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.