderfer—with his natty attire, his tribute concerts to clarinet greats Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, and Sidney Bechet, and his choice of an instrument rarely played in contemporary jazz—for a kind of throwback.
That would be a mistake.
In fact, as Danderfer explained, he’s releasing three albums this year: the aforementioned Swingin’ at the Patricia, which features drummer Joe Poole and pianist Miles Black; one from his 11-piece New-Orleans-marching band inspired Hummingbird Brigade; and another one of songs, on which he’ll sing his own lyrics.
He wrote that last one on his computer, using Logic software.
A throwback he’s not.
“Anyone who listens to that will be really surprised, because it’s such a departure,” he said of his as-yet-untitled electroacoustic debut. “A lot of musicians that I know would like to do that, to try these different genres, but maybe once they get to a certain point in their career they’ve sort of established themselves as something, so it gets a little bit harder or a little bit more difficult to then step outside of that and be a beginner again. Whereas I’ve been away for so long, for so many years, that I don’t think I’m very established. So I’m free to just try things out.
“If I was trying to paint a picture for you, I’d say the influences would be from Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Heartcore album to Björk to Quincy Jones, circa the early ’80s. Probably it’s closer to pop music than jazz music, but… Man, it’s really hard to explain this one.”
It’s hard to talk about it, too, if you haven’t heard it, and it won’t be out until December. Swingin’ at the Patricia, on the other hand, is easy to assimilate: it’s a relatively straightforward yet surprisingly fresh-sounding reinterpretation of the music Morton might have made while rooming at the Downtown Eastside hotel.
Like many other worthwhile projects, it started with a call from the CBC: would Danderfer like to play on a radio tribute to the great pianist’s Canadian sojourn?
“Obviously, I wanted to,” he said. “But even for a jazz musician who had studied that music, I didn’t know that he had lived in Vancouver and had worked here. They told me about the Patricia, and then I started doing my own research: listening to interviews with Jelly Roll and spending time in the Patricia Hotel.
“Walking in there, I felt a real vibe to the room,” he added. “Not to romanticize it, but you feel a little bit like Jelly Roll’s notes are in the walls.”
The hotel’s downstairs pub, he noted, is continuing the tradition with live jazz on Saturday from 3 to 7 p.m., although he doesn’t expect to play there again until November. And there’s another tradition that Danderfer himself is working with in his various projects, one that Morton inaugurated when he started stacking advanced harmonies on top of the foxtrot rhythms of his day.
“It’s all dance music,” he said. “Jelly Roll Morton was a great example of that, and my favourite example of that is Duke Ellington. It’s music that appeals on so many levels.”
And you know what? That’s true of Danderfer’s sound, too.
The James Danderfer Trio plays Cory Weeds' Cellar Jazz Club tonight (September 26).