When Scottish-Canadian tenor John McDermott arrives at the Mary Winspear Centre on Oct. 14, he will be bringing the classic Celtic songs like “Danny Boy” that he is known for, but this time he’s bringing some jazz standards off his latest album. While sitting in gridlocked Toronto traffic, McDermott told the Peninsula News Review that he was hesitant at first when Montreal-based multi-instrumentalist Guido Basso tried to convince him.
“Guys, when people think of jazz they do not think: John McDermott!”
But, McDermott remembered that some old friends who have since passed loved the song “Some Other Time” from the Leonard Bernstein musical On The Town, and after some more convincing he picked six jazz standards (his bandmates picked the rest) and recorded them. The resulting album, Some Other Time, had its launch concert in Toronto just this Wednesday, featuring the “all-star” band that helped him record the album, which includes Basso, Dave Young (a frequent collaborator of Oscar Peterson’s), Robin Botos, Davide Direnzo and Reg Schwager.
By now, his biography is well-known. A former circulation rep for the Toronto Sun, McDermott had sung occasionally at company Christmas parties or at hockey games.
Conrad Black, who owned the Sun at the time, heard him sing at one of those Christmas parties and funded his first record, where he recorded 12 songs for his parents (one for each of the McDermott children), as a 50th anniversary gift. It was released with little fanfare, but once CBC host Peter Gzowski played three tracks on his show Morningside, the album started flying off the shelves.
He was then featured on The National with Peter Mansbridge and the public attention finally convinced him to quit his day job and start touring. He opened for The Chieftains, was part of the Irish Tenors, sang at the Democratic National Convention in 1996, filled in for Harry Belafonte at the Royal Theatre in Victoria and ended up touring throughout Canada and Greece with Nana Mouskouri. He now tours every year from May to October, with a short rest in January.
This year’s tour will take him to B.C., Alberta, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Ontario. McDermott will be bringing long-time collaborators Jason Fowler, who has played guitar with McDermott for over 15 years, and Mark Lalama, a prolific keyboardist in recording sessions and on tour.
The Island tour dates are too closely packed this year to do much sightseeing, but he typically tries to take in each new place and find new restaurants.
“When we get to the Island we like to take it easy … we have our favourite coffee shops here in the West. One of my favourite spots is Cathedral Grove. We like to do that drive, maybe head up to Tofino.”
The days of the tour bus are behind him now, so the musicians rent a car and the gear travels in another. Each musician is charged with finding a place to eat, so “if dinner’s crap then you gotta live by that!”
One reason for McDermott’s popularity is his way of connecting with his audiences through storytelling, which he said he got from his father, who loved to sing.
“He would tell you who wrote it if he knew, when they wrote it, why they wrote it, what it was about. And then he’d sing, and I think that washed off on me. And it’s just become, it’s really become an intricate part of the show now to talk about this next piece and what it means to me and what have you.”
His father was a huge influence, and a big reason why he supports veterans’ causes through his foundation, McDermott House Canada. It is currently raising $3.6 million to renovate and expand the palliative care unit in the veterans’ wing of Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.
“I’ve been doing a show there every Christmas for the veterans for the last 20 years. My father asked me if I was ever successful to try and give back to the veterans and give back to the country and I think doing what we’re doing with McDermott House as a foundation is the right thing to do.”
Once that is done, he plans to raise awareness and funds for hospice care and PTSD across the country with another concert tour.
Next year will mark McDermott’s 25th year of touring, but he isn’t finished yet.
“Naw, I’m not getting tired. It’s still fun. As long as it’s still fun and innovative, then we’ll keep going. But I’m not tired of it. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.”