ART the Band talks Jazzfest and Herbie Hancock

Toronto’s ART the Band is a group that plays fast and loose with the traditional notions of jazz, melding several different influences together from funk to hip-hop to provide a more unique take on the genre. Consisting of trombonist Nick Marshall, guitarist Sean Clarey, bassist David Maclean, saxophonist Stuart Brignell, and drummer Austin Gembora, the band played at the Pilot Tavern during this year's TD Toronto Jazz Festival (the Festival). I chatted with Brignell to learn about the band's Festival experience, a little about their artistic approach, and why they would want to play with Herbie Hancock.

What’s the band's experience has been like at the Festival this year?

It's been great so far, really good communication on everyone's part. Some festivals aren't the best with that. We were given all the information we needed well ahead of time. Everyone's responses were prompt on [the Festival's] end which made it easier for us. So that part was really good and professional. The actual night turned out really well. It was pretty much a packed house and we had a great time playing it. We would love to be back next year, maybe on a different stage, but we like the Pilot too. It's a great venue.

What was the band's reaction when you found out you guys got booked?

We were really happy. We were really excited. We'd be wanting that for a while, and were glad that it worked out when it did. We were ready. I feel like if we were called to do it a few years ago, it may not have been as high quality, but the band has been growing a lot, especially the last two years.

In what ways do you think the group has grown?

Firstly, just the lineup. They went through a bunch of different drummers before settling with Austin Gembora. Definitely won't be switching him out; he's perfect for the band. They were experiencing growing pains for a few years, cycling through drummers. Back in 2015, when Austin joined, I also joined on alto sax. Before it was just trombone and rhythm section, but they wanted an instrument that could cut up into that higher range, so that's why they wanted the alto in there. That's when the band got consolidated, then once the lineup got finished, we needed some time to gel and make it sound like a band. We toured Europe that year, which was really helpful for that. We were playing a lot at that time, and ever since then we've been making records. [Guitarist Sean Clarey] writes most of the music, but it kind of moved from really angular type melodies to more singable and more hooky type melodies. So just maturing as a band overall.

What is it about the group that makes for your wide range of influences?

It's because we, as players, all have roots in pretty different genres. We met at Humber [College] playing jazz at a jazz school. Before that, our guitar player, Sean, was a bit of a math rock prodigy. He was insanely technically advanced at the guitar from a young age, and he grew up going to math rock shows and indie rock and hardcore punk. That's where he gets a lot of his core sound, from that math rock world, which is pretty unique. Our drummer Austin started playing the drums in a metal band, so he has those rock and metal roots. When he got to Humber, he was more influenced by jazz and jazz fusion, like Dennis Chambers, Mark Guiliana, that kind of stuff. Our bass player Dave [Maclean] was rooted in funk and R&B, which you can hear in the way he plays. Our trombone player Nick [Marshall] came from the free jazz world, sort of atonal music. I came from straight-ahead bebop, so it’s a concoction of all those different roots pulled together by what we listen to now and what we've grown up listening to, which is a whole whack of stuff. A lot of neo-soul rooted in J Dilla. We credit some of our work to being influenced by J Dilla's production, and other jazz fusion artists like Weather Report and Herbie Hancock. The whole jazz-funk thing is a big influence on us as well. That's where it comes from.

What direction would you like to see the group take on upcoming records?

The direction we're going in now, I really like it. The melodies are a bit more singable, more memorable now, not as angular. I like that stuff too, but I'd want more of that so people can hear one of our songs and it can be still technically involved and artistically great, but they can walk with the melody in their head. I'd really like it to get to that point because that's truly memorable and that's a really powerful thing at least for when I see shows and I can remember the songs after just listening to them once. So being catchy but not sacrificing musicality.

If you guys got a couple hours to play with or do a session with one other artist on the Festival lineup, who would you choose?

Man, that's a hard question. Probably Herbie [Hancock].

Why's that?

Just because of what he did incorporating jazz and funk. A lot of that is at the basis of what we do. At the end of the day, we're just expanding on what Herbie laid down. He's always been so cutting edge with the technology, the synth work. Some artists stay in their style; they do their one thing really well, but they don't evolve with what's happening in current music. Herbie was always on top of that, so I feel like collaborating with him would both be musically incredible but also relevant. He could have some great input on where the band could go or where the sound is going and he would be the perfect person to ask because he laid that sound down in the first place. He would be a great producer.

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