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The Tale Behind The Tune ... Gnostic Serenade

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Gnostic Serenade was originally a beat poem / song written by the late William (Bill) Hawkins who was a highly respected poet and songwriter from Ottawa.

In my less than humble opinion the best recording of the tune was included in a wonderful collection of his material called Dancing Alone ... Songs Of William Hawkins in 2008, sung by Brent Titcomb in a haunting beat type style ...

Gnostic Serenade was also recorded by several other artists in a more folk rock song kind of style ... initially by a band from Ottawa called 3’s A Crowd in 1968 ...

Later and probably most successfully by American folkie Tom Rush in 1970 ...

And earlier by Brent Titcomb, a former member of 3’s A Crowd, in 1977 ...

There was some reminiscent chatter about the song in media a couple of years ago ... started me thinking about the tune again one day when I was messing about on my keyboard, so I began to figure out the chord changes and to experiment with it. In that process I started playing some of the changes with chords often used by jazz musicians ... ninths ... they worked really well and they seemed to reflect the vibe of Bill Hawkins himself as a human being ... with a beat feel and in that style. Led me to believe we could approach the song as a jazz tune and worked on that.

The first time I ever heard the song it was performed by Bruce Cockburn when he came to Toronto from Bytown (Ottawa) in the mid 1960’s and made off with half the band I was in at the time which I obviously wasn’t too happy about ... until I heard Bruce play, at which point I wanted to be in his band too ... and almost was. Bruce was and remains a remarkable musician songwriter ... one of Canada’s best. The band he put together was called Flying Circus ... included my ex band mates drummer Gord MacBain and keyboard player Marty Fisher ...

Sometime thereafter I drew Gord and Marty’s attention to the bass player I was playing with at the time ... Dennis Pendrith ... who was much better than the guy playing bass with Bruce then ... and Bruce hired Dennis to replace that guy. Ironically Dennis is the bassist in Burrows And Company today and has played bass on everything I have ever recorded with the exception of Walk On By 1965. As a result I became a friend of the band and hung out with them now and then. I was able to attend and take in a rehearsal or two and sometimes we would gather in Bruce’s basement and just listen to him playing tunes ... lovely memories. Bruce usually brought along a binder of his material, all written out in full music score, which was very unusual in the world of rock / folk music at the time! Having grown up in the nation’s capital he often played gigs in Quebec, so all of the lyrics for all his songs were written out in both English and French.

It doesn’t get more Canadian than that!

Not long after, for some reason or other Bruce decided that he needed a singer for his band and so they auditioned several vocalists for the gig ... including me. When the auditions concluded Marty and Gord came out to my place and told me that I had won the audition ... that if anyone was going to sing Bruce’s songs other than Bruce it would be me ... but unfortunately they also told me that the people around him had convinced Bruce that he should sing his own songs, a decision with which I reluctantly agreed fully ... but I had really wanted that gig! On the upside however I became a better friend of the band and hung out with them even more ... was eventually invited to go to New York City with them where Bruce and his band opened for American vibes jazz musician Gary Burton at Steve Paul’s “The Scene” for a week ... a magical and wonderful experience.

William Hawkins was a mentor of Bruce in some ways and had a profound impact on his development as a songwriter ... indeed one of Bruce’s first experiences writing songs was helping put some of Mr. Hawkins’ poetry to music for him after they met at Le Hibou Coffee House, where Bill and his wife then were managers. They were also band mates in a group called The Children and around that period of time Bruce lived with Bill Hawkins at his house in Ottawa for a while. For a deeper understanding of their connection and relationship please have a look at an article from Bruce’s web site and listen to the interview on CBC Radio there.

For more insight into the turbulent life of William Hawkins have a look at this article in The Walrus ... great read! ...

Our band, Burrows And Company gathered together for a recording session at Chalet Studio near Claremont ON on March 15, 2021 in the midst of the pandemic. We planned to record two songs that day ... Morning Hymn and Gnostic Serenade. I had encountered both of those songs in the same period of my life. While for some tunes the guys in the band have come in to record individually or a couple at a time ... like we did for Walkin’ The Dog ... on this occasion I felt it was very important to have everyone in the same room at the same time. We had never played either of these songs as a band so it seemed essential to explore how we would approach and play them together ... to share ideas, the feel. As in the basic notion of Gestalt ... the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Musicians bounce off each other when they play together as a band in ways they would not and cannot do when they are playing to and with a prerecorded track. In retrospect I am very glad that we chose to do that ... played an important role. And besides it was great to just see each other and play together again ... first time we had done that since our last live gig at Burdock in Toronto in October 2019.

We recorded Morning Hymn first ... the most magical experience I have ever had in a recording studio ... then we took a break and had some buttered scones and tea. We visited about all sorts of stuff together, caught up with each other personally. Then we went back into the studio to work on Gnostic Serenade and had a chat. The guys had all received a very rough demo of the song with the chord changes. We talked about the overall groove and feel we were after, how to start and end the tune, solos in the song, the extended improvised ending (outro) and stuff like that.

Then Al counted the song in and we took a run at it for the first time. When we were done there was absolute silence in the room ... no one said a word! We were all just sitting there looking at each other ... when Dennis finally said ... I feel a bit like a lounge lizard over here ... and we all had a good laugh about it. Some things had gone well, others had not, the overall groove didn’t feel “right”. After talking over a couple of things, Al counted it in again ... we recorded take 2. None of this is unusual in any way ... you seldom get what you want the first time. Then we decided to go to the Control Room and have a listen to what we had done. Thereafter we all agreed that, although there were some nice moments, on the whole the jazz groove wasn’t working as well as we had hoped it would. So Al ... who tends to lead the band musically much of the time ... came up with some suggestions as to how to approach the rhythm pattern in a different way. He was talking about something to do with bossa nova and samba and all that. All the guys seemed to understand where he was going with that ... I just sing! So everyone enthusiastically went back into the studio to give his ideas a try. It did seem to go better but it still didn’t feel quite right ... Al thought he knew why and suggested a couple of tweaks ... and then we took another run at it.

Once again we all felt we needed to go back to the Control Room and have a listen. It still wasn’t working the way we all believed it could and you could sense discouragement descending upon us ... indeed I was just about to say something like ... You can’t win them all, sometimes things don’t quite work out as planned. But just before those words came tumbling out of my mouth, Al said he had another idea that might do the trick if we just did this and that differently. To my amazement everyone seemed reinvigorated and we all headed back. However, the underlying understanding at this point was this was our last shot.

Al counted us in one more time ... and suddenly, voila ... there it was ... in spades! It was a wonderful feeling of triumph that filled the room at that juncture. We then joyfully headed off into the Control Room to have a listen to what we had. All of us felt very pleased at how the tune had come together ... joy reinforced. So we went back in and did the song one more time in the same groove so we had everything we might need to back us up moving forward through the process. If you find some minor issues or problems with a performance later it’s good to have another similar take you can go back to for bits / pieces you may need to edit. We were all very grateful for Al’s leadership in getting us to The Promised Land!

At the end of a session like this the recording engineer usually puts together a very quick rough mix of what you have recorded for listening purposes thereafter. By the time we are finally ready to release any song I will have listened to it a great many times ... dozens and dozens of times ... as we evaluate what we have and what needs to be done to carry the track forward before sending it to be mixed. After listening to that rough mix for a while with considerable pleasure and confidence that it had come together well, I still thought something was missing. That something turned out to be alto sax ... thought it would embellish the feel. Talked to a couple of horn players I admire and have played with previously about sitting in on this track but neither of them was available for one reason or another. Then I remembered a guy I have known of for a great many years ... since I was a kid ... but that I have never heard play or worked with ... Russell Strathdee. Russ is a bit of a legend in Toronto music in the sixties ... played with Dunc and Judy And The Regents, then The Silhouettes with Steve Kennedy and Diane Brooks and later with Shawne And Jay And The Majestics ... he has been around!

Although I had never met Russ before we have several mutual friends and he has commented online regarding some of the songs we have released previously.

Then I checked out his web site at ...

Decided to give him a call to see if he would like to sit in with us on this song. What a sweetheart! ... first he wanted to know if I had asked anyone else if they would come and play sax with us ... I replied that I had indeed spoken to a couple of other prominent local sax players ... every time I mentioned who that was he would say ... “Oh man, he’s at the top of his game, you should hire him” etc etc.

He finally told me he hadn’t played much during the pandemic ... however, it must be said, neither had anyone else! ... and he didn’t know if his chops were any good. Knowing that he was a very good saxophonist I told him that I thought his chops were probably just fine and made him a deal ... that if I didn’t like what he had done I wouldn’t use it but he would still get paid and that he wouldn’t be offended. He replied he thought that was a great deal and agreed to come and sit in with us. I sent him the rough mix for Gnostic Serenade from March 15 so he could prepare. I asked him to explore the tune but to not try to come up with a specific part as such ... but rather to just become familiar with it and then play in the moment.

On May 24, 2021 Russell came out to Chalet Studio with his alto sax to play. From the moment I heard that sax in the intro, a huge smile came over my face. Everything he did embellished the recording it seemed ... worked like a charm! When I later played the tune to my stepson, who had heard it previously, he responded that he couldn’t imagine the recording without the sax now ... me too! We are indeed very grateful to Russell for taking that leap of faith and sitting in. His chops were just fine ... it was a wonderful experience working with him.

So, on this recording Burrows And Company are ...

Drums ... Al Cross

Acoustic bass ... Dennis Pendrith

Keyboards ... David Chester

Guitar ... Graham Young

Alto sax ... Russell Strathdee

Vocals ... Bob Burrows

Recording Engineers ... Justin Meli, David Chester

Mixing Engineer ... Josh Bowman

Graphic Art ... Mike Raines

Recorded at Chalet Studio, Claremont ON ...

Produced by ... Bob Burrows

And finally ... to quote the opening lyric of the song ... here’s the tune ...

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