Jim Doxas: Beat and Beatitudes

Robert J. Lewis By

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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.

AAJ: Do you prefer working and developing new music or playing live?

JD: Each situation has its pros and cons; one isn't better or worse, just different.

AAJ: I notice that you use a fairly minimalist drum kit. Is this deliberate?

JD: It can be. I go through phases. Sometimes I bring in a lot of accessories, which I may not use. Listening to other drummers, I've come to realize that more equipment doesn't necessary make you more creative. Sometimes working with less forces you to exploit to the maximum what's in front of you. You'd be surprised what sounds and notes can produced from a single drum when you have to produce them.

AAJ: Sometimes when I'm listening to you, I feel that I'm almost hearing melody?

JD: I'm glad to hear that. I have always loved melody. I had two wonderful teachers, Denny Christian and Jan Jarzyk, who really focused on the melodic aspect of improvising. When I play drums, I feel that I'm playing a melodic instrument. I always try to sing the form in my head. Often, just thinking about a certain tune, I hear the drumming part as a melody or harmony. But, as mentioned before, you have to really trust the musicians you're with before you can indulge in that kind of creative playing.

AAJ: Were you always listening to jazz?

JD: As a matter of fact, no. When I was in grade and high school, I was listening mostly to FM rock. It was only when Chester turned to jazz that I became interested in it. Of course my father, who is a great musician and music teacher, exposed us to all sorts of different music, including some jazz, but it wasn't a focus until I was in my late teens. My mother was into big bands and Motown. My father liked James Taylor, BJ Thomas and Don Ross.

AAJ: Talk to me about Oliver Jones. How did you two connect?

JD: First of all, Oliver saw me live with guitarist Benoit Charest, composer of the soundtrack for the Academy nominated film Les Triplettes de Belleville. It was after my brother, Ben and I worked on and recorded the tracks, which features lots of very conceptual percussion, that I got a call from Oliver—I called him Mr. Jones then [2004]. He asked me if I would like to play some gigs with him. I was of course ecstatic; it was such a confidence booster. Being a fellow Montrealer, I grew up listing and seeing him.

And then, maybe a couple of months later, he called again and asked if I was still into it, I said yes, and he gave me the line up for a sixty-date tour, which of course floored me—and that's how it began. But before we hit the road, I had to do my homework. I was a product of the Miles Davis/Keith Jarrett school; drummers like Tony Williams and Jack DeJohnette were instrumental in my development. But with Oliver, who plays mostly from the American Songbook, I was forced go back and listen to bebop and drummers like Max Roach, Ed Thigpen and even Jeff Hamilton.

AAJ: It must have been intimidating the first time you practiced with one of the best jazz pianists Canada has ever produced, regarded by many as one of the great jazz pianists on the planet. [Oliver Jones studied under his idol and legend, Oscar Peterson]

JD: We didn't really practice. Before the concert, he gave me an idea of the pacing, and then we went up on stage and played. It went really well—and what I mean by that is Oliver was listening to me as much as I was listening to him. For sure, I was a bit intimidated at first, playing in front of 2,000 people instead of 200, but that quickly passed, especially in light of the freedom Oliver gives to the drummer.

I should add that even though we're separated by maybe 45 years, the world of music is such that we've become good friends; there's no one I respect more than Oliver Jones. He continues to be so amazingly dedicated to music of all kinds. I remain in awe of his natural humility and generosity as a musician. What you see is what you get. He's the real deal! Come June [2007] we'll be opening up jazz festivals all across Canada before closing down the Montreal Jazz Fest on July 7th. I can't wait!

AAJ:When you discuss ways of looking at a song with a master like Oliver, what are some of the things you talk about?

JD: We talk a lot about shaping the feeling of a song. Oliver has played with so many different drummers, so to hear him talk about how Max Roach, Lewis Nash or Elvin approach a certain time feel is really interesting.

AAJ: What kind of drummers do you most admire?

JD: I would say those who have a unique voice on their instrument. And this doesn't just apply to drummer but to all musicians.

AAJ: I've always been amazed by drummers who can perform one beat on the left hand and a totally different one on the right, as if each hand has its own separate brain (like they say about each of Bach's fingers). Can this be learned or are you more or less born with the gift. And if you don't have it, is it a handicap?

JD: Well, from what I have gathered through observation and teaching, one can impart a lot of skill but if someone has a propensity for multi-tasking, musically speaking, then the creative juices really can be unleashed.

AAJ: What are you views on pre-recorded looped drumming?

JD: I'm all for it. My father owns a recording studio so I was literally brought up working all the gear. I used to spend days making drum loops. My dad wasn't into it so it was left to me. I'm kind of out that scene now even though I still engineer a bit, but my studio chops are a little rusty. In more general terms, I think the "drum machine" has really heightened the awareness that drummers give to sound, time, and 16th note syncopation. But, there's nothing like the real thing!

AAJ: You teach music at McGill University. Do you notice that today's students, whose ears have been informed by mostly monophonic composition (if you'll pardon the oxymoron) like rap, hip-hop, are less able to handle complex music?

JD: You have to distinguish between university music students and the general listening public. The former are serious about music, with most of them hopefully serious about making a career out of it, so their ears are already quite developed. Nonetheless, in my view, most of them are not familiar enough with the history and evolution of their instrument. How can someone ever hope to understand the sax if he or she has never listened to Stan Getz?

For sure, the general listening public is not being well-served by monophonic music or simply boring music. In terms of jazz, I think it's simply a matter of exposure and education. Those who have not been previously exposed to it will not be able to understand what's going on because their ears can't handle the more complex forms of music. Which of course doesn't augur well for jazz, but we do what we do because we love doing it, and if there's an audience for it out there, so much the better.

AAJ: What music are you listening to now?

JD: The new Dave Binney—Cities and Desires (Criss Cross, 2006).

AAJ: What music were you listening to ten years ago and are still listening to?

JD: The Police, Michael Jackson. From jazz, Frank Sinatra and Oscar Peterson.

AAJ: A lot of jazz musicians have spoken against fusion jazz. Your thoughts?

JD: I've never really gotten into fusion, but it's certainly a legitimate form of expression. There have been some good things that have come out of it. The music of John McLaughlin and Steps Ahead comes to mind.

AAJ: Do you think jazz is in danger of being hijacked by more and more technology? I ask this noting that most of your repertoire, whether playing with John Roney or the Chet Doxas trio, is basically un-plugged.

JD: No, Not really. I think that kind of relates to the drum machine question. I think the majority of musicians in my generation embrace, rather than dismiss, the new technology and its virtues. Those days are gone when enhancing your sound with technology made you less of a purest.

AAJ: And now for the desert island question. So there you are, stranded for life, and you're allowed 100 minutes of your favorite music. And the winners are?

JD: Equal quarters of: Miles Davis's Plugged Nickel (Legacy, 1965), John Coltrane's A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964), Frank Sinatra's Sinatra at the Sands (Reprise, 1966) with Count Basie, and finally Keith Jarrett Live at the Blue Note (ECM, 1995).

> Selected Discography John Roney, Rate of Change (Effendi, 2006)
Chet Doxas Quartet, Sidewalk Etiquette (Justin Time, 2006)
Remi Bolduc, Cote d'Ecoute (Effendi, 2005)
byproduct, byproduct (byproduct, 2003)

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