James Duncan's the kind of artist who's guaranteed to confound listeners' expectations.
Some DJs might know him for the swinging, bouncy tech-house singles he produces under his own name.
A whole other camp of wax junkies would recognize his name as the trumpet player on several tracks by hotly hyped disco-tech revisionists Metro Area.
Outside the DJ world, avant-garde jazz fans might know the label he runs, Le Systeme, and its free jazz releases by American trumpet player Raphe Malik, a veteran of the Cecil Taylor Unit, or Duncan's work with group improvisers IZITITIZ and the Free Music Ensemble. Le Systeme has also released quirky soul pop by Toronto's Mantler.
"You don't want to be so open that you drop what you like just because something new comes along, but you definitely don't want to predetermine what you're going to like," Duncan says of his wide-open tastes over drinks at a Queen West bar.
Duncan was born and raised in Toronto and caught the DJ bug early on, while still in high school in the 80s. At that point, he tended toward new wave and post-punk, but he was also noticing the first trickle of house records appearing in record stores.
Discovering jazz, however, led him away from the emerging DJ culture and to school to study classical performance. On his own time he was playing trumpet with local free jazz enthusiasts like the Free Music Ensemble and the Woodchoppers Association.
On the subject of his ability to jump genres he explains, "No matter how much I know about one thing, I end up having to relearn everything. But I like that now. I find it empowering."
His reintroduction to dance music actually came through his love of jazz. Hearing some of his favourite jazz classics sampled by hiphop producers turned his attention toward the possibilities of electronic production. After buying himself a sampler, he set to work trying to figure out how to program breakbeats. By chance, one of his friends played him Phuture's Acid Trax, and Duncan fell in love with house music.
Since moving to New York a little under three years ago, he's connected with some of the city's brightest producers. Hunting down Morgan Geist with a demo in hand led to his being featured on several of Geist's Metro Area tracks as well as Geist's groundbreaking remix of House Of Jealous Lovers by disco-punk brats the Rapture. He also got hooked up with DJ Romain and E-Man, both heavy hitters in NYC house circles.
Back in Toronto, he's been working with Daniel Lui and Columbus, Ohio, expat Todd Sines. Strangely enough, despite all the quality dance records by other producers that he's played trumpet on, he's held back from exploring his jazz side in his own productions.
"Hopefully, I'll get to a point where I feel I can integrate that into what I'm doing, but I want to try to learn how to make really good dance records first. I'll go and play trumpet on someone else's record, someone who really knows what they're doing, and learn from them. I just feel I've been lucky as a musician to have been on records that people have really liked."
JAMES DUNCAN with CHRISTIAN NEWHOOK and TEE LOO'S KITCHEN at Habitat (735 Queen West),Thursday (January 9). Free. www.habitatlounge.com