NICK ALI with GRUVASYLUM at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), Friday (May 23). $10. 416-538-7405. And at the Distillery Jazz Festival (55 Mill), various venues, dates and times. Complete schedule at www.distilleryjazz.com. Rating: NNNNN
Nick "brownman" Ali has a love-hate relationship with his mouth. On the one hand, it's the trumpeter's bread and butter. On the other, his loose lips have gotten him in so much trouble that at times his mouth is the one organ he'd be happy to do without.
The Trinidad-born, New York-raised, Toronto-based horn man has offered frank, brutally honest comments about the music he plays and the scene he plays in, whether he's jokingly braying about revenge after winning the Montreal Jazz Fest's prestigious Prix de Jazz award or lashing out against "conservative motherfuckers" who greet his Afro-Latin-funk-jazz fusions with thinly veiled disgust.
It's bitten him in the ass often enough that he turns up at our Café Diplomatico brunch with a pal he brings along to "make sure I don't say anything stupid." Ali is able to restrain himself for about 30 seconds before he's off after his latest target.
"I'm not trying to wind people up," Ali insists, shovelling pasta into that mouth. "The reality is that I speak my mind, and my mother told me never to apologize for that. I'm getting better, though. I'm trying not to piss people off."
It would be easier to dismiss Ali as a crank if he didn't have the goods to back up the talk. Between his endless studio and session work, sideman jobs with bands in the reggae and Latin scenes and his peculiar cult success in Estonia, Ali has become one of the busiest players on the scene.
He simultaneously leads four active bands: his chordless Latin jazz/funk crew, Cruzao; self-described "jungle jazz" group Gruvasylum; the slightly more conventional Nick Ali Trio; and salsa orchestra Marrón Matizado - all documented on Ali's sprawling www.brownman.com Web site. Each is different, and each ensemble reflects Ali's respect for the jazz tradition as well as his obsession with moving it forward.
"I really enjoy artistic cross-pollination, but I'm trying to do it with intent," Ali offers. "I don't like dabblers and people who fuck around. I try to have an ideology with it.
"I enjoy the feel of having my hands in a few different pots; I don't think focus necessarily implies the exclusion of everything else. There are a lot of days in the week, and when I'm in the mode, I'm only in that mode. If I'm working on trio stuff, that's all I'm obsessed with, and to me that's focus, even if two days later I'm in a hiphop frame of mind."
In this city, at least, that eclectic, open-minded, original approach has made Ali stand out, especially from the standard-playing jazz vets who'd rather run through My Funny Valentine again than break new ground.
"I see a lot of the jazz kids defining themselves by what's around them rather than their inner voice, and I think that's sad," he says. "Audiences love originality - the only backlash comes from the ultra-conservatives.
"It's the whole Ken Burns/Wynton Marsalis/Stanley Crouch/suck-my-dick thing. I mean, just shut the fuck up. They want to define jazz in this small little box as something that stopped in 1964. I don't get that. Jazz needs to evolve; it doesn't need to be preserved. Making an entire career out of playing Dixieland jazz isn't the way to go."
It is the way to build a career, though. Despite his suggestion that a younger generation of players is becoming more forceful and beginning to impose their vision of jazz onto the scene, Ali also admits that taking risks and avoiding the familiar causes practical problems.
"If you embrace the past and have a swing band it's very easy to get bookings, because a club knows that everyone will identify with the past," Ali says. "It's very difficult for this modern music to get bookings, because who's going to identify with risk and future?
"From a work perspective, it gets really difficult. You think, 'Fuck, I'm doing this music I love, but I'm starving. Well, I guess I have to go back to playing swing music.' What a drag!"
This talk of artistic hierarchies sounds very abstract and sinister, but Ali speaks from experience.
"The Rex is great," he insists. "They will put any motherfucking thing on that stage. The big clubs, though, I don't know. Cruzao was booked to play the Top o' the Senator for a week last summer, and I asked our rapper to be the guest. Bad idea. The booker for the club showed up on the Saturday and said I was self-indulgent. She told me, 'This is a jazz club. You don't bring a rapper to a jazz club! Is this jazz?'
"You know what we did? The next night we came back and played the cheesiest set of shit, and it went over huge. What does that tell you?
"There's this upper jazz echelon that you can't crack. You know how many people were pissed because I was named the National Jazz Awards composer of the year? 'Oh, that fucking kid, writing Latin jazz tunes.'"
Ali's solution is to create his own forum. His regular e-mail newsletters go out to thousands of fans and ensure that his music is heard "beyond my little basement apartment." Grassroots organizing means he's also able to stuff alternate venues like the Lula Lounge, where Gruvasylum drop their new CD tomorrow (Friday, May 23).
And occasional scraps aside, this approach is also beginning to pay off. At the new Distillery Jazz Fest (see sidebar), Ali is playing in 11 different groups. Maybe this outsider thing isn't so bad after all.
"I feel really lucky to be able to do what I do, get away with it and kinda pay my bills," he laughs. "I've been granted by the forces of the universe to have a couple bands that are doing all right, and I get to express myself in a few different veins.
"There's lots of bullshit, but I feel lucky as shit to be part of that."
Ali's Distilled picks
Hipper than the Downtown Jazz Festival and without the scene's familiar old-school characters, the Distillery Jazz Festival pushes boundaries. This year's inaugural outing mixes mainstream with modern, aiming to show the range of jazz-influenced music being made in this city.Nick Ali will be playing in 11 different bands and checking out a bunch more. Here are a few of his must-see fest picks.
For complete Distillery Jazz Festival listings, see page 51.
DANIEL BARNES TRIO 9:30 pm, Thursday (May 22), Cointreau Cabaret "Few drummers have equal knowledge of both mainstream jazz feels and modern grooves (i.e., hiphop/jungle/drum 'n' bass) like Danny does. His trio is sure to take you on some aural journeys."
TASA 8 pm, Thursday (May 22), Cointreau Cabaret "Fusing Indian tradition with modern grooves makes this band unique and fascinating."
MARILYN LERNER 8 pm Friday (May 23), Nightclub Nebula "For me, she's one of the great voices in the free-jazz scene, a fabulously textural artist, and I love what moods she can create on piano when she's alone."
NOJO 9 & + PHATT AL 10 pm Saturday (May 24), Casa Kinetica "One of Canada's foremost big bands, with one of Canada's foremost freestyle rappers. I gotta check this out."
RICH BROWN QUARTET 8 pm Monday (May 26), Boiler House "Rich Brown is one of the truly sick sick bass players in this city."
ANDREW DOWNING GROUP 8 pm Friday (May 30), Boiler House "Andrew takes his extensive knowledge and training as a jazz bassist and applies it in many other contexts. Love this guy."