Such a nice boy, that Johnny

Asking a musician for their “All-Time Top Five Desert Island Albums” is typically a bad move. Not only does it put them on the spot, it shows your idea of music journalism stems from repeated readings of High Fidelity. So naturally, early in my conversation with Johnny Summers, I ask him for his top five. It isn’t my fault though, he brought it up by mentioning Harry Connick Jr.’s Blue Light, Red Light, the album that introduced him to the world of jazz.


“I was in junior high school, and everyone was listening to whatever, the pop music of the day,” Summers explains. “A friend lent me Harry Connick Jr., which had just come out within the last year or two. It’s a brilliant album, definitely one of my all-time desert island top five.”


I couldn’t resist asking for the rest.


Not surprisingly, Chet Baker was next. Like Baker, Summers is a trumpeter and vocalist with classic good looks and a relaxed style. Embraceable You and Chet Baker Sings It Could Happen to You both make the local musician’s list. So does Louis Armstrong’s Complete Hot Fives and Sevens, which may count as cheating since it is a four-disc set, but is irrefutably essential.


The last album is a bit of a surprise, Arvo PÃ?rt’s Te Deum, a deeply religious album from the modern classical composer. Conspicuously absent is anything that’s approached the top 40 in the last few decades.


“There is some music, funk and groove-oriented stuff like Stevie Wonder, that I do listen to,” says Summers. “But I have no interest in pop or the mainstream, people like Ricky Martin or Britney Spears.”


So what does a modern composer of jazz standards say to those who love nothing more than the repetitive beats and mindless grinding of the Calgary club scene?


“I think, especially in Calgary, we have a lack of things cultural. It’s a very money city, a very wealthy city, but as far as entertainment, there’s not much culture. You see movies, go out for dinner, go to the bar or a dance club,” he responds. “Culture is not really on the forefront of the Calgary mind, but it does pay off. When you really get interested in Stravinsky, Monet, Ellington, it helps you grow.”


Summers has grown a lot since his first exposure to jazz. He moved from piano to trumpet, and eventually graduated from the U of C with a Bachelor of Music in jazz studies. He’s played venues throughout Canada and the United States, perhaps most memorably in New Orleans.


“New Orleans was really the birthplace of jazz back then, and I guess it still is. I got there and people were playing everywhere. I had played with a few members of Harry Connick’s band, and that’s when I met Ellis Marsalis,” beams Summers. “He said ‘Well Johnny, nice to meet you, what would you like to play?’ He’s this monster in the jazz world, and here he is asking me what I want to play. He’s just so humble, so down to earth, and he played so musically, melodically, sparsely…”


Summers trails off, but it’s obvious he is still awestruck from playing with such a giant. In Calgary, however, Summers has become something of a giant himself. Ever since the folks at C-Jazz dubbed him “the poster boy of Calgary jazz,” the title stuck.


“They called me that for a couple years, and it kyearof got stuck in the media. I’d get stopped on the streets, and it wouldn’t be ‘Hey, you’re Johnny Summers,’ it’d be ‘Hey, you’re the poster boy.’ It’s really kind of funny.”


He should expect more recognition after releasing his next CD, Walk Through the Park. While it might not catch everyone’s eye, local jazz fans are sure to take notice. And everyone is welcome to join the fun at the CD release party May 24.


“It will be a relaxing, romantic, fun evening–we’ll play good music,” begins his pitch. “We’ll have a couple guests come up and sing with me. We’ll play all the music from the new CD, and we haven’t performed many of these songs before. We’ll probably do some things from upcoming projects: a Chet Baker tribute album, and a new, more groove-oriented album which I’ll hopefully start recording in September. It’ll be fun, we like to joke around a lot. We want the audience to take something home with them, and to reach a deeper chord than just a bar band.”


Summers is still riding the success of his Rat Pack Party for the Children’s Cottage. With a CD on the way, another in the works and numerous projects on the go, he is definitely keeping himself busy. Why doesn’t he just stick to playing old favorites, like many other jazz players are content to do?


“Those standards are intellectually and interestingly composed music, but still made to appeal to a large audience,” Summers concedes. “But as a composer, I felt we didn’t need another recording of “My Funny Valentine.” I thought, if you want to do that, great, but I felt I had more to offer.”


Johnny Summers at the Rosza Centre, May 24. Tickets $20 advance/ $25 at door (includes free CD). Tickets 276-4447. Doors 7:00, show 7:30.

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