WATERLOO ON., Dec 26, 2014 --- One of Canada's best soul singers, Michael Dunston, and some of the country's leading jazz musicians, bring the music of Donny Hathaway back to life in a special Boxing Day show in The Jazz Room.
"Donny Hathaway has been that guiding light, his lyrics and his songs, are my life pretty much," Dunston said in an inteview with New City Notes.
Hathaway exploded on Soul Scene in 1970 with The Ghetto. He won a Grammy Award, garnered legions of fans and critical praise. It was a life of talent and tragedy. In 1979 he was found dead on the sidewalk ottside a New York City hotel. His death was ruled a suicide.
"I learnt every song he ever recorded," Dunston said. "And one day Dave Young was playing at The Rex, and he asked me as I was leaving, would I like to put together a gospel thing with him? I said: 'Sure, but I got some music that I think you need to hear."
Dunston brought his collection of Hathaway recordings to Young's house, and introduced the legendary jazz bassist to the largely forgotten soul singer from Chicago. They formed a band, started playing Hathaway's music on the summer festival circuit, and in select clubs. That was about seven years ago.
Dunston is backed by Dave Young on electric bass. Young is a familiar face in The Jazz Room playing his double bass. For this show, the Dean of the Double Bass breaks out his Fender. Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, Bernie Senensky on piano, Brian Legere on guitar, Mark Kelson on drums and Perry White on tenor saxophone.
"I think we did three or four jazz festivals last year, it seems to be taking on a life of its own," Dunston said.
Dunston sings with three Toronto-bands with institutional status in that city --- The Lincolns, Crack of Dawn and Soul Stew. He recorded a single for Atlantic Records back in the Eghties called Walking into Springtime. Since his mid-teens, all Dunston has done to earn a paycheque is sing soul music. And discovering Hathaway's music was like finding home.
"It was very difficult material for me in the beginning because his writing is monumental, his singing is monumental." Dunston said."It was really a challenge for me, but right now it is like buttter. I've got it down. I knew I chose the right path to go and do this material and it keeps Donny alive, and not many people know that much about him."
Dunston calls Hathaway one of thre greatest sould singers of our time, more than 35 years after Hathaway's death.
When not peforming with his Donny Hathaway Project, Dunston is performing, writing and recording with Soul Stew. That band includes David Gray on guitar, Matt Horner piano, electricp iano, organ and background vocals, John Johnson on tenor, alto and baritone saxes, Mark Kelso on drums and background vocals and Roberto Occhipiniti on bass and background vocals.
Soul Stew plays The Jazz Bistro in Toronto on the first Wednesday of every month, and will peform there for New Year's Eve.
"That band plays the Rochester Jazz Festival every year," Dunston said. "It's the only band they bring back every year, I think we are going for a record nine times now."
Added Dunston: "We are in the studio right now. I have written about four or five songs for the new project, and I guess in a month or two we should be recording them, and it should be out in the summer time."
Dunston grew up singing gospel in church choirs in Providence, Rhode Island. He also sang on street corners. While out one evening riding his bicycle a guitar player in a local band spotted Dunston and called him over to sing. He sang the1968 hit La La Means I love You by the Delfonics. He was 14 years old. The band recruited him, and Dunston started rehearsing with it for a wedding gig.
The band was called Nakupenda, a Swahili word that means I love you. Dunston sang with the band for years, going on the road during summer vacations and other breaks in school. To this day he has a picture on his smartphone taken when he was 16, and performing with Nakupenda in St. Agatha, Quebec.
"And these guys hipped me to everything about music," Dunston said. "I mean I was so lucky to be involved with these guys."
It was a musical education like no other.
Nakupenda had a horn section, and it covered material from Sly and the Family Stone, and Chicago.
"I can remeber them bringing me to Paul's Mall to see Herbie Hancock when he had just left Miles Davis," Dunston said
Paul's Mall was a legendary venue in Boston.
"I can remember the guitar player going up to Woodstock to hear Jimi Hendrix, I couldn't go but he went," Dunston said..
Dunston could not attend his high school prom, junior or senior, because the band played all those gigs.
"These guys, to this day, are actually surprised that I am still performing as an artist," Dunston said. "When Motown picked up Michael Jackson these guys discovered me on the street. And Michael Jackson made it legitimate for young guys to sing in a band, in a club."
In 1974 Dunston graduated from high school in Providrence, and hooked up with a band out of Albany, New York called Gems of the Future. Dunston was now 17, and he headed north with his new band, singing and playing a little trumpet. It did not work out well, and before long Dunston was recruited by an older musician named Mitchell Taylor. Taylor brought Dunston to Canada, crossing the border Thanksgiving Day, Oct. 13, 1975.
"My first gig was in Barrie, Ontario and from Barrie I went to Thunder Bay. I mean it was all over the place. It was incredible. I was on the road. I really paid my dues," Dunston said.
At that first gig in the Brookdale Park Inn in Barrier, the 17-year-old Dunston met Gail, the woman he would later marry. They are still going strong after 37 years of marriage.