Q&A with Canadian band of The 501 East, infectious love of blues and jazz influenced Americana, with 1960s grooves

"Music makes sense of our lives. It articulates intimations of emotional response. It helps explain happiness, sadness, tragedy, fear and joy. It puts a time stamp on socio-political events of the time. It is woven into the fabric of all our lives."

The 501 East: Canadian Session Aces Make The Right “Short Turn”

The 501 East is a group made up of 4 of Canada's finest musicians; Aidan Mason on guitar, violin, and vocals, Carlos Lopes on guitar, Russ Boswell on bass, and Gary Craig on drums. Each of these performers is a major player in the Canadian and Global music scenes. They have been performing in this configuration since 2014 but have been friends and musical compatriots since the 80s. Their sound is an instrumental blend of bluesy, jazz lines over rootsy, Americana grooves. The original and cover songs are a reflection of their extensive and diverse musical backgrounds. Aidan's South African upbringing, Carlos' Latin/jazz, and film scoring background, Gary's deep folk and blues roots and Russ' rock, pop and jazz experience.

(The 501 East / Photo by Koko Tchorbadjian)

There’s a saying in Costa Rica that goes “The shortest distance between two points is as the crow flies; the longest distance is the short cut.” It’s an apt description of the making of “Short Turn” (2024), the debut album by North American session supergroup The 501 East. They jelled so perfectly that making an album together seemed the natural way to go. And with a mutual decision to record it live “off the floor,” a quick and easy process seemed inevitable when they started work in earnest in 2019. The finished product sure doesn’t sound remote. Short Turn revels in an obvious and infectious love of blues- and jazz-influenced Americana, with 1960s go-go grooves for fuel. Carlos Lopes and Gary Craig talk about The 501 East and their music.

Interview by Michael Limnios                       Special Thanks: Eric Alper

How has the music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Carlos: We can't take credit or blame for where we were born or, in most cases, the world in which we grew up. But what does inform our humanity is choice. I feel like I have more in common with a musician born on the other side of the planet 30 years before or after me than someone who grew up on the same street, the same year and chose to become a civil servant or a construction worker. That isn't a value judgement, just a kind of quiet agreement as to the prism through which we view the world and life. It's a profound choice that influences essentially everything.

Gary: For me, music has influenced my world view by the revelation that all music regardless of idiom and region is a common thread of humanity. Exploring all types of music has helped me to broaden my awareness of the different cultures of the world. Music has also lead me to travel to places where a lot of the music I have been inspired by has its origins.  

How do you describe band’s sound, music philosophy and songbook? Where does band’s creative drive come from?

Carlos: The sound of The 501 East is a blues, and jazz-influenced, Americana tone. We love retro, 1960s Go-Go grooves and largely incorporate them as a starting place.

The creative drive derives from our four personalities and musical backgrounds. Very basically; the roots of South African in Aidan, blues and Americana in Gary, rock and pop in Russ, and jazz and Latin in Carlos.

Gary: The band’s sound is eclectic, influenced by our individual backgrounds and our musical experiences which include, singer/songwriter, jazz, blues, Americana and world music. Our sound is unified in the sense that we’re all from the same generation of musicians who have had years of different playing experience locally. We each bring our own individual experiences and musical foundations to our sound which contributes to our unique flavour and to our creative drive.       (The 501 East / Photo by Koko Tchorbadjian)

"The most important takeaway is to understand that we're not music. There can be no ego. We're a part of it. Talent is an accident of birth, but it's our job to facilitate our technique enough to become clear conduits that connect us to this force of nature, enabling non-musicians to connect as well. Kind of a digital to analogue convertor translating the ones and zeroes. Like everything in life, you can't chase it too hard. You have to know when to let it come to you. That requires listening and humility."

What is the story behind band’s name The 501 East? Do you have any interesting stories about the making of the debut album Short Turn?

Gary: The album was a test to see how our arrangements and concept would sound recorded. A close friend, Tim Foy offered his studio for us to check out that idea. Through that process we all heard a potential and then proceeded by honing our sound, adding other subtle elements and finishing the recordings remotely through the pandemic. With help from some very talented people along the way in mixing, mastering, album design, manufacturing and publicity, the results have been gratifying.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Carlos: There's an obvious pitfall for every generation to harken "back to the day". It's the job of all artists to evolve their medium and reflect the times in which they live, not constantly pay homage to the past. Having said that, more musicians in past years could earn a living performing live, composing, doing studio sessions and teaching than nowadays. I miss that.

This also ties into my fears for the future of all art. Unquestionably, music changed post Napster. Most millennials and the vast majority of Gen Z-ers have never paid for music, (or photography or literature). It's a statement when great musicians are playing for the "jug". Society demonstrates how it values a thing by how that thing is commodified. My fear is that someone who is 5 or 6 years old won't be motivated to devote a few decades of their life to study and practice if their earning potential is $1,000 or $2,000 a year. Will artists disappear? This is our world now. The genie is not going back in the bottle. My hope is that a new societal awareness will arise, and streams of income and motivation will help keep this and all art alive.

Gary: Music in general is always evolving and moving forward and now there are so many resources at our fingertips to explore and grow from. That said, some of my favourite recordings are from the past. The recordings were live in the studio with attention to great performances, real interplay and musical reaction between the players and vocalists. It’s great to rewind and explore just how adventurous and gifted the artists were on those records. As for hopes and fears, I hope music will always inspire people to a more elevated sense of spirit and I have no fears for its future, people always adapt to the times.

("The band’s sound is eclectic, influenced by our individual backgrounds and our musical experiences which include, singer/songwriter, jazz, blues, Americana and world music. Our sound is unified in the sense that we’re all from the same generation of musicians who have had years of different playing experience locally." (The 501 East / Photo by Koko Tchorbadjian)

What moment changed your music life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

Carlos: When I was 19, I applied and got accepted into the University of Toronto Architecture Program. It had been 'the plan' since I was 8 or 9 years old. A few weeks before it began a friend dragged me to the Humber College Jazz Camp north of Toronto. The teaching staff were all well-known, exceptional jazz players. They told me that I should go to Humber in the fall. I thought that it wasn't an option for me. Tough auditions, limited space, and no time left. They simply said, "If you want to go; you're in." I thought that my architectural career could wait a year or two. It's still waiting...

When I was 15 a friend of mine and I decided to go to Montréal during the first week of high school. I loved school, but I never liked the first week of orientation. It always reminded me that summer was over. Because of my dad's job I had a free train pass and 50% on CN hotels. However, the plan my friend and I had was not to use those privileges and complete our epic journey for $5.00 each. So, we hitchhiked, slept on McGill grounds, and ate bread and cheese. We each returned from what seemed like the other side of the world with 75 cents each. That was a life-changing epiphany.

When I was 20, I was leader on a jazz gig at The Ports, a jazz/supper club in town. We were held over for an extra couple of weeks, but my piano player needed to sub out. The bass player was a 19-year-old new kid in town from Victoria, BC. His name was Neil Swainson! Neil suggested that I call Maury Kaye to sub in. Maury was a Canadian legend from Montréal, a full generation older than us. He had briefly moved to Toronto and was looking for work. I thought he'd ignore a call from some kid, but he happily accepted. He liked our playing enough that he asked us to come back to Montréal and be part of his new group. So, I left Humber and did just that. The 2 /12/ years I spent living with Maury in Montréal were an amazing and formative time for me.

I had the opportunity to play for Canadian and UN forces in the Middle East over Christmas when I was 28. The experience I had in the Golan Heights was life changing. It's a long and beautiful story....

Gary: The moment that changed my music life was when I was told by my high school music teacher who was a jazz pianist that I had a talent. From there I had the curiosity and confidence to begin the journey. It’s been a steady and continued commitment with a multitude of highlights, including recording and touring the world with many successful artists. Also gratifying is to be part of a band of peers creating new music!  

"Music has and will continue to impact social and cultural change for the better and help bring all of us together. I hope our music affects people by bringing a higher level of spirit by its commitment to positivity, excellence, generosity and growth. It’s a shared experience!" (The 501 East, a group made up of 4 of Canada's finest musicians / Photo by Koko Tchorbadjian)

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

Carlos: Music makes sense of our lives. It articulates intimations of emotional response. It helps explain happiness, sadness, tragedy, fear and joy. It puts a time stamp on socio-political events of the time. It is woven into the fabric of all our lives. It accompanies us through our best and worst moments. It manifests an essential and irreplaceable dimension to our existence. It transcends cultural divides; it doesn't separate us, it connects us. Music makes us human.

If the music we create isn't evoking an emotional response of any kind, it's failing. Period.

Gary: Music has and will continue to impact social and cultural change for the better and help bring all of us together. I hope our music affects people by bringing a higher level of spirit by its commitment to positivity, excellence, generosity and growth. It’s a shared experience!

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

Carlos: The most important takeaway is to understand that we're not music. There can be no ego. We're a part of it. Talent is an accident of birth, but it's our job to facilitate our technique enough to become clear conduits that connect us to this force of nature, enabling non-musicians to connect as well. Kind of a digital to analogue convertor translating the ones and zeroes.

Like everything in life, you can't chase it too hard. You have to know when to let it come to you. That requires listening and humility.

Gary: Persistence, drive, commitment, positivity, generosity, friendship, inclusion, listening to others.

The 501 East - Home

(The 501 East; Aidan Mason on guitar, violin, and vocals, Carlos Lopes on guitar, Russ Boswell on bass, and Gary Craig on drums / Photo by Koko Tchorbadjian)

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