Ken Aldcroft

Kenneth Grant Aldcroft (14 November, 1969 – 17 September, 2016)

The extended family of creative music in Toronto, throughout Canada, and internationally is mourning the sudden, shocking death of guitarist, composer, educator, and producer Ken Aldcroft from a heart attack. He was 46.

Above all, Ken was an utterly devoted and loving husband to Maria and father to Liam, 13. The love, dedication, and conviction that defined his exemplary family life radiated outward to the countless musicians with whom Ken played, the myriad recording and performance projects he convened, and the many students – in private lessons and, since 2010, at the University of Guelph – he guided and inspired.

Ken’s tremendous skills as a guitarist, composer, and bandleader were matched by his passionate, tireless work ethic and ironclad sense of purpose. He manifested his creative vision by leading and contributing to a dazzling number of groups and projects: Convergence Ensemble, Threads, Hat and Beard, various Ken Aldcroft Trios and Quartets, Alaniaris, AIMToronto Orchestra, solo composition and improvisation, and international touring and recording with duo partners including William Parker, Klaus Kürvers, and Jason Robinson. With his friend and partner John Sorensen he released more than twenty-five recordings of his music on his independent label, Trio Records.

Ken’s efforts forming and sustaining key scene-building initiatives in Toronto embodied his commitment to fostering community through music. Hallmarks of his dedicated stewardship of creative improvised music – and his bountiful generosity – include co-founding the Association of Improvising Musicians Toronto, the Leftover Daylight Series, and the NOW Series, and serving on the board of the Somewhere There musicians’ collective. He was a great friend to and supporter of fellow musicians, and was deeply loved for his off-the-wall sense of humour, his creativity, his kindness, his perceptiveness, his loyalty, his keen intelligence, and his sheer love of life.

He was a true gentleman who is profoundly missed by the legion of family, friends, colleagues, and listeners he touched and inspired with his music.

Listeners who are interested in the Trio Records catalogue can access the recordings online at Distribution Ambiances Magnétiques Etc. (DAME).

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I started playing with Ken Aldcroft around 2003. He and Maria had moved to Toronto from Vancouver fairly recently and it was clear that Ken – as he always did – was on the hunt for potential collaborators, as well as for an audience for the groups and series he had already assembled. My recollection is that here was a talented post-Abercrombie jazz guitarist with more interest and curiosity in free improvisation than actual skills for the task, but it was abundantly clear that he was dedicated to expanding his vocabulary as an improviser, and improve he did… every day until he died.

I can only imagine what he thought of me. I’d picked up the trombone in 2000 in my mid-20s and was practicing ferociously, discovering an idiosyncratic technical vocabulary useful in free improvisations, but with none of the refined modern jazz techniques of Ken’s superb Vancouver collaborators on trombone, Brian Harding and Rod Murray. No matter. Within a few years, Ken had invited me to join his Trio+1, replacing Gordon Allen (Woody Epps), despite the fact that I could barely read music, let alone execute the thorny, chromatic compositions that comprised much of the band’s book.

We would meet one-on-one in his tiny Bloor West basement apartment, a recently born Liam in a playpen nearby, going painstakingly over measure after measure of those tunes, at a punishingly slow ‘tempo di learno.’ It grew evident that, while Ken would have loved to find a competent reader to play his tunes, he appreciated my dedication to improving through his music (at whatever pace it would take), along with my range of listening that directly informed my growing skills as an improviser. We both had a set of skills and a perspective that interested the other, and if musically we started pretty far apart stylistically, we shared a spirit and a commitment that invited us to grow in a complementary way, informing and supporting the other accordingly.

Ken’s Trio+1 eventually merged with his Group to form the Convergence Ensemble, a primary vehicle for Ken’s composing and group-leading approaches, and the group had a tremendous ten-year run including six recordings (and counting, with more in the works posthumously) and numerous tours including the last tour in November 2016, Canada-wide, in the wake of Ken’s death. Ken’s approach with the Convergence Ensemble was the principle of collective, real-time orchestration and arrangement, using composed materials in a modular way as something to improvise toward, through, and away from into different kinds of group playing. It was a risky approach, and it took considerable effort before it started yielding some truly fine music. Notably, too, it was the outcome of Ken’s committed, ongoing process of self-reflection about his work; here was a bandleader with a clear vision combined with tendencies toward controlling his environment, and he had self-consciously chosen a path for Convergence where he had to relinquish that control, sharing it liberally with the rest of us, in pursuit of the music he sought. It was a selfless and courageous gesture that epitomized his unflagging commitment to musical discovery and excellence.

His leadership in Convergence was mirrored by his generous contributions as an organizer in Toronto’s field of creative improvised music. Our work together was focused on AIMToronto, to which I was added to complete the collective’s inaugural Board, with Ken, Joe Sorbara, Nick Fraser, and Rob Clutton, and it was clear to us all that the association depended heavily on Ken’s consistent efforts and sage organizational skills. Meanwhile, it was impossible to play improvised music in Toronto without engaging with Ken, whether he was co-curating the Leftover Daylight Series or the NOW Series, or playing at places like the Tranzac Club, a venue that always supported Ken’s work. Whether in Ken’s band or not, this was the context where I cut my teeth as an improviser, and in general a very exciting time of growth and discovery in Toronto creative music. These collective efforts at which Ken was at the core generated the momentum that inspired me in 2007 to open Somewhere There, a studio venue dedicated to informal creative music and a key site for Ken’s work for the next few years. (Ken released two records on Trio Records called Live at Somewhere There – with Alaniaris and with Hat and Beard.)

After I moved to Montréal in 2010, I continued to play regularly with Convergence, and Ken always made things work so that I could be part of shows, projects, and tours – a continuation of the dedication borne during those basement sessions years earlier. In 2014, I’d started musing with Ken about recording a CD of duo improvisations, eventually released as Red & Blue the following year. Around the same time, Ken was trying to extend his collaboration with renowned New York bassist, William Parker, with whom he’d released a duo CD in 2013, by booking a European tour, part of Ken’s sustained efforts to make inroads in Europe. At a certain point, William’s schedule made the tour, its booking already well underway, impossible for him; Ken asked me to ‘sub’ for William, resulting in the first of two wonderful duo tours in April of 2015 and 2016, the second involving a few concerts with our dear friend, the brilliant alto player, Karen Ng, a recent Convergence Ensemble member who was already on the continent.

When I think about Ken, I think of the many hours we spent together during these tours: in trains, station bars, cramped hostel rooms, noodle houses, old-school German bierhauses, and walking streets (lost as usual). While our friendship was etched through our many shared experiences that preceded these tours, it took on a new depth through the highs, lows, and especially the laughs that touring always engenders. It was these reminiscences that underlined that, this past September, I had lost not just a friend and dear comrade; I had lost my brother.

I miss him.

Here is a video of Ken, Karen, and me playing at City Art, Rotterdam, while on tour in April 2016, an evening that Karen and I remember very fondly. Thanks once again to Chris Ripken for hosting us.