March 1, 2024

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Interview with Bill McBirnie: If I had been performing back in the 60s ․.. Video

Jazz interview with jazz and Latin flutist Bill McBirnie. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Bill McBirnie: – Although I was born in a big city, Toronto, Ontario, I grew up in a small southern Ontario town, Port Colborne. Of course, Port Colborne wasn’t exactly a hotbed for music. But it is where I started, by taking music lessons, and playing in community groups such as The Port Colborne Recreation Commission Band and, later on throughout high school, in the St. Catharines Symphony.

What was important was both of my parents were really interested in music! My father liked jazz, and my mother liked classical. So I got to hear lots of both, right from the start. Of course, as a child of the 60s, there was a lot of other great music on the radio, including the Beatles and the Stones! So I really consider myself very lucky to have heard so much fantastic music, and all the time, when I was growing up in Port Colborne.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you done to find and develop your own sound?

BM: – When I started playing the flute (…in boredom and frustration, I had abandoned the piano…), I was remarkably dedicated, and very detail-oriented in my approach, despite being very young. I would work on my sound and my breathing, and then I would practice my scales and arpeggios, very carefully with the metronome, repeating everything, over and over … until I had things absolutely perfect!… I was pretty  nerdy!… 🙂 I would do all of this, religiously, every day, first thing in the morning, and before I would even start to work on anything resembling “music”! 🙂

JBN: – What routine practice or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your musical proficiency?

BM: – Of course, my practice regimen has evolved considerably over the years. But now, it consists of one thing—and one thing ONLY—playing along with recordings! I haven’t worked on long tones, or scales, or any technical studies or etudes for decades.

As an improvisor, I work on my ear, and my musical intuition, by practicing with… whatever I am listening to… And there is no more formative exercise than this. I have a good sound, and lots of technique. It’s far more important for me, given the work that I do as a freelance flutist, to cultivate my ability to improvise … with ANYTHING!…

JBN: – How do you keep from straying, or allowing random influences, from diverting you from what you’re doing?

BM: – I am very focused. I cultivate a sort of a zen state, and I concentrate on what I am hearing, mimicking bits and pieces of it as I go along. Ultimately, practising this way is how I manage to make peace with the universe…and I know that may sound a little grandiose or precious…But the way I practice is a form of meditation, and for me, a spriritual undertaking…which makes it very easy for me to keep focused!…

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and live performances, and also maintain both your spiritual and musical stamina?

BM: – Actually, I sort of answered that question, because that altered state I seek to attain when I am practicing is precisely what I try to bring forward to any recording or live situations when I am actually performing. And listeners, as well as other musicians, generally can sense that.

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JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

BM: – Hmmm…. I don’t necessarily look at it that way. I suppose it’s fair to say that you have to engage your intellect when you are learning how to play (because, for example, one typically has to understand a lot of musical theory in order to do what I do…and I admit it…) But then, as a performer, I try to get past the intellectual aspect, and concentrate strictly on the emotional side of the music, because music is fundamentally a spiritual undertaking, from both the player’s and the listener’s standpoint. So I like to aim for the point where the “player vs. listener” distinction breaks down, and becomes irrelevant … because we are both in the same zone, as it were…

As a performer, I avoid anything even resembling a “holier than thou” attitude because I happen to play. In fact, I want the listener to be able to understand, and to feel, what I am feeling, because we are ultimately in this…TOGETHER!… 🙂

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

BM: – There have been a fair number of important ones over the years, including getting to play live with Al Jarreau concert, and opening for Eliane Elias at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival․

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

BM: – I have to consult the hard drive on my computer in order to give you a good answer to that question, because I listen to (…or I should say, I practice with…) a LOT of different things. Typically it all breaks down into three broad areas:

(1) some swing/bebop (such as, right now, Zoot Sims, Cannonball Adderley, Shirley Horn and Peggy Lee),

(2) some Latin (such as, right now, Astrid Gilberto and Herbie Mann), and

(3) some soul/R&B (such as, right now, Nina Simone, Ray Charles and Etta James).

Of course, I maintain a steady diet of my inspirations at all times, and they include John Coltrane (…the biggest influence!…), Miles Davis, Lester Young and Louis Armstrong!

JBN: – What is the message you try to bring out through your music?

BM: – I want the listener to hear something that he or she didn’t expect, but it is exactly what they wanted to hear. And that they come away feeling inspired by it. In short, I want them to feel the same way I do when I hear great music that really moves me.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine. Where would you want to go, and why?

BM: – I am very happy that I grew up in the 60s, and I wouldn’t change that, because the music I got to listen to was so rich and diverse, and of such incredibly high quality, in both the jazz and the pop/rock idioms.

However, in terms of making a living (and especially as a freelance jazz/Latin flutist), it is now utterly impossible…That is a sad but irrefutable fact…And it has been very disheartening for me to realize that, no matter how hard I worked, and despite my exceptional skill as a flutist, it just isn’t worth anything (…to anyone!…) in terms of making a livelihood at it.

I’m pretty sure that I would have done better, from a career standpoint, if I had been performing back in the 60s…as opposed to now…and especially as a result of the incredible damage that has been done to indie musicians by the internet, streaming, file sharing…As if what we are worth nothing … and … well! … Don’t get me started!… 🙁

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you all of the questions. Do you have one for me?

BM: – Yes actually! Just a couple of short ones.

(1) Can you actually make a living as a jazz critic?

(2) As a point of curiosity, do you play any instrument(s) yourself?

JBN: – Jazz is not a way to make a living for me, but my life, I make a living by producing and organizing jazz festivals in Eastern European countries, and I do interviews so that I can choose intellectual musicians for concerts. I don’t play, I’m a musicologist.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Bill McBirnie - The Technique and Theory of Improvisation - The Hollywood Digest

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