John Alcorn

The View From Steve Wallace…

Beloved bassist and intrepid essayist Steve Wallace wrote this beautiful piece following our recent Cole Porter Songbook performance at the Flying Beaver Pubaret. I’m re-posting it here with his kind permission. Thank you, Steve.

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Flying High At the Beaver

The stylish singer John Alcorn launched a series of Wednesday night musical offerings this week at the Flying Beaver Pubaret (488 Parliament St.), accompanied by Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass.  John is calling this the Songbook Series; each week he will be presenting two sets of songs by a different major contributor to the GAS (Great American Songbook), kicking things off with fifteen of Cole Porter’s best.  I promise this will be the last of such puerile jokes, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard Cole Porter and “beaver” mentioned in the same paragraph?  Anyway, if the first of these nights was any indication, this could turn into something very special and lasting, my fingers are crossed.  Lord knows the city needs more outlets for quality music, and the combination of this setting and Alcorn’s musical vision mesh very nicely indeed.

As to the venue, I hadn’t been to the Flying Beaver before, it had been described to me as a “lesbian bar on Parliament.”  Though somewhat true as far as it goes, this is also misleading.  Yes, the place is owned and operated by Maggie Cassella and Heather MacKenzie who both happen to be lesbians and certainly both gay women and men frequent it.  But, it’s not a “gay bar” in the stereotypical sense of that term, people of all persuasions (except anti-gay morons and other assorted boors) are welcome and comfortable here.  I found it to be a smart, fun, friendly place, unpretentious yet brainy, much like the women who run it.

It’s divided into two parallel rooms, the larger being a pub-style one with a big, comfortable bar (o lovely, welcoming sight!) and tables.  A variety of good food and drink are offered at reasonable prices, the service is casual and friendly.  The other room is a long, narrow cabaret-style space – minimalist, with a small stage at the front, two long rows of small tables and a sound board at the back.  The rooms are separated so that the drinkers/talkers and music fans/listeners can each have their way, as I said, it’s a smart place.  The cabaret room is an ideal space for the type of intimate presentation Alcorn and Cassella envision – cozy, with good natural sound needing very little reinforcement – I was encouraged to not bring an amplifier and my bass was put through the house sound system in a way that resulted in an essentially acoustic sound, manna to my ears.

John had told Reg and me that he and Maggie wanted a structured, show-like presentation to an attentive audience, but my busy schedule and low-life, jaded jazz instincts prevented me from fully digesting this; I wasn’t prepared for the amount of care and thought that had gone into this.  I was expecting something a little more zoo-like, that the three of us would be playing to a bar-room full of people – some drinking, talking and having a good time, others listening – you know, the usual.  I was okay with this because I love playing with these two in any circumstances, I figured we’d play a couple of loose sets, have some drinks and laughs, get paid and go home.

photo by Ronnie Burkett

Boy, was I wrong, this was a miniature concert in an informal setting with an informed, listening audience and I should have known better.  Alcorn is nothing if not classy and he always tries to keep the bar high no matter what, ditto Maggie Cassella.  For example, John did a ten-week run of Sunday nights a couple of summers ago just up Parliament St. at The Cobourg and decided to not repeat a song during the entire stretch.  He has the repertoire chops for this and so do Reg and I, but still it took some doing – John had to keep track of what songs we’d already played, plan set lists for each week and ration his very favourite songs out carefully.  I reckon we did somewhere between 210 and 220 songs in that run; it was a challenge but it paid off, we were in a whole different musical place by the end of it, a little band that could play pretty much anything anywhere, bring it on.

Actually, the roots of this trio lay in that Cobourg run, and I’m pleased to say I had a hand in bringing John and Reg together.  The Cobourg is a very small bar without a piano (what else is new?) and the first time I worked there with John he used a pianist on electric keyboard; like most singers, he generally favours piano accompaniment.  When he was offered the ten Sundays, John asked me who he should call to play keyboard and for once, not keeping my mouth shut really paid off.  I spoke up and said I thought an electric keyboard looked and sounded too cheesy for the room and that he should get a guitarist instead, urging him to call Reg first.  John obviously knew of Reg and his imposing reputation, but still I sensed a small hesitation, those piano apron strings are tough to sever.  But call Reg he did, and after the first set of singing with him, Alcorn was utterly sold, just raving about how much Reg could do and I didn’t quite have the heart to say “I told you so”, nevertheless saying “I told you so.”

I’m not here to blow my own horn, but I have no qualms at all about pumping the tires of these other two, not that they need it.  I play in a number of good bands that I really enjoy, but for me the easiest and most comfortable are this group and Mike Murley’s trio (I guess I’m becoming a minimalist with age.)  Apart from me, the common thread in both is Reg; as wonderful as Murley and Alcorn are out front in giving the lead and direction of each, he’s really the lubricant and glue of each trio, the guy who makes them go.  Because Reg is by nature shy, quiet and has no desire for stardom, only some locals know that there isn’t anything he can’t do on the guitar or in music.  I’m not generally given to calling anyone the best, don’t really believe in this as a concept, but I make an exception in Reg’s case – I think he’s the best jazz guitarist in the world right now, nobody else I’ve heard has his range or musical scope.  There are other guitarists who might impress you more in some way on a given night or in a single sitting, but you have to hear Reg over time in a wide variety of settings to really appreciate just how fantastic he is.  No single context shows all that he can do and he always plays to the context, it’s called being musical.  He’s also extremely consistent but what really impresses me about him is that although his playing is always highly artistic and creative, it’s never self-indulgent, everything he plays is practical and functional too; he first gives the music what it needs, then moves on to shining, making him a joy to play with.

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photo by Patricia Wilson

As for Mr. Alcorn, well, he’s not too shabby either, he’s not going to get off lightly here.  I’ve played with an awful lot of good singers over many years.  I really enjoy this mostly because I love songs and the way good singers present them with care for their totality – words, melody, meaning – I also enjoy basking in the attention singers seem to be able to command from an audience.  All that being said, John Alcorn has long been my very favourite singer to work with for many reasons having to do with both his vocal/musical skills and his personal make-up, there’s very good chemistry and musical rapport between us.  Basically it boils down to this: he always performs on a really high, classy level, yet he’s so damn easy to work with.  He has an extra gear in terms of repertoire, preparation, taste and attention to detail.  Because he’s so bright and has a background in theatre as well as music, he really delves into songs, gets at their meanings and nuances, the details, their verses, he really takes care of the songs and what they’re trying to say.  He also sees the big picture outside the music – he understands how to instantly create a relationship between the songs, musicians, the audience, the venue, he knows how to create a mood and a focus with his low-key, charming stage presence, how to pace a set with dynamics and a sequence of songs which show the music in its best light.  He makes this all seem easy and un-neurotic but achieves it through a lot of preparation and hard work.  What this means is that on an Alcorn gig of any description all I have to do is show up on time, look reasonably presentable and play the bass.  Everything else is taken care of, there’s never any fuss and he always has a great band – if I do say so myself, John has good taste in musicians.  Some would call all of this professionalism,  but I call it artistry.

One of the things I like about Alcorn is his composure, as in the following from Wednesday.  We’d had a very brief sound check and run-through of the songs and when the first set began, John was just a few lines into the verse of the very first song (“You’re the Top”) when he flubbed the lyrics.  It was a small error, he had a lot on his mind and many singers would have just continued, faking their way out of this, glossing it over and hoping nobody noticed.  Not Alcorn though, he likes to get the songs right and stopped, confessing his slip with some self-castigating humour – “Goddammit, we just started and I’ve already messed up – let’s start this again.”  The audience, already all in his corner, were even more so now.  He didn’t put a foot wrong the rest of the night, he sang beautifully and for me the vocal highlight was a tour de force version of “Let’s Do It”, complete with its lovely verse and all five choruses of the tongue-twisting words and four key changes.  I’ve never heard it sung better, all of the tricky nuances of the witty word play and erotic double entendres of Porter’s great lyrics were perfectly, humorously enunciated, the audience broke up.  It was really entertaining yet artistic, which is the name of the game.

Present were some some music and Alcorn fans I recognized but hadn’t seen for a while.  There were also some friends and family here, which always helps – John’s partner Ronnie Burkett, my wife Anna, John and Patti Loach, two of my favourite music people.  Robert Cushman, the theatre critic of the National Post and a fan of both John and the GAS was also present and will be writing a review.  Among his many other gifts, John Loach is a talented recording engineer and enjoyed the music so much he expressed an interest in recording this trio at his home studio; this would be wonderful as Alcorn has been hoping to record this group for some time.

So there we were, a tiny, talented band with natural chemistry, playing some of the best songs from one of the towering geniuses of songwriting, we couldn’t ask to have much more going for us and yet there was more.  All of the other elements, the room, sound, lighting, Maggie Cassella and her staff and above all the audience were all there for the music and nothing but the music.  Almost always, something gets in the way, sometimes it’s small, sometimes large, but on this night there was nothing, just the pure sound of Cole Porter’s wonderful songs floating through the air.

It’s rare when things align like this, when music, musicians and an audience are all so attuned, special things happen when it’s this quiet and the music is allowed to cast a spell.  I relax completely, almost feel weightless as though I’m hovering just above the ground.  Time seems to stop and the chaotic slop and drudgery of the world seem to fade, everyone is just sitting in the dark communing with the songs, their melodies, words and the feelings they evoke.  The musicians can feel the listeners rising above their cares along with them, if only for a brief time, it’s enough.  These moments of harmony are rare and special and I live for them, they’re what music can do.  It’s called civilization, and we need more of it.

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I don’t normally write something so promotional about music I’m currently involved with, it’s not really my style.  I do so in this case to let people know about this series in the hopes they’ll attend, both for their own enjoyment and because I want to see this series succeed and continue for musical reasons.  Mostly, I’m writing because I found the first night so inspiring and enjoyable – John, Reg and the songs obviously, but also the venue and audience, the presentation.  If I hadn’t been performing and had been present as a listener only, I still would have written about it because it’s so worthwhile a project.  For this night only there was no cover charge and the room was fully booked.  In the future, there will be a cover of $10 in advance or $15 at the door; I suggest advance because the room holds only about 60 people.  Tickets can be purchased either at the Flying Beaver itself, or at the following website:

http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/270193

Reg and I are on board with John for most of this; in the coming three weeks we’ll be doing the songs of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin.  After that, well, we’ll see how attendance is, I’m hoping we run out of composers before we run out of gigs.  So, come on out music lovers and get a little dollop of civilization, I promise you it won’t hurt a bit.

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