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Will Bonness: Welcome to the Next Phase!

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Will Bonness has been making a name for himself as a Winnipeg pianist for several years, and has assembled an enviable resume, with performances and tours across North America and Europe, and several recordings, including his own CD, Subtle Fire. This past winter, he was part of a vigorous competition for the tenure-track position in Jazz Piano at the Marcel A Desautels Faculty of Music. Now in his mid-twenties, Will is both the newest and the youngest member of that world-class faculty, and keen to take on a new set of challenges. — Charlene Diehl

How does it feel to have won such a prestigious position in your own hometown?

I was born and grew up here in Winnipeg, and I’m really involved with the community. I know a lot of people have to leave their hometown in order to get a job, so I feel so fortunate to be able to pursue my career here in my own community.

What do you see as the biggest challenges as you assume this position?

Oh boy, I really am not sure. I guess one of the challenges is going to be finding a way to keep my performance and recording goals going forward while at the same time developing as a teacher and helping to develop the program. The university is very supportive of the faculty’s performance goals, but you have to be more careful about scheduling your out-of-town times—you can’t just tour as much as you want during the school year. You need to have a balance.

I’ll also be developing some new teaching skills very quickly. I’ve taught several smaller courses and a lot of individual students, but this will be my first time to develop full lecture courses.

How would you describe your career aspirations as a musician?

One of the most important things, as far as developing as a musician, is playing with the best musicians in the world. Not sitting in at a jam session or attending a master class, but playing with them in a band, recording with them. When you’re in the band, you can really see how someone’s musical mind works—not what they say they do, but what they actually do musically in a real situation. Every musician is different, and when you’re working up close, you can’t help but be influenced.

The way I see it, the only way to be a world-class musician is to be around and playing with world-class musicians. That’s where a lot of people get stuck. They content themselves with a certain level of player, and never manage to jump to play with musicians that are greater than they are.

“World-class” is a weird concept, because it’s not like there’s an “ideal musician,” but there are certain musicians I would regard as being truly great and I want to be around them and learn from them and play with them. Wayne Shorter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Gretchen Parlato, Joshua Redman, Mark Turner, Eric Harland—lots of guys….

Obviously, you can’t just get to that level just by playing with them—you have to put in as much work as they have. In order interact with them as an equal or at least somebody on the path to becoming an equal, I need to keep practicing and doing all the things it takes to be a great musician. These other goals can only come if I do that.

I know a primary aspiration for a lot of musicians is to be a band leader—they want to do their own thing and showcase their music to the world. I feel like I have a lot of learning to do as an artist before I branch into that. I really like fitting myself into whatever musical situation I’m in. A lot of great musicians have said that before you have to be a sideman for a long time before you truly have something to say as an individual. There are exceptions, of course, but look at the history of this music—Miles Davis apprenticed with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane apprenticed with Miles, McCoy Tyner apprenticed with Coltrane, and on down the line. These guys all became great individual artists, but they went through a period where all they were doing was learning from other great musicians. Interesting topic…

How do you feel about writing and recording?

Writing and recording go hand in hand, obviously, and I would like to do a lot more of both!

I really like recording because it gives you a time capsule of where you are in your development. Everybody has a natural desire to make a record of what we’re doing—unless you make a record of it, it will be lost. Psychologically, recording what you’re doing also allows you to give yourself permission to keep developing. As soon as you record something, you can let go of where you are at now and move on to something else.

For musicians, recordings help us see where we’re going. If we didn’t have any early recordings of Miles Davis, that would be a great loss. His later recordings were great, but his early ones were great in a different way. Musicians change and develop throughout their musical lives, and it’s interesting to listen to all periods.

I’d like to do a lot more writing and I’d like to learn a lot more about composition. That’s another about being around great musicians, you learn a lot about how they think about writing/arranging. Composition is an extremely mysterious process. In one sense, it’s a skill—practice and you get better. On the other hand, you want to be inspired. I’m not gonna pretend to understand the process—ask me in ten years!


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