At the drake un­der­ground

Exclaim! - - MUSIC SCHOOL: WHERE I PLAY - By Calum Slingerland

IT’S NO SMALL FEAT FOR ANY LIVE MU­SIC VENUE to draw a large crowd on a Mon­day evening, but even more so when the crowd has no idea what to ex­pect. That un­pre­dictable na­ture is the driv­ing force be­hind Prac­tice, a monthly live jam in Toronto at which some of the city’s most tal­ented play­ers hold mu­si­cal im­pro­vi­sa­tion para­mount.

Held at the Drake Un­der­ground, the in­ti­mate down­stairs venue of Toronto’s Drake Ho­tel, Prac­tice brings to­gether el­e­ments of both a base­ment jam ses­sion and an open mic night. A se­lect group of mu­si­cians be­gin im­pro­vis­ing from a rhythm or melody be­fore ad­di­tional in­stru­men­tal­ists and vo­cal­ists join in. Those in at­ten­dance aren’t only treated to some se­ri­ous chops, but are able see how mu­si­cal ideas come to­gether in real time, not by stu­dio magic.

“It’s so in­ter­est­ing to run an event where we could do the ex­act same thing we did last time, and it could fall a lot more flat, based on who comes out, how many play­ers have great en­ergy on­stage and how their chem­istry ends up be­ing,” founder Gau­rav Sawh­ney says. “It’s a tricky event. You can’t have a clear un­der­stand­ing of how each and ev­ery night will go, and you have to be okay with that.”

Sawh­ney, who also man­ages Cana­dian rap­per Shad, started Prac­tice in 2015, host­ing the first event at the Bur­dock in Toronto’s west end. The evening was ini­tially con­ducted as a dropin ses­sion, with or­ga­niz­ers reach­ing out to lo­cal per­form­ers they knew to come take part. As word spread amongst play­ers and ob­servers, the event quickly out­grew the space and found its cur­rent home at the Drake.

With a larger crop of play­ers sud­denly look­ing to get in on the im­pro­vi­sa­tional ac­tion, Sawh­ney and co-or­ga­niz­ers Jah­mal Pad­more, Gavin Whele­han, Ian Koi­ter and Matthew Progress have taken a more cu­ra­to­rial ap­proach to Prac­tice within the last year, choos­ing a core group to help fa­cil­i­tate the evening’s cast.

The Novem­ber in­stal­ment of Prac­tice placed a va­ri­ety of per­form­ers be­fore what Sawh­ney in­di­cated was the night’s largest draw yet. An all-fe­male trio of keys, tenor sax­o­phone and drums soon mor­phed into a full band to back five vo­cal­ists. A game seg­ment called Imitations saw a six-piece band flip Travis Scott’s “An­ti­dote” into some­thing de­cid­edly jazz­ier. A crowd mem­ber even stepped to the mic him­self to get some quick freestyle verses in be­fore the night was over.

Sawh­ney em­pha­sizes, “the hu­man con­nec­tion has be­come re­ally where we find the play­ers — peo­ple who come out, peo­ple we chat with, peo­ple who re­ally un­der­stand this isn’t about show­cas­ing your 16-minute gui­tar solo.” Those who have been a part of Prac­tice since its in­cep­tion have found other con­nec­tions strength­ened by the evening as well.

“When some­one says ‘jam,’ we think, ‘oh, it’s go­ing to be peo­ple play­ing ran­dom notes and there won’t be any form,’” drum­mer Sarah Thawer ex­plains. “With Prac­tice, there’s a struc­ture, ev­ery­one’s very at­ten­tive, so you’re not just play­ing what­ever, even though it’s im­pro­vised. You’re re­ally in the mo- ment and you’re in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple.”

“It’s re­ally help­ing build the Toronto mu­sic com­mu­nity by bring­ing peo­ple to­gether in a place where they can cre­ate and meet oth­ers to ex­pand and so­lid­ify our scene,” bas­sist Alex St. Kitts adds. “It in­spires me. It’s great to see younger peo­ple com­ing out that want to learn and con­trib­ute, and that makes me want to work harder as a mu­si­cian and artist.”

The grow­ing suc­cess of Prac­tice is a bright spot in a year that has seen a num­ber of Toronto’s smaller live mu­sic spa­ces close down due to ex­ter­nal re­de­vel­op­ment plans or in­creas­ing rent and op­er­at­ing costs. Sawh­ney hopes the event can be pointed to as an ex­am­ple of how tal­ented and sup­port­ive the city’s lo­cal scene can be — even on a Mon­day evening.

“I think what Prac­tice is show­ing is that there are peo­ple that love mu­sic, but it doesn’t have to be a song that’s on their stream­ing ser­vice,” he ex­plains. “It doesn’t have to be the [Air Canada Cen­tre], it doesn’t have to be a mas­sive venue or a mas­sive ticket. It’s a warm and welcoming en­vi­ron­ment where we’re here as an au­di­ence as much for the play­ers as the play­ers are here for us. I think that’s what keeps peo­ple com­ing back, too.”

“There’s a struc­ture, ev­ery­one’s very at­ten­tive, so you’re not just play­ing what­ever, even though it’s im­pro­vised. You’re re­ally in the mo­ment and you’re in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple.”

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