In service to the sound

By Amy Reiswig, April 2014

Drummer, composer, educator and band leader Kelby MacNayr.

A jazz drummer inhabits a world of two unfortunate sets of jokes, from “That’s not a mistake, that’s jazz!” to “How do you know a drummer’s at the door? He never knows when to come in.” 

It requires an, ahem, offbeat sense of humour to be able to slough off and laugh at societal jabs at what you love. But no amount of joking could dampen the love Victoria percussionist Kelby MacNayr has for his calling.

“I like to do things.” It’s the shortest answer the expressive MacNayr gave during our two and a half hour interview at his Cook Street Village studio—the front room of the house where he was actually born. It’s a full room, the couch covered in percussion instruments, and so I sit on a cajon, sharing a plate of Wildfire cookies balanced on the drum kit. Some might say the room is cluttered; I say MacNayr is a master of making the most of what’s around him.

“I used to play the cupboard doors a lot,” he laughs, describing his early attraction to rhythm. He recalls those doors’ vibrations and timbre, reflecting a sensitivity to sound that’s not your usual childhood clang-bang on pots and pans. Being always attuned to what there is to learn—whether from a certain kind of creation or from a mentor or collaborator—coupled with a spirit eager to share, explains why this 34-year-old is one of Victoria’s beloved and busiest musicians.

Summarizing MacNayr’s artistic bio would need several pages of its own. A drummer, composer, educator and band leader who has studied at U of T, UVic and at workshops from LA to Banff to Cuba, MacNayr is proficient in jazz as well as world musics such as Cuban and West African. He performs locally, nationally and internationally and has collaborated with locals like Ian McDougall, Marc Atkinson, Roy Styffe, Pablo Cardenas, Anne Schaefer and Louise Rose as well as with Juno- and Grammy-winning musicians from New York, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. You can hear his work on over 50 recordings, including Harry Manx’s 2013 release Om Suite Ohm, and at festivals across Canada and the US. 

A faculty member of the Jazz Port Townsend Festival and at Idaho’s Lionel Hampton International Jazz Festival, the well-travelled MacNayr is also an instigator here at home: He’s founding artistic director of the Art of the Trio Series, U-Jams’ Jazz at the Gallery Series, the Night of the Cookers Series and concert coordinator for the Vocalismo series. While Victorians might have caught The Kelby MacNayr Trio at our own TD Victoria International Jazz Festival last summer, you can now bring his music home: another of his projects, The Kelby MacNayr Quintet, released a CD, The Measure of Light, in 2013.

Composed of all MacNayr originals (yes, he composes for other instruments) and recorded live at Hermann’s Jazz Club over two performances in February 2012, the album aims to capture the elusive quality of being in the moment. “Live is where the magic usually happens,” MacNayr enthuses, “because you’re connected to the energy of the audience. In the studio there can be the propensity to get too internal.”

The band is, in a way, also a kind of MacNayr composition. “Building a band is like making waffles. You need to know your ingredients,” the food-metaphor-loving MacNayr says. (He also says rhythm—which many westerners think of as just the back-up—is like the bread of a good sandwich: “You don’t know how important it is until you take it away.”) His quintet’s grade-A ingredients include saxophonist Phil Dwyer, trumpeter Daniel Lapp, pianist Miles Black and bassist Tom Wakeling, all renowned local musicians invited together specifically for their strengths and the way they interact with the music and each other. Noting things like Dwyer’s intensity and Lapp’s humanity and vulnerability, MacNayr admits “I like to be the least experienced guy on the bandstand.”

But MacNayr’s got plenty of experience of his own. He credits Esquimalt High’s grade 11 and 12 career jazz preparation program with breaking him into performing professional venues like the legendary Hermann’s and exposing him to committed teachers like Hugh Fraser. What MacNayr mentions most when referring to his mentors and influences, though—which he does often—is not so much their musical talent as the vitality, energy and big-picture vision they shared. “Hugh was talking to a high school band, but he talked about communal music-making,” MacNayr remembers, “about what you bring as a human being whether you have the chops or not.”

MacNayr has obviously got the chops, but his innate talent is further fired by being open to unexpected opportunity. During a one-year study stint in Toronto, for instance, he was most excited by accidentally discovering percussion ensemble NEXUS in, basically, a basement and experiencing their teaching in things like mallet-making, how to play gongs through tai chi, or that you play snare not from your wrists but from your heels. New awareness of physicality and sounding opened his mind and music in a way that some of the more academic and intellectually-driven classes hadn’t. 

“For example, the cymbal is just sitting there,” he says, pointing at the drum kit. “But it’s already making sound. How do you want to interact with it? What do you want to create?” With that curiosity and awe of sound comes a very personal development and purpose: “The things you love find expression,” MacNayr explains. “Jazz is a natural, at-home place for me because of other things I love: connecting with people, with an audience, and being able to improvise and be honest in the moment. I want to learn how you bring your message to the world—a greater purpose than proving you can play a certain rhythm.” 

MacNayr’s former teacher Sal Ferreras, an award-winning percussionist inducted into the British Columbia Entertainment Hall of Fame in 2003, recalls that sense of MacNayr’s purpose: “Kelby was a lot less concerned with academic achievement than he was with using his time in university to hone his original musical voice. He demonstrated an innate sense of touch that translated into patterns with no hard edges, rhythms held together by an invisible thread. That being said, he also practiced hard and put a lot of time in to find that technical bridge that would allow his musical language to communicate his innate and personal sense of time and rhythm. He has nurtured that natural gift to produce a very personal, mature and wonderful musical body of work.”

That perception and drive to explore the relationship between message and sound is also part of the exciting leap to being a band leader, as it means MacNayr can further delve into the question: What music do you most want to play? What stories would you tell, and how?

So whether it’s providing support to other musicians or writing his own music for his own band, MacNayr lets the music lead: “It’s a matter of getting rid of your ego, being in service to the sound in the moment.”


With mixing and post-production by Canadian icon Gino Vannelli, The Measure of Light is available at, on iTunes, CDBaby and in retail stores, including Victoria’s Ditch Records.

Amy Reiswig plays percussion with early folk group Banquo Folk Ensemble and has begun studying the art of Japanese taiko drumming.