When a band calls itself Peripheral Vision, you might be excused for thinking it’s a rock group, or possibly a folk/roots, or even bluegrass ensemble. But you’d be wrong. What the Toronto-based quartet serves up is a musical bouillabaisse with 1960s jazz at its heart, but with rock, classical, avant-garde and improvisational flavours to spice things up.
“We call ourselves modern jazz in the largest umbrella,” bassist Michael Herring explained.
“We like to say our music is jazz you can tap your toes to, that it’s energetic and groovy […] to be able to engage with both jazz listeners and non-jazz listeners.”
As co-leaders of Peripheral Vision, Herring and guitarist Don Scott compose all the tunes the quartet plays, although the name is meant to reflect a collaborative approach to making music that involves all four players.
Herring, Scott, and tenor sax player Trevor Hogg first met as students in the jazz program at University of Toronto in the late 1990s.
Nick Fraser wasn’t in that program, but quickly became part of their musical scene, playing drums in separate bands Herring and Scott were each leading. After about a decade of playing in each other’s bands, they decided to join forces.
“When we wanted to start this new project, we were looking for a horn player. We did one test gig with Trevor, and we knew right away we really enjoyed the working feel with the four of us,” Herring said.
Since its formation in 2008, the group has toured extensively and put together four albums so far, without any changes in personnel. That’s something Herring’s co-leader believes contributes to the group’s success.
“Part of what’s good about this band is that we’ve had a long time to develop our interactions with each other, and we take all these non-musical cues, or musical cues that we’ve learned over the years from each other,” Scott said.
“Something that’s very important to us is that we develop a sound with each other over time, rather than a ‘who’s available’ sort of thing. If the four of us aren’t available for an important gig, we often wouldn’t do it.”
The glue keeping Peripheral Vision together is the shared joy of playing the music, Herring added.
“We have a kind of group telepathy that’s grown out of the fun of doing it together, and shared influences and goals that we’ve had, and how we’ve wanted to take the music we write and develop it together.”
When the group is on tour, “there’s a lot of listening to things together in the van,” he added.
“Music and comedy, jazz and not-jazz, and a lot of philosophy-of-life kind of conversations. I’ve heard of bands where everyone puts on their own headphones, and everyone sits in the van in silence. We’re the opposite of that kind of band.”
Its seems to be paying off. As well as capturing the Galaxie Rising Star honours at the Montréal Jazz Festival, the quartet earned a Juno nomination in 2016 for its third compilation, Sheer Tyranny of Will.
If that album title has a familiar ring, it’s no coincidence.
“It’s a quote from a Norm Macdonald comedy bit. It’s from his album, Me Doing Standup, and he’s talking about someone with the energy to light up a room with their sheer tyranny of will,” Herring explained.
“There’s some weird song titles on our albums; some of them are kind of winks to things we like to talk about in the tour van.”
Comedy – especially the kind with a philosophical edge – is familiar territory for the group, as may be readily seen on its latest CD, More Songs About Error and Shame, which just arrived from the manufacturer in mid-February.
According to Scott, one of the song titles, “And the Metaphysical Concept of Shame”, is a quote from the edgy British comedian Stewart Lee.
Herring picked up the narrative.
“Trevor Hogg, our saxophonist, is our comedy expert. He brings in the obscure comedy to us. I would be lying if I said I discovered this stuff myself, but I’ve become a serious nerd for Stewart Lee,” he said.
“He is a humongous fan of improvised music, and talked about it in his comedy. Interestingly, he just put out an album with a British free jazz band, so there’s a certain crossover in these worlds that we’re trying to find.”
Peripheral Vision will introduce its fourth CD next month with a Western-Canadian tour starting March 2 at the Yardbird Suite in Edmonton, Alberta.
The tour includes the group’s first-ever trip to Whitehorse, for a Jazz on the Wing outing at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, March 11 at 7:30 p.m.
As well as selections from the new CD, Herring said he and Scott have “15 or so new tunes that are being prepared to record soon, so we’ll be mixing those in heavily. When two of us are doing the writing, it seems to generate lots of new material.”