Local drummer James McRae recently wrote jazz arrangements for a number of Gordon Lightfoot songs and now he’s hoping to bring that music to a Canada-wide audience.
The Nanaimo resident is appealing for funding from the Canada Council for the Arts to help him and his band – vocalist Jennifer Scott, bassist Rene Worst and pianist Miles Black – tour jazz festivals across the country to play his adaptations of music by the renowned Canadian folk singer.
The idea to interpret Lightfoot’s music in a jazz context first came to McRae in summer 2014, when he arranged a jazz version of Early Morning Rain.
“I’ve been writing my own songs on piano but I’ve never actually taken someone else’s song and tried to reharmonizes it and revisit it in a different context, more of an improvisational context,” he said.
“So that essentially was the trigger point for this project. I started with that one song thinking it would be fun to do that with this one song and then it just kind of developed from there.”
When audiences responded well to his jazzy Lightfoot renditions, he decided to expand his repertoire of a half dozen songs to 16 “reharmonized, rearranged, revisualized” compositions. At the time McRae was considering recording an album of his own music, but a friend and musical mentor of his suggested he go with the Lightfoot songs instead. The result is McRae’s latest record, Impressions of Lightfoot, self-released this summer.
‘The album includes versions of Lightfoot classics including The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, If You Could Read My Mind, and Sundown.
McRae said the songs translate well to jazz and credits his vocalist Jennifer Scott for helping bridge the genres.
“She is able to, aside from singing the words, improvise in really interesting and creative ways,” he said.
“She grew up listening to this music. It was something that she would sing some of these songs with her sisters when she was growing up so it’s something particularly dear to her.”
In some cases Lightfoot’s lyrics have been abridged or removed entirely from the songs. McRae said stripping the pieces down to their melodies reveal the strength of the material.
“If you have a really strong melody, which Gordon Lightfoot does have really strong melodies to his songs, you’re able to use that as a launch pad for improvisation,” he said.“The starting point is these are Gordon Lightfoot’s melodies and his ideas and I’m trying to honour that but also breathe a different kinda life into the songs.”