Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2010: Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller

Ken Gold

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Chances are you’ve heard the rich sound of Ken Gold’s baritone saxophone on a Winnipeg stage or club. Gold plays a lot of bari these days, though he’s comfortable on tenor, alto, and soprano as well. If you’re going to make a living as a working saxophonist, he points out, it helps to have facility on them all, and to be able to handle clarinet and flute as well. “If you have a strong conception of the sound, it’s not that hard,” he says.

Gold has a packed schedule. He is a regular member of the Ron Paley Big Band and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, and is a charter member of Papa Mambo, the local salsa sensation. He plays in Dave Lawton’s band, the Danny Kramer Events Band, and Brazilian Beats, Marco Castillo’s 8-piece ensemble. He also plays duos, trios, and quartets with many musicians, including a long-standing duo with guitarist Ron Halldorson—the two of them perform every Saturday afternoon at InFerno’s Bistro.

His gigs range widely in style and setting, and they have since he was first starting out. “I’m not a purist,” he says. That pragmatism has allowed him to flourish as a working musician, and explains not only the eclectic nature of his musical affiliations, but also his ability to fold gigging, teaching, and other musical work into a productive career.

Gold was born in 1958, the fifth child in a musical Montreal family. His mother was a good pianist, and had a baroque recorder ensemble. All of his siblings took piano lessons, but “it didn’t take” so his parents didn’t enroll him. Ken fooled around on the piano, but mostly soaked up music from his neighborhood. Many of his good friends came from musical households, and as young teens, they formed a band and played what they liked—rock, Santana, Weather Report.

Eventually Ken borrowed a saxophone, and in his mid-teens joined a military band where he learned to read music. Eventually he started to play with Haitian bands. They were amateur musicians, but had dance bands that played in clubs. “It was hilarious,” he recalls. “I was 17 and keen. I’d take 2 buses to get to a rehearsal and nobody would be there. They’d wander in 2 hours later—they were on Caribbean time!”

Montreal provided Ken a great musical milieu. There were lots of clubs, and the city was big enough to support really good local players, and draw in players from New York. Sayyd Abdul Al-Khabyyr , a reed player who played every chair in the Ellington band, was a devout Muslim who had a club on Park that served only tea and cakes. “He was a severe man,” Ken laughs, “I was scared of him!” The teens would trot in from afternoon street hockey and he’d be doing the Dolphy thing, really far-out stuff on the bass flute. “I remember sitting there listening to Nelson Symonds, a guitar player who’d jammed with Coltrane. So we had all this stuff coming at us when we were still young—it seeps into you…”

Gold studied music at Concordia in the early 80s, and flourished under great teachers like Charles Ellison and Andrew Homzy. “My personal idol,” he recalls, “was sax player, Dave Turner, the closest things to Cannonball in the flesh. It’s funny looking back, but I used to follow him everywhere—I’d just go hang out and hear music.”

By this point he was also playing—a lot. One of his treasured musical experiences was a gig with Big Mama Thornton, a huge force in blues history. “She had incredible stage presence,” he remembers. “I can see it: she sat on stage beside a little table with a drink on it, a fedora pulled low over her eyes. She had the band kick off a groove and she’d sit and wait till the groove was just right. Then she’d slowly get up and kick into ‘Little Red Rooster.’ It was magic!”

In 1984, he parachuted into a teaching job in Winnipeg, and apart from a 4-year stint in the 90s doing cruise ship work and a two-year Master’s program at Brandon, he has been a busy player on the music scene here ever since. He met Ron Paley early on, and through him a bunch of other influential Winnipeg musicians—Ron Halldorson, Reg Kellin, Dave Shaw, and others. He vividly remembers great concerts with Kerry Kluner’s big band, with featured artists like Diane Shuur, Bill Watrous, Jon Faddis, Tito Puente, and Paquito D’Rivera. “We did a Justin Time recording with Paquito—that was a big deal for me.”

He was around for the start of Papa Mambo, and counts Rodrigo Muñoz as one of his important musical peers here. Also on that list: Larry Roy, Gilles Fournier, Dave Lawton, Jeff Presslaff, and more recently Marco Castillo. Ron Paley and Ron Halldorson have been influential in his life, and Steve Kirby’s arrival 6 years ago has connected him with the U of M students and faculty.

What’s he listening to these days? “I’m fascinated by Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music,” he says. “There’s really mind-blowing stuff from the Balkans, funk and jazz and middle-Eastern sounds wrapped up together. And Indian music. And Afro-beat music. What turns my crank is the texture and emotional quality—it makes a gut level impression on me.”

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