When Bill McBirnie started playing the flute, he was “completely captivated. That was it. It was a major life-changer for me. When I started practicing it was almost like they couldn't stop me.”

Toronto's “Extreme Flute” player Bill McBirnie makes a rare appearance in Ottawa this month. photo by Diane Aubie
Toronto's “Extreme Flute” player Bill McBirnie makes a rare appearance in Ottawa this month. photo by Diane Aubie
Jazz flute has turned into a life-long love affair for McBirnie – and Ottawa listeners can hear how he's mastered the instrument on Saturday. He's giving a clinic on jazz flute and improvisation in the afternoon, and performing at GigSpace in the evening together with Ottawa jazz veterans Mark Ferguson and John Geggie.

The Toronto musician has been recognized by flute virtuoso Sir James Galway as Galway's resident Jazz Flute Specialist, and performed with Galway in concert. He's recorded with jazz pianists including Junior Mance, Bernie Senensky, and Robi Botos, and he's a member of Senensky's Moe Koffman Tribute Band. He's released seven albums, ranging from solo flute to straight-ahead jazz to two Brazilian/world-beat duo CDs.

“I just try to make the flute sound like a real jazz instrument. People go, 'Oh I've never ever heard a flute played like that.' Well, of course you haven't, because I've been working at this. The technique is not extended, I'm not doing anything that is novel. I'm actually trying to play within the idioms or the traditions in which I'm working, whether it's swing, or bebop, or Cuban, or Brazilian, or funk, or soul.”

This all came about almost by accident. When McBirnie was 7 or 8, he had actually asked his father for a recorder, which he thought would be simple to fool around with – not a flute.

He said he was surprised and disappointed “when I saw the instrument being metal with all these keys and played off to the side. It was not what I bargained for at all.”

But “my father had gone to the trouble of purchasing one for me, and he was an intimidating guy, so I thought 'I better start practicing this thing.' ” And when he started practicing, “I connected with it immediately. All the difficulties it posed never discouraged me. So I really wanted to get this thing to operate and function with me. It was just a very strange connection that I can't fully explain.”

McBirnie sounds almost rueful when he says that this connection never happened with any other instrument. He tried piano lessons for several years starting at age 5, and “I really just didn't take to it”. He later tried the clarinet for a while, but “I didn't like anything about it”.

I connected with [the flute] immediately. All the difficulties it posed never discouraged me. So I really wanted to get this thing to operate and function with me.
– Bill McBirnie

But the flute was different, and he continued to hone his classical technique with teachers like world-renowned Canadian flutist Robert Aitken, with whom he studied for a couple of years in high school.

When he came to university, though, McBirnie took an completely different path – he went into commerce.

“I guess I got this from my father: music is a nice avocation but it's not necessarily a wise choice vocationally speaking. So I ended up in commerce and finance, and I spent most of my life as an accountant.”

In fact, he said, “music helped out the accounting, because I was very lucky early in life to find something that fascinated me that much. I developed discipline and focus with music that I just redirected at anything else I happened to do in life. So music made me a better accountant, as I see it.”

“But I was always working at the flute, always working at it, and quite diligently and seriously. It wasn't strictly an avocation. I took it very seriously.”

"Improvising is a separate craft"

And he also decided not to continue in classical music, but instead to learn how to improvise – in a mostly self-taught adaptation of the classical technique to jazz and Latin music, in a process lasting over several decades.

“In my early 20s, I really decided I wanted to improvise. I didn't want to be bound by a script as classical musicians were."

“That was a whole other musical stage that I had to go through, because improvising is really a separate craft, and you really have to understand it. There are a lot of great flute players like Sir James Galway – he can't improvise a note! And there are a lot of great improvisers that can't play the flute. That's the trick: to develop the technique on the flute and the improvisatory skills and then blend them. And that's a very rare thing to find.”

For him, improvisation meant jazz – and, in particular, bebop because that's what jazz musicians he wanted to play with were playing.

Playing jazz on the flute requires approaching the instrument differently, he said, “so that it will work, and it doesn't sound like a classical player trying to play jazz. For that there were no books; I really had to spend a lot of time altering my technique and modifying it to work in non-classical situations.”

In the 1970s, he said, he didn't play professionally, but did take part in a long-standing jam session run by his brother every Saturday. “They were pretty open sessions, loose and relaxed, and musicians of varying calibre. So there were people like me, who weren't very good, and there were people like Frank Falco or Lorne Lofsky. These guys were very good because you see they were working hard and making rapid advances but they were very indulgent and tolerant of people like me who were struggling and beginning. So I was lucky to fraternize with people like that. They had good open attitudes and that also helped because they were a lot better than me and it's kind of scary.”

He slowly progressed, “but I was disciplined and I did keep at it. So over the long haul I've done fine.”

Learning Latin flute, without quitting his day job

In the 1980s, he said, he started playing professional gigs. Colombian-Canadian percussionist and bandleader Memo Acevedo heard him play at a long-standing Toronto jazz venue, George's Spaghetti House, “and he wanted me to quit my day job and join his Latin band. And I said, 'I've got a mortgage and I don't think I can do that.' ”

“But I started working with Memo. He was the Latin guy in Toronto, and I think he had five bands, five formats. I started playing with him and I eventually became the first horn on call in four of his formats.”

“When I started, I came from a swing tradition, and I really did not understand Latin music. I had no idea what I didn't know. And Memo knew what I didn't know. And I guess he had faith in me that I could pick it up and I did. I worked at it. I know now, especially having worked with Memo, that Latin is its own idiom and you really have to understand it well, and the two major strains are Cuban and Brazilian, plus tons of others. And then there are also sub-strains within those. It really takes a long time to understand those idioms, and connect with them properly, because it's very different from swing.”

But with listening and reading and practicing, he said, he “learned the vibe. I learned the groove, I know how it feels. I know some of the melodic mannerisms. I know the things that make it function or make it work."

In the mid-1990s, he attended an extended “Afrocubanismo” session at the Banff Centre, where he learned a great deal about Cuban music and was able to study with legendary charanga flutist Richard Egues every morning for “10 or 14 days straight. I got a couple of years experience with him in just a couple of weeks: that's what it felt like.”

I was coming off of the bandstand, and all these people were rushing me and wondering when I'd arrived from Cuba. The guys in the band around me were saying, 'He doesn't speak Spanish, he's English!' And I actually fooled these guys – they thought I was from Cuba!
– Bill McBirnie

All this studying paid off, he said, the first time he played Toronto's Lula Lounge with a Latin group. “I was coming off of the bandstand, and all these people were rushing me and wondering when I'd arrived from Cuba. And they astonished me. I didn't know what they were saying. The guys in the band around me were saying, 'He doesn't speak Spanish, he's English!' And I actually fooled these guys – they thought I was from Cuba!”

Recording with Junior Mance

Growing up, McBirnie said, “My dad loved jazz music and he used to take us out to hear it live in Buffalo, New York. So we used to go out and hear a lot of musicians and a lot would come over to our house, some name brands.”

That included American jazz pianist Junior Mance. “He'd be in town every year or so at least. And we'd always go out and see him, and maybe go out for dinner with him.”

In the 1980s, McBirnie said, he recorded demo tapes with Toronto pianist Mark Eisenman at John MacLeod's home studio, “just for personal consumption. I had these cassette tapes, and I used to send them to Junior Mance, just because he was a friend of the family.”

“After many years, in the late 1980s, I went to the Montreal Bistro, and Junior saw me come in. I went to the bar, and he really noticed me for the first time, as it were. And at the end of the set, people are always on top of him, he's got rounds to make – well , at the end of that set, he made a bee-line for me at the bar, directly to me. And then he said to me, 'Bill, I've got a big apology to make.' He didn't say hello, he just said I've got a big apology to make. And I was like, 'What? Junior Mance is apologizing for what?'

“He said, 'You know those cassette tapes you sent me over the years? Well, I never listened to them.' I said, 'Oh, OK.' And he said, 'I just listened to them. I had no idea you could play flute like that!' But he didn't stop there. He said I want you on my next album. And sure enough, I ended up on Junior Mance's next album, which was Here 'Tis [a tribute to Dizzy Gillespie].”

The albums the jazz crowd didn't like

In 1998, McBirnie released his first album, Desvio, a collaboration with Brazilian-raised guitarist and percussionist Bruce Jones. McBirnie had been playing in Jones' band, “Da”, and “I'd done so much work with Bruce both live and recording, I said to Bruce, why don't we do a flute project? Because I had no idea how to go about recording and writing and all these things, and he was doing that.”

The album wasn't jazz, McBirnie emphasizes – it was Brazilian and world-beat music. “It was completely off the jazz track.”

And it wasn't well-received in the jazz community, he said, because “people did not associate me with that type of music. I know in my own family for example, my brother Jim was almost outraged that I did that, and I had to try to tell him, 'Look, listen to this with Wynton Kelly ears, you're going to be disappointed and frustrated. It's not that kind of thing.' But my sister Gay completely loved it! And she taught elementary school and for decades she used to have this thing running in the background all the time.”

For his most recent album, Grain of Sand [2015], McBirnie has reunited with Jones to play original material in a variety of Brazilian formats. It features improvised flute combined with Brazilian fado and samba and bossa nova rhythms, along with touches of funk and hip-hop.

McBirnie used to regularly go hear renowned jazz band-leader and saxophonist/flutist Moe Koffman at George's Spaghetti House. “Like a lot of people, he didn't really know who I was, and didn't necessarily take me that seriously. I was an adoring fan. But at one point I gave him a copy of Desvio. I'm sure he figured this was a piece of nonsense. The funny thing is, the next time I went into the club at George's Spaghetti House, boom! It was a completely different story. He treated me with real attention and sort of respect thereafter.”

While he never got to know Koffman well, McBirnie said, Koffman started giving him gigs at George's. “We got along very, very well and he was a very business-like guy. He said 'OK, you got your sidemen lined up? Yep. And they're all paying their dues? They're all paid up at the TMA [the Musicians Association union]? Right.' All those things had to be covered. But I guess because I was an accountant, I did hire the right guys and paid their dues and Moe didn't have to worry about me too much, even though he might have thought I was green at this, which I was.”

A few years later, McBirnie released a home-recorded CD of solo flute called Scratch It, a “very flute-centric and diverse” album. It wasn't well received, either, he said – except by Toronto pianist Bernie Senensky, who “unlike most jazz musicians actually liked it. And he knew the flute work was exceptional. So, bang, he knew, there's my guy for the Moe Koffman Tribute Band.”

After that, McBirnie's next four albums were straight-ahead acoustic jazz with musicians like Senensky, Botos, and Eisenman: flute, piano or organ, and rhythm section – which finally were appreciated by jazz fans, he said.

Several years ago, classical flute virtuoso Sir James Galway solicited McBirnie to act as his resident Jazz Flute Specialist on Galway's website, and praised McBirnie's playing on one of his albums.

When Galway performed in Toronto for the first time in decades last fall, he asked McBirnie to play with him. “He gave me a segment of the program to play some jazz with Bernie [Senensky] and Roberto Occhipinti on bass. So we played a few tunes as a trio, and then Sir James joined us for a jazz version of Greensleeves.”

"Extreme flute" means accomplished jazz flute technique

McBirnie's concerts are often advertised as “extreme flute” – a tag-line he was given by Bruce Jones.

“He really liked my flute playing and everything I did was amazing to him. And so he called it 'extrema flauta' (in Portuguese), so we just Anglicized it to 'Extreme flute'. But all it really signifies is that it's really accomplished flute, where you can really focus on it.”

“Because I play the instrument. Coming from a classical tradition, I worked hard on my technique and I worked hard on my sound. And I really don't like to adulterate those with extended techniques – things like slapping the keys, humming along with the playing, nowadays beat-boxing. Those are things I simply choose not to do.”

For example, he said, he doesn't want to add percussion through beat-boxing, like flutist Greg Pattillo.

McBirnie plays regular C flute and alto flute and piccolo, all of which were on his latest album. “I used to have a bass flute, but I just never used it that much. But I find that I can do everything I want on a C flute really. So I tend not to use the other ones, just because I can do everything I need or want to on the C flute.”

People don't expect the flute to sound like that, because I've cultivated the technique and listened to enough of the various types and styles of music that I can actually render them. And after a while, it's like “But I thought a flute couldn't do that!” ... well, that's the whole point!
– Bill McBirnie

At his afternoon clinic, McBirnie said, he'll explain how he modified his flute technique considerably to make it work in non-classical situations. “The way I breathe and the way I articulate for example are very different from classical. As I say to students, if you want to sound different from a classical flute player, you have to do something different and it has to be physical. And those are the things that aren't in any books that I had to figure out – and now I know physically what I'm doing differently that makes it work.”

At the clinic, he said, he'll probably play more R&B and soul, “because people don't hear the flute in that context. People don't expect the flute to sound like that, because I've cultivated the technique and listened to enough of the various types and styles of music that I can actually render them. And after a while, it's like “But I thought a flute couldn't do that!” ... well, that's the whole point [he laughs]!”

"Melody is more important than anything"

One lesson he learned from studying with Egues, he said, is that “melody is more important than anything.”

“Melody is my primary objective, musically, and then time. And harmony I regard as rather unimportant and sometimes irrelevant. I try to look at things melodically, and don't get stressed out about the harmony. Admittedly as a jazz player, if you're going to be versatile and be able to cope in all kinds of musical situations, you really do have to understand harmony well, and I certainly understand enough of it. But I try to forget about it, because to me, harmony just gets in the way. Melody's more important.”

At GigSpace, a “loose and open and free and spontaneous” feel

For his show on Saturday with Mark Ferguson and John Geggie, McBirnie said he's looking for a “loose and open and free and spontaneous” feel. “I like a blowing session kind of atmosphere which means that people are comfortable with the tunes they're playing and it's not utterly premeditated and overly rehearsed. I come from an old school of Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige kind of sessions, and I like that vibe.”

He expected the set-list will include songs from his own acoustic jazz CDs – as well as several pieces composed by Ferguson. “I don't like to stress out my sidemen in any way –I like to play what they like to play. And in this case, we'll certainly be doing three, maybe four of his tunes.”

He noted that both he and Ferguson share a strong love of Latin music, which “makes it easier, because we've got more resources to draw upon, both of us having an interest in Latin and conventional swing and bebop.”

“It will be straight-ahead bebop/swing/bossa, standards. And I'm not worried about these guys because know they're excellent, both Mark and John. The CDs that I've done have been done without any rehearsal, as I expect this gig to be. So that's the thing: you just pick the right kind of repertoire where everyone's comfortable and it will work regardless.”

    – Alayne McGregor 

On Saturday, January 9, Bill McBirnie will present a Flute and Improvisation clinic at Long & McQuade, 2631 Alta Vista Drive, starting at 1:30 p.m. At 7:30 p.m., he plays at GigSpace with Mark Ferguson on piano and John Geggie on double bass.

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