York University professor and well-known jazz musician Barry Elmes made excellent use of a recent sabbatical to work on a new CD ̶ his quintet’s first in seven years: “Dog’s Breakfast,” produced by Cornerstone Records, Inc. It’s proving to be worth the wait.
Elmes, a composer, producer, recording artist and educator, has been a strong and consistent presence in the Canadian jazz scene since the 1980s. He taught at York for two decades before joining the full-time faculty in the Department of Music in 2004. He currently serves as the Jazz Area Coordinator.
Elmes, one of the first graduates of York’s jazz program and a self-identified “York guy,” has performed all over the world and played with many renowned jazz artists, including Dizzy Gillespie, Diana Krall and the Moe Koffman Quintet.
In this Q&A with Brainstorm, Elmes talks about his latest CD, offers some advice to budding composers, and reflects on the way that York has shaped his career trajectory.
Q: In conceptualizing “Dog’s Breakfast,” you were influenced by a playful illustration of a dog who had consumed a curious batch of items. Please explain how this idea of an eclectic mix encapsulates the ideas behind your most recent CD?
A: The title was a practical solution. I didn’t start with a theme. There’s no consistent style to the compositions. Some are rhythm-based, some are melody-based, some are tributes. I thought: This is a dog’s breakfast, a collection of very eclectic tunes.
Yes, I wake up every morning looking at artist Sa Boothroyd’s print of the dog on my side of the bed. It cracks me up; it puts me in a good mood. You see humour right away.
More specifically to the “Dog’s Breakfast” track, I had written a composition that captured my dog, Mavis, walking on the beach. The dog’s a bit of a dufus who eats everything. The tempo relates to her gate. There’s some humour in it too. Humour in jazz isn’t always overt, but it’s there.
Q: This CD showcases five new compositions. Could you describe the process of composing?
A: Different composers use different methods. A lot of them write on their instrument – piano, for example. My situation is a bit unique because I’m a drummer.
In my case, I write everything in my head. It may be a challenge, but it gives you a lot more freedom. Instrument-specific composing can be limiting. I can conceive of things from a melody long before I’ll sit down at a piano and try to bang it out. It’s the only way I can do it.
However, as it happens, on “Dog’s Breakfast,” I approached the compositions differently. For example, one day I was sitting at the piano, not trying to write a tune. I played a ‘maj7#11’ chord, which I really like the sound of, then repeated the same voicing a whole tone higher, and I wondered if I could write a melody that fits over that simple motion. That ended up being the composition “Terminal 2,” the CD’s third track. Similarly, “Pierre Burton’s Pig” evolved when I was tuning the drums.
Q: How has “Dog’s Breakfast” been received?
A: Very well. The reaction has been quite favourable. The only thing I have to go on is that people all over the world seem to be buying it. I haven’t done a lot of advertising or networking, but people seem to know about it.
There are very positive reviews ̶ in WholeNote magazine, for example. I’m very pleased with the reception.
Q: How has York University supported you? What does York mean to you?
A: I’m a York guy. My entire adult life has been spent in some direct relationship with York. I moved to Toronto in the 1970s because I’d heard that York was starting Canada’s first jazz program. I was one of the first students. Profs were very supportive. I even lived in Prof. John Gittins basement, who, with Prof. Bob Witmer, directed the new jazz program at York when I first moved to Toronto.
After I graduated, I went away to build my career, and was invited back to York to do some part-time teaching in the 1980s. A decade later, I found myself teaching a jazz workshop and jazz percussion masterclasses. In 2004, I became a full-time prof. I’ve always felt for some reason, which is hard to put into words: York feels right to me.
York has always been supportive. The information I needed to forge the career I’ve had, as a professional musician and composer, is all due to York. I’m not sure that if I’d been educated at another institution, my career would have gone the same way. I don’t think that I would have received the same stimulus and direction.
Q: Any advice for future composers or budding jazz musicians?
A: Writing music is no different than being a literary author. Authors that I like ̶ the J. D. Salingers and Hemingways of the world ̶ wrote for themselves. That’s really the only way to write, to express yourself, to convey a mood or an idea.
There’s a lot of what I call “clever composition” – well crafted, but it sounds like you’re trying too hard. What I suggest to young composers is don’t worry about trying to come up with something that’s never been done before. Just about everything you can do, mechanically, has already been done. So, what you’re left with is a personal need to express yourself. If you do that, and you’re honest, that’s all you need.
As long as my compositions say something to listeners, I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be “clever!”
For more information about Elmes, visit his faculty page or his website. To read the WholeNote article, see page 83 of the December 2017/January 2018 issue. For more on the CD, visit to the website. To read a related article, visit the Waterloo Region Record. To read a review of the album in Jazz CD Reviews, visit the website.
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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, email@example.com