Our favourite Canadian jazz albums of 2021
15 outstanding records from BadBadNotGood, Renee Rosnes, Caity Gyorgy, Josh Rager and others
Through all the uncertainty of 2021, music was a comforting constant.
Not a lot of music of the in-person variety, unfortunately, but the next best thing: new albums that kept us inspired and entertained throughout the year.
Below, CBC Music's jazz producers, hosts and writers reveal their 15 favourite Canadian jazz albums of 2021, in no particular order. It's a varied list, comprising traditional jazz, progressive jazz and jazz fusion projects — a reflection of the diverse creators enriching the musical life of our country. Click on the album titles for information on how to purchase or download them.
Tune in to CBC Music's Saturday Night Jazz on Dec. 18 when host Laila Biali will celebrate all 15 albums on this list.
These were our favourites of 2021. What were yours? Let us know on Twitter @CBCMusic.
Red Shift, Neil Swainson, Perry White, Rob Piltch
When it comes to the trio of saxophone, guitar and bass, Canada set the standard back in 1999 when Mike Murley, Ed Bickert and Steve Wallace played their now legendary night at the Senator. On this new album, bassist Neil Swainson, saxophonist Perry White and guitarist Rob Piltch continue that proud tradition with nine original compositions — six by Swainson, three by Piltch — ranging from the sprightly "Georgia Steps" to the gently waltzing "Sheltering Sky" to the sophisticated title track. The bite in White's tone is the perfect counterpoint to the mellow and deeply resonant string sound. Solos are generously executed, with highlights being Piltch and White's uncanny back-and-forth on album opener "Bags in the Lobby Blues" and Swainson's fleet-fingered work on his own uptempo tune "The Slope." — Robert Rowat, editorial producer
Earth Voices, Amanda Tosoff
Some lyrics are more poetic than others. In the case of Amanda Tosoff's latest album, songs are truly built on poetry. For Earth Voices, the skilful and adventurous pianist has wrapped her thoughtful compositions around works by Rumi, Pablo Neruda, Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. Songs are brought to life by seven stellar vocalists, including Michelle Willis, Felicity Williams, Alex Samaras and fellow British Columbian Laila Biali. A standout track is the bittersweet "Finis," sung by Emilie-Claire Barlow and based on a work by Marjorie Pickthall (considered one of the great Canadian poets of her generation when she died young in 1922, but largely unread today). Tosoff is joined by a top-notch band in Kelly Jefferson (soprano saxophone), Allison Au (alto saxophone), Alex Goodman (guitar), Jon Maharaj (bass), Morgan Childs (drums) and soaring string section with Aline Homzy and Jeremy Potts on violin, Laurence Schaufele on viola and Beth Silver on cello. Poetry and music — it's a powerful combination. — Margaret Gallagher, host, Hot Air
Homework, Jester Champwick
Pandemic times have pushed many artists to explore new collaborations from home that might never have otherwise come to fruition. Jester Champwick is a great example, the pandemic brainchild of drummer Curtis Nowosad and multi-keyboardist Joel Visentin. Listening to this debut offering, Homework, you'd never guess the expansive and layered production from start to finish has been generated by just two musicians. Nowosad and Visentin are alchemists, creating a sonic space that reaches forward and back at once. Their take on instrumentals written during the '60s and '70s by Black American composers is so fearlessly progressive, you can picture DJs spinning this music in pulsing underground dance clubs. It's cosmic jazz with an insistent rhythmic backbone that holds things together while harmonies, melodies, arpeggios and ostinatos burst out like glitter clouds in deep space. Turn down the lights, turn on your lava lamp, kick back, crank the music, and Jester Champwick will transport you to another dimension. — Laila Biali, host, Saturday Night Jazz
Talk Memory, BadBadNotGood
It took more than five years for BadBadNotGood to release Talk Memory, its sixth studio album. The delay was partially the result of recalibrating the band's sound after the departure of original member Matthew Tavares. This nine-track collection of instrumental originals shows BBNG moving away from its previous hip-hop mooring to travel a more improvisational and live-sounding direction. Collaborations continue to be central to BBNG's creativity. The opening cut, "Signal From the Noise," features Sam Shepherd (a.k.a. Floating Points), whose own collaboration with Pharoah Sanders and the London Symphony Orchestra is topping many year-end lists. Brazilian composer and producer Arthur Verocai gets pride of place on several tracks that feature his oh-so-suave string arrangements. The album closes with "Talk Meaning," a lush, double sax plus harp and strings joint featuring guests Terrace Martin and Brandee Younger. — Michael Juk, producer, Hot Air
Going Down Slow, Kevin Dean Sextet
"There would be no American popular music without the blues," writes Kevin Dean in this album's introduction. "Well, OK, there would be popular music but it wouldn't be as good!" To prove his point, he put together a phenomenally gifted sextet to explore the blues across nine tracks, including six Dean originals. He's joined in this endeavour by Caoilainn Power (alto saxophone), Gabriel Lambert (guitar), Andrés Vial (piano), Martin Heslop (bass) and Daniel Verdecchia (drums). Dean, who has one of the most attractive trumpet tones going, sounds especially great on "Get Along or Get Along Now," an energetic boogaloo. Further highlights include the slowly loping "Lonesome Cowboy Blues;" "Can't Wait to see you Go," on which the band has fun stretching the tempo; the surprising acoustic guitar on "Down the Dirt Road;" and Heslop's sign-off when the album comes to a close with the title track. — RR
Do you Know a Good Thing?, Nightcrawlers
If you're hungry for big, greasy grooves with a generous helping of serious musical chops, look no further than the Nightcrawlers' Do you Know a Good Thing?. The Vancouver band's first release in eight years builds their B3-heavy signature sound — minus one horn and plus congas by veteran percussionist Jack Duncan. Keyboard whiz Chris Gestrin is clearly having a great time with longtime musical collaborators saxophonist Cory Weeds, guitarist Dave Sikula and drummer Jesse Cahill, who leads the band. They're all excellent players enjoying making music together during a time we could all use some fun with friends. The menu includes juicy originals and inspired takes on tunes by Shirley Scott, Eddie Harris and Hank Marr. There's plenty to savour in a swinging version of the old favourite "These Foolish Things." Yes, I do know a good thing, and it's the Nightcrawlers reuniting — even if it's just for this album (for now). — MG
Now Pronouncing, Caity Gyorgy
More and more young jazz artists are trying to write in the same vein as the classic standards of the '40s and '50s, but few do this as naturally as Caity Gyorgy. On Now Pronouncing, the young singer is prolific in her abilities, covering all the bases — as sole lyricist and songwriter, as arranger for the 10 horns featured, and as an impressive scat soloist who holds her own alongside her fellow improvisers. Gyorgy possesses the kind of talent that combines a unique, innate gift and the admirable discipline that drove her to transcribe more than 600 solos by jazz greats. She's already garnered millions of streams on Spotify and views on TikTok, establishing herself firmly as one to watch and among the brightest rising stars of the next generation. — LB
Kinds of Love, Renee Rosnes
Canada's gift to jazz, Renee Rosnes, leads an all-star group of New Yorkers on an album of originals that reaffirms her range as a pianist, composer and bandleader. The opening track, "Silk," begins with urgency and intensity thanks to the drumming of Carl Allen and Brazilian percussionist Rogério Boccato. The texture builds as bassist Christian McBride and Rosnes enter with pointillistic jabs. When saxophonist and flutist Chris Potter ejects his angular melody, liftoff is achieved. The title track and the J.S. Bach-inspired "Evermore" are introspective. "Passing Jupiter" is a loping journey with bass clarinet overdubs and trippy, repeated figures in the bass. "In Time Like Air" brings the '70s vibe with airy vocalise bits and Fender Rhodes. "Blessings on a Year of Exile" hints at how Rosnes spent her last year and a half: very productively, from the sound of it. — MJ
Colossus, the Liquor Store
Citing Snarky Puppy, RH Factor and D'Angelo as inspirations, Montreal's the Liquor Store followed up the jazz/funk/R&B/hip-hop fusion of its debut album, NightDrive, with Colossus, a "very edgy, dark and totally instrumental" album that takes the septet back to its sources, according to the band's keyboardist, Félix Le Blanc. "We wanted to make our mark, maybe showcase a little more of our musical abilities and also dive deep into our musical fantasies," he told CBC Music. Those fantasies include the film noir leanings of album opener "Origin," the smooth neo-soul of "Night Owl," the full-on funk of "Mopho," the slapping danceability of trumpeter Rémi Cormier's "Shady Business," and the welcome retro touches in the horns-forward title track, a Le Blanc composition. — RR
On a Mountain, Shannon Gunn
Shannon Gunn's much-anticipated album, On a Mountain, was years in the making. The beloved vocalist, composer and teacher was a fixture on the Canadian jazz scene for decades. She was revered by fans, fellow artists and generations of students for her impeccable musicianship and generous spirit. But Gunn never released an album of her own, until now. Recorded in 2001 and released a year after her untimely passing in 2020, On a Mountain showcases Gunn's expressive voice and ability to completely inhabit a song. She effortlessly moves between inventive originals and fresh interpretations of standards by Jobim, Porter and Lerner and Loewe. Gunn knows exactly where to place her distinctive voice in a band that includes some of Canada's finest jazz artists. Bassist Swainson, drummer Billy Drummond, saxophonist Pat LaBarbera and trumpeter Brad Turner deliver stellar performances, as does pianist Rosnes, who also produced the album. A beautiful legacy for an artist who is deeply missed. — MG
We Want all the Same Things, Erin Propp and Larry Roy
If there were a missing member in David Crosby's Lighthouse band, it would be Erin Propp, a gifted Canadian singer-songwriter who effortlessly blends folk and jazz. On We Want all the Same Things, she teams up with her longtime musical partner, guitarist Larry Roy. He helps create the sonic landscape that beautifully underpins Propp's vocals, which display an impressive range suggesting influences from Becca Stevens and Esperanza Spalding to Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. Sixteen meticulously appointed musicians carry the listener across 12 tracks, as tight-knit an ensemble as you could find. Occasionally bold harmonic twists remind us that Propp and Roy are devotees of contemporary jazz even as they navigate across genres with ease. From the original title track to covers of Carole King and Lauryn Hill as well as a nod to the Great American Songbook, this album provides a listening experience so consistent and complete, you'll find yourself deeply satisfied and yet craving more. — LB
Twisting Ways, Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra
The WJO's mandate is to provide opportunities to homegrown Manitoba talent, but with Twisting Ways the band enlists stellar personnel from Ontario, Quebec and beyond. Composers David Braid and Philippe Côté have mind-melded on "Twisting Ways," the eponymous four-movement suite that anchors the project. Two stand-alone works, "Lydian Sky" and "Fleur Variation 3" round out the album. Liverpool-based lecturer Lee Tsang provides texts that are deftly painted in sound by Braid and Côté. There is notable solo work by Mike Murley, Braid, Stefan Bauer, Karl Kohut and vocalists Sarah Slean and Karly Epp. The scores are moody and cinematic. This is art jazz, beautifully performed and impeccably recorded. Slean's singing is a standout. Given her own poetic proclivities, I wonder how much higher the project might have soared if she had been invited to sing her own words. — MJ
Genealogy, Code Quartet
Code Quartet is the project of saxophonist Christine Jensen (alto and tenor), trumpeter Lex French, bassist Adrian Vedady and drummer Jim Doxas, who formed their group in 2017, and Genealogy is their debut album. While track 1, the slinky "Tipsy," lures you in with a familiar blues form and restrained solos, what follows is best described as a thrilling adventure for the musically curious. The title track bursts with harmonic surprises and the caffeinated energy of a '70s game show theme. On Vedady's "Watching it all Slip Away," French's trumpet tone seems to melt as he takes an eloquent solo. There's also a spare, pensive take on a Bach chorale; a Jensen tune called "Wind Up" on which she shines on both horns while Doxas works his magic; and "Beach Community," a fun nod to calypso. — RR
What is There to Say?, Cory Weeds with strings
From the lush, string-laden opening bars of Cory Weed's What is There to Say?, you know you're in for something special. The Vancouver saxophonist and impresario's 18th album as a leader coincides with the 20th anniversary of his prolific Cellar Jazz label (which grew out of his much-missed Vancouver jazz club of the same name). This ambitious project sets three original compositions and five standards to strings. The celebrated Phil Dwyer provides deft arrangements, and lends impressive piano to a skilled 13-piece string orchestra. The ensemble includes Weeds stalwarts Jesse Cahill (drums) and John Lee (bass), and veterans like Finn Maniche and Cam Wilson (Van Django) and Meredith Bates (Pugs and Crows) on strings. Weeds is in top form, with his lyrical and expressive playing reminding us that despite his tireless work as a producer, he's a musician first. There's a joyousness to this album, which is thoroughly modern, while still evoking a romantic past. A gem in the expansive and growing Cellar Jazz catalogue. — MG
Embraceable You, Josh Rager
"This is a little record of me playing tunes like I did at home during a year of lockdown." That's how Josh Rager humbly introduced his new solo piano album on Facebook, adding, "Unlike my kids and wife, you can turn it off if you don't like it." No danger of that: this collection of six standards and one original (the slyly named "A Moray's Foray") arrived like a balm for the soul, with Rager giving each tune a unique treatment, from the lavish chords holding the melody of "I Thought About You" aloft, to the wistful impressionism of "Alfie," to "You Stepped out of a Dream," which swings admirably without a rhythm section. And the irony of naming a COVID-era album after Gershwin's "Embraceable You" was not lost on us. — RR