Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2010: EJ Strickland

Drumheller: A Road Less Travelled

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Drumheller is Toronto jazz quintet—or, in their words, “a collective of individual composers”—which pushes boundaries in some seriously playful ways. They are rooted in the jazz tradition, but they are hardly nostalgic. Now Magazine likens them to “the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with a touch of dementia.” All of them are involved in the improvisational music scene in Toronto, and they bring that to the stage, along with a passion for the jazz canon and a good smattering of folk, punk, and groove. Their performance energy is created by high level playing, collective and solo improvisation, and what one critic calls “a sense of wobbly fun.”

Working together since 2003, Drumheller’s members are an interesting bunch. Drummer Nick Fraser has performed with a host of Canadian and international jazz and free improv musicians, including Mike Murley, Anthony Braxton, and John Scofield. Critic Mike Miller suggests he is “perhaps a little too progressive for the hidebound Canadian scene” (Globe & Mail), but clearly his adventurous style is hitting the mark with both audiences and fellow musicians.

Trombonist Doug Tielli is often found in Toronto’s jazz clubs, but he’s also a prolific singer-songwriter, and a member of the post-rock band The Silt—where he sings and plays guitar, banjo, trombone, saw, and keyboards. He’s a frequent collaborator in free improv settings, and also performs experimental composed music with several groups.

Guitarist Eric Chenaux has been central to the experimental and improvised music scene in Toronto, playing with several groups, and co-founding Rat-drifting records. He has a fresh and irreverent approach to the guitar, pushing it sonically into new territory. Critics and audiences alike are drawn to the wit in his compositions and playing.

Rob Clutton, nominated for best bassist in the 2006 National Jazz Awards, composes and performs solo bass—his solo CD is Dubious Pleasures—and is a member of several groups, including his own, Cluttertones. The Globe & Mail singles out his “unbound creativity, amiability and taste.”

Saxophonist Brodie West draws on disparate influences for his particular blend of free improvisation and formal composition—if you’re sharp, you can hear traces of Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker, Dmitri Shostakovich and The Ex.

Ornette Coleman is certainly one of the touchstones of this band; another would be Charles Mingus, also one to push past expectation rather than settle with what’s familiar. Drumheller has much in common with The Bad Plus, E.S.T., and Marco Benevento—intensity, experimentation, and sideways humour. That’s exactly what appeals to Jazz Winnipeg Producer Paul Nolin. “What I really like about the band is that they are offbeat and idiosyncratic,” he says. “Some of my favorite jazz these days is unexpected and perhaps a little less swinging in the conventional sense.”

Drumheller visits Winnipeg as part of the Jazz Innovators series, a project that Nolin is passionate about. Each year, the series brings top Canadian jazz players to Winnipeg to share their work on stag e and in masterclasses. It’s not necessarily an easy sell—jazz musicians, Canadian or otherwise, are rarely household names, and the groups coming through are still developing an audience base outside their home cities.

Nolin points to the importance of cultivating a scene for Canadian jazz talent. “If we don’t develop audiences and interest here in Winnipeg where we have one of the most exciting jazz programs in the country and where we are turning out more graduates every year, what message are we sending to the local and national community?” The Jazz Innovators series—and the Canadian program at the Jazz Winnipeg Festival in June—are an ideal way to get a taste of what’s happening in jazz across this country.

Drumheller will be bringing their particular brilliance to the Park Theatre at the end of February. Expect to be perplexed, amused, and slightly off-kilter—the perfect antidote to the winter blahs. No doubt the behind-the-scenes chatter at the afternoon masterclass will be intriguing as well.

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