Don’t call Vancouver’s Skywalk jazz or fusion, it’s just “a music band”



By Steve Newton

“When it comes to Skywalk,” says the group’s drummer and veteran session player Kat Hendrikse, “the word jazz is inappropriate. It’s got a lot of jazz influences, but basically it’s a modern concept. It’s modern music in that it’s very composition-oriented as opposed to solo-oriented. We do have great soloists, but the composition really is everything.”

Graeme Coleman. Skywalk’s chief composer and keyboard player, also feels that jazz can be a four-letter world. “Titles can be very misleading,” he says. “There are so many connotations to each name. Skywalk has jazz in it, but I wouldn’t call it a jazz  band. I think of jazz as either bebop or the New York, John Scofield/Richie Beirach kind of thing. We’re just a music band.”

Along with Coleman and Hendrikse, the other members of the Skywalk “music band’ are bassist Rene Worst, guitarist Harris Van Berkel, saxman Tom Keenlyside, and percussionist Jim McGillveray. The group came together three years ago when Coleman was playing with guitarist Pat Coleman in the Coleman & Coleman band. Says Graeme, “Pat and Rene were living in the same house at the time, and Rene came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea for a band where we can play cool music together.’ So we named a lineup of players we wanted to play with at that time. Tom [Keenlyside] was the first guy we thought of.”

That choice has proved to be an excellent one for Skywalk, as Keenlyside is now the most sought-after sax player in the city. His recent solo album Returning garnered rave reviews both locally and nationwide, and last month’s Tribute to West Coast Music saw him take top honours as Best Reed/Brass Player and Best Jazz Act.

Afer securing the services of Keenlyside, Coleman and Worst recuited ace percussionist Jim McGillveray, who also plays in the Wildroot Orchestra. Hendrikse, another Wildrooter, joined the group a year and a half ago, shortly followed by the newest member, Van Berkel.

“It’s funny,” says Coleman, “because I first met Harris back in ’73, when I moved to town from Comox and we started woodshedding together. It was before the term ‘fusion’ had even been coined. Herbie Hancock and the Headhunters’ first album had just come out, and Airto and Chick Corea had been out–the buzz was just starting to happen. We didn’t really know then what we wanted to do, but we had an idea. And here we are ten years down the line doing it!”

Van Berkel remembers too those experimental days of the past. “When I met Graeme about ten years ago we used to get together and listen to contemporary Miles Davis and CTI Records a lot. We tried to do some of those tunes because we were young and just groping for some way to go. And we both played in rock bands a lot too. Before that I used to listen to the Ventures and the Shadows, and the rock and roll instrumental thing really attracted me at first. And then it was Jeff Beck. I was only eleven years old, but the first time I heard the Yardbirds play “I’m a Man” it was just the bees’ knees.”

Drummer Hendrikse first got involved with his instrument at the age of sixteen and, as he says, “the way it happened was sort of by accident. There was a set of school drums and I, against the law, borrowed them for the summer holidays. I returned them again in the fall, but in the meantime I had three months of practice. And I was terrible–just the worst. But things happened anyway, and I started playing professionally about a year later.”

Hendriske took lessons for two years from Jim Blackley, who has taught some of Canada’s better known drummers, including Duris Maxwell of Powder Blues. His first “real” band was The Playboys, a nine-piece R&B group that toured across Canada in the sixties. He played with Spring and Papa Bear’s Medicine Show before starting into TV work in the early seventies. He has performed on the Rene Simard, Wolfman Jack, and Paul Horn shows, as well as several Superspecials, but for the last ten years Hendrikse has been doing studio work more than anything else. He says that it’s his most rewarding medium.

“I like the studio because it’s a controlled situation. If there’s something you don’t like you can either go back and fix it up, or you just get to do it again. And the money is really good–the hourly rate is what makes it happen. It’s professionalism. You know, if you’re a doctor you do your best work in front of half a dozen other people, and that’s sort of the way it is with studio work too. It doesn’t matter if there’s not a whole bunch of people applauding every time you do something. The thanks is going in to listen to a really good tape, where you played really good and everybody’s happy. And then when the cheque comes in, that’s a thanks too.

“I’ll always defend the studio thing because it’s a healthy musical environment, more so even than on stage. You’re depended on to play music, and to do it well, and as a drummer to play it with as much perfect time as possible. So to me it’s always a great challenge.”

Even though Hendrikse is an accomplished and reliable session player, he sounds remarkably at home on stage as well, supplying the precise but malleable backbone to Skywalk’s moving collage of sound. And the interplay between his and McGillveray’s percussive embellishments rarely gets out of hand.

“Jim is nice to work with,” says Hendrikse, “because he’s not a heavy–handed, play-through-everything sort of player. He leaves a lot of space. I’ve worked with a lot of percussionists and to me, the lighter they are the better it is. I’ve played with conga players who would play conga drums through every single tune and every bar and every space, and that’s just plain wrong. Space is where it’s at for playing, so Jim’s a real good guy to work with.”

When he’s not busy playing in Skywalk or Wildroot or working with local hornmen Mark Hasselbach and Wayne Kozak, Hendrikse keeps a sharp ear open to what’s happening in the drum world.

“Steve Gadd,” he says, “is a world favourite at this moment. I’ve liked him for six or seven years. I heard his first record years ago and I was amazed then by how good he was. And there’s guys like Jeff Porcaro and Peter Erskine. I really admire them. They have great time, and they’re always recorded beautifully. You can hear exactly what they’re doing.

‘”On the whole, though, I like a simple, funky drummer. I’m a soul-music freak, even though my background is jazz. I like the way funky drummers play–it’s simpler and it’s more heartfelt. Guys like Billy Cobham and Lenny White play a really mindblowing thing about once every two choruses. Cobham is all over the drums at all times. And its great. It’s very exciting. He’s a drum star, but I’m not a drum star. I’m there to make the band sound good, and it’s a whole different role.”

Skywalk’s keyboardist Graeme Coleman takes somewhat of a less technical approach when asked who he likes the best out of today’s ivory-ticklers. “I don’t really have one favourite player,” he says. “I look now more to a concept of somebody’s playing. It’s people who have a real personality to their playing that I like. You can tell the ones that have it–like Donald Fagen in Steely Dan, and Stevie Wonder–it’s unmistakably them!

“So I like people who write music that makes a statement and is very personal. The more somebody plays, and the more they write, the more they develop a personality in their playing. After a while, the style that you write in becomes uniquely yours. And I’m still stretching out a lot, and feeling my way through things.”

One of the biggest things Coleman has had to feel his way through has been the transition from traditional keyboards to synthesizers. He now plays Prophet 5 and Moog synthesizers onstage, as well as Fender Rhodes and Yamaha electronic pianos, and according to him the move to synths was anything but easy.

“I was kind of dragged, kicking and screaming, into the world of synthesizers. I like them, but they’re odd when you’re used to playing piano. I’ve been playing them for a few years now, so I’m getting much more comfortable with them, but they’re a little bit scary when you first start playing them because they have the capacity to sound really awful. You can really make some horrible sounds on them, especially when you’re just starting, and they can scare you away.”

Anyone lucky enough to have caught Skywalk during last week’s stay at the Sheraton Landmark Jazzbar would have been hard-pressed to notice Coleman’s previous ordeal with the synthesizer, for he is simply a spellbinding player. And the composition skills revealed in last week’s preview of the group’s upcoming album release, Silent Witness, show Coleman to be a gifted and imaginative songsmith. Of the six tunes on the album, four were written by Coleman, one by Keenlyside, and one, “Naima”, by legendary sax great John Coltrane.

Kat Hendrikse confides, about the inclusion of “Naima”, that “Coltrane was a big influence on all of us. He was an incredibly intense, swinging player who used every single note possible on the saxophone. ‘Naima’ was originally a ballad, and we’ve turned into a sort of rock, spacey kind of tune. Not too rock, but just enough to get the point across.”


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