Interview from the spill magazine - www.spillmagazine.com
Interview: Richard Underhill
A veteran of Toronto's jazz scene and one of its most endearingly hip personalities, saxophonist Richard Underhill is celebrating the release of his second album as leader, Moment in Time. Produced with Jono Grant, the album features Luis Guerra on piano, trombonist William Cairn, fellow sax players Chris Gale and Bob Brough, as well as alternating rhythm sections - bassists Mike Milligan and Graig Earle, and drummers Daniel Barnes and Joe Poole. Underhill has just done a reunion tour of his successful hip-hop/hard-bop group The Shuffle Demons. Where his previous outing as titular leader, Tales from the Blue Lounge, had been made with an ear to mainstream jazz of the 50s and 60s, this recording comes prepared with a more modern jazz sound. Underhill, who cites influences such as the World Saxophone Quartet, Eric Dolphy, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago, attributes that Blue Note sound of Tales from the Blue Lounge in part to its instrumentation - compositions featured organ and guitar. In contrast, the new record "has sort of a more modern jazz sound. It's still got interesting harmonies and rich chords, but it's a little bit more the typical jazz line-up of piano, and a couple of horns, and bass and drums. Definitely, it's got a more modern sound to it than the Blue Lounge had which was a bit more vintage."
"Moment in Time was a multi-faceted recording. I was busy during the Shuffle Demons reunion tour, and I wanted to record with some of my favourite players, one of them being Graig Earle, a bass player. He was leaving to go to Copenhagen, so I recorded some songs with him and a great drummer named Daniel Barnes, with Luis Guerra on piano. I waited a few months and in March of this year I did another session with another great drummer, Joe Poole, and another great bass player, Mike Milligan. There are a couple of different rhythm sections and it represents the evolution of the music.
"The first session is a bit more in the Blue Lounge vein, where it sounds more like a vintage album. The newer stuff has more of a modern sound."
Underhill has also garnered attention because of his music videos. His group The Shuffle Demons had made videos for their hits, "Roach Motel" and "Spadina Bus," and with these recent recordings, he has continued to promote through visual mediums.
"I think it's because I wear a lot of different hats that I feel that the music video is valuable. People don't think about it or know how to go about it, because it can be a little daunting. I just know that you want to raise your profile and have different places for people to see or hear the music and a video really allows people who might be surfing TV to come across the video, and by association, get into the music. With this album, we went to BravoFact and they were very generous - on the first one we did 'The Old Guys', and we've got another one coming up for 'Day Off' on this album. It's been a good thing and it just gets you out there." Asked to comment on his songwriting process, Underhill said, "I used this quote from Allen Ginsberg in Tales from the Blue Lounge's liner notes: "When the muse calls / Answer". I use that whenever a song pops into my head. I quickly run over to the phone and call my answering machine and record it, and now I have this little dictaphone/mp3 player that I wear around my neck to record stuff. It's really an organic process where I'll just start singing something and get it down. Later, when I'm writing the album I'll look at all these little bits and pieces that I've assembled and I'll transcribe them.
"Sometimes you get a whole song. I'll just sing for a minute and listen back and say 'wow, that's a whole song' - that happened on 'Will of the People'."
Beyond the call-and-transcribe method that Richard Underhill has utilized in communicating his vision as leader, his approach has also involved inorganic rhythmic experimentation. "There's another unique thing that I did on this record," he continues. "I was recording something with another player, Tom Walsh, trombone player, and he said 'why don't you write a song?' The recording session was the next day, so I thought 'what can I do to write a song quickly?' I typed some text into a Morse code generator on the Internet, and used that as the starting point for a tune. I recorded it with him and I changed it and made it on this album, and that's the tune 'Morse Code'."
"The funniest part was, I wrote something like 'The dog went down the hill', put it in, and it wasn't very interesting. Then I just took some text like 'Public Meeting 7 O'Clock Community Center X'. I put that in and that was really cool."