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Not your average jazz

At first glance, professor Tim Crofts may seem like your average Dalhousie music professor. But what many people don’t know is that he is actually a reincarnation of the late, great jazz pianist Thelonious Monk.

Okay, that might be a stretch. But he is a cool guy who, like Monk, has a completely original vision of jazz composition. He is unique. He is focused. Most importantly, he is courageous, and certainly not afraid of taking risks.

“I’m always trying to explore all the different elements and push myself to the limits,” says Crofts, 34.

“Every time I play I want to discover something new.”

The pianist’s upcoming show at the Paragon Theatre, Upstream 6.0: Pushing Jazz To Its Limits, is sure to be anything but old news. The performance, scheduled for Oct. 11, will be mostly improvised, engaging the audience in spontaneous music.

Each member of Crofts’ sextet brings a key element to the show’s jazz fusion. The ensemble includes Rick Waychesko on trumpet, Paul Cram on tenor sax, Geordie Haley on guitar, Adam Linson on bass, and Mark Adam on drums. Because the Paragon does not have a piano, Crofts will be experimenting with electronics, analog synthesizers, and Kaoss pads, among other instruments.

“I don’t really see myself as a pianist,” says the Yarmouth-born professor, who also plays guitar and flute.

“I mean, I’m a pretty good pianist. But ultimately I see myself as a musician, and the piano is my tool to create that music.”

From influences ranging from Bach and Beethoven, to Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, to Jimi Hendrix and the Wu Tang Clan, Crofts sees himself as a “fairly global musician.”

But Crofts did not always know he would end up working with music. While growing up in Halifax, he began learning piano at age seven, but quit it just two years later. After graduating from Queen Elizabeth High he decided to enroll in Dalhousie’s science program. Not until he took a year abroad in Europe did he realize piano was his true calling.

Upon returning to Halifax at age 19, he took up piano lessons again and switched his major to composition. He then obtained his Masters of Music in Contemporary Improvisation from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He has been teaching music courses including The History of Rock n’ Roll and The History of Jazz at Dalhousie for the past three years. This year he is also teaching four other music courses at Nova Scotia Community College. All of this on top of his music career.

There is a long tradition of musicians who perform music, create music and teach music. Crofts is one of those musicians. He acknowledges that performing on stage and performing in a classroom is “exactly the same thing.” Both his music and his lectures are largely improvised. In each setting, his main priority is to engage his audience and broaden their horizons.

Crofts also likes to push his own boundaries to the edge, made clear by his eccentric practice of placing non-traditional objects in the piano to change its resonance.

“One day my doorknob fell off,” he says. “So I put it in my piano.”

Inspired by composer John Cage, Crofts has used everything from billiard balls to drumsticks with his piano – all in the pursuit of musical exploration.

“It’s healthy to embrace things that you can’t understand,” he says.

He encourages everyone – university students in particular – to have the courage to leave their comfort zones and experience music they don’t know anything about. He believes that almost anybody can listen to his music and get something out of it in an experiential sense.

“There was a time when experimental music of many kinds was really supported by university students,” he says. “It would be nice to see more come out.”

Crofts attributes many young people’s reluctance to jazz due to their association of the genre being “dinner music” or “music that you relax to.” He, on the other hand, sees the music as something that is not genre specific, as an entity that has the capability to “reveal amazing things to you.”

Crofts insists it’s not about “super-trained individuals in the ivory tower,” but instead about building a culture and community of the music. He stresses the need for people to become involved in the process, to not be afraid, and to take risks.

“It’s all-consuming,” he says. “You have to surrender yourself to the music.”

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