In Conversation with Jack Malmstrom, Part II

“Jazz washes away the dust of every day life.”
– Art Blakey

Jack Malmstrom is the swing clarinetist who put together Jack’s Cats, a vintage-style jazz sextet based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, that also includes keyboardist Gordon Fader, guitarist Dylan Quinn, bassist Mark Roberts, drummer Dave Skinner, and vocalist Kitty Farmer. The project, which quite successfully revives the “pre-bland” portion of the big band era in music, has also attracted the participation of some of the best jazz names in Atlantic Canada, including Holly Arsenault, Adam Fine, Mike Lee, and Kevin Cox.

Their debut album, Low Down Dirty Swing, comprised of both matchless instrumental arrangements, standard covers, and original tunes, will be out this month. Recently, bandleader Jack took the time to talk to Wanda Waterman about about fans, rehearsals, and why vinyl. (Read the first part of this article here.)

The Typical Cats Fan
So who comes to a Jack’s Cats gig? All and sundry including university students, mid-career professionals, and seniors.

“Our audience is extremely broad,” says Jack, “so defining the typical Cats fan is a challenge?but admittedly, a nice one to have.”

Audiences usually share an awareness of vintage jazz: “It’s satisfying to be told by folks who know music, ?You’ve captured the sound!? and exciting when people ask “What is that You’re playing? I’ve never heard anything like it before.? Some just like to listen; a surprising number can’t help but dance. I guess the common thread is our fans enjoy the now-a-days uncommon experience of swingy rhythms played live with joy and sensitivity for the style.”

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, and Some Blues
“One half of our repertoire is our versions of standards folks know and love, the other half is forgotten period gems we like to discover and revive, and the third half (laughs) is made up of our original tunes, written in a period style.

“We try to maintain a high degree of variety and entertainment in our act, so I select?or write?tunes that move the action of our performance forward. It’s not as plot-driven as a musical, but more carefully planned than a random collection of favorite songs. I read once that Ellington was a master at selecting and arranging music to showcase the strengths of his various players? so I try to do that.”

Prep Time
Jack likes to ensure that the band is in a continual state of improvement and that the rough bits get smoothed out before they hit the stage.

“We rarely play a song through from start to finish with all solos. We focus on the upcoming performance and drill on intros or endings, tricky passages, and fixing parts that went awry at the last gig.

“Things loosen up a bit when I introduce a new tune. I’ll have a clear idea of how it needs to sound but always request input, corrections, and suggestions from the band.

“Their skill in so many areas is so much greater than mine,” he humbly adds. “One of the most satisfying aspects for me is the high degree of professionalism in our group. It makes preparation incredibly efficient.”

An Elegant Vinyl Debut
Our original compositions (there are six) certainly make the collection unique. We’ve always felt that there aren’t enough opportunities to enjoy small-combo swing live? so It’s natural for our album to be a live recording.

“The band came to the performance space, warmed up, and ran through a few tunes. We let the audience in and did a show. Then we just edited down the best of the material we’d captured to create an honest representation of what you’ll hear at one of our gigs.

“Another decision, which felt obvious once it was made, was our choice to offer the album as an LP record. we’re grateful that vinyl is coming back because It’s so appropriate to our sound? like classical orchestras that perform on period instruments.

Conditions of the Creative Life
“When searching for inspiration, It’s always best to go to the original sources rather than derivative work. Examining other artistic efforts with an almost academically critical eye (rather than just lazily consuming the stuff) is important. I’m constantly immersing myself in past pop-culture, and I enjoy the first-rate books of James M. Cain and second-rate film noir by anyone. Try as I might, I have yet to find a clarinetist that swings harder than Benny Goodman?but I’m still looking.

It’s All About the Joy
“I think the most remarkable thing about Jack’s Cats is the huge amount of joy associated with the whole project. Of course I’m having a great time, but It’s quite something to see our career musicians (some of whom have played professionally for 50 years!) smiling like kids at Christmas when they’re on stage. The audience picks it up and passes it around the room. We really wanted to share that joy with our listeners.”