WHO NAMED THE BAND: Shuffle Demons to get crazy at jazz fest

The Shuffle Demons don’t actually shuffle. They play funky grooves. And they are not literally malevolent supernatural beings summoned by an evil sorcerer to wreak havoc on helpless humans, though they are perhaps best known for the ritual sacrifice of “Hockey Night in Canada” to the God of Saxophone.

Consider this, says band founder Richard Underhill, “We played Spadina Bus, our first hit, but there is no actual Spadina bus anymore. We did the Hockey Night in Canada theme with 900 sax players and broke a world record – and now they don’t play Hockey Night in Canada anymore. Don’t let us ever play O Canada.”

Eerie. Yet the Shuffle Demons return to wreak havoc on jazz music – playing the Old Strathcona Performing Arts Centre Saturday night as part of the Edmonton International Jazz Festival.

Now they’re stuck with the silly name, of course, along with the idea that the Shuffle Demons is just a novelty band. You have to admit that having 900 sax players kill Hockey Night in Canada is a bit silly. Then again, so is Randy Bachman getting 3,800 guitarists to play Takin’ Care of Business at the same time. It conjures up that South Park episode where the boys discover the “Brown Note” and use it to sabotage a mass recorder concert in Washington, D.C., causing a world disaster. Is nothing sacred?

Underhill is well aware of the stigma against the Shuffle Demons, says they had some trouble getting taken seriously when they were trying to get record deals in the ‘80s (there were such things in those days).

However, he adds, “The thing that people liked about us when they saw us, is that yeah, we had this shtick going on, but actually all the guys could really play. That’s the thing that rescued it. The wacky name and the crazy clothes and all that caught people’s attention, maybe got John Q. Public a little more interested in jazz, but the jazz purists knew we could really play, too.”

There’s this duelling perception of jazz being a type of music that doesn’t permit frivolity, frowning upon stunts like getting 900 sax players to toot Hockey Night in Canada en masse, and yet consider the famous song lyric that states that jazz is much too crazy (one can play it when one is old). The Shuffle Demons like their jazz crazy.

“We have such top notch players in the band,” Underhill says. “We’ve grown even more since the old days. When we do a Mingus or a Monk tune, we really play the hell out of it, try to evoke the spirit of jazz. That’s what we’ve always been about, that freewheeling spirit of jazz, not putting it in purist box and saying this is the way jazz should sound in 1947 or 1962 or whatever. Those guys would’ve got crazy with it – and that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Remember that the Shuffle Demons were spawned on the streets of Toronto – a crazy place. Underhill and his roommate Mike Murley were studying music at York University. While the former would busk on the corner of Yonge and Bloor to make ends meet, the latter would play wedding gigs. Underhill says, “I would come home with a big sack of change on Saturday night and Mike would come back from his wedding gig. We’d count the money up and it would be almost the same.” Murley, more of a jazz purist than his roommate, hated playing the wedding gigs, so he joined Underhill on the street – it being widely known that  two saxophones exponentially attracts four times as much attention as one – and made about $20 an hour each. Murley was sold.

Like a street jazz Wizard of Oz, the adventuring party grew. Next came drummer Stich Wynston, then the “lynchpin” of the entire operation, David Parker, the guy who wrote Spadina Bus.

Underhill says, “There we were that first day, three saxes and drums, on the street making a big racket, and we were a big hit. We drew a big crowd and had a lot of fun. And these guys were getting hooked on street music – something I’d been doing for a long time.”

Parker is no longer with the group. There are two new saxes now – Perry White and Shawn Nykwist, along with bassist
 George Koller – but the street jazz spirit remains. Evidence may be found in the Shuffle Demons latest album, Clusterfunk. Who named the album? Rich Underhill. He named the band, too. It’s actually not a very interesting story. He’d written a song called The Shuffle Monster. They were playing on the street one day, he says, “and someone asked me what the name of the band was – so I just blurted it out: Shuffle Demons.”

So the band name was improvised. Figures.