Nanaimo drummer James McRae is coming to Parksville with Gordon Lightfoot music re-imagined as improvisational jazz, for a concert at the MAC on Sunday, March 31. He’ll be joined by Ken Lister on bass, Nico Rhodes on piano and singer Jennifer Scott. — Submitted by James McRae

Jazz take on Lightfoot music coming to Parksville

Nanaimo drummer puts together CD of new arrangements on classic Canadian music

The music of one of Canada’s greatest songwriters has been re-born as jazz, and it’s coming to Parksville.

It was about three years ago when Nanaimo drummer James McRae realized he could imagine a Gordon Lightfoot song that popped into his head as a jazz tune.

So, with the help of musicians such as Nico Rhodes, Marisha Devoin, Patrick Courtin and Marty Steel, McRae took songs including Beautiful, For Lovin’ Me and Sundown and gave them life re-imagined in jazz. The famous Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald is re-arranged for McRae by Courtin.

McRae brought the music to Courtenay, Victoria, Gabriola and Chemainus for shows in March of last year.

Since then he’s come out with a CD called Impressions of Lightfoot with performers Miles Black, Jennifer Scott and Rene Worst, and he’s doing another four-concert Island tour this March, this time with a Parksville performance on Sunday, March 31, at the MAC (McMillan Arts Centre at 133 McMillan St.).

He said the whole project is part of his own journey as a musician.

“I’m a drummer. Most people, when they think about drummers, they don’t think about someone who’s also an arranger,” he said.

“I’ve never actually taken someone else’s song and tried to arrange it in more of a jazz context. And that was really what’s unique about this for me… is learning about what that means — taking someone else’s musical ideas and playing around with them… re-shape it in some way that felt meaningful to me.”

This process can be particularly tricky when you’re dealing with source material that is already so meaningful to so many people, he said.

“He’s always been someone who’s been acknowledged as one of Canada’s greatest songwriters,” McRae said of Lightfoot.

“I think Gordon Lightfoot is an amazing songwriter. The melodies that he wrote are really, really strong and enduring, and the words in the stories that he told with his lyrics are also really memorable,” he said, adding that he hopes that fans of Lightfoot — and Lightfoot himself — would enjoy what McRae is doing with his music.

Honouring Lightfoot’s legacy is important to the band in general, said McRae.

Vancouver vocalist Jennifer Scott — the singer featured on the CD and who will be performing with McRae in Parksville — grew up singing Lightfoot songs with her sister, McRae said.

“She’s got a real affinity for this music, and I think everyone is really interest in honouring Gordon Lightfoot and what he represents in Canadian music,” said McRae. “But it’s a different spin on it.”

The response from audiences seems to confirm that intention, McRae said. “I think everywhere, people really, really dug (the music),” he said, adding that he’s happy to offer concert-goers a CD to buy this time.

Performing with McRae in Parksville are Rhodes on piano and Ken Lister on bass.

The Parksville concert takes place on Saturday, March 31, at 7 p.m. at the MAC. Tickets are $20 or $18 for OCAC members. Tickets are available at or at the MAC offices.

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