An Interview

Tyson Naylor

This interview with Tyson Naylor was conducted by email during March-April 2012.

Tony Reif: What’s your background in music? You got your BA at Vancouver Community College (where you studied improvisation with François Houle), but how did you get into jazz and piano in the first place? What did you listen to and who have your main influences been? What were your student years like? It seems you didn’t rush through your studies (you were 24 when you graduated if I’m not mistaken) – was anything else interesting going on?

Tyson Naylor: I have my parents to thank for exposing me to all kinds of jazz and world music. My father brought me to countless concerts, already from a very young age. The Vancouver Jazz Festival was always the highlight of the year. We’d also go to shows at the old Glass Slipper on Main Street. Finally, when I was around eight, my mom rescued a piano from an alternate school, where they apparently thought it would be therapeutic for the students to have a piano-trashing day. Luckily, she intervened, much to the chagrin of some angry teenagers. They would have to find another outlet for their pent-up rage.

The piano needed a lot of work, and a lot of chipped keys remained, but it’s what I learned on. I had a teacher and learned theory and how to read, but mostly played by ear. Professor Longhair was an early hero of mine. I tried to learn a lot of his songs by ear, but got them wrong and had to relearn them later. Thelonious Monk quickly became a favourite of mine. I took jazz piano lessons with George McFetridge, Kathy Kidd and Linton Garner at various times during my teens, which were also spent driving all over the province for baseball and soccer games, so piano sometimes suffered.

After high school, I went to Capilano University and UBC for Liberal Arts. I enjoyed those two years, especially courses like Spanish, History, English, and Film, but I felt a bit lost. A music theory course I took as an elective shook things up a bit. I applied for the music program at Vancouver Community College and was accepted. I transformed from B-student to perfectionist almost overnight. I got a lot out of the program at VCC, which, despite what its name might suggest, really had a fantastic program with very inspiring, open-minded faculty.

TR: Fairly soon after you graduated you moved to Berlin, where you spent most of the next three or four years and played with both European and expat musicians such as Toby Delius, Christian Kögel, Australian drummer Steve Heather and Canadian bassist Miles Perkin (incidentally a member of Steve Raegele’s trio and Thom Gossage’s Other Voices on Songlines). What was the Berlin experience like for you?

TN: Berlin is an incredible city. It has so much depth to it, so much history; so much has transpired there, even just in the past hundred years, that one can’t help but feel weighed down sometimes. A lot of the Soviet architecture was designed to make one feel very small, like a cog in the wheel, and it still does, to some extent. But today, Berlin has so much to offer, culturally, and there is a spirit of creativity and an anything-goes attitude that I think make it a very unique place. There are so many small venues and such a vibrant scene, particularly for experimental and avant garde, that I immersed myself in improvised music while I was there, and was very fortunate to get to play with some incredible musicians and really lovely people. I was particularly thrilled at the chance to play with Toby Delius and Tristan Honsinger, as I’ve long been a huge fan of ICP Orchestra. I even got to have coffee with Misha Mengelberg, so I can’t really complain about my time in Europe.

TR: You moved back to Vancouver last year and soon reformed this trio that you’d played with occasionally before, and the music jelled quite quickly. I think it’s fair to say that at least in Vancouver you haven’t ever had such a solid, ongoing group, one that’s as in tune with your aesthetic, but the difference is also in your playing. Tell us something about Skye Brooks and Russell Sholberg and what it’s like working with them.

TN: The creative music scene in Vancouver is small, but quite special. I’ve been very influenced by musicians that were mainstays at the Glass Slipper, the Sugar Refinery, and at 1067 over the years and I’ve spent many evenings going to hear the likes of Tony Wilson, Peggy Lee, and François Houle. Russell and Skye have been playing in various configurations with all of them for years, and I’ve always admired their playing. When I was still at music school I recorded a trio demo with the two of them, and was really happy with the result, but we were all involved in other projects and somehow never followed it up. When I moved back to Vancouver I asked them if they wanted to play a few gigs. I booked a weekly gig at the Libra Room, one of the few venues in town with a piano, and one that is a short walk from my place. Skye and Russell have a great dynamic. They already sound so great as a duo that I just need to jump on board and try to match their energy. I almost never have to dictate anything. Things tend to happen very organically, which is something I’ve always admired about their playing in other contexts.

TR: François Houle guests on two tunes and you also play piano/keys in his new Vancouver group Living Ditches. There’s certainly a sympathetic musical connection there…

TN: I’ve always really admired François’s playing. I think I was in my early teens the first time I saw him play, and I’ve been blown away ever since. When one talks of mastery, François’s name definitely comes to mind. He really took those two tunes to another level.

TR: You’re also an accomplished accordion player: though you don’t play it much in the trio and not at all on the record, you’ve also been part of Vancouver indie/folk groups such as the Abramson Singers and Headwater. More notably you’re also the keys player in Dan Mangan’s band as well as Kenton Loewen’s band The Crackling (both of which also feature Gordon Grdina, and you’ve had both Kenton and Gord in bands of yours in the past). It seems like you can fit easily and effectively into quite a lot of different contexts. I’m also wondering if these sideman gigs have any significant influence on your own music.

TN: I’ve always had pretty divergent musical interests – if it’s honest, heartfelt, and is not trying to prove anything, I’ll probably like it. I also have a short attention span. I think I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out how best to fit into often very different musical settings while still trying to be original. I suppose as a composer I haven’t been particularly prolific because I’ve always been so interested in what friends and colleagues are doing around me. Gigging and playing is often more fun than sitting at home alone. So, should I spend more time on my own music and less time as a sideman? I’m not sure. There’s a balance that’s hard to strike. If I only played my own music I’d be bored in no time!

I grew up listening to jazz – not exclusively, but primarily. As a teenager I took jazz piano lessons, and went to music school for jazz piano. At school I met other musicians with very different backgrounds. Many of the better players were better versed in punk rock, heavy metal, classical and pop music than jazz, and for some jazz was simply a means for them to improve their technique and theory. As I was one of the few keyboard players in a sea of guitars, I was asked to play in soul bands, folk bands, funk bands, and ended up spending a lot of my time figuring out how not to play so ‘jazzy’ all of the time. I was never a huge fan of virtuosity for its own sake, particularly in jazz, and trying to play folk and rock demanded a different kind of subtlety and sparsity that many jazz pianists don’t necessarily appreciate or value. So I guess I got pretty good at not playing jazzy, as I ended up spending a lot of time playing folk and indie-rock bands, and I think the importance of the notes not being played, of space, and of patience continue to influence my playing and my music in all styles.

TR: Getting down to the music on the record, one of the things I like about it is the particular ways you link exploratory improv and in-the-pocket tunes, sometimes with nothing much more than a jump cut. It seems that quite an expansive stylistic purview is being pulled together by a personal aesthetic that relates to what you want to get out of music and what you want listeners to get – and that that communing and communication is largely about a range of feelings that inhere in music, from joy to nostalgia to things that perhaps can’t be ‘precipitated out’ in words. There’s always been a tender, nostalgic, romantic side to your music but now I think there’s a tougher, more assertive and outgoing (realistic?) side that matches it on equal terms. In any case, it would be interesting if you could talk about a few of the pieces on the record in relation to their composition and how they reflect your own experience and sense of things.

TN: As people often say happens with travel, the three years I spent in Berlin gave me some perspective. Yes, Vancouver has a dearth of music venues despite a large number of fantastic musicians, and funding for arts and culture has been repeatedly slashed in recent years, but against all odds the scene here has managed to retain something special, and perhaps because of its isolation I think a very strong case can be made that there is a certain musical aesthetic that’s unique to music from Vancouver, even if it is informed by other Canadian and west-coast scenes. I suppose I became more keenly aware, living abroad, that I was the product of my environment growing up, and that what I had to offer musically was maybe different from the average native of Berlin, and maybe by virtue of that, also interesting. So I guess, without ceasing to pay attention to those around me, I kind of settled into my own process and accepted my idiosyncrasies, for better or worse. In Berlin there is no shortage of eccentrics, and although the creative music scene in Berlin is fantastic and has much more to offer in many ways than Vancouver, after attending a show featuring one performer playing the end of a patch cord pianissimo for 60 minutes that was well attended and well-received, I felt a sort of responsibility to share whatever it is that I do more freely.

I’ve always been drawn to improv and the freedom that it offers, but I’ve always gravitated to music that retains strong rhythmic and melodic motives. Misha Mengelberg’s concept of Instant Composition has always appealed to me, and when I improvise I always try to use repetition, tension and release much the same way as if I were composing on the spot. And when I do compose, trying to mix set parts and improvised parts, I want it to sound organic, perhaps ambiguous – that the improvised space is a logical extension of the composed material, and vice versa. So when you mention linking things with “nothing much more than a jump cut,” that may happen from piece to piece, but within each song I still strive for unity. I don’t possess the patience that a Tim Berne does in developing his melodies, but when I hear the term ‘jump cut’ I think of John Zorn’s cue-card compositions, jumping between disparate sound blocks, and that’s not an aesthetic that I’ve ever been drawn to in any meaningful way either. What I really appreciate about Mengelberg and other Dutch musicians is their playfulness and no-fear approach, a patience and a willingness to see a melodic idea through right to the end, whether it’s a ballad, a joke, or a joke ballad. It’s always emotive in some way.

I’ll talk about the first song on the record. For the first little while after moving to Berlin I didn’t have a piano, but I did bring my Titano accordion from Vancouver, which I purchased years ago from an elderly Italian man who had at one time worked at an accordion factory in Castelfidardo. I was going through a Paolo Conte phase at the time, and was particularly fond of the song “Max” from his album Aguaplano. It has a simple, albeit very strong chorus melody, and the harmony is made up of major triads, but they land on some pretty unusual keys, that seem to really work, mostly because the melody is so unstoppable. I was practicing accordion one day, focusing on the left hand chord buttons, which because of their arrangement tend to make one come up with different sorts of chord progressions than one would on the piano. Also because the left hand chords are closed voicings of major and minor triads, I came up with a melody and a bunch of triads to match it. I wasn’t intending to reference Paolo Conte, but a few months later when forced to come up with a title I noticed a resemblance, wanted to reference the Italian connection and named the tune after Mr. Conte. I wonder if he ever wrote on accordion.

TR: Where do you see this group and your music going from here? I know you’re thinking about solo record, what else is bubbling under?

TN: Russell and Skye also play in a trio with Tony Wilson called the Longhand Trio. We’re planning a small island tour with the four of us which will feature Tony on some of my songs, and I’ll be doing some playing on his compositions. I’m really looking forward to that, as I really love Tony’s compositions and playing and have been going to hear him play since I was a young teenager. Yes, I’m working on some solo material, both acoustic and electric, and have been talking to Fond of Tigers mastermind Stephen Lyons about collaborating.