Vancouver saxophonist Cory Weeds is ambivalent whether he wants jazz master Lou Donaldson to be at the last show of his current tour.

His tour, which includes an Ottawa stop on Wednesday, January 23, will feature Weeds with three well-known Vancouver musicians and NYC trombonist Steve Davis, playing what Weeds describes as “straight ahead, hard swinging” jazz.

Cory Weeds  photo by Steve Mynett
Cory Weeds   photo by Steve Mynett
In fact, in the same tradition as Donaldson, especially his recordings on alto sax in the 1960s with Art Blakey.

Weeds has had Donaldson play at his Vancouver jazz club, The Cellar. “He's the closest to bebop I'll ever get. He was playing with Clifford Brown and Art Blakey and those guys in like 1955. He's a crusty old dude and he's opinionated as they come.”

And for a self-confessed hard bopper like Weeds, he's someone to look up to. Others agree: Donaldson was named a Jazz Master in 2013 by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.

Weeds said he learned recently from a mutual friend that Lou Donaldson had heard his latest CD, Up A Step, which is a tribute to Hank Mobley. His friend relayed Donaldson: “You tell Cory he's got a good record there. That's a good record. He sounded really good. You tell him that."

Weeds' friend then reported that he “was floored because Lou never says that.”

The tour, which started on January 9 in Portland, Oregon, covers Washington state, British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New York state, and Connecticut, before ending in New York City on January 30.

And it's at that last show, at the Smoke Jazz Club, where Donaldson might show up.

Which leaves Weeds feeling both excited and a little nervous. “People are starting to see my name, like my musician friends who play [at Smoke] are starting to see my name on the calendar and they're like, 'Cory, we hear you're coming to Smoke, we're going to come down and check it out'. That's great and I know they're doing it to be supportive, but it's also making me a little nervous, because you never know who's going to show up there.”

“It's very, very possible that Lou Donaldson will walk into the club that night and sit at the bar and just look at us. Because that's the way Smoke is, you never know who's going to show up.”

The group will be recording a live album that night, playing the original material they've been showcasing throughout the tour. “So, we're going to be doing this live recording, I'm probably going to look out, Lou Donaldson's going to be there and all these other people. It'll be like, oh my God, what's going on? But that's what you sign up for when you play in New York, right? That's why it's New York.”

A tour that grew - into a new CD

The idea for the tour started, Weeds said, when he booked Davis to play again at the Cellar. “I asked him what he wanted to do, and he said, 'How about doing something with you?'”

Weeds was thrilled at the idea – emphasizing it was Davis' suggestion, not his own – and then looked for a few other gigs to share the cost of Davis' travel. Before he knew it, he had a mini-tour set up of the West Coast and Alberta, which allowed him to apply for a Canada Council grant to fund a more extensive tour. The grant came through – the first Weeds has ever received – and the tour “snowballed from there” into central Canada and the eastern U.S., and including some afternoon workshops as well.

“You don't get to play jazz that many nights in a row very often any more so it's going to be a lot of fun. We're going to make some great music. I'm excited.”

The music will be an extension of Weeds' second-last CD, Just Like That [Cellar Live, 2011]. Vancouver pianist Tilden Webb wrote material for and served as musical director on that CD, and will do the same for this tour. He will be joined by drummer Jesse Cahill, who was also on the CD. Bassist Ken Lister will replace Jodi Proznick because of family logistics: Webb and Proznick are married and have a small child, and they both can't easily tour at once.

Weeds said that Just Like That was “a project that came together just because of my respect for Tilden as a writer. I'm not a really prolific writer. I'm really good at writing parts of songs but I'm not really great at writing whole songs. Tilden and I got together and Tilden finished a lot of my thoughts and that record did really well.”

Originally, the tour was going to reprise that material, adding in trombone. But with such a long tour, he said, it “would be a really silly thing to put a string of dates like that together and not record. What a wasted opportunity!”

“We all decided to write new tunes. I got together with Tilden and wrote a couple of tunes. Tilden wrote a couple on his own. Ken Lister, the bass player, wrote one. Steve Davis is bringing three. Then we have a couple that are standard.”

One song they're trying out, “Tetracosmos”, is special for Weeds: it was written by his father. “It's a song that's been around my house since I was a kid growing up. I remember when I started getting into music and when I started going to college I tried to play it and it was really hard. I remember my dad and I took it down to a local jazz club where two of my teachers and mentors were playing and they played it for us and they sounded great.”

“I've tried it on a couple of gigs and I actually tried to record it live with Jim Rotondi. I couldn't get my head around it. So I made some changes: I wouldn't say I rearranged it but I just made it a little easier and so it would flow a little bit more. It's a very cool tune; it's just to play on the changes is really difficult. By the time we hit Ottawa, unless we have scrapped it, we'll probably have played it 10 or 11 times. If we can't get it after 10 or 11 times we'll never get it.”

"A special place in my heart"

Weeds said he picked the Smoke Jazz Club to do the recording of the tour, partially because it was the last date, but also because it “has a special place in my heart”.

His first visit to New York wasn't until 2004. When he got there, besides the famous clubs like the Village Vanguard, he looked for smaller venues which featured players whose CDs he liked: for example, Steve Davis, Eric Alexander, Harold Mayburn, Ian Hendrickson-Smith, and others who were “part of the Smoke school.”

“Right from the second I walked into Smoke, there was something about that place that I think is special. I've spent many nights there. I've seen some of the best music I've ever seen in my life there. When you walk in, you're overtaken with jazz.

I met the owners, Frank and Paul, and they treated me very well. Every time I'm in New York I go back there. That's the first place I go. I've played there. They've been very supportive of me, and it's not like I'm a big international name, not even in Canada.”

It's not as perfect as you want it to be and hope it to be. But that's also what people are drawn to.

And why record the band live, rather than in a studio? “I definitely gravitate towards doing things live because there's that element of unpredictability and surprise. I think I perform best in that arena rather than in a studio. I've never been comfortable in studios. My favourite record that I recorded was done in a studio, but I think that was more fluke than anything else. I like live because you feed off an audience. You can't take anything back.”

Weeds' latest album, Up A Step, was also recorded live, at the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton, and he was very happy with the result.

“When I listen to that record, I'm like, "Wow." This is four guys that are not holding anything back for any reason. Because of that, there's many imperfections. Sometimes those imperfections are taken as bad things, when, actually, it's the total opposite. Those imperfections are what make it a great record.

“You sacrifice some things sometimes when you do a live record. It's not as perfect as you want it to be and hope it to be. But that's also what people are drawn to.”

For the tour, Weeds is switching to tenor saxophone from alto, a switch he has been making more frequently in the last few years. In this case, it was inspired by listening to trombonist J.J. Johnson along with a tenor player he played with named Bobby Jasper, as well as the opportunity to play with Davis. “I just really liked the sound of the tenor and the trombone together, and it was just happenstance that Steve called me around the time that I was listening to a lot of that stuff.”

“I still consider myself an alto player, but it seems more and more these days that when I think about the saxophone I think about it in terms of tenor.”

Steve Davis photo by Mary Davis
Steve Davis   photo by Mary Davis

A hard bopper from the get-go

By the time the group gets to Ottawa, more than half-way through, “we'll have the material pared down. We'll be playing what we're going to record. Our stuff is certainly influenced by, I'm a hard bopper from the get go. Always log a back beat and always, we don't play in odd time signatures. It's a pretty straight ahead band. We keep it fairly simple and have fun and keep the music, I always hesitate to use the word, funky.”

“Our influences are the Jazz Messengers. Our influences are Horace Silver. our influences are the Max Roach groups with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown. I'm going to characterize it as hard bop, because that's what it is. It's going to be fun music. It's going to have a back beat. It's going to have a bounce, but it's also going to be sophisticated, too. We're not going to be up there playing one chord funk grooves all night. We're a jazz group.”

“Steve Davis played with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, he played with Jackie McLean, he played with so many people. Those are the people that we grew up listening to, especially the Jazz Messengers and Jesse's a huge Art Blakey fan. That's kind of right where we're sitting, musically. There's some modern stuff in there. But by modern, it just sort of means more our own compositions rather than the actual style we're playing.”

It will be the the first time Weeds has appeared in Ottawa since his NAC Fourth Stage show in 2009 sponsored by the Ottawa Jazz Festival. He had originally been scheduled to play at Cafe Paradiso; after it closed, he said he decided to take the risk of renting the Fourth Stage for this show because “my whole life I've been taking risks so why stop now? I'm really excited to be playing there.”

    – Alayne McGregor

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