"I'm sort of like hot and cold. Real introspective stuff and really intense stuff. Because once again, I think so much jazz is so down the middle, which is beautiful as well, but people don't explore the parameters of introspection and exuberence as much as they might, I think."
— Hugh Fraser
Guy MacPherson: How are you doing?
Hugh Fraser: Well, pretty good. Busier than a one-legged man at a fancy dance, as the saying goes. But enjoying it, you know. Just trying to keep a balance of the business and the music and the family all together and that's always the hard triangulation, as you know. But it seems to be working. I'm still here. (laughs)
GM: What's the writing you're doing?
HF: Oh, I'm finishing off this commission for jazz sextet and string quartet for the Bernard Primeau Jazz Ensemble in Montreal, who'll do a recording with Alain de Grosbois in Montreal in early September. He seems to really like my compositions. I'm going out there to do some of my live trombone music at the Montreal Jazz Festival in about a month's time. And he's commissioning me to write the stuff to record in the fall. So it's kind of neat.
GM: How many pieces do you think you've written?
HF: I'm actually just in the process of putting the book together of lead sheets of all my compositions. I did one in 1988 because the guys in my band kept losing their charts so I gave them one and charged them for any additional ones that they'd need. So I'm updating that, which is obviously, wow, that's like 13 years ago last time I did that. So it's getting up to the 150 region, I guess. And with incidental stuff, I've done some other projects where there's like more incidental pieces, maybe more closer to the 200 zone. But a lot of stuff. I've always writing, which as a player and teacher, sometimes people don't notice that. But that's sort of what I consider my main thing. At least it's the thing that will sort of be around probably longer than me and I feel the best about as I sit there and work on it and get it to the point where I'm really happy about it, which I'm never with with my playing. (laughs)
GM: I love your compositions, too. A lot of jazz original tunes, to my ears anyway, are not that singable or memorable. They're more like an excercise for the band. But yours are original, interesting, they swing and they have a good melody.
HF: Wow, well thank you. You've made my day.
GM: What are you trying to accomplish when you write a tune?
HF: I always liked the Duke Ellington model which contains all those things that you said. It's a fine balance of all of those things. You're not writing music for oneself, and I think a lot of jazz musicians, especially nowadays with so much jazz education around — and I'm guilty of helping contribute to that with all the teaching I do — but I think people sometimes have almost too much information. And the sort of tunes you're talking about, which I know so well, especially a lot of people's first jazz albums, they get a certain sound or harmonic thing or a rhythmic thing and they sort of work the heck out of it, which is neat because they're exploring that. But in the long run, there's not a life beyond that particular context. And what I find so appealing about Duke Ellington and Mozart and that is that the music not only has a great deal of style, which pertains to the moment, the performance practice, the people playing it and the very personal individuals that might be playing the tune. But it also has a large, at least half if not more, amount of the universality of music, which means that someone 200 years from now on a bunch of electronic instruments can play Take the A Train or Perdido or something and it'll still have enough of the essentials of solid organization that it'll be really appealing. And that's basically melody, harmony and rhythm. What I try to do is keep on stepping back and put on the old humility patch and say that I'm not writing this for myself or whatever, I'm trying to find something with my accent that other people will be able to come to and put their own experiences into. As I say, people like Duke, people will be playing his tunes hundreds of years from now whereas a lot of great — especially in the jazz/fusion area or other areas with these really neat sounds... Like who remembers any UZEB tunes or Jeff Lorber fusion tunes? Like, I remember hearing them live and being really impressed but it's sort of like fast food or sugar. After the initial impact, it burns away because there isn't enough substance where it can be played by other people. So that's sort of the rule. It's not a rule. I just sit down and write, because I have written stuff that is maybe more inaccessible or whatever. I also like to feed in a lot of the colloquialisms, what people are playing. I listen to what the horn players are playing and try to build melodies off of the sort of phrases they like playing.
GM: The individuals?
HF: Yeah, as individuals and that's basically one of the ways I started composing. At the old Classical Joint I remember playing, and when I was at VCC with players, and playing standard tunes and about halfway into their solo, I'd really start enjoying the energy and the feel of what they were doing, so I'd start to pick up some of the phrases and that, so I could construct a tune starting at that point. So whatever the rhythm section was doing and whatever melodic information they were playing, if it wasn't it wasn't too fast and crazy. So in that way it was sort of like being a voyeur and saying, 'Hey, I want to recreate this starting at this point, not having to play through the tune for five minutes before getting to this point. And that's basically what Charlie Parker and people like Coltrane did, I think, also with their compositions. They based it on the history and tried to create a situation where people could put their own contemporary energies into it, but it never lost that connection with the past.
GM: I was driving to Seattle yesterday and I took along your CD, the one that you burned and gave away at your birthday celebration. And every tune on that is great. I was singing along to every one of them.
HF: Aw, man, thank you. That's a wide range of stuff, right from my very first recording back in 1980 with VEJI. Yeah, I don't know, I think jazz musicians sometimes suffer from having too much information and not enough practical experience, you know? It's just getting out there and playing and seeing what moves people. And people don't change. Everyone thinks that evolution is this progressive thing but quite often I view it as a thing as keeping good energy alive, not trying to preserve anything but water and air are ancient and they're the most important things to us, you know? And it's the same with certain melodic and harmonic and rhythmic patterns. So instead of trying to throw them out to find something new, you have to build on them.
GM: That's right. Because you're a modern composer and yet it is rooted in the past.
HF: Yeah, well I like to think so. It's like having a tremendous respect because, my God, when you hear... That's why I moved back to North America — when I hear something swinging, it just makes me smile. (laughs)
GM: What, they don't swing in Europe?
HF: No, they do. I shouldn't say that, because there is actually a new generation over the last ten years, of people in Europe that do have a lot more of the sensibility from the North American point of reference. But it's weird because it's there. It's more art music. It's a dilemma because on one hand it's cool, but on the other hand it's kinda weird because it's elitist, the whole concept. Whereas in North America, for better of for worse, it's part of the social fabric. Moreso in the States than here, but you know, in Canada as well, definitely the blues and swing-based stuff or shuffle-based stuff is just normal. And it's part of, as I say, the social fabric. And it isn't in Europe still. That's definitely, as I say, more of an exclusive special thing that people go to. They don't listen to that in the supermarkets.
GM: You were in London, right?
HF: Yeah, just a little while ago. Well, you know, I lived there for four years and I've been commuting there four times a year for the last 12 years. And now I'm just actually back from my commitments there. I feel I've done my job, and was actually offered to take over and teach full time there and I backed away from that because I tried once and realized I wasn't cut out to be a full-time teacher, although I enjoy teaching. So I'm only going over to London maybe a couple times a year now.
GM: At a particular school?
HF: Yeah, the Royal Academy of Music, which was the first degree-granting jazz institute in the United Kingdom, which was kind of neat because I was involved in designing the composition program there.
GM: You have a special fondness for classical music, I'm guessing, too.
HF: Yeah. That was always in the household along with jazz. Partly because of one's European heritage, but moreso that that's another type of world music that has organized and found all sorts of different ways of portraying human emotion and human experience and the human condition, and in the melodic and harmonic area is incredibly sophisticated. So obviously the people that are very inspirational besides the classics like the Bachs and Mozarts are Bartok and for me a couple of the early 20th century English composers, Vaughan Williams and Holst really still have a deep impression I guess because I heard a lot of them when I was in high school.
GM: Do you listen exclusively to jazz and classical?
HF: Pretty much, although Campbell [Ryga] has got me into some more diverse things. And obviously in high school I did get introduced, by playing horn, to some of the horn bands like Tower of Power and Earth, Wind and Fire, which I still find kind of exciting. A lot of people don't know but Maurice White, one of the main writers for Earth, Wind and Fire, studied with John Coltrane. And I think that's where jazz musicians always gravitate because of the chord changes. There is that jazz sensibility although it's very accessible R&B, poppish-type music. But there has to be something of interest for me, and the formula stuff never seems to work. A guy that really blows me out is Stevie Wonder.
GM: I love Stevie Wonder.
HF: Yeah, well, like Duke Ellington, if you listen to his tunes, each tune you could base a whole person's writing formula and career on yet every tune is different. So it's like there's a thousand different formulas. There's no two things the same. Same with Duke. Which is great because, especially in the pop world, most people find a formula, a type of a tune and then they just keep on working that until it dies out. But Stevie, it's just like infinite innovation.
GM: And his tunes are timeless, with the exception of some of the later ones.
HF: Yeah, exactly. And it also proves that the harmonic and melodic complexities, they actually aren't issues as far as getting in the way of popularity. You just have to do it with incredible artistry, which he does. Because his tunes are easily as hard, or harder than a lot of jazz tunes. But they're really accessible and popular because of the way he does it. So the whole idea, I find, is trying to make complicated resources or more information as accessible as possible and not trick people but almost lead them in a way into a state of more awareness. And that's the composer's duty, which he does brilliantly.
GM: But Hugh, I doubt his pieces are as hard as yours.
GM: Your shows are always so energetic and some of that is because some of the arrangements and the tunes are so difficult. What do the sidemen think?
HF: I like to have a little bit of a story. A lot of the stuff, especially with my quintet, was borne out of my big band writing. So I tend to always think as far as intros and melodic statements and backgrounds and transitions. Although some of my tunes can be boiled down, and some of them are just like a lead sheet with just like a regular jazz format, a lot of them do have these little changes and stuff which I just find makes it more interesting. It tells a bit more of a story. Because that's one of the things I always notice, too, and I agree with the general public when they say, 'I heard jazz once and I didn't like it.' Because so many jazz players just go and read out of the Real Book and they just play the head down and then everyone solos and they play the head out. And especially if you don't know anything about the format of the music, it just sounds all the same. And it sounds like a very naive thing to say, but it does. It's the texture. So I'm trying to find ways of making the texture and create energy — energy's obviously very important to me — and trying to get to that energy level that people have in them but quite often, unless they are motivated, don't get to. Because that's another thing, in a lot of jazz people don't realize their potential as much because, I don't know, they don't feel they have as much to say or something. I don't know what it is. I try to give them a little spark to motivate them to go over the edge. Although in recent years, I really have been writing a lot more ballads. I'm sort of like hot and cold. Real introspective stuff and really intense stuff. Because once again, I think so much jazz is so down the middle, which is beautiful as well but people don't explore the parameters of introspection and exuberence as much as they might, I think.
GM: How long has the quintet been in existence?
HF: It sort of really came into its own in 1987 when we won the Montreal International Jazz competition, although we had done several, like a radio show and some gigs before them. But I usually use that as the official starting date. So that's what? Like 14 years, I guess. So that launched into our first album, Looking Up, a European tour, another album. So from there on, just because of the manageable size and the original material and that — and I was living in London at that time — have developed a fairly regular migration pattern, going over to Europe, and even more recently down to South America at least once or twice a year, where we're very well received. Which is kind of interesting because a lot of the North American bands that go down to Latin America are salsa and latin-type bands. Which is cool, but it's sort of like bringing coals to Newcastle. We're actually viewed with our sort of more hard bop, North American swing approach as a real exotic band there.
GM: How did you get the gigs down there?
HF: Well, my first trip was down to Cuba. We were playing opposite Irakere with Chucho Valdez at Ronny Scott's in 1988, I guess, was the first time we did that. Maybe it was '87 or '88. And we developed a lifelong bond. I was trying to study with him and he wouldn't accept any money so we just hung out and played and stuff. And I got him to come and teach up in Banff, which was his first teaching experience in North America, which was a bit of a landmark at that point. Now he's all over the place. From there he invited me down and I did a recording and guested with his band, Irakere, and a couple other bands. And then the year after that, I managed to get the funding together to get my whole band down there and then we branched out and played in Colombia and then did a really extensive tour of Brazil a couple years back. And we're going to be going back there this fall. So yeah, I guess, just the energy that the band possesses that the Latin people, although it's a different language — it isn't Latin music at all — they totally relate to it and embrace it with open arms. Because they just love bright, positive energy and that's, I think, one of our trademarks, the exuberance and joy of the music. So it's been really touching actually for me to see that, yes, it does communicate even though it's got nothing to do with Latin music. It doesn't sound like it at all. It's exactly the same energy as what they're doing. So that's been very staisfying to me to see that, yes indeed, there is a universality to music.
GM: How often do you guys get together?
HF: At the gigs. Although I do have a really exciting project. The other thing with my music is I tend to — a lot of jazz original projects people have this really complex mind-blowing stuff and they have to rehearse for a week to do one gig. I've always sort of let the music evolve when different people have subbed in the band and that. So I've done, which is sometimes a bit of a controversial thing, a lot of similar material and reworked it and then I'm introducing just a few tunes every year that are really popular and work with the group. So now I'm in the fortunate position of all the guys in the band have like a 60-tune repertoire learned by memory, which is wonderful. So I can call any tune I want. Also, I have various subs in Toronto, New York and London that also have subbed for the band in key places that can play a lot of shared material, which is very flattering, in a way, that they all remember the tunes. And so, for that reason, we don't rehearse as much as a sound check or radio show. I'll introduce the new music and try to do the old Miles Davis thing and just sort of play it down the first time in the studio and I've been really having good results. It's taken a lot of guts to do that. But however, having said that, for the first time I've just got some funding this fall to present a concert. I'm not quite sure where it's going to be, but it's going to be in late September, probably at the Capilano Theatre, with my quintet and Slide Hampton. And there's a series of new compositions I'm doing based on the members of the band and some famous jazz people. I've already done some of those, basically inspired by people like Art Blakey and McCoy and I'm doing some new ones. So we're rehearsing for a week and we're going to present the show with Slide Hampton. That'll be really neat for me to actually work on the music and get into some stuff that we haven't been able to do on the shorter periods of time we had to get the music together which is more usual. So that'll be neat. We'll get into some of the more intricate areas that we don't usually get, which will be neat.
GM: There's been a bit of controvery here about the jazz fest.
HF: Yeah, I heard. Someone told me about that.
GM: Did you have to send in a tape?
HF: No. When I was living in New York and I had a very good manager at the time, and when my quintet was really on its initial high in the late '80s, she applied to all the jazz festivals and was just totally disgusted to find out how incestuous the travel funding and all of the members were and it was basically like an old-boys club. Personally I have no real feelings either way. It's like if someone creates something, it's great. If you don't like it, you create something yourself as opposed to trying to knock it down. But ever since then, I've never asked, with actually two exceptions when I've had a new recording project, but for the last 13 or 12 years, I've never asked for a gig at any of the festivals. So any of the gigs that I do at jazz festivals are when they approach me. So it's under my terms then. And if they can't afford the quintet, I turn up with the quartet. If they can't afford the quartet, then I'll just sit there and play solo piano or trombone. So that way I don't have a problem with them because I'm fortunate enough to have enough other things happening that I don't need to pursue that. I think it's a matter of everyone sort of putting their eggs in one basket where a lot of the problems evolve. Although there is some inconsistencies and discrepancies that need to be addressed and it would be nice to have the half the committing public being served in possibly a more creative way. You know, they're evolving and their bunch of people have their idea and they're working extremely hard and I think the good outweighs the bad for most of them. And it's up to the individual to make sure that they're served well and just get a bit bigger picture because I think the only problem with a lot of Canadian artists is they really don't have the big picture in view and just look at the local jazz festival as their only big focus to be a jazz performer. The minute you get that out of your head, then life starts getting better right away.
GM: How does this apply? What do they have to do?
HF: You have to travel. What I always suggest to players trying to do their own thing is, you have to look at your record collection and all of the people that really inspire you, if they're still alive go to where they are, meet them, try to study with them and try to play with them. That's number one. And once you've done that, then if you start writing or performing music in a certain genre, just go to wherever in the world that that is done to the highest degree and then you can judge yourself, not in a critical way, but you can at least see what it is those people do to do that and then you can put in perspective what it is you're doing. And usually that brings a lot of people to New York, although there are other people that go more to other places in Europe and stuff — and you can go just for a few months to study with a couple of your mentors and you can go for a few months somewhere to hear people play the music that you like in its own environment whether its in clubs or concerts or the North Sea Jazz Festival or wherever. And then once you've done that, and you've got an idea of how people in the world scene present the sort of music you love, and you've geared what sort of position you're in to contribute to it, then it's a matter of regrouping and getting a strategy together to put oneself in that sort of milieu and get out there and start presenting that with humility and a sense of what it is you're offering. You can't be ignorant of what other people are doing in that area. On the other hand you can't think you're the best in the world, either. So it's just finding your place. It's been my experience that there's just tons of opportunities for people to perform this music all over the world, just way more than there are performers. And the problem is, I think, that a lot of mid-career or starting off, but especially mid-career jazz musicians, they start feeling that there's no, because of the festivals and the local situation, start feeling that they're not appreciated and no one understands them and stuff, and they've got this great emotion to contribute but they have no way of doing it, which really does get frustrating. It's a matter of rethinking it and saying, 'Hey, what's my main focus here? To contribute and inspire. And where can I do that? If I can't do that here, I have to go somewhere else.' And if there's other commitments that are in the way, then you have to weigh that. And it's tough.
GM: How old were you when you came to this realization?
HF: I don't know if I could verbalize it. I just had this burning desire when I was in Vancouver at VCC, halfway through it, and said, 'Man, this just isn't doing it for me.' And there was this great little studio called the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, where Dave Holland and those guys were teaching. So I did that in 1979 for a couple months and that sort of opened me up to more of the free scene. And then I started working a lot in Vancouver in the late '70s and early '80s. And then, I guess, going up to Banff and having Slide Hampton and Frank Foster and Joe Henderson come up and just work with my band exclusively just opened the door to have these guys who are my heroes and just treating us as normal people that were contributing to the music, it made me realize that, yeah, it really is a global community and there isn't really any difference except these people have an incredible amount of devotion and experience, that they're just regular human beings that just get up and eat breakfast — well, sometimes (laughs) — and lunch and supper. And if one starts thinking about oneself in an international perspective... And then by '84 I was working with, like, tons of singers around Vancouver and just getting really frustrated and I said, "I've had it," and I just packed up and moved to New York. It's not that hard to do. But it is a tradeoff. You do have to say farewell to family values and a lot of that sort of stuff. It depends how far you want to go. But it comes out in the balance. I'm back in this part of the world now and loving it and I know what's out there. But I think a lot of people artificially box themselves in and don't see the bigger picture. And as I say, with the jazz festivals, a lot of these negative and positive stuff that comes, people don't put it in persepective of what other jazz festivals are like in the world and it's like one week of the year and there's actually jazz happening the other weeks of the year in other parts of the world.
GM: I guess another criticism is that people like Emmylou Harris and Wide Mouth Mason are playing the jazz festival. So what isjazz? And then of course all the free form and avante garde.
HF: Exactly. It's like, I think they'd probably be better served to call them "music festivals", which is fine, as opposed to looking at the negative saying what it isn't, say what it is, and then just try to make sure that that's what's presented. The interesting thing that I've seen, though, in some other parts of the world is — because this is a sort of a global thing actually just to get markets in drinking beer and spending the big bucks, that they do need more pop and blues-oriented artists — is that there's actually been a resurgence of a few festivals, and I actually don't have any of the names at the tip of my tongue, but there's been some smaller festivals that are coming up that are billing themselves as a mainstream or hardcore jazz festival, which are now specialist festivals, that people travel a long way and spend a lot of money to go and see. Which is kind of neat. It's like a backlash. So it's just the old pendulum, you know. And yeah, of course, it is kind of a misnomer that they are called jazz festivals. But you know, as I say, in the scheme of things we're talking about a week a year. It is disappointing the treatment a lot of the festivals give Canadian artists, but that's not just a festival thing, that's a Canadian thing in general. When you talk to clubs and organizations around the country... Like, when I lived in New York, and people had to phone my Manhattan number, I could instantly negotiate twice the fee that I do now that I live out here. It's just bullshit, you know? So I just don't work in Canada as much, and enjoy the beauty of having great musicians that are out here. So it's frustrating for sure. But once again, I think the minute one views it as a problem, one just joins the downward spiral and doesn't contribute. There's got to be some ways to sort of get around it.
GM: So you're in Victoria full time now?
HF: Yeah. Of course, I'm on the road a lot. But now that my English commitment is down a little bit from what it was, I am spending a bit more time here just overseeing the various projects. I've got this little record label which seems to be doing okay. And my publishing company, and that's doing very well. People are buying my music for big band because of all the things you commented on. They find them very approachable and stuff. And then my educational side where I'm doing clinics. And I'm actually starting up a jazz program at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. It'll be the first full-time jazz course here. There's a jazz option at UVic, but it's not a full-time course. So this will be the first two-year, diploma-granting, transferrable jazz course in this part of the world, which is long, long overdue.
GM: It's funny that two of the best trombonists in Canada are in Victoria running jazz programs.
HF: Yeah. Well, Ian [McDougall]'s originally from here. And he was actually, long ago, married to my cousin. And he started me playing the trombone. He used to come over when I was a kid. So I'd see him before he moved to Toronto. Yeah, once you've been out in the west, the Vancouver-Victoria area, you realize the more travelling you do, there are very few places as beautiful on the planet. So it's great that way. Ian's actually getting ready to retire. It's great to see him pursuing his band, though, and stuff, because a lot of guys just sort of give up the ghost, especially after all of his studio years. But he's probably the greatest trombone player in the country, so it's good to see him pursuing his thing, that's for sure. And we get a chance to play together every now and then. We do the old J and Kai [JJ Johnson and Kai Winding] stuff. It's great stuff.
GM: You said you were frustrated playing with singers. Was it because you were a sideman?
HF: It was a situation where I was rehearsing about 30 hours a week and playing about five nights a week and making about 300 bucks in Vancouver. That's when I realized that singers are a different species. Having said that, I just finished doing a duo album with piano and voice with a singer, Christine Duncan, who's written a lot of words to a lot of my tunes. She's not really a jazz singer but for the purposes of my tunes, it was great because she just basically sang the melodies, didn't do any improvising. And since then I've been very adament, especially in my big band projects, of involving vocalists and it always creates some tensions and stuff. But the whole thing now, I realize, is trying to get instrumentalists to be more in their body and more like a vocalist and not think about the technicalities of pushing keys and buttons down. And on the other side, the vocalists, they have to artificially create parameters where they think they're pushing buttons down and getting a lot more exact with their vertical and horizontal musical structures. So we're just trying to get everyone in the middle. I seem to be a referee that way. And that's important because we can learn from each other. But that is the standard complaint of most of the vocalists I was working with at that point, who had a lot to offer with varying degrees of musicality. But quite often, as a piano player in that role, in that earlier period of my life when I was playing less trombone, I was just basically a rehearsal pianist. I was just trying to boost their ego, not really musically doing that much.
GM: For you.
HF: For me, no.
GM: You were this young wunderkind, and now you're like an elder statesman dispensing advice to the young and teaching.
HF: Well, I was very fortunate, you know, through guys like Dave Robbins, the elder, to see that passion and experience. And guys like your dad [Fraser MacPherson], and that. It's like, man. I always look for in people that do stuff you really like, what do they have in common. I guess I'm a bit of a social analyst or something. And the couple times I got to play with Dizzie Gillespie and played quite often with Slide and some of these older statesmen, I just noticed the incredible humility and the willingness and eagerness to share their information with younger people, but more importantly this incredible, almost naive curiosity as to what these younger people think about music. And that's, I realized, one of the marks of their greatness, is that they never freeze themselves and say, "I am great, I have done this" and then become this inaccessible thing. They're just even more open than some young kid just getting into music. Dizzie was like that in his seventies, you know, asking some young white kid from Victoria advice on what to play in this chord. Jesus Christ! This guy invented bebop with Charlie Parker. So those are the qualities that I aspire to. I'm not saying I've achieved them, but I think that's so, so important.
GM: So you're always learning, too.
HF: Oh, God, yes. That's the only reason why I teach. That's why I don't teach full time. I taught full time in Toronto one year and I stopped learning. And I thought at that point that I was a bad teacher. Because I think teaching is the secret of standing in front of a bunch of inspired people and being even more inspired than they are in front of them. And if they can see that process happening of the light bulb going on inside your head while you're explaining something — and it might be something you know inside out, but you have to find a new way to explain it to yourself in front of them — and they see this incredible miracle happen and then they'll be totally inspired and want to do it. Because, you know, I've had some really bad teachers in my life and it's just so depressing, you know. So I never wanted to be in that category.
GM: So teaching part time you can stay rejuvenated.
HF: Well, yeah. You know, I teach a fair amoung, probably more than a lot of so-called performers, but not full time. And this new position I'll be having at the conservatory, I'll be the artistic director, which means I will have a regular presence, but I still have the freedom to spend at least half of my time on the road and stuff, and I'll just be more overseeing the content than actually being in there five days a week. I'll probably be there a couple days a week, maybe 12, 13 weeks each term. So that's within the reasonable parameters of when I can stay very inspired and keep infusing a lot of positive energy.