Joe Sorbara

“One, two, three, go.” And they’re off with their guitars, percussion instruments, keyboards and bicycles (well, just one bicycle so far), as Joe Sorbara launches another session of U of G’s Contemporary Music Ensemble (CME).

By semester’s end, his students will perform in a customary concert to be held at the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre. In between, Sorbara – sessional instructor, accomplished jazz drummer and Toronto music scene-maker – hopes those students learn something not just about improvisational music but about themselves.

This semester, 13 students and community members meet weekly in the MacKinnon Building to explore improvisation, composition, notation and “soundpainting,” or a kind of live composing sign language used by musicians, dancers, actors, poets and visual artists.

“What I try to do is get them to realize they are already musicians,” says Sorbara, who assumed leadership of the improv group when he joined U of G in 2007. “They already have musical knowledge. This is about them finding their approach.”

Take Ryan Turner. Now completing the fifth year of a psychology degree, he came to Sorbara three years ago for drum lessons (each semester, Sorbara also teaches a handful of students in U of G’s applied music program).

Already a rock drummer, Turner had toured and recorded before enrolling at U of G. But he knew he needed to go beyond his home-grown skills.

Besides those lessons, he ended up enrolling in the CME not once but three times. He’s tacked a music minor onto his program, and he’s now anchoring Crimes, a quartet of U of G musicians.

Referring to the improvisational class, Turner says, “That opened me up personally to a whole other world of music-making. Theory is important, but improvisation is on a whole other level, being able to write a 10-minute song on the spot, even with a rock band, to be able to come up with stuff on the fly…”

That’s partly Sorbara’s goal for his CME members. As in past years, most of this semester’s crop (including several returning students) are bringing along guitars, percussion instruments, a few basses. Some students join for academic credit; others come strictly to learn about improv.

This is improvisation writ large: witness the visual arts student who showed up last year with her bike. She wanted to see how many sounds she could coax from the bicycle. Sorbara was game.

“Everything is music,” says the instructor, who is composing for various Toronto ensembles. “When I’m doing the dishes, I’m hearing kids giggling in the background, hearing a conversation outside the window, the radio, water running, dishes clanking and a dog barking, and I’m hearing that as a piece of music.”

The other goal for the ensemble is something he picked up in private lessons with long-time great Jim Blackley, whom Sorbara calls “the Yoda of drum teachers.”

“He has a way of teaching that I try to achieve at Guelph. Jim doesn’t turn you into Jim. He teaches you how to play like you.”

That imperative – bring out the inner musician – appears to have stuck. Remarking on Sorbara’s “down-to-earthiness and sensibility,” Turner says, “He’s very good at sliding in and out of different frames of mind and different musical genres. He understood where I was coming from. He didn’t try to erase my rock background.”

Sorbara almost didn’t become a music instructor. “I wanted to be an architect.” His moment of truth occurred late one night in Guelph. Having grown up here, he attended John F. Ross C.V.I., where he met and played for teacher Bruce MacColl.

Sorbara had tried the clarinet in middle school but switched to drums. In high school, he played in various ensembles, including a stage band and concert bands – even a punk rock group that played downtown and at U of G. That mix suited this self-described “weirdo” whose portable player included Davis, Public Enemy, Frank Zappa and Janet Jackson.

By his senior year, he and his high school buddies were playing three or four gigs a week. Still set on making buildings, he was working on a design at home late one night.

Taking a break, he donned headphones and began tapping away on his drum set. He remembers pausing, sitting with sticks in hand and looking over at the unfinished design on his desk.  His thought: “I’m a musician, this is nonsense.”

That led him to York University’s music program. There, Sorbara learned from a long list of jazz musicians, including Barry Elmes, Don Thompson, Phil Dwyer, Frank Falco, Lorne Lofsky, Al Henderson and Glen Halls. Once he played with Oscar Peterson, then the university’s chancellor. “I remember being scared and wanted to show all the stuff I knew in one song.”

Scared – but safe. Having had a chance to play with several big names – others include Anthony Braxton, Scott Thomson, Ken Aldcroft and Evan Parker – he says, “They don’t act better than you, they don’t play over your head, but they hold the whole group in there somehow and elevate everyone.”

He graduated in 2000. After a stay at the Banff Centre, he returned to Toronto. He plays there with various groups, including Other Foot First, the Remnants Trio, the Convergence Ensemble and the AIMToronto (Association of Improvising Musicians) Orchestra.

Sorbara has recorded with numerous musicians – often on Barnyard Records, a jazz improvisation label in Toronto – and performed across Canada and in the United States and United Kingdom. He will likely tour this year to promote a new double CD release with Aldcroft’s Convergence Ensemble called Sneaky Pete/Slugs.

In Toronto, he also set out to help organize the city’s improvisational community, including connecting players with each other and with venues around town. He helped found AIMToronto in 2003, belongs to the Somewhere There collective, and has run the weekly Leftover Daylight series in west-end Toronto since 2003.

Having guest-taught at the University of Toronto and Humber College, he joined U of G’s School of Fine Art and Music in 2007. Last fall he began a master’s degree connecting literary theory and music through Guelph’s Improvisation, Community and Social Practice (ICASP) project.

For that, he’s working with Prof. Ajay Heble, School of English and Theatre Studies. Earlier, professor and student played several gigs together in Guelph. They have also teamed up to run community workshops given by improvising musicians through ICASP and the CME.

Heble calls his student “a deep thinker.” Recalling Sorbara’s reaction to a recent undergrad course, Heble says, “When he came out of that literary theory class, he was bubbling with ideas. He has a remarkable sense of energy and enthusiasm.”

Last year, Sorbara moved back to Guelph with his wife, Jill Parsons, and their three kids: Victoria, 7, and 19-month-old twins Nico and Reine.