Skip to main content

There are many ways for a Canadian to build a career in jazz. Some musicians take the direct route, moving to New York and toughing out a reputation in the Big Time. It's an approach that has worked very well for Seamus Blake, D.D. Jackson, Ingrid Jensen, Renee Rosnes, John Stetch and several others.

The Vancouver-based tenor saxophonist and pianist Mike Allen, on the other hand, is taking the long way around. How long? About 15,000 kilometres -- the estimated length of his latest Canadian tour, an eight-province, 17-city, 25-date trek that his trio will begin on Friday at The Cellar in Vancouver. By the time Allen, Vancouver bassist Paul Rushka and Seattle drummer Julian MacDonough are finished in late May, they will have driven to Shelburne, N.S., and back. First Shelburne, and then the world.

Actually, Allen, 37, has put in his time in New York, too. He was there in 1992 and 1993 for studies with fellow saxophonist Joe Lovano and with pianist Jim McNeely, following up terms at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., and at McGill University in Montreal. Allen, however, is not a musician who appears to be in any great hurry; you can hear it in his tenor solos, the leisurely, yet self-assured quality of someone who knows exactly where he's going, but will get there in his own good time and not a moment sooner.

And he does have a plan; in these militaristic times, it might even be called a campaign. "The point of this tour," he notes, in a telephone interview from his home in East Vancouver, "is to do a massive odyssey and then divide it into smaller, more manageable tours in the future, maybe three or four a year -- one in B.C., one in the Western provinces, one in Central Ontario and one in the East."

At the same time, Allen has also been making flanking motions down through Washington, Oregon and California ever since he left Montreal for Vancouver in 1995. The first of these movements -- indeed the reason that he moved West -- was to continue his studies, this time with saxophonist Joe Henderson in San Francisco. Allen and his wife stopped in Vancouver en route, intending simply to wait out the paperwork that he required to head south.

"We got cozy here," he says now. "The scene is a little more insulated, being on the West coast and having a little less circulation. There are things that happen in the music here that don't happen in other places. You get a lot of people playing their own music in their own way. . . .

"That made a tremendous impression on me, because I was coming from a place -- not just English Montreal, but New York -- where there were a lot of expectations as to how the music should be played. In Vancouver, those expectations are much lower. It's a very open-minded scene."

In response, Allen has been able to organize bands of varying sizes and directions, trios through nonets. He has also played in hard-bop and post-bop groups led by drummers Dave Robbins and Bruce Nielsen, and has even felt comfortable enough to return to the piano, his first instrument as a child back in Kingston.

The piano is not, however, an element of his current trio, which is instead "steeped in the tradition of great saxophone-led groups by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman," as the poster for his fifth and latest CD, Dialectic (Almus Jazz), rather awkwardly describes it.

Quite apart from its long and noble lineage in jazz, Allen's chosen lineup seems tailor-made for the challenges of travelling the length of the country and back by van, following in an equally time-honoured tradition in jazz of bands touring from town to town in a car or bus, double bass tied to the roof and bass drum lashed to the rear bumper.

And even in 2003, a van is really the only practical mode of transport with which to reach the smaller cities on the trio's itinerary -- Kelowna, Enderby and Vernon in British Columbia, for example, Kingston and Thunder Bay in Ontario and, of course, Shelburne, 160 kilometres or so down the Atlantic coast from Halifax.

Along the way, Allen will be adding guests to the band in the larger centres, including the Seattle trombonist Julian Priester in Vancouver, trumpeter Kevin Dean in Montreal, tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald in Toronto and guitarist Mike Rud in Edmonton.

This too, Allen suggests, has a practical purpose, bolstering as it does the trio's drawing power in the country's more competitive jazz markets. But it's also in keeping with his larger vision for the tour, one that extends well beyond the beneficial effect that all of this national exposure may have on his career.

"The social aspect of going out and playing is really important for me," he explains. "We're interested in meeting people and trying to make a connection with them in all the different regions throughout Canada. We're not trying to bring anything together, we just want to play for people, entertain them, and if the music is inspiring or enlightening, great; if it's just fun to listen to, and we all have a good time in a club in Saskatoon or Ottawa, or wherever, that's wonderful, too. We're not trying to prove anything to anybody, and we're not trying to reinvent jazz. We just love playing music, and this is the music we love to play."

A complete schedule for the Mike Allen Trio's Canadian tour, April 18 to May 24, is posted at .

Interact with The Globe