It was a year-end recital that Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) students will never forget.

Toronto’s Frank Dukes, currently one of the production kingpins of the contemporary pop era – with recent credits like Camilla Cabello, Drake, and Post Malone bolstering his global profile – spent three days with RPSM students in the winter of 2018-2019 to record Parkscapes, a charitable twist on his own ground-breaking Kingsway Music Library.

The story behind the Grammy-nominated Dukes (a.k.a. Adam Feeney) is that he’s revolutionized the sample business by creating and licensing his own atmospheric, ethereal loops to bypass the often lengthy clearance process. And the premise of Parkscapes, which is offered by Kingsway, is that Dukes would provide samples with fresh arrangements, and the RPSM kids would play the instruments.

“It was all stuff that was written before,” Dukes explains on the line from L.A. “Either I’d write a demo on the piano, or a demo that I’d laid down myself. Then I would teach the kids the chords, and come up with different arrangement ideas on the spot. If I was playing piano, then the recording you hear on Parkscapes might be the kids doing a vocal line, or playing a steel pan lead melody. Same writing, just different arrangements.”

Dukes confirms that all Parkscapes income will go directly to the school. “Say somebody uses those samples for a Drake song,” he says. “They would clear the sample, and the proceeds – the sample clearance money – would go to the school and then, just like how my regular libraries work, there would be a royalty. Over the next two years, the royalty would be paid out and distributed to fund the program.”

The timing of Dukes’ generous gesture couldn’t be better – especially in the light of heavy funding cutbacks to the arts and non-profits by the Ontario Progressive Conservative government under the leadership of Doug Ford.

Dukes said he was approached by long-time pal Rana Chatterjee, a former hip-hop radio host, and currently Associate Creative Director at BBDO Canada Advertising and Creative Agency in Toronto, with the idea. “I think, at the time, he wanted to propose the idea of something  called Sample School,” he says, “where I’d bring in kids from Regent Park School of Music, and incorporate them into one of my music school libraries, and it sort of blossomed from that initial seed.

“We refined the idea a little bit more, and we came to the conclusion it would be a cool idea to make a music library. It’s really amazing, because there’s potential to fund the school in a really big way, depending on what happens with the library. And the library, in the past, has been sampled by everyone from Drake, to Kendrick Lamar, to Logic, and more.”

Dukes, known for nurturing such Toronto acts as Bad Bad Not Good, River Tiber, and Mustafa, was impressed by the kids who participated in the recording. “The talent level of the kids was really remarkable,” he says. “They were really, really special and gifted kids. I think for me, it was being able to create something of a bridge between maybe something they listen to and what they do on their own.

Dukes in Demand
Currently at the apex of high demand, Dukes has several upcoming projects bearing his production stamp, including those by James Blake, Post Malone, and of course, Camilla Cabello’s sophomore effort, hot on the heels of her Dukes-produced, global-hit, chart-topping smash, “Havana.”

“It was powerful for them to see that there’s infinite possibilities, and that if you really want to apply yourself when you’re passionate about something, you can make a career out of it, and do what you really want to do.”

An unexpected by-product of the Parkscapes sessions was the enthusiasm expressed by some of the shyer kids in the program. Says Dukes, “Speaking with some of the instructors afterwards, they were saying, ‘Wow, that was insane! Some of the kids, they’re not really vocal, or [don’t] participate too much in the day-to-day classes – but to see them so engaged, and excited, and invigorated in this was really amazing!’ This was fun for me, and for them too, to live in that energy for a little bit.”

Dukes, who sold his first recording artist sample to U.S. rapper Lloyd Banks for $5,000, says his specialty is predicated on emotion. “For me, it’s just a feeling,” he explains. “A good sign is that I can hear a song on it – and I can listen to it over and over again and not get tired of it – something I want to hear indefinitely.”

And there will be more Parkscapes, Dukes vows. “It’s a model of something I’d like to bring to different areas and different places, different cities and different countries,” he says. “Really develop it into more of a project that I think is, like, really positive and impactful to kids growing up – especially in areas like Regent Park.”

They are the wind beneath unfolding Canadian jazz wings:  dynamic brass players 40 and under who are extending the legacies of such veterans as Jane Bunnett, Christine and Ingrid Jensen, Guido Basso, and the late Rob McConnell. You can find them coast-to-coast-to-coast: exciting composers and players who are honing their craft and exploring new frontiers while pushing jazz boundaries.

Chilliwack-born Tara Kannangara is a promising trumpeter and singer, carving out her own niche in a geographical corridor of Western Canada that includes Vancouver saxophonist and flautist Ben Henriques; Winnipeg-born, now New Orleans-based trombonist Chris Butcher; and his fellow Heavyweights Brass Band saxophonist, and Winnipegger of origin, Paul Metcalfe. Kannangara’s recent sophomore album It’s Not Mine Anymore exhibits a diverse range of styles that cull inspiration from all worlds.

“I have a lot of influences, and types of music that I love, and thankfully I’ve developed a pretty large palate through all the people I’ve played with, and my mentors,” says Kannangara, who writes primarily on piano. “So, I end up writing a melding of all those genres that sounds pretty multi-dimensional. My only mandate is to write music I’d like to listen to.”

Moving East, Toronto enjoys a vigorous jazz movement. Globe-trotting trumpeter Mike Field, and saxophonists Alison Young and the JUNO Award-winning Allison Au lead a pack that can be found playing jazz at such specialty venues as The Rex Hotel and The Jazz Bistro.

“It’s a very healthy scene,” says Au, originally inspired to learn her instrument by The Simpsons’ Lisa Simpson. “People aren’t making the money the way they are in other fields, but it’s very active, with a lot of talent. It’s relatively easy to get a gig, though often it’s pass-the-hat. Sometimes there’s a guarantee, but you’re probably not walking out with a lot of cash in your pocket.”

Au, whose quartet will be making its Monterey Jazz Festival debut this year, cites the piano as her compositional instrument. “When I get into a groove, it’s usually at the piano, and I’m just noodling around,” says Au, whose latest, Wander Wonder, is her third album as a bandleader. “I’m not the best player, but I did study classical for 12 years as a kid. I noodle around until I find something intriguing, often a vamp. Sometimes, it’s a melodic idea. and I try to figure out harmonically where that may lead. I just follow my ear.”

Once the basic concept is down, Au’s imagination naturally expands the instrumentation. “I do hear my band members playing things – which is a driving force for me, more than the sound of the saxophone,” she says. “I hear the band instrumentation I use – bass, drums and piano – very clearly.”

“Part of the composition is choosing your musicians.” – Rachel Therrien

While jazz is a much-loved idiom that constantly challenges the disciplines of those who play it, its financial sustainability as a sole occupation can be arduous. Many players teach, and they often play in several projects at once, and perform other kinds of music on the side. For example, Montréal trumpeter Rachel Therrien admits that although jazz is her sole focus as a composer, it’s not her exclusive bread-and-butter.

“I have a lot of side-man gigs, which aren’t all in jazz,” says Therrien, who recorded 2016’s Pensamiento in Colombia. “I play a lot of West African music, Cuban music, and Moroccan stuff.  But I’ve always wanted to play those cultural styles, because it influences a lot of my writing.”

Part of a community that includes saxophonists Claire Devlin and Marie-Josée Frigon, Therrien says that although her local scene is healthy – Montréal has always been a “jazz city,” and the 40-year-old Montréal International Jazz Festival has only helped that (as have summer jazz fests in most major cities across Canada) – jazz-exclusive venues are still hard to come by. “There are maybe four official clubs, but you can’t rely on them to pay your rent,” she notes.

Therrien, who recently recorded her fifth, an-as-yet-untitled album in Paris, says her compositional technique starts in her mind. “I compose with pen and paper first, and then I start to write harmonies,” she says. “Most of them start on paper as well.”

Where Therrien, a frequent performer in New York and France, differs from many is that she often thinks of specific musicians while she composes. “Jazz is largely improvised music, so the composition is the structure on which you improvise,” she explains. “Part of the composition is choosing your musicians, so that their way of playing suits your taste.”

In Halifax, saxophonist Ally Fiola is a bit of an anomaly: she’s a jazz composer intent on breaking into film scoring, and says one discipline often affects the other. “Whenever I compose on the jazz side of things, I have a bit more personal expression,” says Fiola, who released her debut album Dreaming Away in 2018. “My jazz compositions definitely lean toward more melodic and harmonic ideas. Whereas when I compose for film, it’s to serve the story and the filmmaker’s vision. The cool thing about it is that I get to explore more diversity. I just started film composing about three years ago, and it’s definitely expanded my palate.”

In a city that includes trumpeter Patrick Boyle and saxophonist Kenji Omae, Fiola – who intends to delve into cohesive New Orleans-style jazz “with a modern twist” for her next album – is quite comfortable composing on her principal instrument. “Because I’m a sax player, I tend to find melody first, so often I’ll be doodling on my saxophone and come up with melodies,” she says. “Then I’ll write out a lead sheet with an E-flat, B-flat, C and bass clef, for my five-piece band.

“I also find melodies on the piano because that’s how I primarily compose for film scoring. From there, I’ll figure out a harmonic progression to go with it, which is why I think sometimes my compositions have progressions that are different from standards.”

As with most jazz practitioners, education is paramount to Fiola. She’ll be attending Kingston University in London, England, to pursue a Master’s degree in music for composition in film and television. “I enjoy music so much – and with jazz and film scoring, I hope to sustain myself financially,” says Fiola.

The biggest survival lesson these versatile Canadian jazz ambassadors learn daily is based on the essence of jazz itself: improvise.

Given the limitations of space and resources, it wasn’t possible to mention all of the young, SOCAN-member, brass-based jazz composers working in the field. This is a small sample of them.

This summer, as fans celebrated the Toronto Raptors’ historic win, many were celebrating to the music of Just John x Dom Dias, the dynamic Toronto duo whose “Pull Up” track made it onto the official Raptors playlist, alongside heavy hitters like Drake’s “Nonstop” and Cardi B’s “Press.”

“It was really cool,” says Just John (John Samuels) from his home in Toronto. “A lot of Raptors fans really connected with that record and started following us. And after some of the winning games, they would play our track.”

“We’re fortunate and grateful to be a part of this history, this legacy,” adds Dom Dias.

While some call their inclusion on the playlist “talent meets perfect timing,” the duo call it “energy,” something they credit for everything – including their collaboration.

In early 2018, producer Dom Dias came across a sponsored Instagram post featuring Just John. Dias was intrigued, immediately reaching out with a beat. “John really liked the beat and we got in the studio next day,” explains Dias. “That record he recorded is ‘Pull Up,’ the one the Raptors chose.” Instantly, the pair found something in each other that they were looking for. “I saw his style, his persona and his lyricism, and that caught me off-guard. The moment we got into the studio, it was super-easy to work with him.”

And for Just John, founder of the award-winning art collective Blank Canvas, Dom got the multi-faceted vision for which he was striving. “I felt like my prayers [were] answered, because I was struggling, trying to find [producers] that understood the kind of energy I wanted to record. And, also, someone who challenges me to be a better artist. Dom was, and has been, that person.”

“We make things that we like. We’re making vibrations.” – Just John

Dom gave John a space where the threads found in his collective could be laced just as powerfully in his sound. “I sharpened my teeth [in] the DIY art scene,” says John. “A lot of my ideologies are about taking up space unapologetically. Staying true to yourself. Living in love, not fear. I voice a lot about my own experiences, about police brutality. And sometimes it’s just the energy I’m rebelling against, the energy itself in the record. When people come see us, they’re connecting with that energy. They want to let loose, turn-up, [and] get free themselves. I think that’s another piece we contribute to music.”

The pair often make music every day. Dom will create beats and present them to John in person. “I’ve known John long enough to know when he really likes a beat, and when he really doesn’t,” says Dom. When they agree on a beat, John lives with it for a few days.

Just Dominating: Critical Praise

  • “Just John’s collaboration with producer Dom Dias has turned his energy level up to 11, and made them both impossible to look away from.” – NOW Magazine, Nov. 16, 2018
  • “They’ve already created an unrelenting hype around them, including sold-out shows and label love.” – Exclaim, April 30, 2019
  • “A sonic match made in heaven… The Toronto duo have been making some serious waves during this short run, and that’s thanks to a handful of great videos and tracks including the incredible cut ‘Soundboi.’” – Complex, April 21, 2019

“It’s a very independent, autonomous process,” says John. “Dom makes a beat; I trust him in that, and he trusts me in the performance and the lyrics. And then we are open to the collaborative synergy that can be created in the negative space. We’re always editing. ‘How can we make this better? How can we make this cooler? Ooooh, that was a mistake. Ooooh, that mistake is fire! We can use that in the record.’”

Drawing from various genres, including hip-hop and punk, while channeling manic, raucous energy to create cathartic release, the pair recently released their EP, Don III, and a video for “Pull Up.” They’re also working on new music that they describe as combining their “manic, mosh-pit energy with a beautiful, lucid dream.” And they continue to shrug off any aspirations of fitting into a mainstream “Toronto sound.”

“It’s never, “Let’s try to make it sound like this,’” says Dom, who uses everything from crazy snares to elephant trumpeting, to take listeners into adventurous sonic spaces. (The elephants don’t receive royalties for the recordings, they confess with laughter.) “It’s, ‘Let’s try and make a feeling.’”

John agrees. “We make things that we like,” he says. “We’re making vibrations. There has to be innovation, you have to be a visionary. You have to be OK with some people not getting it right away, and really champion what you’re doing. If we were looking to our contemporaries [for inspiration], we’d already be too late.”