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INTERVIEW: Bill McBirnie

The Silent Wish is the latest release from Canada’s premier jazz and Latin flutist, Bill McBirnie. It features Bill’s superior craftsmanship along with that of his longstanding and formidable accompanist, Bernie Senensky, in an intimate duo setting, brimming with pristine acoustic clarity, and displaying their uncommon levels of musicianship and simpatico as they explore a diverse range of material, all integrated by a ubiquitous and enchanting “minor theme”, inspired by Bill’s wife, Svetlana.

We recently sat down with Bill to ask him about his music and his new release.

How would you classify your music?

My music is improvised but accessible nonetheless, because it is deeply rooted in the R&B/soul, jazz and Brazilian traditions.  There are many other influences, of course.  But these are the strongest.

What got you interested in the flute, of all instruments?

I actually started out on the piano, but I really didn’t take to it. In fact, I soon grew to dislike it. So I gave it up after a couple of years.

Not long after (because I really loved music), I asked my parents if I could have a “flute”, though what I meant was a recorder. I probably heard the flute in Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide To The Orchestra” that my Mom used to play for us and, for God knows what reason, I decided that was what I wanted to play.

Anyway, my father found a local flute teacher in Port Colborne, Ontario, Canada (the small town in which I was raised) who rounded up a cheap flute for me. When the case was opened and the instrument was presented to me by my parents and my new teacher, I was completely taken aback, because it was metal; it was in pieces; it had a whole bunch of keys; and it was transverse, and had to be blown to the side, across the tone hole. Of course, this was NOT at all what I expected, and it was not what I thought I had asked for.  So I was very disappointed, but I was also embarrassed by my mistake. I didn’t say anything because I realized right away that I would have to try to play it – or my father would get really mad at me!

Anyway, once I started to play with it, I was completely captivated, and my parents couldn’t stop me from practicing.

The flute was a real life-changer for me, and I realize now how very fortunate I was to have hit upon something that enabled me to become very focused and highly motivated, so early in my life.

By the time I was in high school, I was already a very advanced classical player.  But I ended up—NOT as a classical player—but rather as a jazz musician.

So how did you end up making that change?

I was always told that I should pursue a career in classical performance.  However, by my early 20s, I decided that I didn’t want to be “script bound” by classical music anymore, and that I wanted to improvise instead.

So I now had to learn a brand new discipline, and I also had to teach myself how to alter my classical flute technique so that it would work in non-classical situations. It was a long process, and I  really felt like I was starting all over again (…and I was!…) But I was patient and I kept at it. I am proof-positive that you can be very slow at learning things, and still manage to succeed!

Who were your major musical influences?

That’s a big question! I would have to say that, starting out as a classical musician, Bach was the biggest one. Because of my father, I also listened to a lot of jazz, even before I ever thought about playing it.  So on the non-classical side, I soon became a fervent devotee of John Coltrane. He is unquestionably my biggest influence (…though I don’t sound anything like him!…)  And also Miles Davis.  Of course, as a child of the 60s, I also grew up with a lot of soul and R&B music…which meant tons of Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin! There were lots of other things that impacted me as well, but I can’t catalogue all of them for you…right here and now!…

Have there been any milestones in your professional career so far?

In terms of professional milestones, I guess a couple of the most significant for me were (1) getting to record with the bebop and blues piano legend, Junior Mance, (on the album, Here ’Tis, on Sackville records), and (2) being solicited personally by the renowned flutist, Sir James Galway, to serve as the resident “Jazz Flute Specialist” at his website.  I also got another extraordinary opportunity perform live with him, again at his personal request, here at Koerner Hall in Toronto a few years ago.

But I really have to say that every gig seems to be a good one (and regardless of the pay which, in the freelance world, is often astonishingly poor!)  There are always great musicians to play with (…and sometimes, even audiences who really appreciate what I am doing… 🙂

What do you want listeners to take away from your music?

At the end of the gig, I don’t really care too much if the audience is impressed with my work (though many are).  What is more important to me is that they are moved…and that they feel better!…That is the biggest motivator for me in performing!…

How is the music scene in your particular location?

To be entirely honest, the live music scene is very difficult here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, just as it is most everywhere. This will come as no surprise to any musician trying to make a living in this business as an indie. However, what makes it all worthwhile for me is the calibre of musicians I get to play with (because I do a LOT of freelancing as a flute specialist).  Indeed, I can say without any hesitation or doubt that there are so many instrumentalists here in Toronto (…and on every instrument…and in every idiom imaginable…) whom you have never heard of but who are astonishing, and would be internationally renowned if they lived almost anywhere else!  And that is what ultimately makes the music scene here worthwhile for me, both as a player and a listener!

Is there a song on your latest CD release that stands out as a personal favorite and, if so, why?

Quite frankly, I can never find a personal favorite, on any of my CDs.  This latest album, The Silent Wish, is dedicated to my wife, Svetlana, who is Russian, and it has a really nice theme to it because she picked all of the tunes…and ALL of them are in minor keys! Of course, she is happy with the album and, when the album was finished, I actually asked her what her favorite piece was. She had  trouble picking a favorite too but, if anything, “First Song For Ruth” (written by Charlie Haden) might have had a slight edge over the other tunes, if only because it was the first tune she picked for the album when I asked her what she wanted me to record for her! 🙂

What personal advice would you give to someone wanting to pursue a career in music?

Don’t kid yourself! You have to be really, REALLY good (…because the competition is keen!…)  Also, you must learn to be polite and civil in your deportment! And of course,…always, be on time!…

What’s next for you?

You know, I actually have to look at my gig listing to answer that question!  And my gig listing is at my website which is located here:  www.extremeflute.com 🙂

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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