Vol. 1 no. 2

An Interview with Wray Downes

I first met Wray Downes at a jazz club in Montreal called, appropriately enough, the Jazz Bar. This establishment, long since departed, was owned by guitarist Ivan Symonds, cousin of Montreal legend Nelson Symonds. Ivan played six nights a week with electric bassist Nick Aldrich, at the time one of the eldest jazz musicians in town, and drummer Charlie Duncan. Nick had appeared in the movie "Cabin in the Sky" as a pianist, and played with many of the early greats of jazz in the U.S.A. For the last two or three decades of his life, he worked during the day as a messenger, and at night with Ivan. Charlie Duncan, whose jovial spirit and bouncy time feel made everyone feel at home, would occasionally sing a ballad in a beautiful high-pitched voice, holding a mike with one hand and playing his cymbal with the other. Six nights a week, musicians and fans would show up at the Jazz Bar, to see who would sit in with the trio, or just enjoy the somewhat Felliniesque nature of the place. Every once in a while, Ivan would take some time off, and he would hire other musicians to come and "hold the fort." One of these times, I found myself listening to pianist Wray Downes and bassist Skip Bey. I had heard what a virtuoso Wray was, but I certainly wasn't prepared for what I heard that night. There seemed to be a total command of the piano; it wasn't like the instrument was being played, more like steered. There were elements of Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell in his playing, but Wray had a way of synthesizing these influences and still making the music sound fresh. When he started to solo in block chords, I realized I had better pay close attention to the proceedings, as there are very few pianists around who can perform at that level.

As the years passed, I had the opportunity to work with him on occasion, and each and every job required intense concentration and stamina; he had a tremendous musical drive, and was apt to test you on various tempos, rhythms, and endings. Some of those evenings went better than others for me, but every time I would return to playing with him, I realized that what I had learned in the interim would help me along a little bit through the next time. It became clear to me that to perform with someone who relies on a sense of musical empathy amongst the musicians, one must listen to a wide variety of music, to be prepared to anticipate where the leader is going.

One day I found myself doing a CBC radio show with Wray and bassist Daniel Lessard. We had played a few trio things that we had talked through and that Wray and Daniel were familiar with. The show's producer, Andre de Grosbois, wanted something different, so I suggested an older tune, Confessin'. Wray seemd surprised that I would suggest that, but he quickly went over it, and we recorded it in one take. There was no ending worked out, no chords, no special rhythmic punches; we just held on by our fingertips while Wray steered the ship. The result was more successful than some of the other selections, in part because of Wray's penchant for "going for something," and also because we were actually creating something rather than rehearsing it.

If you haven't yet heard Wray Downes, you can hear him on CDs with bassist Dave Young and tenor saxophonist Don Menza, both available on the Sackville label, and most recently on a duo album with alto saxophonist Dave Turner, Last Call at Cafe Alto. I recently asked Wray to make a solo piano CD, which is ready to be picked up by any interested record companies. Any takers?

He can be heard infrequently both in Montreal and Toronto, so if you have a chance, go out and see and hear what I'm raving about. You won't be disappointed.

The Interview