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James Danderfer

James Danderfer Finds His Groove

James Danderfer plays a cool clarinet on his last two recordings, Swingin' at the Patricia, and The Hummingbird Brigade

By Shelley Gummeson

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“After you’ve done all the work and prepared as much as you can, what the hell, you might as well go out and have a good time” – Benny Goodman

What fate puts a clarinet in the hands of an impressionable boy and sparks a kindling flame?  That’s a highly romanticized version of the budding musician, but in some ways perhaps not far from the truth.  The more probable version was, “Here’s your clarinet, kid,” as the music teacher, in an effort to fill a school band with variety, ignored the request of drums scrawled on the paper.

Thanks in part to a music teacher, the clarinet has served as a tool of expression for James Danderfer, much like an artist’s brush, a maestro’s baton, or a producer’s camera. The clarinet has been Danderfer’s musical companion for years and though he knows it expertly, the instrument still reveals its mysteries to him through his compositions.

This has got to feel not just good, given the sacrifice it takes to be a musician, it's got to feel phenomenal

To get to that point was a long road, according to Danderfer.  “With all my studies, and the desire to be a great player, it was affecting my level of enjoyment of actually playing music.  There were so many things that I wanted to do, and wasn’t good enough.   It took a long time of trial and error, practicing, and philosophical changes in my approach before I could really enjoy music as much as I do today.”  He continues, “This has got to feel not just good, given the sacrifice it takes to be a musician, it’s got to feel phenomenal.”

This has got to feel not just good, given the sacrifice it takes to be a musician, it�s got to feel phenomenal

Today James is less focused on what he should be playing, and more focused on having fun.  The proof is in the last two projects, Swingin’ at the Patricia and The Hummingbird Brigade.

James Danderfer in action
James Danderfer in action

Swingin’ at the Patricia was a breakthrough project in that regard.  Having released Accelerated Development, an album of more modern concepts, James was looking for change.  “I felt that I needed to work on my foundation, on my understanding of the great jazz clarinet players. Great New Orleans players like Johnny Dodds, Barney Bigard, and Jimmy Noone.  I thought the best way to learn about these guys is to play some of their music and that is how the trio was born.”

 It proved to be a little more than just playing their music though. 

James recalls, “It was an interesting arc of trying to play like these great clarinet players and then listening back to little recordings of me doing that and cringing -it felt fake.  Once I got past that, I realized if I wanted to reflect the kind of personality and joy those players had, I can’t be worried about trying to play like them. The music has to come from the same space as it did for them.  It’s a very personal place, it comes from a very free and expressive place.” 

Having realized this and placing his own musical voice in that context James Danderfer opened surprising doors.  The CBC approached Danderfer and asked him to write and perform music that celebrated Jelly Roll Morton’s time in Vancouver, to which he responded, “Jelly Roll Morton was in Vancouver?”  Here he was, James Danderfer, a jazz musician in Vancouver, performing with other jazz musicians and he had no idea Jelly Roll had been in residence and had played in the room at the Patricia Hotel. With a newfound joie de vivre, Swingin’ at the Patricia was written, performed, recorded and lauded by critics and fans alike.

The momentum continued with the next project.  If James Danderfer truly is one of Canada’s best-kept secrets, the cat is now out of the bag with his release The Hummingbird Brigade

When it was commented that Brigade had quite the groove to it, Danderfer came back with a classic response. “Brass band music is pretty damn groovy.  With The Hummingbird Brigade you’re taking the combination of European march music, which is meant to inspire and get people going and combining it with styles of Afro-Caribbean music, which is unbelievably social music, danceable and driving.  The rhythmic foundation is set up for a lot of power, a lot of groove.”

Danderfer is quick to give credit to the players on The Hummingbird Brigade.  “You’ve got to have the right rhythm section in the first place to bring that alive,” he says. “Certainly what gave the album fire was Joe Poole on drums, Chris Gestrin on organ, and Jack Duncan on percussion, those are three very groovy dudes.”

It took one day for the 11 piece band to record 9 songs, including set up and tear down.  “It was a lot of pressure to deliver it quickly,” says James.  “There’s a lot on the line, there’s no big labels here it’s just me funding this.  I was on a high that day, just with the excitement of finally getting into the studio after so much preparation and trying to get the best out of everyone there.” 

Once again delving in and connecting with the music from a creative, joyful place has allowed Danderfer to explore not only what the instrument can do, but also what he can do as a composer. James says you are only limited by your imagination.

Brass band music is pretty damn groovy

Having worked with video as a kid – he and a buddy were Monty Python fans and would rent a camera and try and do skits ,it was a comfortable progression to use video in an effort to further engage the listener.

James has put his creative effort behind videos giving a look at what is happening behind the scenes of the music.  “When I started my record label Reining Parade, one of the things I wanted to do was really bring the listener in and to communicate the story and the information.  I know for me at a show, as an audience member I want to know where they’re coming from, I want to know the inspiration and I want to feel that when I listen to their songs.  One of the objectives with Reining Parade was to do that for every release, to make the best music I could, create the story and try and inspire people by the story.”

What’s in store for James Danderfer?  “Well, musically what’s in store besides the Trio and The Hummingbird Brigade is one more project that I’d like to get the music released and get it off the ground.  It’s quite different. It’s electro-acoustic jazz music.  It’s kind of like Artie Shaw meets 1984 Quincy Jones.   I’d really like to get that music out there.  Then professionally I need to get out there and just get more gigs, more work.”

To see the produced videos for Swingin’ at the Patricia and The Hummingbird Brigade and for more information:

And check out this short film about the making of Swingin' at the Patricia and the early history of jazz in Vancouver.

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