"20 people on stage doing a bunch of weird loud jazz."

Saxophonist Mike WT Allen on his Space Elevator band’s Infidels show at the Pearl Jan. 21

"20 people on stage doing a bunch of weird loud jazz."
Photo from the artist's website

Saxophonist Mike WT Allen's Space Elevator show at the Pearl on January 21, 2024 is the biggest show booked to date under The Infidels banner. It's the first show that's explicitly by and for the Vancouver jazz community that's happening at the Pearl venue on Granville Street, most recently known as Venue under previous management.

Space Elevator, which I first heard when it started as a graduation recital at Capilano University, is a progressive big band that Mike describes as "loud jazz".

I talked to Mike about the upcoming show on January 4, 2024. I also asked him about one more of the many other things that he does: the monthly Gander Jam at LanaLou's. Our interview is below, edited lightly for clarity.

Find tickets for the Jan, 21 Space Elevator show here; playing an opening set is the duo of Chris Corsano and Aram Bajakian. The next Gander Jam is Feb. 7 starting at 8:00 PM.

WILL: You did a Space Elevator show last year in March, and it was at the Rio. What's still with you from that now?

MIKE: That concert was mostly focused on the amazing talent that we have in Vancouver; I play with a bunch of different people all the time – I've just met so many incredible musicians through the years – and I wanted to shine a spotlight on some of my favourite local artists. We had Raincity, Dawn Pemberton, The Hallowed Catharsis, Five Alarm Funk, The History of Gunpowder, all of these cool local bands that I'm a fan of. I wanted to play their music with my band [...] most of the focus for that show in March was on the other musicians. We did some Space Elevator compositions, some of my weird jazz stuff, but it was mostly the other people.

This concert, I'm just selfishly putting the spotlight back on me. It's going to be a bunch of our weird, loud, complicated jazz. We are bringing back Missy D, she's going to come sing a song with us [...] I think a lot of people liked our version of her song "Yes Mama". We're going to do that again, because I love it. But otherwise, it's going to be a bunch of loud jazz.

WILL: That's excellent. And that's sounds familiar to me, because I remembered this project has been around for you for a while, and it's gone through a big evolution. You've had it for many years ,and it's been a feature thing that you've done over the past decade or so here.

MIKE: Yeah. Running a big band is a ton of work [...] I've got 20 people in my band, so all the work that normally goes into a smaller band is three or four times [that] for this band. For the first concert back in 2016, I was working, working, working: not sleeping very much, up all night finishing charts and scores and parts, doing all this work.

I was living with my partner at the time and every day that she would come home from work, I had a new biggest fear about this first concert with space elevator. I said, 'Man, maybe no one's gonna show up, maybe it's just gonna be an empty room.' And my girlfriend said, 'It's gonna be fine. Don't worry!' And then the next day she comes home, I say, 'Okay. I have a new fear: what if everybody shows up and they all hate it?' And she goes, 'I'm sure people are gonna love it. Don't worry!' I'm very happy that [...] the first concert was amazing. We were at the Fox Cabaret and there were 200 people there, for a weird big band concert, which is crazy.

So it's been going for a long time now. I never thought that I would be [...] a ringleader of a group like this, but it's been amazing. and it definitely helped my music career. I think a lot of people started taking me a little more seriously when I was running a band like this, because prior to that, I was playing in a couple weird bands, dressing up like a clown on stage for some bands, and doing weird things. This was sort of like, 'This guy maybe knows what he's doing a little bit.' So I'm eternally grateful for this band, for all the people in the bands that keep coming back every time I want to put on a show. I'm like, 'Hey guys, I have a new dumb idea.' They go, 'Yeah, we'll make it happen!'

Like that last show in March [...] I was asking the band to do some ridiculous stuff. 'Hey guys, we have to play a funk song, and then a death metal song, a hip hop song, a country rock song, and then we have to do a bunch of weird compositions that I've written.' And these brilliant musicians, they all just said, 'Yep. Okay, we can make that happen.'

It's been around for a while now, and it's no exaggeration to say that Space Elevator changed my life and trajectory as a musician. So I'm very grateful to have this band for I guess eight years [...] I have two years to come up with something real big for our decade anniversary.

WILL: Yeah. Another thing that you're up to is the Gander Jam [...] how was your latest Gander jam, and can you talk a little bit about that?

MIKE: Gander Jam was great! We were all surprised. We thought, 'It's January 3rd. It's gonna be kind of sleepy. Everyone's gonna be burnt out from the holidays.' But it was a packed house, everyone had a ton of fun.

The Gander Jam came out of a conversation I had with a very dear friend of mine who unfortunately has since passed away, this amazing drummer named Cole Ediger. He was playing in a bunch of bands around town. He and I both loved hip-hop music and funk music, just jamming and stuff.

He used to host these jams at his house that would go until three or four AM. I would finish playing a gig at 1:00 AM and head to Cole's house, and he'd be like, 'Mike just got here, guys, get the jam going again!' And we'd play for three more hours. It was amazing.

One day we're hanging out, and I was like, 'Man, we should do what we do in your living room, but at a venue.' We ended up getting a relationship with Calabash Bistro and having this monthly night called The Hip-Hopalypse, we got rappers, vocalists up there.

Eventually [...] my really close friend Cordelia Donovan came in and [ran] this with me, and then covid happened. Then almost a year ago Cordelia and I said hey, let's bring back the Hip-Hopalypse, but let's take it out of the hip-hop world and open it up to anything.

It turned into what we now call the Gander Jam, kind of a nonsense name, but it's just fun to say. And so we've been running that for about nine months now, with same kind of idea as Improv Karaoke, where it's people who might not necessarily even know each other just getting up on stage and jamming. We invite our talented friends out and the jams are great, because everyone in Vancouver is amazing at music apparently, [that's] what I've learned through living in this city for so many years.

I'm always doing way too many projects. I just want to create music, whether it's throwing 20 people on stage and doing a bunch of weird loud jazz, or whether it's creating a community where people can come in and just create music without any sort of judgment or anything. That's what I'm doing.