Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2009: Sophie Milman

Ted Warren: Rhythm Man

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A mainstay of Toronto’s bustling jazz scene, drummer Ted Warren has played with most anyone who’s anyone on the Canadian scene and several prominent artists from abroad, including Kenny Wheeler, Dave Liebman, and Slide Hampton. This January, he and his band are booked in to play at the Park Theatre as part of Jazz Winnipeg’s Jazz Innovators series.

Warren is no stranger to the prairies: he was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan. From there he moved to Antigonish, Nova Scotia, to study at St. Francis Xavier University for two and a half years, receiving a diploma in jazz studies. He eventually moved to Montreal to attend McGill University. During that period, he was frequently traveling to Toronto to play, and ended up relocating to Toronto in the early 90s, working with several local musicians, most notably Don Thompson, Jeff Healey, and Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass.

In 1993, the consummate sideman decided to put together Ted’s Warren Commission (an oft-misread play on the U.S. government agency responsible for investigating JFK’s assassination) to feature his original compositions. The band is rounded out by bassist (and former Winnipegger) Mike Downes, whom Warren met at St. FX, trumpeter Mike Malone, and guitarist Ted Quinlan. The Warren Commission’s latest record, Songs for Doug was released this past year, and is dedicated to Doug Riley, a veteran Toronto musician who passed away less than a month before the recording date. His presence is still felt on CD, as several cuts feature work the group had done with Riley for CBC Radio and for Humber College, where Warren, Downes, and Quinlan are all faculty members.

Songs for Doug grabs the listener’s attention immediately with Warren’s clever “Haiku” (only when I read the title of the tune did I understand its strange five beat-seven beat-five beat rhythm), and continues through “Jonesin’,” a contrafact of Richard Rodgers’ “Have You Met Miss Jones” set over an odd-metered Afro-Cuban groove. “Cautionary Tale,” my personal favourite, is a live recording featuring an extended organ solo by Riley. Other tunes on the record show off Warren’s broad palette of influence—“Motown Meets MacMurray” features a driving beat that is unmistakably characteristic of its namesake, and “Zakir” (the only non-Warren composition, written by Downes), a stream-of-consciousness tune in 15/8, is clearly influenced by Indian music. “Lemon House” burns all the way through, and “Kate and the Wave,” featuring Riley on piano, cools the album down again. “Doubt Galore” is reminiscent of The Police and is a great, energetic tune to leave the listener with, before sending them off with the pretty “Elvinessence.”

Winnipeg is just one stop of several on a cross-country tour in support of Songs For Doug. The tour begins on the east coast in Antigonish, moves west to Montreal, then on to Winnipeg, Brandon, Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Vancouver, and finally Victoria.

This is certainly not the first time Winnipeggers have heard Ted Warren. Winnipeg musician Knut Haugsoen has enlisted Warren’s skills on three of his albums, including his 2001 Juno-nominated recording Step and a Half. Warren also plays on Michelle Grégoire’s 2004 release Reaching. She praises Warren’s intuitiveness, enthusiasm, musicality, and enormous dynamic range, mentioning that he “breathed life into my music, he gave it a literal heartbeat.” Grégoire also stressed Warren’s easy-going nature, something I experienced first-hand when I spoke with him myself.

What surprised me was the impact Warren had on Grégoire’s life. When she was 18, an Antigonish group featuring Warren and Downes played in the CCFM’s Mârdi Jazz series. The group blew her away, and led her and several other local musicians—Kelly Marques, Rob Siwik, and Gilles and Lianne Fournier—to enrol at St. Francis Xavier to study jazz. Fifteen years later, preparing to record Reaching, Grégoire did a tonne of research, and Ted’s playing kept jumping out at her. He was definitely the right choice for her debut.

“Minor Alterations,” the first tune on Reaching, is evidence enough. Warren employs his full dynamic range starting with a very light touch, and escalating to an extremely muscular solo. Both of these extremes are found throughout the record: his sensitivity is really showcased on “December 1st,” and he plays with pure fire on “Knock It.” No matter what music he is playing, Warren shapes it remarkably.

When Ted Warren visits Winnipeg with Ted’s Warren Commission, we’ll have a chance to hear a strong band performing original work with a lot of energy and stylistic range. Here’s a bonus: he’ll also offer a drumming workshop in the afternoon.

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