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Behind The Curtain: Jim Casson

By Erin McCallum.

Experience, education, and evolution are three components that appear to be woven into the careers of many artists who have made an impact via their musical contributions to the Canadian Blues Collective. As someone who has been objectively investigating the careers and biographies of artists who are at “the core” of the Canadian Blues landscape for over 25 years, drummer/percussionist Jim Casson is one of the strongest examples that come to mind when considering the aforementioned claim. His career as a drummer/percussionist, writer, and arranger is ongoing, and his biography is accessible to those who are interested in learning what Jim Casson does, and his professional record. As is the case with all instalments of "Behind The Curtain”, it is highly encouraged for readers to go beyond the confines of this column and seek more information about the featured artist. The purpose of this article is to search within the biography, offering readers insight and information about the artists themselves, their processes, and what led them to their accomplishments to date. The most appropriate way to accomplish that is to have an in-depth understanding of the featured artist’s career, and then having a direct conversation in hopes of providing something exclusive. For this reason, the biographical content included in each edition of this column is to establish a sense of the featured artist’s work, lending credibility to this particular investigation. For a more complete account of Jim Casson’s contributions, it makes sense to continue the investigation via other platforms.

To give readers a sense of how expansive Jim Casson’s career is currently, it makes sense to mention that in addition to being a highly sought-after drummer and percussionist for both live and studio performance, he is also actively teaching, recording, arranging, and writing in his private studio. He also currently books and promotes events in the Niagara region (notably, the Fonthill Peace Park Summer Concert Series and the Pelham Art Festival). He actively performs with a few – literally - of Canada’s top Blues acts, and a good handful of other bands that are identified within the Blues music community as acclaimed. In addition to the previously mentioned, Casson also composes, arranges, records, and releases his own original work – his most recognizable independent work has been released under the moniker The Reluctant Cosmonaut (which has and continues to garner radio success, taking a regular spot on the Radio Report Charts). Further still, Casson remains one of the most sought-after drummers/percussionists on the scene. The list of current endeavours for Jim Casson runs longer, however, this information is enough to establish the fact that his involvement in Canadian music landscape is significant and versatile.

To provide a foundational knowledge of Casson’s biographical record, it should be mentioned that his academic studies include jazz, jazz fusion (drums), composing and arranging, and a foundational knowledge of piano (Mohawk, Hamilton). Casson studied formally with the intention of being a studio musician, however, by his account, the emergence of the drum machine at the time of his graduation forced him to explore the live scene. It should be noted to readers that Casson is a versatile drummer/percussionist who has played multiple genres effectively (Jazz, Jazz fusion, Funk, Progressive Rock, Blues, and more), and that his work has been acknowledged in a versatile way – he boasts a Jazz Report Award, a Maple Blues Award (as Drummer of the Year 2022, and with Downchild in 2005 for Recording of the Year), JUNO nominations, a Genie Award (for original score) nomination, his work has been considered for a Polaris Music Prize (2022), and he has a slew of Niagara Music Awards nominations for his work on different projects. This is an incomplete account of Jim Casson's biography, however, it does provide readers with enough information to lend credibility to this particular investigation.

In conversation with Casson, knowing how diverse his skillset and experience is with multiple genres, the first curiosity was to find out what his general approach and philosophy is to effective drumming/percussion. His response:

“Honouring the song, and playing the song. Play the song, and don’t just play the drums. That is a lesson I learned the hard way. I came out of college knowing all kinds of “stuff” on the drums, and I wanted to play it all. Back then, I was playing too much, and it even got me fired. If you play from the heart and not so much the head - that’s part of honouring the song and playing what it needs - you’ll play more effectively.”

Casson’s words are in lockstep with his thoughts on what it takes to be an exceptional drummer too. When asked to provide his opinion about the topic, his response provided proof that he puts words to practise in his own playing:

“What makes an exceptional drummer is playing the right thing at the right time. It’s not about “flash”. It’s about emotion and heart – and being one with the music.”

During this portion of the interview, Casson and I discussed some of the lessons he’s learned over the course of his career that have reinforced his philosophy. One that comes to mind that will remain unquoted in this feature is one where he witnessed the difference between a drummer who played the song and one who played strictly the instrument. It was a back-to-back guest appearance of two notable drummers at a gig where Casson was serving as the regular drummer in the house band. Casson recalls witnessing it as a lesson in humility, and an experience that informed his decision to take the path of serving the song above simply playing the instrument. It makes sense to include this portion of the conversation, because it serves as further evidence that Casson’s experience and education (in this instance the education came via experience, and it’s fair to suggest it was part of his evolution too) have informed his philosophies previously mentioned.

Knowing that Casson has a versatile skillset, and experiences that have shaped him into his current philosophies with respect to drumming/percussion, it makes sense to discover, in conversation, what exactly he wants people to know most about him in that role. When asked, his answer falls directly in line with the theme that has been unfolding throughout this investigation: experience and education lend to the evolution of Jim Casson’s current stylings.

“I’m always trying to redefine my art in some way. By that, I mean that I’m always trying to refine my approach, and I’m always looking for ways to find a new sound. I want to be a musical chameleon – if I’m playing in a Blues band, I want you to think I play nothing but the Blues. It’s the same thing with Country, Rock, Funk, or whatever genre of music is the focus. Embracing the song and what it needs is what serves the song.”

There was a lot more to the conversation with Jim Casson about his musical history, current projects, and stories from the road that will remain “off the record’, however, it is worth noting that the topics covered that did not make it to this particular feature all followed the aforementioned theme that emerged while taking a look behind the curtain.

As this edition of “Behind the Curtain” draws to a close, I trust that readers of all varieties have gained something more about the artist of mention, and it inspires them to investigate further. Every artist featured in this column has a biographical foundation that cannot be covered here, so it is always encouraged to find out about the music and career that substantiates the credibility in these conversations. In Jim Casson’s case, his story might best be told from the stage. This article can be found each month as a regular contribution via the Sound Café with the intention of providing a deeper insight into the Canadian Blues artists who are at the core of the Blues music Collective.

Photograph by Nick Harding:

Touring blues musician, Erin McCallum's formal post-secondary education was in media studies (news, radio), graduating from Humber College in Ontario, she went on to be mentored by Canadian News Hall of Fame inductee, Robert Holiday, and she is a regularly published writer in music and investigative journalism, having focused on music for the last six years. Erin has an exclusive monthly column in The Sound Cafe featuring musicians and industry professionals from across Canada who work predominantly in the Blues & Roots genres.

Erin McCallum. Big Voice. Big Sound.

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