Jim Doxas: Beat and Beatitudes

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Very much in demand, Montreal drummer Jim Doxas divides his time playing with piano great Oliver Jones, the John Roney Trio and Chet Doxas Quartet. Through the power of his startling invention, he makes the case that percussion can be every bit as performative as a lyrical instrument. What distinguishes Doxas' approach to improvisation is that he refuses to play it safe, allowing the moment—and not received wisdom—to dictate the kind of framework that will contain, shape and guide the piece under consideration. He is astutely committed to the belief that significant music is always distinguished by what is left unsaid, the gaps of which inspire him to produce a highly original vocabulary of accents, sound swells and silences that speak to his keen ear and very special touch. Unlike most drummers, he's able to personally engage an audience while leaving the group dynamic intact. If he has caught the full-time attention of Oliver Jones it's because he is able to flawlessly negotiate the demands of tempo and concept by supplying a structure of sound that may completely recast or resize a song or section of it, which he then colors and fills in: the effect is nothing less than edifying. Even when producing a whisper on the cymbals, the perfectly weighted sequence of taps attains the breadth of the human voice. Doxas persuades us that percussion can flow like water, sometimes like water over sharp rock, like ice fog over freezing water or a gentle breeze cooled off by water. He epitomizes the bold and inventive drummer who isn't afraid to go out on a limb where he risks losing it on occasion. What more can you ask of a percussionist than to reveal the potential of his instrument so the listener leaves wiser and with whetted appetite. Doxas has recently recorded with both the Effendi and Justin Time labels. The former gravitates to an immaculate, studio-shaped sound, the latter toward the acoustics more associated with analog. Either way, neither can rival Jim Doxas live, already one of Canada's very best.

All About Jazz: The first thing that strikes me about your drumming is that you're much more interested in being more than merely a timekeeper?

Jim Doxas: That's very true. The concept is just as important and sometimes even more important than the beat—and it provides the space that allows me to express my creative side. But, in order to do that or get to that level, you have to be very comfortable with other musicians. I've been very fortunate in playing with the same musicians for many years now.

I met our bassist, Zack Lober, in high school. At the time I was playing French horn. At around that time, my younger sax playing brother, Chester [Chet], began to get interested in jazz, which in a way forced me to switch to the drums so we could play together. As for John Roney [pianist], he moved from Toronto to Montreal in 2001, so I've been with him for seven years now. We all relate to each other really well, which is very important in the soloing because it's not just one person performing the solo, but rather the entire ensemble where we all contribute according to our instruments and instincts, which means you have to have a tremendous amount of trust and faith in the other musicians. If something isn't quite working out, you know you'll be able to resolve it.

AAJ: How do you figure out the drumming when you are presented with a song you've never heard before?

JD: There is usually one of two general situations to which I have to adjust. First of all, I always ask the composer to play the song, and I just sit back and listen to it, again and again if need be, until I'm mentally comfortable with the changes and modulations. Some composers have very specific ideas of what kind of accompaniment they want: cymbals here, silence there, high hat for the bridge etc. Therefore, this means my task is to follow their instructions as best I can while offering ideas of my own which the songwriter may or may not accept.

But when either my brother or Roney brings in a new song, we listen to it and then just sit down and start playing, and sure enough, it begins to evolve. So by the end of the day, it might sound quite different than what the songwriter had in mind. What's great about this process is that we know each other so well we don't have to be polite in our comments: John can say, "Zack, play in lower an octave," or tell me that I'm dragging or too loud, or whatever. For me, working with new material is the most precious and creative part of being a jazz musician because you're literally giving birth to something that previously didn't exist; so that every time it's played you're helping it grow and develop.

Sometimes I get shivers it's so exciting. And this is only possible if the composer allows the other musicians to be creative participants, and if he hasn't set limits on how the song is supposed to sound. In other words, there's no limit to how a song can evolve if the ego thing doesn't get in the way. When John and Chet are soloing, they don't have a preconceived idea on what they're going to play. They're both totally badass; it's never "me, me, me."

We like to start from a clean canvas. For instance, Zack will set something up while Chet, John and I build something up top. Sometimes in the middle of a straight-ahead piece, we might suddenly find ourselves in some kind of straight 8th space—and then what? This kind of playing is tremendously exciting but again, you have to be comfortable with the other musicians.

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