Mike Murley is one of Toronto’s finest musicians, and he has the resume to prove it. He has played on eleven Juno award winning recordings, and has been named saxophonist of the year eight times by the Jazz Report Awards/National Jazz Awards. From 2008-2011 he served as Jazz Area Coordinator at York University and he is currently on faculty as a full time lecturer at The University of Toronto Faculty of Music. I had the chance recently to chat with Mike about music and education - here is the transcript from the full interview.
David Cruz: Where did you initially become interested in jazz music?
Mike Murley: It was in my high school band program, in Nova Scotia. Actually, when I was in grade seven and eight we traveled up here [to Toronto] for the Canadian Stage Band Festival, which was probably a predecessor to Musicfest or whatever. But that's when I heard the Boss Brass and Phil Nimmons' band. It was the first time that I heard music live.
DC: Was there anyone who took you under their wing; to mentor you and teach you about jazz music?
MM: Well, my high school band director Brian Johnson did that. Later on I had a great teacher named Don Palmer, who also taught Kirk MacDonald and some other people. He was very important. I mean, I had different people at different stages of my life. Dave Liebman later on was very helpful - I still have a relationship with him; he teaches at UofT as a visiting professor. So, you know, there’s lots of people.
DC: I read in another interview that you studied music education at Acadia University. Could you talk about how that experience helped shape you as a teacher?
MM: Well, really I was only there for two years, so it wasn’t so much music education, that was just the degree that they offered. So I was just taking music. In small town Nova Scotia that was my option. So I went there for two years and then when I was nineteen I moved to Toronto. I got some good things out of it.
DC: What advice would you give someone who is just coming out of their music undergrad and hoping to become a contributing member of the Toronto jazz scene?
MM: Well, you have to work hard [laughs]. Be focused on what you want to do. Figure out what you want to do and find a way to do it [laughs]. I mean, you’re probably not going to make a living doing that. For example, if that's playing your own original music or whatever, its kind of tough to make a living doing that. So you’ve got to figure out your “how” and make a kind of game plan, both a short term and long term game plan. It doesn’t happen overnight to be able to make a decent living in the music field, but it can be done. But you need to do different things. Take every gig that’s out there, that’s what I did, obviously. Try to learn something from every situation.
DC: In the same vein there, how do you balance the art of playing with the more business side of things?
MM: It’s hard. If you want to play your own music, for example, you know, you do have to have your business side together. And things have changed a lot in the last ten, twenty, thirty years from when I first started. Now, in some ways, to self produce a recording, there are a lot of things out there with social media, and stuff online to be able to do that. That didn’t exist back when I was that age [laughs]. I mean you were going to the post office and mailing off LP’s [laughs] - that's expensive! But yeah, I guess the basic advice would be to allot a certain time of the day to do that, and allot another time of the day for music. I haven’t always been very good at that myself, but that would be the way to really do it, to be disciplined like that.
DC: In terms of this year's TD Toronto Jazz Festival, you have a show with your Quartet at The Pilot on Saturday July 2nd and on the following day you are playing a duo gig with Reg Schwager at Mezzetta. Is there a conscious shift in your approach when you’re playing in these different settings? Or is it more about just reacting to what’s happening?
MM: Well at this point when I play I try to just react. I get myself on the stage with people who I like to play with and it just sort of takes care of itself. You know, pick the right material, that’s important. But of course it’s different playing in a duo than in a quartet setting, you play differently. There’s a lot more vulnerability the smaller the group is, and in some ways, a broader expressive range, dynamically. I really like playing at Mezzetta, it’s a nice small place, but I like the intimacy of it. I mean, I like the Pilot too.
DC: You mentioned the importance of carefully choosing your repertoire - what is your thought process there, in terms of making set lists?
MM: I mean, I have different groups. There’s one group that I have that plays almost exclusively my original material, that’s my septet. Then when I play with my trio, the group I play with most, it is almost exclusively standards. But in either case, I am always trying to put together a set list that is going to communicate with an audience. You’re not trying to be…you know, I think jazz musicians have had a bad reputation of just playing for themselves. You know, give the audience a chance [laughs]. If you play three tunes in a row at the same tempo in the same key - I’ve been on gigs where people have done that - people say, “oh every tune sounds the same”. Well…that’s because you just called three tunes in B minor [laughs]! So I mean, it might sound obvious but you try to pick songs that you love, songs that mean something to you. Then you try to play them your own way as best you can.
DC: I also wanted to ask about the trio recordings you did with Ed Bickert and Steve Wallace. What was that experience like since it was earlier on in your career?
MM: It was a great experience. I mean, I had played with Ed and Steve quite a lot in Barry Elmes’ quintet. But I wanted to play with Ed in a more intimate setting and yeah, I really learned a lot about playing that way. I think I matured a lot as a player, in terms of learning to play a standard. A lot of it had to do with playing less, and not playing a million notes because if I did that it would just cover up the beautiful things Ed was doing [laughs]. So it’s like if I actually left a bar of space or if I held a note, he would do something beautiful with it. So it was like “Oh, okay!”. So I guess that’s probably the main thing I learned.
DC: That is very cool! On a kind of unrelated note, if you had to give advice to students who are still in school, what do you think makes a successful post-secondary music student?
MM: Listen to your teachers. Every one of your teachers at all of those institutions are all great players. And even if they aren’t your favourite player, they’ve got something they can give you. So take what you can from every teacher you have. Try it, you don’t really know. If they ask you to do something, or if they assign something to you, do it. They’re assigning it to you for a reason, probably because it’s something they did that helped them. Don’t make excuses and say; “Oh I don’t want to do that, I don’t want to practice that in all twelve keys” (laughs). So that’s the one thing I would say. You know, all the schools prepare you to be a great musician, if you apply yourself.
DC: It must be exciting for you to see your students mature and become active members of the Toronto music scene. Are there any that you would care to mention?
MM: Oh there are so many. I mean Tara Davidson was my student and we played together for quite a while too, so I’m very proud of her. I mean there are so many from U of T over the years, I mean Trevor Hogg, he’s done quite well. Allison Young is doing very well. I’m probably forgetting a bunch of people, but I’m just thinking of the saxophone players. There are other great players like John Maharaj who I’ve worked with.
DC: That is awesome. Thank you so much for your time, and I can’t wait to catch you at the festival!
MM: Thank you, I’m looking forward to it.