Altering Musical Laws with Tom TerrificJazz flutist and saxophonist Tom Keenlyside has seen international success,
done sessions for pop stars and now runs his own label.
By Jim Dupuis
Still it is amazing that there would be such a demand for one guy in just about any music genre that you can envision. How did this all start? He started playing trumpet in school band. At the age of fourteen he would sneak out of his bedroom window, climb down the trellis and hitchhike or catch a bus to the coffee houses of Vancouver. There he would play with and listen to other musicians until the wee hours of the morning. “My parents couldn’t figure out why I was sleeping in until four in the afternoon all the time.” he says.” He started off with the trumpet in school band but later switched to flute and saxophones. He studied trumpet at UBC and later flute with Don Dorazio of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. Still a youngster, he managed to get his union card in 1969 and his first big gig was playing in the band that accompanied superstar comedian Bill Cosby. Since then, it seems like the gigs never stopped coming. If you look on his website (ajrjazz.com) you will be amazed by the list of artists he has played with. There are some pretty cool photos, too! I’ve said that he’s played with everybody but he’s also played in most venues imaginable. He’s played in symphony halls, television studios, night clubs, bars, strip joints, supper clubs, festival sites and huge arenas.
In the late 70’s he started playing with keyboard player Graeme Coleman and bassist Rene Worst and others. Eventually the band Skywalk was born. Skywalk was loosely modeled after the first jazz fusion superstar band Weather Report. They started making a name for themselves
While they were fairly popular in Canada, it was in the U.S. where they gained their biggest acclaim. In 1982 they recorded Silent Witness and released it in Canada on their own label, Skywalk Records. It was picked up by Zebra records in the U.S. in 1983 and immediately garnered significant airplay rising to #12 on Billboard's jazz/contemporary charts and has since become a classic of the contemporary jazz-fusion genre. The Bohemians was released in 1986 on Zebra/M.C.A. and fared even better than their first effort, reaching #3 on Billboard. With a record deal and the album Silent Witness rocketing up the Billboard Charts, they were off for an extensive tour of the U.S. in 1986. Tom recalled setting up for a show in Florida when fans started calling out for “First Snow”, a track off Silent Witness. A rare occurrence for a jazz band, indeed!
Tom also put out a solo album in 1982 called Returning. It was recorded in Vancouver and Los Angeles and featured guitarist Ted Quinlan, keyboardist David Pickell and others. It was a bit more mainstream than Skywalk and stands as a good example of west coast jazz from that decade.
Many more albums followed. The Skywalk website tells us that 1988 saw the release of Paradiso and in 1991 Skywalk recorded Larger Than Life for Mesa/Blue Moon. Larger Than Life scored high on the charts, breaking into the national top ten and remaining there for over two months. In 1994 the group released Great Northern Larger Than Life scored high on the charts, breaking into Billboard's jazz top ten and remaining there for over two months in Canada only on the Lions Gate label. A Best of Skywalk album was assembled in 2003 for a limited run. Estimates are that the band sold over 200,000 albums in total. Pretty good numbers, but according to Tom, with the miserly artist cut of the day, not enough to get rich.
In the 90’s things began to wind down with Skywalk. They continued to make made sporadic appearances at jazz festivals but after years of touring and numerous personnel changes the band has more or less dissolved. Always considered a consummate musician, Tom Keenlyside has become known for his arranging and his versatility. It didn’t hurt that the saxophone started appearing in more and more genres, so the phone kept ringing. BTO one week, Shania Twain the next …
Eventually, Tom set up his own studio and he recently started his own recording label, Artist Jazz Recordings, that has allowed him or release some of his recent projects. AJR has put out four CDs on in the last couple of years and Tom tells me that he has more music recorded and in the pipeline. His most recent offering is Synergy: Jazz Duets for Piano and Flute with Tom on flute and Miles Black on piano. He really enjoys working with Black, he said, and that they are often of one mind when composing. He likes the way Black works; they would barely finished a song when he would already have the basis for the next song that would fit chronologically on that album. Tom did some name-dropping and told me that the jazz community world wide had contacted him about that CD and he got particular praise from Lee Konitz and fellow flutist Paul Horn. Another of Tom’s projects is Altered Laws Jazz Quartet, also with Miles Black along with bassist Miles Hill, and Dave Robbins on drums on their CD The Outsiders andBernie Arai was on drums on the second recording titled Metaphora. Tom and Miles Black are the composers on both CDs. Tom mentioned that when they play live in places like The Cellar,
The other CD Artist Jazz Recordings released last year was lead by the great Vancouver pianist, Bob Murphy. Murphy has also played just about everywhere in Vancouver, and has plenty of television credits. The CD is titled Downtown Eastside Picnic: Jazz Dialogues with The Bob Murphy Quartet. Tom Keenlyside plays an assortment of flutes and saxophones on this CD along with Doug Stephenson on bass and long-time Murphy accompanist, Buff Allen on drums. I caught their show at the Performance Works on Granville Island at last year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, where they blew the full house away. Murphy eloquently stated the plight of the people in his neighbourhood, the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, and wondered out loud why there was not help available for the people who can not take care of themselves. One critic reported, “It is a lesson in listening, but most importantly, it is music from heart and spirit. It speaks to both the streetwise and the sophisticated, the downtown and the uptown. I enjoyed immensely listening to it.” I couldn’t agree more.
So what else is happening with Tom Keenlyside? He recently survived a rash of family accidents and hospital trips and has been busy doing music for television. He has quietly been involved in the music end of the European cartoon industry for two decades and has also composed for the North American television and movie industries over the years. Altered Laws bassist Miles Hill is presently touring with