Finding a New Way Home

From Tomaso Albinoni to Django Reinhardt, by way of Led Zeppelin? It’s all part of guitarist Marc Atkinson’s musical journey.

The 48-year-old Atkinson grew up on B.C.’s relatively remote Quadra Island, without YouTube, or even television, but with access to the major music source of the day, vinyl records.

“I didn’t know that humble peasants could actually play what we were hearing on the records of the gods. When I heard Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, it never even crossed my mind that I could actually play that,” he says.

“I never learned those songs when I was starting to play guitar. I just improvised and tried to emulate it, but I made up my own.”

Atkinson’s parents had given him an early grounding in classical music. At the age of five, he began pestering his mother to teach him piano. She put him off until he was six.

“I wasn’t one of those kids where you had so say, ‘Hey, you’d better go practise.’ It was more a thing I was drawn to on my own. I just wanted to play music all the time.”

His love affair with the guitar began when he was 13, and hasn’t abated since.

“If it feels good to pull it out on the strings of a guitar, then that’s what I’m after.”

Atkinson’s career path was set from the age of 16, when he confessed to his clergyman father that he wanted to be a musician. He was pleasantly surprised when his father said that’s what he would have done if he could do things over.

“So, that was encouraging. I pretty much always felt that pull. It was never much of a question. When I was 17, I just moved out and I’ve been playing music ever since.”

Despite three years of classical guitar training during his time at Vancouver Island University (then Malaspina College), Atkinson was never interested in sticking with a single genre.

“I like improvising too much. I’m very influenced by rock and roll, like Led Zeppelin. I like the energy, and kind of rocking,” he says.

“I listen to classical music all the time, and I’m influenced when I compose, but I would never stay on the path that I’ve been given. I like to stray and find a new way home every time.”

Over three decades, Atkinson has gained an international reputation as a genre-crosser, both with his own trio and with the eclectic folk/roots/jazz quintet, The Bills.

“Sometimes it’s bluegrass, sometimes it’s got a kind of ragtime feel, sometimes it has a gypsy kind of feel to it. I’m influenced by everyone from Chet Atkins to Pat Metheny to Django Reinhardt, and even to some of the new guitar players out there.”

It seems a far cry from Albinoni’s haunting Adagio for Organ and Strings in G minor (sometimes attributed to Remo Giazotto), which he remembers his mother playing on the church organ, and which he still performs with “a little twist”.

But it’s his father who gets credit for opening his ears to the possibilities of improvisation.

“He’s a great influence, because he played classical piano, but he had the ability to play old folk tunes and improvise as well.”

Atkinson’s musical bag of tricks gained a new element the day fiddler Daniel Lapp introduced him to Reinhardt’s music.

“I felt the excitement of ‘Hey, this is jazz for guitar players. I’m now playing jazz, completely fulfilled, on an acoustic guitar, sitting at a kitchen table with some great players.’ I was hooked,” he says.

He and Lapp went on to learn two or three of Reinhardt’s albums top-to-bottom, and occasionally play his music in a band called Caravan.

“We’re kind of moved by the swinging dance, high-energy feeling of that music. We don’t get so into the concert side of it, where it’s all about working out fancy arrangements. It’s more about getting into the groove and the spirit of it.”

Atkinson says discovering Django was a turning point for him, as well as for the groups with which he’s most associated.

“The Bills and the trio were both formed out of a love for this acoustic-driven music. I still play mandolin in the group. That’s more of a bluegrass singer-songwriter band. It had gypsy ties, too, but the trio’s all about the guitar.”

The Marc Atkinson Trio will be at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, March 26 for a Jazz on the Wing concert, beginning at 7:30 p.m. It will also perform in Dawson City on March 24 and Haines Junction on March 25.

Besides “some interpretations of Chopin, some Duke Ellington,” the musical fare will mainly consist of originals drawn from the group’s four CDS.

The trio includes fellow Hornby Islander Brett Martens on rhythm guitar and Atkinson’s long-time collaborator Scott White on upright bass.

“Twenty years ago, we celebrated our 1,000th gig together, so we’re very comfortable playing music together. He knows every little thing about my playing and I know everything about his. It’s a good chance to hear a real virtuoso on the bass.”

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