Barry Elmes celebrates 30 years of his quintet

Barry Elmes is a mainstay of the Toronto jazz scene.

The drummer, composer, bandleader, educator and owner of the independent record label Cornerstone Records has become a fixture of Canadian jazz, appearing on more than 90 albums.

Along with playing and recording with the likes of Charlie Haden, Joe Henderson, Oliver Jones, Diana Krall and Dizzy Gillespie, Elmes has also led his own quintet for more than 30 years.

He started the band in 1991 with a “who’s who” of Canadian jazz. Six albums and countless performances later, the band recently took to the stage at The Rex for a four-night run to celebrate 30 years of great jazz.

Elmes joined us to look back on the past three decades of his career.

Let’s go back to 1991. It’s such a different time 30 years ago. Do you have any thoughts or memories of where you were in your career, and what the impetus was to start the quintet back then?

I was in a quartet called Time Warp. That band was two horns, bass and drums. It had no piano or guitar for accompanying with chords. I had written a number of pieces that just didn’t seem appropriate for that band. I needed a piano or a guitar or something. I had the opportunity to make my first solo record [called Climbing], and I did that. There were quite a number of people on it — three horns, various rhythm section players — and it got quite a lot of attention. We had a chance to tour, and I thought, well, I can’t take all these guys on the road. So I thought, what’s the minimum I can take that’s going to cover all the compositions and we can play that properly? And that’s how I put the quintet together. The original band, culled from that solo CD, had Ed Bickert on guitar, Steve Wallace on bass, Mike Murley on sax and Kevin Turcotte on trumpet. We did a lot of touring and had a lot of fun.

Like so many things in the arts, it comes down to financial matters.

Yeah, partially financial. But in that case, it was [also] logistics. I just didn’t want to take nine guys on the road. I thought, you know there are a couple of bass players on the record but I really only need to have one. I had guitar and piano, and both would’ve been great, but I asked Ed if he had any interest in doing touring if I was to put a band together from this record, and he said, “Well, my wife said it’s time I got out of the house, so yeah.” That was his Ed Bickert sense of humour, you know.

When you were writing the tunes that needed that chordal element, was there a sound in your head that was some other group that was inspiring you to write that way, or to want that kind of band?

It was more that I was working very hard to be a better composer, and I wrote these tunes, and they just didn’t seem appropriate for Time Warp. I needed another outlet for these kinds of compositions. I can’t really describe why, but they just needed a slightly different approach.

As you moved through that process with multiple albums over the years, did you hear the sound of the quintet in your head as you composed? Were you writing for the people in the band?

Definitely. Not only just for a quintet, but for that quintet. I always wrote for the people in the band. Not that I’m in anything close to the league of the people I’m about to mention, but I learned early on that people like Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, they all wrote for whomever was in their band at the time. That seemed like the way to go. Each player has a slightly different range, different strengths and different personalities that they bring to their playing, so you want to write things that will bring that out.

Mike Murley has been there throughout the whole thing. Talk to me a little bit about your relationship with him.

I met Mike quite a long time ago. He had moved here from Nova Scotia back when I was teaching workshops at York University, and that’s where I met him. He came there as a student. At that time, Time Warp was just a trio with Bob Brough, Al Henderson and myself. We decided that it would be great to have two saxophones, so we asked Mike to play in that band. In fact, Mike put together his own quartet and I was in that for a number of years and did some touring. I suppose some might say it’s a bit musically incestuous or something, but you know what, it’s always best to play with the best players you can find, and that’s the way I’ve always approached it.

In a world that’s always changing, it must be nice to look over at the bandstand and see a musical friend who’s been around as long as he has.

For sure, and Steve Wallace was in the band right up [until] he moved to B.C. just this past summer. That resulted in a change to having Pat Collins come in and play bass. I couldn’t believe it, because Pat was playing our book for the first time and he killed it. He sounded like he had been in the band for a decade. That’s how good he is.

Has your relationship specifically with the drums changed or evolved after all these years?

It probably has, but I’m one of these weird guys who thinks of himself as a musician who happens to play the drums. In other words, I’m not a drum maniac. I’m not really interested in collecting rare snare drums or that kind of stuff. What I really like doing is interacting with people when I’m playing the drums. For me, during this COVID-19 business, sitting at home and practising the drums, I’ve done it to stay in shape, but it’s a challenge, because, you know… it’s drums. What you really want to be doing is playing with people. That interaction is everything to me — much more important than the instrument itself.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.