It’s well known beyond Winnipeg that that city has a burgeoning jazz scene thanks to the University of Manitoba’s jazz program. But given the breadth and size of Canada, the talents that trained at U of M don’t make it out to play for the country’s jazz audiences to the east or west of Winnipeg — at least as often as listeners might like.
Winnipeg guitarist Keith Price, however, is making the effort later this week to bring his music to southern Ontario — namely Kitchener (The Jazz Lounge on Oct. 30), Ottawa (Options Jazz Lounge on Oct. 31) and Toronto (Gate 403 and the Emmet Ray on Nov. 1 and 2 respectively). He’ll be playing with his long-time collaborator, New York-based drummer and Winnipeg expat Curtis Nowosad and Toronto bassist Mark Godfrey.
Below, Price, 32, discusses the effort he’s making to play this week beyond Winnipeg, and discusses the breadth in his music, which can range from covers of Neil Young, Radiohead and Nirvana to jazz standards to originals.
Why are you making such a lengthy trip for these four gigs? How do you make all the traveling work financially?
Two thousand kilometres seems like a long way to travel for a short tour but I felt like touring out east was a bit overdue for me and it will be nice to see some old friends so I’ve just found a way to make it happen.
My plan was to play my way to Toronto as part of VIA Rail’s Onboard Entertainment program but it turns out that I’m just too busy right now. So I decided to fly (it takes two days each way and they only have a few trains a week). VIA has been very good to me and many others in the past and my Neil Young covers usually go over well so it’s kind of shame to fly but it’s more practical.
I’m really trying to keep costs low and that’s why I hired Mark instead of traveling with my usual bass player Julian Bradford. Mark is an excellent option on bass so although I like to play with the same people every time, this trio just makes sense — I can afford to bring up Curtis from NYC because he’s riding an all-night, 12-hour bus.
Touring out east is more difficult than going westward (I’ve been lucky to tour out west a few times) because of how huge Ontario is and how few jazz gigs are available on the way. To get to Toronto from Winnipeg 24 hours of straight driving later (although it is really beautiful), you need to have a couple of strong anchor gigs or you’re sure to lose money. It’s kind of a shame because there are many amazing and creative Canadian Jazz musicians that we don’t get to hear too often in Winnipeg and in other words, each region of Canada seems to miss out on what’s happening in the other regions.
To what extent is Winnipeg’s jazz scene isolated from the jazz audiences to the east and west of it?
I think the Winnipeg jazz scene is almost completely isolated from the east and the west of Canada but I don’t think it’s only a Winnipeg problem. The problem of isolation is a general issue in Canada. I don’t get the sense (and maybe this is just a Winnipeg perspective) that the jazz scenes of any Canadian cities really “talk” to the others.
Tell me about how you first got into guitar and music when you were younger. When did jazz enter into the picture?
I first felt the urge to learn the guitar when I was in the sixth grade in 1993. At the time, I was really interested in bands like Queen, Wings, and The Beatles. My grandfather had a couple of acoustic guitars which he lent me and I began lessons at a local music shop. As I became a young teenager, my musical taste moved towards the heavy sounds of bands like Nirvana, NOFX, and Propagandi. I already played trombone and then bass in my junior high school’s concert band, but I remember thinking it would be cool to play in the jazz band (although I had no concept of what jazz was) and receive credit for playing electric guitar at school. I caught the ‘jazz bug’ in a really strong way when I first heard John Coltrane’s album, Giant Steps. For me, that music had all of the elements that I loved about punk-rock (it was played fast, it was intense and it was raw) but it also had this magical thing called improvisation. Then I found out about Miles and Mingus and Ornette and the whole thing ballooned into full-time jazz addiction by age 15.
I read that you did some studies in Amsterdam and could have gone to the New School in New York. But you chose to stay in Winnipeg instead. Tell me about that decision, and about studying jazz at the University of Manitoba.
When I was growing up in Winnipeg, there were a bunch of great jazz musicians that I went to hear as often as possible. Ron Paley, Larry Roy, Stefan Bauer, Sasha Boychuck, Gilles Fournier, Rob Siwik, and others made for a great local scene but there was nowhere to study jazz full-time at the university level. After high school, I ended up traveling a bit and settled on studying at the Conservatory of Amsterdam.
While I was out there, Steve Kirby moved to Winnipeg and started a Bachelor of Jazz Studies program at the University of Manitoba. This new program brought a lot of excitement to the community and I remember feeling quite happy and proud that things were blossoming in my hometown and I wanted to be a part of it. One of the first things I witnessed after returning from Europe for the summer was an incredible jam session at a restaurant (that no longer exists) called the Osborne Freehouse. The band on stage was Wycliffe Gordon, Miguel Zenon, Herlin Riley, Bernie Senensky, Steve Kirby, and maybe a few others that I can’t remember right now. The air was electric and since the restaurant was over capacity (I think they could fit 300 people in there; it was a huge room), people were hopping the fence and sneaking in the side door; it was an amazing event! The scholarship offer I received from The New School was good for my confidence at the time but I just didn’t feel like (and I know this sounds funny) leaving the excitement of the Winnipeg scene for the high cost and high stress of New York and it’s not a decision I regret.
Studying at the U of M was inspiring. I got to study the guitar with my hero Larry Roy and I learned a lot from Steve Kirby, Anna-Lisa Kirby and from the world-class musicians who rotated through the faculty like Alvin Atkinson, Terreon Gully and Jimmy Greene (not to mention all the great master classes we received from Stefon Harris, Joe Lovano, Lionel Loueke, and many others). At the time I wasn’t really concerned with academics. I was only concerned with improving at music and if my studies of other courses got in the way, I simply ignored them. I completed most of the “playing music” courses at the U of M but I never did graduate. I’m thankful to say that I’ll finally be graduating this spring from Brandon University where I’ve been studying with the incredible pianist and composer Michael Cain (yes, there are two great jazz programs in Manitoba!).
When it comes to playing guitar and composing, who are some of the musicians that you most look up to, and why?
The first jazz guitarist that I was really inspired by was Lenny Breau. I love the way he mixed styles and was free-flowing with his musical ideas. I always felt that his playing was coming from a really honest place and it was really cool for me to think about how he also grew up in Winnipeg. I later went through phases of Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, and I really looked up to Kurt Rosenwinkel for a few years. Sometime in my mid-20s I really got hooked on the music of Neil Young and it totally changed my idea of what I thought was good in music. I thought, “How can he be so impactful when he can’t play the guitar very well and wrote many songs with the exact same four chords?’’
I didn’t enjoy Bill Frisell in my earlier years, maybe because his music didn’t seem like real jazz to me at the time. Then one day, after a few years of trying to make my jazz music more straight-forward and emotional, I heard Bill again and realized that I was, in a way, trying to do what he’s already been doing for 30 years. I love his music — the blend of styles and the honest playing. I also like his compositions and the way he seems to always be composing when he’s improvising. I’ve never thought it was good to sound like someone else, so I’m not trying to sound like Bill Frisell, but I think his approach sets a good example of the way I’d like to play and compose.
How long have you been playing trio? How long have been playing with Mark and Curtis? Your record Gaia featured a slightly larger band — what are you going for with your trio?
The trio started out in 2007 or 2008 with a weekly gig at a venue called, Le Garage. We lasted one year before getting the hook.
Curtis Nowosad was a part of that group and we co-led a quintet before that for a few years, so I guess we’ve been playing together for almost a decade now. I remember, in the early days, he would sometimes have to cut class to play an afternoon gig because he was still in high school. But he was already so good! We bonded right away over our love of traditional jazz but also over our wide-ranging influences from popular music.
Mark Godfrey is a friend who I only played with a few times when I lived in Toronto in 2010 and 2011. I really like the way Mark plays and I know he also has a relationship with Curtis from NYC and somewhere else (The Banff Centre?) so I’m excited to hear how this new trio sounds on the road.
I like switching up the settings in which I play. The quintet from the Gaia/Goya album is always an inspiring group to play with but I also enjoy playing in a trio setting because it leaves a lot a space for the instruments to resonate. I sometimes find it easier to be patient with improvisation in a trio setting because there is less input from other musicians (1/3 each) and you don’t have to worry as much about stepping on someone else’s toes. I’ll also play some solo pieces on this tour, which is something I also love. For me it’s a challenge like, “Am I able to convey the complete idea of a piece with my own musical limitations and just six strings?”
I’m also working on some new music for my double quartet, which is the complete opposite of solo or trio playing, with guitar, saxophone, two keyboardists, two bass players, a drummer, and a percussionist. Hopefully we’ll be ready to tour with that group in a few years.
How would you describe the range of music that you play in trio? I’ve seen clips of you covering Nirvana and Neil Young as well as It Could Happen To You…
For this tour we’ll be playing some new original music, some covers, and some jazz standards. The gig in Ottawa will probably be an equal mix of all three, since it’s a four-set night. Maybe the material is a little bit eclectic, but it’s just a mix of music that I love. For me, I don’t see how the jazz musician of today can really leave any of those areas alone. We have to write new music and develop our own voice as artists but I’m not sure if we can ever truly leave the foundation of the jazz tradition aside. The average person doesn’t listen to a lot of modern or traditional jazz so why not bring “the jazz” to them through covers of popular tunes? And it’s not really a new idea — ’50s Miles is full of cover tunes!