April 20, 2024


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Interview with Darren Johnston: Live music would become the mainstream again, not dj’s and pre-recorded, processed what have you

Interview with trumpeter Darren Johnston. An interview by email in writing.

Dear readers, get to know more about our US/EU Jazz – Blues Festivals and the activities of our US/EU Jazz – Blues Association in the capitals of Europe, we will soon publish program for 2024, enjoy in the July – August – Brussels, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Sofia, new addreses this year, also in Amsterdam, Budapest and Liverpool.

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

Darren Johnston: – I grew up in Burlington Ontario, Canada. From the start I was always really drawn to music in a visceral way. I would become very emotionally and physically affected by it. At one point we got an old upright piano at my parent’s house.

I was about 8 or 9 I think. I would lose myself for long stretches, making up chords and melodies, and just connecting with the sound. It quickly became a cathartic form of escapism. I was also just starting on trumpet around that time, but was not hooked on it yet. It seemed too difficult and frustrating for it to deliver that same kind of escape.

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I stumbled upon Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra on a thick old piece of vinyl, and Edgar Varese’s Ionization, Amériques, and and Arcana on another, in a dingy corner of my parent’s basement when I was about 12. This is really bizarre knowing my parent’s taste in music, but there it was. Both of those records were super impactful to me.

Then in my teens I started tuning in to a local college radio station that would spin the most eclectic sets. That’s where I first heard Ornette Coleman, Monk, and Miles Davis, nestled into sets with The Clash, Aretha Franklin, some Skatalites, Otis Redding, and then maybe some Stockhausen. Whoever was spinning those records back then did me a great service.

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

DJ: – I’m always working on tone, technique, repertoire, time, that sort of thing. The practice itself is basically my coping mechanism, or my meditation.

As for developing my own sound, I don’t worry about it the way I used to. I see having your own sound when attempting to honestly express yourself in music, especially in any sort of heavily improvisational style, as being an inevitability.

I’ve played, listened to, and studied a lot of different musical styles from different traditions, and I think that’s all affected my creative process and overall vision in different ways. Then factoring in my own particular lived life experiences, my own unique quirks, sense of humor, ways in which I interact with others, personal traumas, amazing adventures…. I think everyone has their own unique recipe of all these ingredients, which contributes to our own sound in the end.

There’s folks out that seem to want to fight this phenomenon, and to dedicate their lives to sounding like one or two of their favorite artists in as much detail as possible. I think that’s cool. It’s not my way, but I can see how one could slip into that very singular focus on one impactful artist, and I’m grateful for those musicians. I can’t go out and hear Lester Young, or Bird, or Eric Dolphy, but I can go out and hear someone really channel them, albeit with a little bit of themselves still inevitably sneaking in. No problem. Thankfully there’s also folks out there dedicating their lives to experimentation too, and to developing their own musical systems and entirely individualized approaches. I’m grateful for and inspired by them as well. And then of course there are infinite possibilities between those two extremes.

I should add that we brass players have an added advantage when it comes to having our own sound. My tone, the actual sound I can get from a trumpet, is the product of many hours of long-tone meditations, focusing on pre-hearing the sound, and on the breath. It becomes extremely personal.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

DJ: – Nice segue. Those long-tones are a consistent part of my practice. I start on a middle register starting note, focus on an even, full, relaxed sound across dynamic extremities, and gradually expand into high and low registers in a way that I’ve developed over the years but, that’s originally based on what my teacher Pat Harbison passed down to me from his teacher Bill Adams.

In my version, I change the starting note daily, and other variables weekly, such as one week playing each note with a drone from this app called ITanbura, another week while checking in on my pitch with a strobe tuner, and another week focusing on tonguing a variety of single-note rhythmic subdivisions and cross rhythms with a metronome. Other weeks I might just focus on discovering and releasing my physical tensions, sometimes aided by checking my posture while playing in front of a mirror.

I also incorporate a melodic cell of the week, which I play, sing, mouthpiece buzz, and free buzz from each new starting note. This all sounds more complex than it is, and it’s easier to demonstrate than to explain.

This warm up approach often puts me into a head space in which I find myself distracted by compositional thoughts and ideas. Depending on how much time I have that day, I like to allow myself to get distracted, to play around with whatever idea is in play, and then to document it via voice memo before refocusing on the warm up.

After wrapping up my warmup with a scale pattern or running the melodic cell of the week through some transposition exercises, I shift to piano, or singing, composing, learning new or reviewing standard repertoire, preparing music I will be performing, maybe work up an etude, and/or if I have the tine, I do still enjoy learning other folks’ solos, for the ear training and for the audio memory benefits, but also just because I find it pleasurable.

Two general approaches in the practice room that I feel yield high results are to create restrictions or limitations on myself, rhythmical or phrasing wise or whatever it may, and also to record myself and listen back over and over, gradually changing what I don’t like hearing back and keeping what I do.

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

DJ: – Why would I ever do that?

There could be talk or advertising about your CD

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

DJ: – Well the intellect is super important of course. It’s a great way to expand our understanding of what’s been done, and what is possible. We study, and then we internalize and made organic whatever new sounds or concepts we’re dealing with. From there, especially if we’re talking about an interactive and improvisatory music like jazz, I think it’s crucial to shut down the thinking and analyzing, to open up the ears, and to only play what you hear. If you’re playing from the brain, the first things to suffer are phrasing, feel, listening/dialogue, and flow.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

DJ: – I don’t think the two-way relationship really works that way. I mean, you can go out there with the intent to get a party started, get everyone dancing and laughing and forgetting their cares, and that’s fantastic. I’m down for that. I also love to present or experience music in a way wherein folks sit and chill, and allow the ensemble to tell them a story, to take them on a journey. In that case, trying to decipher what emotion it is that they long for doesn’t even factor in. We tell our story our way, and if it touches on a shared emotion or experience, then we have our complete communion.

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

DJ: – It’s possible I’m wrong here, but I’m not sure the practice of incorporating current popular songs into the jazz cannon necessarily has the effect you’re eluding to or hoping for. That said, it’s still a worthy creative pursuit for those drawn to it. One must proceed with caution though! It can get corny, or sound like pandering pretty easily. I’ve heard great jazz renditions of Stevie Wonder, Beatles, Marvin Gaye, Radiohead, Brian Wilson, Tears For Fears, Britney Spears, and then a lot of the NOLA style brass bands play much more current rep than any of that, especially hip hop and R&B tunes of today.

Like I said though, I’m not sure how much the popularity of the music is tied to the song choices specifically. Folks like to blame musicians for being too “arty,” but there’s larger societal issues at play.

What kinds of live, non processed, real-time, human made musics are interfacing well with capitalism these days?

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

DJ: – The meaning of life?!?!? No soft-ball questions here at Jazz Blues News! As trite as it sounds, I think the meaning of life is kindness.

When we, as a species, figure out that it’s not in our self interest to be so self-interested, so apathetic, fearful and greedy; once we act with a sense of responsibility and caring towards each other, it’s going to be beautiful. Music is the primary medium with which I can get my own head and heart relatively straight, and then it becomes the primary medium with which I try to help fuel a deep empathy through shared experiences.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

DJ: – Live music would become the mainstream again, not dj’s and pre-recorded, processed what have you. Also, every band would have at least one trumpet, and audiences would have solid attention spans, and no phones.

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

DJ: – Well now I’m in the mood to go back and revisit Varese…. Beyond the standard classics that I always return to, and a bit of a recent Jimmy Giuffre rabitt-hole, I’ve been listening to recordings of my friends.

Sean Conly, Anna Webber, Dayna Stephens, Michael Bates, Michael Attias, Nick Fraser, Ben Goldberg….. I got to hear Victor Lewis at Small’s recently. That was pretty fantastic. He has a bunch of great tunes that they played, that I don’t think I’d heard before. When I told him how much I dug them, he said: “Man, back in the day I used to get censored! Do you know what censored means? They’d say we’d get to my tunes, but then we’d never play them.” I reminded him “well you’re the bandleader now.” He smiled and looked at me and said “You dig?”

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

DJ: – Am I still me in this scenario? Do I go back knowing what I know of today? And how old am I? In the pursuit of musicians I’d like to hear live, you could probably drop me off in Harlem in the 1920’s, but I’d need at least 60 years of living and listening from there. Of course I’d need to get to Turkey, north, south, east and west Africa, the Balkans, the Caribbean….

JBN: – So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

DJ: – It seems clear that you’re a giant music aficionado, but you could just stay home and disappear into a home stereo situation. What would you say is your motivation for putting all the work into this site?

JBN: – Clear the field of poor quality and wormy musicians like Doc Lou for example, organize festivals, every year in more countries and platforms, make friends, help and sponsor wonderful people in this field.


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