OFF BEAT, Alexander Varty, Georgia Straight, Summer 1999

Guitarist Aldcroft Strives For Balance

    Notes are important in jazz: there are certain chordal and melodic pathways that identify the music and set it off from all other forms. Master them, and you'll be on well your way to having an understanding of North America's greatest contribution to global culture. But just as important, I think, is tone. Anyone, given hours of diligent practice, can learn to play scales and harmonies that have come to signify jazz, but it is a player's sound - his unique articulation of pitch, timbre and attack - that defines his individual voice. And it's possible to read a lot into a player's tone, including his influences, history, age, and even personal temperament. The reading might not always be accurate, but it's often close enough to validate the theory.

    Listening to Ken Aldcroft, live or on his recently released trio CD, Big Picture, one hears a guitarist with a somewhat muted tone. All of the high-frequency extremes commonly heard in rock, blues and country music have been removed from his sound, giving it a warm, pillowy texture typical of jazz guitarists from the 1950s an'60s - players like Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell and Johnny Smith. One might surmise that he is deeply grounded in jazz tradition - and, as the unsurprisingly soft-spoken guitarist admits over the phone from his Vancouver home, that is indeed the case. His history includes two years at Edmonton's Grant MacEwan College, under the tutelage of Hall's protégé Bobby Cairns, followed by further study with such straight-ahead players as Bill Coon and George McFetridge. In fact, Aldcroft was such a traditionalist that for years he wouldn't listen to anything other than acoustic jazz, citing a special preference for the work of pioneering bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker. 

    But there's not much of Parker in the guitarist's current work, and his somewhat old-fashioned sound is only part of a bigger picture. Aldcroft may be taking a time-honoured jazz-guitar approach to tone production, but neither his band- with it's guitar-trombone-drums lineup-nor his compositions are particularly conventional. In the context of the Ken Aldcroft Trio he's trying to integrate his mainstream training with his more eclectic experiences - and, for the most part, he's succeeding.

    Like many skilled guitarists, Aldcroft started young. He got his first instrument at the age of nine, and quickly became obsessed with mastering it: by his early teens, he was fooling around with garage band rock, and from there he got "really heavy into the blues" until he was 16 or 17. Then he discovered jazz, and all of his outside interests were subsumed in learning this strange and difficult art.

    "I basically told myself I didn't want to ever play another blues scale again," he says, adding a wry chuckle at his youthful folly. "And then I didn't listen to any electric music until just the last four or five years, really. But now I'm allowing those things to come out, finally. They're in me, so they have to come out."

    Aldcroft's early rock and blues experiences are reflected in the way that he'll hold down a riff so that his partners, trombonist Brian Harding and drummer Bernie Arai, can explore relatively free areas of improvisation; his more recent interest in composed music finds expression in the careful structures of his non-riff oriented tunes.

    What his band is trying to do, he says is find a balance between composition and improvisation- and between tradition and experimentation.

    "I'm just really trying to do what I like to hear," he says. "I don't particularly want to go and hear two or three sets of be-bop music-but I love be-bop. I don't want to hear three sets of free music, but I love free music. To me, that's important: to able to play on song forms and tunes, but also play compositions or play free. I just love having it mixed up like that."

    And he cites another unconventional trio, 13 Ways, as an example of how those forms can be combined in a unique group sound. When pianist Fred Hersch, saxophonist Michael Moore and drummer Gerry Hemingway played this year's du Maurier International Jazz Festival, the guitarist says he was "on the edge of his seat" for the entirety of their performance. "That's how I want to feel when I'm listening, and when I'm playing," he adds. "And hopefully, audiences will like that."

    Other influences include a couple of more modern guitar stylists, local performer Steve Fisk and New York City great John Abercrombie - both of whom Aldcroft has studied with. And although drummer Paul Motian's group with guitarist Bill Frisell and saxophonist Joe Lovano was important enough to win a dedication, "Folksong in Motain", on Big Picture, it was trumpeter Dave Douglas's Tiny Bell Trio, with guitarist Brad Schoeppach (or Shepik as he spells it now) and percussionist Jim Black, that directly inspired Aldcroft's three-piece outfit.

    "I guess it stems from wanting to do something different," he says regarding the trio's unusual format. "I love the bassless aspect, in the sense that it's really open. And I like the challenge, because you really have to work at sounding together when you don't have that bottom end laying it down for you."

    Which is not to say that Aldcroft rules out the possibility of working in other formats. His band occasionally expands to a quartet with the addition of saxophonist Graham Ord- the collaboration has produced a tribute to Duke Ellington, which the guitarist hopes to release early next year-and in the fall he'll be doing some collaborative work with spoken-word artist (and occasional jazz concert producer) Kris Elgstrand. In fact, having shed his bebop purism, Aldcroft now seems ready for anything.

    "I was listening to the radio last night and I heard this Carlos Santana interview," he relates. "And someone asked him what makes music last for a long time-what makes it eternal. And he was saying,`Well, spirituality and passion`.

    "I'd also say that really being truthful to yourself as an artist and musician plays a big part. And I think that's what his group does; they're doing it because they love it and they're good at it - and that's true for us, as well."

    Time will tell whether Aldcroft will make music that is as passionate and timeless as that of Carlos Santana - or Charlie Parker, for that matter. But with his open attitude and ability to synthesize the old and the new, he's well on his way.