Trumpet player and multi-instrumentalist Mike Herriott is as comfortable playing with a symphony orchestra as he is with a jazz ensemble. He has recorded or performed with the likes of Rob McConnell, Arturo Sandoval, Jann Arden, and Michael Bublé.
Recently, Herriott released a new recording called Tales of Tricksters and Vagabonds, inspired by a selection of off-colour characters from various literary works.
Herriott joined us to talk about the new album.
It seems that there have been a lot of changes in your life over the last six years. Since the last time you were here, what’s been going on and shaping the sounds we’ll hear on this new album?
It just so happens that in 2017, I reconnected with a girl I had fallen in love with when I was a teenager. We met when we were 16 or 17 years old, and for one reason or another we lost track of each other over the years. Thirty-five years later, we reconnected and realized that the same spark was there. We ended up getting married, we bought a house in Newfoundland, and Ofra Harnoy and I have been married now for four-and-a-half years.
Multiple Juno-winning cellist Ofra Harnoy. World-renowned.
Yes, absolutely. We’re very proud of a few albums we’ve done together.
Has it felt like there’s been a way to connect your energies and find new inspiration musically, through this partnership?
Absolutely, yeah. The first project that Ofra and I did together was the Back to Bach album for the Analekta record label out of Montreal. We recorded that album much the same way that I’ve recorded my last few albums, with multi-tracking and adding tracks by playing the stuff ourselves in the studio. We started with a Handel sonata that we wanted to play. Ofra said she’d performed it before with cello and organ. I thought, you know what, I don’t have a pipe organ in the house, but I do have a bunch of brass instruments, and I could write an arrangement for the brass instruments to duplicate the sound of an organ. Then we did some stuff with a cello quintet, we did one piece that has 11 cellos all playing, and then fast-forward to an album called On the Rock, which is all Newfoundland music and it has guests like Heather Bambrick, Kelly-Ann Evans and Alan Doyle. And then the album Portrait, we’ve got one piece on there, “Make Our Garden Grow” by Leonard Bernstein, it’s got 113 tracks on it. Ofra plays all the violin parts and all the cello parts and all the viola parts, and I cover all the other stuff.
The notion of layering things and being a one-man band seems to be something that a lot of people adopted during lockdowns, but it seems like you were out in front of this — this is something you had envisioned before the necessity arose.
Yeah, I guess it’s partially selfish because I hear things being played a certain way, and it’s not like there’s anyone who can’t do what I ask them to do … but the first album I did that way was Off the Road in 2013, and I recorded all that in my recording studio next to my house in Cambridge, Ont. I started recording stuff there because I had actually quit doing Broadway show tours. I wanted to take some time away from being on the road — hence the title of the album — and I had just finished building this studio, so I thought hey, I’ll have some fun with multitracking. Before I knew it, I had an album.
Let’s talk about Tales of Tricksters and Vagabonds. Conceptually, this is about some off-colour characters in literature.
“Sir Jack” and “Rodion’s Republic” were two pieces that I wrote for my master’s thesis at York. I had been thinking about how I could find a new direction to inspire myself to write music. Historically for me, I had always tended towards impressionistic writing — people, places or experiences, things with which I had a fixed interaction — as opposed to writing something more programmatic that follows a narrative arc. I thought I would dig into a different part of my brain and take fictional characters and try to follow their story arc from beginning to end. I found it to be a really interesting process, and it did change how I approached writing, coming up with ideas, developing the ideas, and the form of the piece. They gave me the degree, so I guess they agreed with me. So, I had these two pieces, but I always had the idea that once I’d written them, I’d make a suite out of it. Ofra and I were discussing what characters we think we should do. We had just gotten a couple of cats, so Puss in Boots was on my mind. Ofra came up with the idea of Mercutio [from Romeo and Juliet] and Uriah Heep from David Copperfield. And then Rumpelstiltskin, I think we both came up with that one since it’s such an interesting character. I think if you ever knew anyone exactly like Rumpelstiltskin, he’d probably be the most horrible person you’ve ever met. One of the things I found interesting about these sketchier characters from fiction was that these people are not just hatched out of thin air — they’re based on people that the authors must have experienced or known. You can equate these characters with real people in real-life situations. One of the reasons we like to read about characters like this is that we can observe them and become intimately knowledgeable of them, but at the safe distance where they’re on the page and we’re comfortably sitting in a chair as opposed to having to actually interact with them. I always think of Rodion Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment as a Trump type of character: He’s self-serving and rationalizes his evil deeds as if he’s doing something for the greater good. But the one character who I think is beyond that is Rumpelstiltskin. He wants to take this lady’s baby. So, he’s going to raise somebody else’s kid. He hasn’t even considered what he’s going to do about diapers, food, school, you know? Is the kid just going to grow up to be another one of him, stealing other people’s babies? He’s the extreme. And then on the other side we’ve got Mercutio, who’s basically a very intelligent, very interesting joker. Even his last breath is a joke. I think Shakespeare actually wrote him out of the play because he was more interesting than Romeo.
Because of that warts-and-all aspect of these characters, it seems like it inspires music that can go to different places. You can get into the crevices, some dissonance. The chords seem to come at you in different ways when you’re talking about people who aren’t straight lines and aren’t that great.
Exactly. With “Mercutio,” it’s an odd-meter groove, and I saw that as Mercutio being this off-kilter, fun, playful character.
While you’re composing and recording, are these characters in your mind? Are they in the room with you?
Sometimes I feel like they’re looking over my shoulder, which is always a little disturbing. You know, this is not my own story. Someone has already written it down, and people are very familiar with them. I try to not second-guess how I’m telling the story. I have to be in the moment. Where is the music going? I need to almost let go of the awareness of the narrative, and let my subconscious knowledge of the story guide me musically. Otherwise, I’m trying to add elements…
At some point, it’s just your musicality. You’ve ingested the story, you’ve come up with the concept, and now you have to let the muscle of creative energy take over. When you’re laying all those things and working as a one-man band, you don’t have that person to bounce ideas off of, you don’t have that camaraderie. Can that be very focused and successful that way, or sometimes can it be lonely in there?
That’s an interesting question. The isolation factor of it — I mean, most composers work by themselves in the actual writing process. But I find I like to have a sense of context. A lot of these pieces I actually start the writing and I get to a point where I don’t know what I’m going to do next, and I’ll actually record everything up to that point — whether or not it’s going to be the final take I’m going to use — and listen to it with real instruments, rather than the computer playback. In that sense, I guess I’m not completely alone, because there’s me, the trombone player, and me, the French horn player, and really, truly, I feel like a different person when I play each of those instruments. It’s really weird. I don’t know how that works.
That’s interesting. When you play bass, how do you feel different from when you play trumpet?
It’s hard to describe it. I remember somebody asking Ross Taggart — the great piano player, saxophone player from Vancouver — which is his favourite instrument to play, and his answer was whichever instrument he was playing at the time. That’s how I feel about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.