Musical Connections

Stephen Pederson - The Halifax Herald Ltd.

January 18, 2005

The most telling fact about pianist Kim Dunn is that he played piano in the "house band" at the Metro Centre for the Asian Relief concert last Tuesday. He hardly ever got off the stage. 
It's not something just any professional keyboard player could do. The concert took shape so fast that what with sound checks on the Sunday previous as well as on the day of performance, little time could be spent rehearsing. 
No problem. In the 15 years since he graduated from the jazz studies program at St. F.X., Dunn has backed up nearly every performer who stepped up to the mike that night. "It was fairly stress free," he said the day after in a local coffee shop. "I already knew their music." 
Being prepared to play is what Dunn calls "doing my homework." He's been doing it ever since he was a kid in North Sydney where his whole family was musical, and his elder brother Paul already played in a professional band. 
He listened to music for hours each day, teaching himself how to transcribe solos by Steely Dan. 
He and Bruce Guthro hung out together at high school. 
But Dunn had no idea Guthro was a singer-songwriter in waiting. "Bruce is a buddy," he said. "We go back to high school days, holding up the walls in Memorial High School in Sydney Mines." 
As a professional, Dunn has performed with Guthro as well as Jimmy Rankin and a host of other Maritime headliners, including, most recently, George Canyon. But he only began playing in bands during his Grade 12 year. 
"My brother Paul was in a local band when he got a call from Matt Minglewood. I moved in to his local band, much to my mom's chagrin. My parents were delighted three or four years later when I went to St. F.X." 
Playing the piano and holding up walls share the same vibe. It has to do with people. Whenever he talks about his professional career Dunn talks about communication, and about connections. He's always making them, they have always helped him. For Dunn, making music and making friends are not two things but one. They share the same set of feelings. 
" After schooling, after doing my homework, I rely on the soul (of music)," he said. "After basically learning the stuff, getting it under the fingertips, it all comes down to a feel. But you have to leave a shadow of doubt. It's fun to go on stage - scary sometimes - but you have to leave something for the moment." 
Of all the headliners Dunn has backed up, the dearest to his heart is Rita MacNeil. He's been playing in her band for four or five years now. "She has a lot of soul - I've learned a lot from her. She's so supportive. She let me sing on her album," he said. 
Dunn wants to develop the vocal side of his music-making. 
Together with MacNeil's guitar player, Chris Corrigan, Dunn co-produced MacNeil's latest album, Blue Roses. 
For a pianist of Dunn's versatility, soul is not the only thing he has learned to rely on. Those early years transcribing Steely Dan solos have not been wasted. Last year when he was hired to play a gig with singer-songwriter Susan Crowe in the Neptune Studio Theatre, he didn't know her music until after sitting down with her record. "I had to get inside what her pianist does on the CD," he said. 
" Whatever style is thrown at me (by an artist), I have to throw it back at them. A lot has been thrown at me. I played with Salsa Picante. I had to woodshed that Latin stuff with the left hand - Danny Martin helped me by covering the bass. 
" I love to play jazz and I've had opportunities. I played with (saxophonist) Chris Mitchell on his Collage album. Dave Burton (drums) is on it too. That was the early '90s. Chris took us with him to the Montreal International Jazz Festival." 
Curiously, though, despite being a Cape Bretoner, Dunn has largely left Celtic music alone. It's a style he's never really dug into, he said, though he got together with Natalie MacMaster one afternoon, "just to see how I would do. 
" We focused on a couple of tunes and I even got inside them a little bit. I do enjoy the music, it's so riff-oriented. I had been listening to Oscar Peterson at the time, so I put a little Oscar in there." 
Dunn moved from Antigonish to Halifax after he graduated from St. F.X. It wasn't long before he made connections and started earning enough money to pay the bills, but it was tough to get established. He worked a lot of piano bars - the Holiday Inn and the old Chateau Halifax. 
But then the calls started to come in. The word about his versatility had begun to get around. One was from Walter Borden who wanted Dunn to play in a production of God's Trombones when he played it in the Round Church. 
At one rehearsal, Borden, dissatisfied with the way the mostly black performers were working, gave the cast and musicians what Dunn calls something between a chewing out and a pep talk. God's Trombones is a collection of sermons written by James Weldon Johnson and based on the fiery style of old country preachers in the deep South. 
" 'You guys are black . . .' he began. I started to tiptoe out of the room. Walter looked at me and said, 'Child - you is black enough!' " 
Dunn had "a semi-regular gig" with Matt Minglewood for several years. But not too long after working his way into the Halifax scene, he got a call to work with rising country star Joan Kennedy. Soon he joined her band and for two seasons acted as music director on her ATV series. 
Among the many styles that Dunn throws back at the artists who engage him, he doesn't play much rock. 
But working the blues with Morgan Davis is one of his favourite gigs. And he enjoyed the British-influenced innovations of MIR for awhile (which made the Asia Relief Concert easier since MIR was the basis of the house band). 
" Those guys are so creative," Dunn said. "It's too bad that Asif (Illyas) woke up one morning and decided to learn piano. He does a great job of it. Getting back together with those guys was a real blast." 
Like many experienced pros on the Maritime music scene, Dunn is branching out these days. He really likes producing records. 
" It's a chance to call the shots," he said, "to bring everyone together, develop a vision of the sound, arrange the music, or pick someone to do it. But you have to get out from behind your instrument. After you do your thing it's enjoyable to sit down in the control room and make suggestions. You are involved in the whole creative process from the ground level." 
He's also writing songs and wants to record his own CD. He loves back-up vocals but it may not be long before we hear him singing out front. 
Dunn is unusually calm as he talks about music, though he says he isn't always that way. "My dad had a gentle spirit," he said. (His father passed away just before Christmas). "His demeanor was laid back, gentle in his approach to things. I like to be like that too. 
" Being a freelance player - so much of it is your communication skills. At St. F.X. one summer, during a six-week session of nothing but playing and listening to very substantial people like Dave Liebman, I was as much or more impressed by the way they communicated, by the respect they had for one another - not a hint of attitude. It's a way I like to be. 
" I'm not the person to take the bull by the horns - I probably need a good boot in the rear end sometimes. But I've been fortunate in having good people to work with." 
Those good people are fortunate to have Kim Dunn to work with as well. In 2003 the ECMAs recognized him with a Musician's Special Achievement Award, a long overdue recognition of the work Dunn and other players in the band do to keep the stars in orbit.