Composing while improvising: the Mike Downes Quartet

Mike Downes  Photo by Jen Doerksen

Mike Downes

Photo by Jen Doerksen

When the Mike Downes Quartet visited the West End Cultural Centre Feb. 12, they broke from their planned set to play some Frank Sinatra tunes for a very special audience member.

The bassist and bandleader said his mom – a Winnipegger and big Sinatra fan – was in the audience.

“It was really nice to be back in Winnipeg,” Downes said. “My mom lives there, so it was fun to see her and a bunch of her friends, and my old band director from Silver Heights Collegiate was there too.”

Downes started playing music around the age of eight, thanks to a heavy music influence from his father, who was also a bass player.

A bassist in rock bands throughout high school, Downes said he also picked up the trombone in the Silver Heights Collegiate jazz band.

“I started in rock bands but then got really interested into more fusion stuff, and then from fusion, I realized they were referencing jazz.

“So I went back to listen to those, and I found myself playing with lots of like-minded people who were into that,” he said.

“It seemed to me that playing parts as a bass player wasn't what I was really into. I really liked to improvise.”

Shirantha Beddage  Photo by Jen Doerksen

Shirantha Beddage

Photo by Jen Doerksen

That taste for a variety of influences is present in Downes’ music today, as his Winnipeg audience likely noted.

Some of the original tunes they played moved from sounding like straight jazz, to having hints of rock, hip-hop, and influences from other genres. This, said Downes, is no mistake.

“I like a lot of different types of music. I also like variety,” Downes said. “When I'm writing, I'm inspired by many different things, so it goes in many different directions.”

“I think of myself primarily as a composer, so even when I’m doing improvisation, I’m composing, and even playing with other people, I’m composing,” he said.

“From the beginning of a set to the end of a set is like one composition in a way. It moves stylistically and changes directions.

“For me, it takes a bit of a path from beginning to end to tell a bit of a story. That's what I try to do: each song has a story, and each set has its own story.”

Despite its name, the quartet includes five musicians, including Downes.

He’s joined by Robi Botos playing piano, Larnell Lewis on the drums, Ted Quinlan playing guitar, and Shirantha Beddage playing sax.

For the uninitiated, these players have strong pedigrees, with Juno awards, impressive discographies, and lengthy touring histories to each of their names.

While accolades like Juno awards bring extra attention, Downes said he stays focused on the task at hand – the music.

“It's nice to be recognized,” he said. “At the same time, I'm not doing anything different than when I started out. For me, it’s about artistic expression and being honest with myself. Every recording I do, I re-examine who am I and what I'm trying to say musically.

“I'm very happy to be playing with these guys who are incredible, happy to play our music and we kind of just plug away. If I hadn’t won a Juno, I'd be doing the same thing.”

Accolades aside, Downes’ focus and authenticity comes through in his playing. He said he finds audience members of all ages connecting with and reacting to his music.

Larnell Lewis  Photo by Jen Doerksen

Larnell Lewis

Photo by Jen Doerksen

“If I may, I think this band is so good, the musicians are so good, and the level that we're playing at is so high, that people respond just because the high level of musicianship and the way we connect with each other, and with the audience,” Downes said.

“These guys individually make music that resonates with people.

“I think if you come hear us, when you see the level of musicianship, and the listening, and the non-ego, I think when people see that, they connect with it.”

The quartet’s Winnipeg date was part of a short Canadian tour, going through the prairies west to Vancouver. The group played shows at night, and offered clinics at the local university jazz programs along the way.

For the quartet’s members, all of who teach at Humber College near Toronto, that educational component is a big part of their tours.

Downes said he works with students from ages 18 to nearly 60, but the majority are just coming out of high school.

The students help Downes keep learning too, by motivating him to re-trace his learning process to where he is today.

“Sometimes you have to really think back to when you were their age and wanted to learn to play,” he said.

“That inspires me to go back and re-listen to that stuff and sort of codify the way I learn, in a sense.”

Jen Doerksen