Culture | To the beat of his own drum

A former McGill jazz student riffs on the musical, post-academic life

Time passes, but the beat goes on.

Interestingly for a drummer, Efa Etoroma Jr. is not moved by time. This isn’t to say Etoroma, who graduated from McGill’s world-renowned jazz performance program a year ago, has any trouble holding a beat. Far from it. Playing from a young age, Etoroma has always been ahead of the curve, just on top of the beat, and ready for new challenges. It is with this spirit that Etorama swept straight from cap and gown to the recording studio in June 2010.

Before and After, the album that emerged from those recording sessions, is admirable amongst jazz albums for letting the musicality outplay technical skill. Recorded with funding from the Alberta Foundation for the Arts, Before and After features tunes that build from the ground up, a kind of refrain on artistic restraint. Etoroma – who describes improvisation as “telling a story,” – avoids disorienting the listener at the outset.  Instead, he acquaints the listener with a mood, making us characters in his musical setting. Indeed, many of the songs begin by capturing the spirit of the rural Alberta region in which they were recorded – a balance between austerity and complexity. On the trio album, which features fellow McGill musicians, Conrad Good on bass and Dan Reynolds on piano, Etoroma’s solid rhythmic approach holds together simple but evocative compositions and arrangements.

Acknowledging that jazz is no longer defined as popular music, nor the swing band music it once was, Etoroma suggests that “the function has to change and the sounds have to change” so that “the music evolves to become accessible,” a mature statement for a young jazz musician, and a sentiment that his recording upholds. The drummer notes that even in the still-great bastion of jazz music, New York, “there’s been a lot less swing, but there’s still a new way musicians can swing that people can relate to.”

With traditional attachments to the avant garde, jazz  may often seem inaccessible. Aware of this, much of Etoroma’s music focuses on bridging the gap between popular and more cerebral music. Readers may be familiar with one of Etoroma’s other projects, the Ruckus Fo’tet, which plays frequently on campus and throughout Montreal. The group exhibits a similar crossover of influences (he describes the music as jazz with a “hip-hop, rock, and latin edge”). Alternatively, Etoroma’s current trio reflects “jazzier” influences like the Mulgrew Miller trio, Herbie Hancock, and Robert Glasper.

The last track, is fittingly named, “Final Thoughts.” Meditative on the process of recording and being a practicing musician, the song also calls to mind the after of Before and After. It inadvertently asks the questions, “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The song features excellent and texturally rich brushwork like running water on the hillsides of spring, the final thaw where students emerge from an endless winter of study. As the album ends, the scene clears for a new performance, a new sound, a new set of ideas and aspirations-proof that jazz is still growing, that its spirit is forever young.  Now back in Montreal, Etoroma is performing and actively living the life of the modern jazz musician, promoting himself, trying to be heard, but above all, making music.

Etoroma spoke with The Daily about his upcoming performance, as well as life after McGill, of which he was tremendously positive. He said, “McGill showed me everything I can do, all the possibilities, and so I can’t really get bored with music.” With the fundamentals McGill grounded him in, Etoroma can now approach the music and “just let go.” The learning and practicing thus continues well past graduation. “Even at McGill there are a lot of options for musicians that even musicians studying at the school are not aware of,” Etoroma explained. When asked if there was any aspect of the McGill music experience he might improve, he invoked the need for music marketing and business training because as a musician, “you’re being a business man, and the product is yourself.”

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