Jazz legends play it off the cuff

Tommy Banks and Al Muirhead bring decades of experience to the stage

I knew the call from Senator Tommy Banks was coming but I wasn’t entirely sure what I would ask him. He’s one of the most illustrious jazz pianists and composers working today (as well as a retired politician and radio host). He has received just about every major Canadian cultural award and honour.

Before I could pose a question though he asked me if I am related to the Hellers of Medicine Hat (I’m not) and shared a story about his wife Ida (she is). Even in conversation Banks is a pretty adept improviser. He tosses around phrases like riffs or bits of lyrics — I jotted down “by way of interlocution” when he was describing a conversation.

The main topic of our conversation though was his longtime friend and musical collaborator Al Muirhead. The two are set to perform together this Saturday evening as part of the National Music Centre’s RBC Summit Jazz Series. First of all Banks called Muirhead “my favourite melodic trumpet player. He is capable of playing anything in any style.”

Then he called him Oop. Oop? Now I had a question to ask.

“There used to be a comic strip back in the ’50s called Alley Oop” Banks explains. “So we started calling him that until it just became Oop.”

Muirhead has also been called “the elder statesman of jazz trumpet in Alberta.” Calgarians know him as the longtime music director of the Stampede Youth Talent Show and founder of Arcade Music which later became St. John’s Music. Plus he just won the Heritage Award for lifetime achievement at the Western Canadian Music Awards in Calgary.

When two musicians this distinguished get together to play a concert there can be a lot of formality and genuflecting involved. But for Tommy and Al — or Oop if you prefer — there couldn’t be a more natural setting. They have been making music together for six decades.

When they join CKUA radio host Kodi Hutchison for a pre-concert chat Banks says they will be “talking about our mutual and respective histories.” They might start with meeting at age 15 then move on to the four years they spent on the road with the Dixieland band New Orleans Connection touring every province in Canada and much of Europe. That might bring them to their work at the 1988 Olympic Games — Tommy Banks was the music director for the Calgary games but he enlisted many other Canadian composers to help out including Muirhead. “It was way too much for one man to do alone” Banks says.

The latest chapter is a CD project underway on the Chronograph Records label planned for release next spring. The recording will include new compositions by both Banks and Muirhead with a guest appearance by another distinguished trumpeter Guido Basso. They have completed most of the recording and the concert on Saturday might be the first airing of some of that material — though Banks isn’t saying exactly what.

“It’s more in the character of a jam session” he says describing their improvisational style as “continually and entirely flying by the seats of our pants.” They won’t rehearse per se though they might write out a set list of some sort. From there they’ll rely on their musical wits.

“It’s essentially mind reading completing one another’s musical sentences. The craft part is in having a common knowledge of the literature — it’s not memorizing but understanding a framework. It’s never going to be played the same way twice” says Banks.

That pretty well sums up Banks’ approach to music and to life. Be ready to take risks and allow your reach to exceed your grasp. “Good luck consists of being prepared when the opportunity presents itself” he says.