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Dan McCarthy: A Place Where We Once Lived

Photo credit: John Rogers

Dan Bilawsky By

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By February of 2019, Dan McCarthy had reached the end of his time in New York. "The movers had come and packed everything up, and my wife and son were already in Toronto at my parents' house. I was at our apartment in Crown Heights and I only had a few things, including my vibes," he explains. With one full day remaining before McCarthy joined his family, and 15 years of Empire State memories swirling 'round his mind, he took his vibraphone to the studio and recorded an epilogue to this particular period of his life. Then he packed up his belongings and drove straight to Canada.

A Place Where We Once Lived (Self-Produced, 2021), the gorgeously reflective outcome of that trio session with bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Rudy Royston, plays as a musical memento carried away from a long, transformative stretch in New York. "When I look at the person who I was when I moved there versus the person I was when I packed the van up and drove back to Toronto, it's like night and day," McCarthy shares. "New York will always have a special place in my heart. So I wanted to try to create a record that would express some of that love, the sadness in leaving, but also some of the hope I feel for the future."

The music—all original(s), save for Steve Swallow's "I'm Your Pal"—speaks to McCarthy's gifts for creating weightless melodies, varicolored harmonies and direct lines of expression. His compositions—tuneful, welcoming, rhythmically engaging—belie their sophistication as they hover and seduce. "Sonder," set in motion and anchored by Morgan, glimmers and glows; "Trail Marker," playing a lightness of being against cool-hand grooves, emphasizes open-eared collaboration; "Cloud Hopping," the closest thing to a straight swinger on the menu, leans on melodic hooks; and the title track, framed in a flowing three, deals in obvious nostalgia. Other full-length highlights include the Gary Burton-indebted "Desert Roads," odd-metered wild child "Go Berserk," and soothing "Goodnight Sweet Cat." But a number of vignettes— or "Short Stories," as they're labeled—also serve as standouts. Acting as ear-catching asides, these miniatures help to separate the lengthier offerings. "They're just these little things that grab your attention and then vanish," McCarthy notes. "They help to pull the listener in."

Every aspect of A Place Where We Once Lived, from the album's title to the cover photo taken in front of McCarthy's apartment on Pacific Street in Crown Heights, speaks to New York life. And that includes the inspiration for connecting with this rhythm team, the creative process itself and a general desire to live in the moment: "This trio record was really inspired by a night at the Village Vanguard when I heard Bill Frisell's band with Rudy and Thomas. I was blown away by both of them, so I figured I'd reach out and see if we could make something happen. They were both into it, so that's basically how it came together. And as far as the recording itself, there was no rehearsal. I wrote music for it, but I specifically didn't give Rudy and Thomas a lot of instruction because I wanted to see what would happen if they just created their own take on it. I loved doing it that way because I didn't know what to expect. I had maybe four or five hours of their time and we just played."

The trio only recorded one or two takes of each piece during that session, and virtually everything that ended up on the album is a first take. While speaking to a high level of concentration and musicianship, that fact also nods to immediacy in the air. "If you record multiple takes they'll always be different, but the second and the third will never really be better than the first," McCarthy notes while personalizing a widely-held principle. "That's because that first take is the first time experiencing something. You're telling a new story versus trying to tell the same story a different way. Those first takes are so powerful because you're really, actually, speaking for the first time instead of trying to repeat something you've heard or said before." That near-tangible power in the music addresses the spontaneity in first flights, but it also connects to a sense of purpose straddling different points in this artist's life. Marking the end of an era for McCarthy, the creation of A Place Where We Once Lived served as a segue into a new phase (more on that later) and a return to the place where he grew up and initially found his way.

Born and raised in Toronto, Dan McCarthy came to music early on. "I started when I was three," he shares. "My parents put me in a community music school. They really put me in everything— hockey, swimming, French—and music was just one of those things." Picking up the basics in his preschool years, and taking piano lessons from middle childhood on into his early teens, McCarthy received a solid foundation. Then, when it was time to choose an instrument, he was drawn to the drums. "I'm not sure why I chose the drums, to be honest. They just looked like fun," he confesses. "So I played drums for quite a while. I went to an arts high school, and that's what I studied there." Were it not for bad timing (no pun intended), drums may have remained front and center for McCarthy. But fate, of course, stepped in. "One of the requirements for all percussion majors at the high school was to be part of the percussion ensemble," he explains. "We had lunchtime rehearsals. And one day, at the beginning of my senior year, I was late. I took too long eating before I went there and by the time I made it to rehearsal, the only instrument left, because nobody wanted it, was the vibes [laughs]. I sort of hated it for the first few months I played, but then I came around. I started to enjoy it. I realized how unique it was, that no one was doing it and that I was actually getting some attention for it."

With only a year of vibraphone work behind him, and absolutely no doubt about a desire to pursue music, McCarthy's audition for Humber College focused primarily on drum set. By his sophomore year, however, it was all vibes all the time. McCarthy managed to take off on the instrument, with some help from mentor Don Thompson (among others), and word got around about his playing. "The nice thing about jazz in Toronto is that it's a very tight-knit scene," he notes. "There are really only a couple of music schools that most people go to—there's Humber, there's the University of Toronto, one or two others—so a lot of the faculty crosses over and you get to meet a lot of people that way. Early on I was getting asked to play at graduation recitals at both Humber and U of T. I was going to rehearsals all over the place. So when I finished [in 2001] I already had a fair amount of connections on the scene, just from school."

At that point in time, McCarthy's main aim was to play as much as possible. He spent three years doing just that, honing his skills and working close to home, before serendipity sought him out and swept him away to New York. "It all came through Gordon Webster, a good friend who's probably still, to this day, one of the best piano players I've ever met. We had gigged together for a few years in Toronto, and then Gordon decided he wanted to go and get his master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music. He got an apartment in Washington Heights and was set with a roommate who was also supposed to be going to school there. But in July, after Gordon had already signed the lease, his roommate bailed." As Webster explained the situation to McCarthy at that moment, he asked his friend to keep an ear open for anybody who might be interested in joining him. And when McCarthy told the story to his girlfriend, she reminded him of his own deep desire to make that jump.

With no visa, very little money, no job and no connections, moving to New York was far from a safe move for McCarthy at that particular juncture. But the more he thought about it, the more he realized that the moment felt right. "I couldn't stop thinking about it for a week after I had that conversation. So I just decided I was going to go for it...and less than a month after Gordon had introduced this idea to me, I was in New York." Arriving on August 15, 2004, McCarthy had no clear direction. But within a few months he was finding his way. Through Webster and another Torontonian-turned-New Yorker—trumpeter Suresh Singaratnam—he met a wide variety of musicians who would become close friends and collaborators. And after landing a job bartending at Cornelia Street Café, he was ensconced in an incubator for jazz and other improvised music(s). "That's where I first met Thomas Morgan," he points out. "There were so many great people who came through there. George Garzone played there all the time. That's where I first met Chris Lightcap, who also played there frequently. And Gary Versace. And Rez Abbasi. It was heaven. For somebody who'd been listening to all of these musicians on records in college, getting to work at a club where all of these people were coming through on a regular basis, and getting to know them, was kind of amazing."

McCarthy's work at Cornelia Street Café, which lasted five years, created additional opportunities. When the club's owner, Robin Hirsch, opened another establishment—Night and Day, in Brooklyn—he asked McCarthy to run the music booking for its back room. "I did that for about a year," he recalls. "And that included booking a weekly jam session. So between all of that, and people dropping off demos, I made a lot of connections there too." Concurrently, McCarthy was gigging and developing his own voice as a composer, which led to the recording and release of his debut album— Interwords (Self-Produced, 2006). "I'd been playing a lot with [bassist] Matt Wigton and [drummer] Greg Ritchie, and they were great," McCarthy shares. "We gigged at Cornelia Street and Kavehaz and a bunch of smaller venues in Greenwich Village. It was a wonderful experience so I just decided, since I'd never done a record before, it was time to put something out there." Highlighting the chemistry at play between those three, Interwords also featured saxophonist Myron Walden as a special guest on several cuts. "I'd always been a big fan of Myron's work, especially with Brian Blade's Fellowship band. And I knew him from Cornelia Street, so I asked him if he'd play on a few tracks. One of the tunes that he appears on was inspired by the Brian Blade Fellowship—and, specifically, a solo that Myron had played—so to have him play on that track was a serious 'wow' moment for me."

Certain aspects of that maiden voyage were in the modern tradition, but McCarthy's sophomore release—in co-led ensemble Tucksy, with some jazz-pop proclivities and a vibraphone-and-banjo frontline—was definitely a departure from the norm. "That band came about because of that booking work at Night and Day," McCarthy details. "During one of the sessions there, this guy named Tuey Connell came in and we had this great conversation for about two or three hours. It turned out he was a banjo player. We became friends and we started to get together to play a little bit. We started to gather some other people to join us, so I tapped [bassist] Daniel Loomis and, originally, [drummer] Ernesto Cervini. Ernesto moved back to Toronto during that time, so then somebody recommended drummer Freed Kennedy. I didn't know him well at the time, but he came in and it was like the perfect vibe." Looking to cut through the esoteric nature embedded in the modern jazz scene, Tucksy aimed to please. "People seem to try so hard to make the music almost inaccessible to the lay listener, so I wanted to go the other way," emphasizes McCarthy. "I thought, 'let's create music that's fun and challenging for us, but that people—really, people who aren't jazz musicians— would also want to listen to.'" The audience response to Tucksy's 2007 under-the-radar EP and the band's one and only full-length album—Let's Start the Show (Self-Produced, 2009)—was positive, with everything from originals to The Rolling Stones' "Paint It Black" and the "Theme from Law & Order" entering the mix. "We just tried to make it as different a jazz record as it could be. It was such a blast and I'm still really proud of that project," he notes.

That inceptive period in New York, centered in many ways on Cornelia Street Café, enriched McCarthy's music and life. But making a living in Gotham wasn't easy. When asked about when he finally found his footing and felt comfortable, the vibraphonist was completely frank: "I found it to be a struggle for all 15 years [chuckles]." Filled with ups and downs, both in and out of music, McCarthy worked hard to carve out his own place. And in the process of dealing with that stress and rekindling a love for fitness formed in his youth, he began to move away from performing. "After I was in New York for a few years I kind of felt really out of shape, so I started running and exercising. Then I really started to get into fitness," he explains. "And a little later, with me wanting to take a step back from music and follow a different career path, things just lined up really well. Through some fortunate connections I made, I met people who helped facilitate things so I was able to open a gym [in late 2012]." Focusing almost exclusively on owning and operating that enterprise, music was pushed to the periphery. But its absence made the heart grow fonder, as McCarthy shares: "After a few years I just really missed it. So I started practicing all the time and decided I wanted to get together with some people and make music again."

Renewing his relationship with the vibraphone, McCarthy eventually returned seriously to music while still running the gym. And when he and his family made the choice to sell that business and move back to Toronto, he sought to make some jazz dreams come true before departing. "When I decided to leave New York and move back to Canada, I had about a year-and-a-half of lead time. So I sort of [realized] I needed to make the most of it," McCarthy explains. "I started reaching out to people that I always wanted to play with to see if they'd be willing to make a record with me." The first fruit of that decision was Epoch (Origin, 2019), with violinist Mark Feldman, guitarist Ben Monder and bassist Steve Swallow. A collection of argent originals that present with shadowy beauty and a measured intensity, it proved to be a breakout success with critics and serious jazz listeners. Nodding to a love of the ECM aesthetic, that album's music completely captures the imagination with its unique combination of allure and artful austerity. The second release that grew from McCarthy's idea to seize the moment was his fond farewell, A Place Where We Once Lived.

Since returning to Toronto in February of 2019, in a move prompted by the promise of a more settled family atmosphere and a fellowship lined up for graduate work in composition at York University, McCarthy has remained musically active while reconnecting with mentors and friends. Celebrating the homecoming three months in, he recorded City Abstract (Origin, 2019) with guitarist Ted Quinlan, bassist Pat Collins and drummer Ted Warren. That date, nodding to lodestars like Gary Burton, pianist/composer Carla Bley and guitarist Pat Metheny, gave the vibraphonist the opportunity to flex his own voice as a composer while bringing things full circle with his life as a performer. "That was really fun because I was able to do that with some of my professors from college and people who had been a huge part of my education and my journey in becoming a musician," he notes. "So to be able to record that 20 years later, and tie in the whole Gary Burton-Carla Bley aspect or sound from records like Duster (RCA, 1967) and Lofty Fake Anagram (RCA, 1967) all the way to Passengers (ECM, 1977), was incredible."

Burton's influence, which obviously looms large, also extends to McCarthy's Hunter S. Thompson project, which was the topic of his master's thesis and will likely be the focus of his next jazz record. "It's kind of unique. I originally wanted to put together a quintet that mirrored Gary's band from the '70s—with two guitarists, like when Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick were the guitarists and Steve Swallow and Bob Moses were also in the band." he shares. "So I started writing this music that was aligned with that sound but based on the writings of Hunter S. Thompson." Those pieces initially captured the mood of that author's work, but, at the suggestion of one of his professors, McCarthy went deeper into the concept to develop a more literal method of drawing sound from the written word. "I ended up creating what I call 'The Gonzo Cypher.' It basically correlates each letter of the alphabet to a musical note, so I can actually take a sentence of his writing, put it through the cypher and end up with a set of notes that, in order, would correspond to the letters and words," he explains. "Then it's sort of like serial music. I have this tone row that I can do whatever I want with as long as I follow the rules of serialism. So now I've written a bunch of music that involves that, so I have some pieces where the melody is playing one line of [Thompson's] writing, the bass line is a different line of his writing, and [so on and so forth]. I can't wait to get it in front of the band and play some of it!" That project's inaugural gig took place in March of 2020, right before COVID-19 closed everything down, so things were technically grounded before they really took off. But that hasn't necessarily hampered progress. This work remains a focus for McCarthy, who has since completed his degree and added to the band's book.

While the long road from the rise of COVID-19 to the spring of 2021 has come with many challenges, both obvious and not, nothing has been insurmountable for McCarthy. This artist has learned to overcome and, in many ways, the pandemic has made him more active than ever. Sharpening his skills as a solo vibraphonist, McCarthy posted a series of impressive videos on social media. Through forced downtime he found the opportunity to dig into the archives and release some sessions like The Toronto Quartet EP (Self-Produced 2020), which takes things back to 2001 and provides a glimpse of the young Dan McCarthy in almost the exact same company as on City Abstract, and Méjis (Self-Produced, 2020), which was recorded in New York in 2018 and features pianist Randy Ingram, bassist Michael Bates and drummer Jeff Davis. Reuniting (virtually) with Dan Loomis and Ernesto Cervini in the loosely named DanDanNotDan, he's taken part in music assembled through distanced dimensions. And teaming up with his wife, vocalist Jenn McCarthy, he's leaned into electronic music with a single that signals a future, full-length album. All of that, combined with a serious workout regimen, stable day job and the responsibilities of parenthood, is a lot to handle. But it's absolutely fulfilling as it fills this man's days. Taken together, it keeps Dan McCarthy plenty busy and happy in the place where he now lives.

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