The stylish singer John Alcorn launched a series of Wednesday night musical offerings this week at the Flying Beaver Pubaret (488 Parliament St.), accompanied by Reg Schwager on guitar and yours truly on bass. John is calling this the Songbook Series; each week he will be presenting two sets of songs by a different major contributor to the GAS (Great American Songbook), kicking things off with fifteen of Cole Porter’s best. I promise this will be the last of such puerile jokes, but I ask you, when was the last time you heard Cole Porter and “beaver” mentioned in the same paragraph? Anyway, if the first of these nights was any indication, this could turn into something very special and lasting, my fingers are crossed. Lord knows the city needs more outlets for quality music, and the combination of this setting and Alcorn’s musical vision mesh very nicely indeed.
As to the venue, I hadn’t been to the Flying Beaver before, it had been described to me as a “lesbian bar on Parliament.” Though true as far as it goes, this is also misleading. Yes, the place is owned and operated by Maggie Cassella and Heather MacKenzie who both happen to be lesbians and certainly both gay women and men frequent it. But, it’s not a “gay bar” in the stereotypical sense of that term, people of all persuasions (except anti-gay morons and other assorted boors) are welcome and comfortable here. I found it to be a smart, fun, friendly place, unpretentious yet brainy, much like the women who run it.
It’s divided into two parallel rooms, the larger being a pub-style one with a big, comfortable bar (o lovely, welcoming sight!) and tables. A variety of good food and drink are offered at reasonable prices, the service is casual and friendly. The other room is a long, narrow cabaret-style space – minimalist, with a small stage at the front, two long rows of small tables and a sound board at the back. The rooms are separated so that the drinkers/talkers and music fans/listeners can each have their way; as I said, it’s a smart place. The cabaret room is an ideal space for the type of intimate presentation Alcorn and Cassella envision – cozy, with good natural sound needing very little reinforcement – I was encouraged to not bring an amplifier and my bass was put through the house sound system in a way that resulted in an essentially acoustic sound, manna to my ears.
John had told Reg and me that he and Maggie wanted a structured, show-like presentation to an attentive audience, but my busy schedule and low-life, jaded jazz instincts prevented me from fully digesting this; I wasn’t prepared for the amount of care and thought that had gone into this. I was expecting something a little more zoo-like, that the three of us would be playing to a bar-room full of people – some drinking, talking and having a good time, others listening – you know, the usual. I was okay with this because I love playing with these two in any circumstances, I figured we’d play a couple of loose sets, have some drinks and laughs, get paid and go home.
Boy, was I wrong, this was a miniature concert in an informal setting with an informed, listening audience and I should have known better. Alcorn is nothing if not classy and he always tries to keep the bar high no matter what, ditto Maggie Cassella. For example, John did a ten-week run of Sunday nights a couple of summers ago just up Parliament St. at The Cobourg and decided to not repeat a song during the entire stretch. He has the repertoire chops for this and so do Reg and I, but still it took some doing – John had to keep track of what songs we’d already played, plan set lists for each week and ration his very favourite songs out carefully. I reckon we did somewhere between 210 and 220 songs in that run; it was a challenge but it paid off, we were in a whole different musical place by the end of it, a little band that could play pretty much anything anywhere, bring it on.
Actually, the roots of this trio lay in that Cobourg run, and I’m pleased to say I had a hand in bringing John and Reg together. The Cobourg is a very small bar without a piano (what else is new?) and the first time I worked there with John he used a pianist on electric keyboard; like most singers, he generally favours piano accompaniment. When he was offered the ten Sundays, John asked me who he should call to play keyboard and for once, not keeping my mouth shut really paid off. I spoke up and said I thought an electric keyboard looked and sounded too cheesy for the room and that he should get a guitarist instead, urging him to call Reg first. John obviously knew of Reg and his imposing reputation, but still I sensed a small hesitation, those piano apron strings are tough to sever. But call Reg he did, and after the first set of singing with him, Alcorn was utterly sold, just raving about how much Reg could do and I didn’t quite have the heart to say “I told you so”, nevertheless saying “I told you so.”
I’m not here to blow my own horn, but I have no qualms at all about pumping the tires of these other two, not that they need it. I play in a number of good bands that I really enjoy, but for me the easiest and most comfortable are this group and Mike Murley’s trio (I guess I’m becoming a minimalist with age.) Apart from me, the common thread in both is Reg; as wonderful as Murley and Alcorn are out front in giving the lead and direction of each, he’s really the lubricant and glue of each trio, the guy who makes them go. Because Reg is by nature shy, quiet and has no desire for stardom, only some locals know that he can do anything on the guitar or in music. I’m not generally given to calling anyone the best, don’t really believe in this as a concept, but I make an exception in Reg’s case – I think he’s the best jazz guitarist in the world right now, nobody else I’ve heard has his range or musical scope. There are other guitarists who might impress you more in some way on a given night or in a single sitting, but you have to hear Reg over time in a wide variety of settings to really appreciate just how fantastic he is. No single context shows all that he can do and he always plays to the context, it’s called being musical. He’s also extremely consistent but what really impresses me about him is that although his playing is always highly artistic and creative, it’s never self-indulgent, everything he plays is practical and functional too; he first gives the music what it needs, then moves on to shining, making him a joy to play with.