In a Thai restaurant near Portland, Kelby MacNayr was about to come face-to-face with a legend.
The Victoria composer and drummer was set to meet with the one and only ‘80s pop composer Gino Vannelli to discuss post-production on a live jazz disc recorded in Victoria early last year.
Enter a man with a commanding mop of hair, ripped jeans, white combat boots and sunglasses. Vannelli is by all means still playing, producing and presenting like a star.
“He says: ‘I need to know, Kelby, if you’re willing to make a truly exceptional recording,’” MacNayr says, reflecting on the experience in his Victoria home studio. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d like that.’ He said: ‘I need to know if you’re committed to making something exceptional.’ As in, he didn’t want to be involved in anything that’s just good.”
MacNayr exudes delight and respect over nine-days of mixing, which allowed him to witness what he describes as Vannelli’s “incredible musical intuition and obsessive, meticulous work ethic.”
The experience formed the penultimate chapter in the story of MacNayr’s latest work: Kelby MacNayr Quintet: The Measure of Light. The record features nine of MacNayr’s originals, written specifically for five of the West Coast’s leading jazz musicians (Juno Award-winning saxophonist Phil Dwyer, trumpeter Daniel Lapp, pianist Miles Black and American bassist Tom Wakeling) recorded over a two-night session at Hermann’s Jazz Club. It captures precisely the sound MacNayr had strived for with just three hours rehearsal time as a group.
“You have to be absolutely incredible to pull it off. It could work, or it could absolutely tank. That was why it worked, because I had every expectation and intention that it was going to be absolutely incredible. It was a gamble, but one I was able to imagine in my mind. In the vision I wanted to hear, they did extraordinary things.”
The night after the first performance, the pressure drove MacNayr into uncontrollable leg spasms. He got out of bed and began to re-write music for the following evening’s show. Though totally overwhelmed by the process, he trusted his players, which he likens to Canada’s Olympic hockey team, each a star plucked from their regular gigs to form a one-time supergroup.
“Sometimes you have to have a vision and then figure out how to do it. I set this recording date before I figured out what music I wanted to do and who the band would be. I spent a long time learning about different musicians – what they did really well, or what I loved about their playing. Then I tried to create a setting where they could do that.”
Since he first heard Roy Styffe’s take on one of his earliest compositions, MacNayr has been driven to keep writing music inspired by those around him and their stories – the first chapter in any of MacNayr’s collaborative epics.
“There are feelings that are expressed through group performance. The personal chemistry of the musicians is integral for the music to come alive. It only happens with people where there’s chemistry. It’s like romance. If there’s a chemistry and a connection, things just happen.”
Hear what happens when the quintet reunites for a string of shows in support of the freshly pressed disc, beginning at Hermann’s in Victoria Nov. 28 and 29.