10 outstanding Canadian jazz albums of 2015
Originally published Dec. 11, 2015.
In 2015, Canadian jazz fans didn't have to search far to hear world-class music. Our homegrown releases took all shapes and sizes, ranging from solo records to undertakings involving more than 70 people.
Across the country, debut records were launched, successful projects were continued and new collaborations were formed. In the list below, we've highlighted some of these outstanding albums in case you missed out the first time around.
Jill Townsend Big Band, Legacy: The Music of Ross Taggart (Cellar Live Records)
Ross Taggart, one of the country's most beloved saxophonists and pianists, has been sorely missed since his death in 2013. There's no better ensemble to pay tribute to his legacy than the Jill Townsend Big Band, which Taggart played in for more than a decade. In memory of their dear friend, Townsend's group lays down definitive versions of Taggart's music with spirit. However, one of the album's highlights comes from Taggart himself. The record ends with his solo piano rendition of a ballad that he wrote for Townsend, and a more fitting conclusion to this homage is hard to imagine.
Personnel: Jill Townsend (conductor); Chris Startup, Bill Runge, Steve Kaldestad, Cory Weeds, Chad Makela (saxophones and woodwinds); Dennis Esson, Rod Murray, Jeremy Berkman, Neil Nicholson (trombones); Derry Byrne, Kent Wallace, Brad Turner, Tom Shorthouse (trumpets); Bill Coon (guitar); Ken Lister (bass); Dave Robbins (drums); featuring Campbell Ryga (soprano saxophone).
Mark Ferguson, The Next Chapter (Independent release)
After countless credits as a sideman, Ottawa native Mark Ferguson has finally released the first recording under his own name. The Next Chapter serves as a highly successful debut and highlights his talents as a trombone player, pianist and composer. In an original touch, quartet tracks with Ferguson on piano are broken up by short trombone choir interludes that feature him on all of the parts. Refreshing ideas such as this give the album lots of personality and demonstrate the importance of Ferguson's voice in the Canadian music scene.
Personnel: Mark Ferguson (trombone/piano); John Geggie (bass); Jeff Asselin (drums); Scott Latham (vibraphone).
Emilie-Claire Barlow, Clear Day (Empress Music Group)
Clear Day is Emilie-Claire Barlow's most ambitious project yet. Not only does it include her usual brilliant vocals and top-notch team of musicians, but it also introduces the 70-piece Metropole Orkest to the mix for an even bigger sound. As if this wasn't enough already, Barlow covers songs all the way from Coldplay to Joni Mitchell, even writing lyrics for instrumental tunes like Brad Mehldau's "Unrequited." Unsurprisingly given Barlow's track record, this is a polished record filled with beautiful melodies and impressive musicianship.
Personnel: Emilie-Claire Barlow (vocals); Reg Schwager (guitar); Jon Maharaj (bass); Larnell Lewis (drums); Kelly Jefferson (tenor saxophone); Chris Donnelly (piano); featuring the Metropole Orkest. Tracks 10 and 14 include John Johnson (saxophone), Kelsley Grant and Terry Promane (trombone), Jason Logue and Kevin Turcotte (trumpet) and Melanie Doane and Kathryn Rose (backup vocals).
Kenji Omae, Story Time (Mirrorball Music)
Many of this year's releases pair Canadian saxophone players with New York City rhythm sections, and in this case, Story Time finds Kenji Omae in the company of some serious heavy-hitters. Impressively, the Ottawa-raised, Seoul-based saxophonist manages to steal the spotlight. Both his top-notch saxophone playing and knack for composition are on display, as most of the tunes on the record are Omae's beautiful originals. If you're not familiar with his work, pick this album up. You just might find a new favourite Canadian saxophonist.
Personnel: Kenji Omae (tenor saxophone); George Colligan (piano); Matt Penman (bass); Jochen Rueckert (drums).
Mike Rud, Miniatures (Independent release)
Whoever thinks that one man singing and playing guitar might run out of ideas after 14 tracks has some homework to do. Mike Rud, the man in question, gets impressive mileage out of his limited instrumentation. He often uses less obvious ideas to turn things on their head, such as singing a bass line to accompany his guitar lines. From start to finish, he lives true to his promise to "soothe, amuse and astound you," frequently creating musical moments that are both moving and entertaining. This truly personal statement is one of the year's most unique releases.
Personnel: Mike Rud (guitar, vocals).
Steve Kaldestad, New York Afternoon (Cellar Live Records)
Steve Kaldestad's latest album, New York Afternoon, was recorded live in a single two-hour session. On top of that, the Vancouver-based saxophonist had only met the rest of the band that afternoon. However, for musicians of this calibre, circumstances like these are no problem. Kaldestad consistently delivers beautiful solos across the diverse program of standards and originals, and the world-class rhythm section always swings hard. After an equally fantastic release last year, Kaldestad seems to be on a roll. Let's hope these great records keep on coming.
Personnel: Steve Kaldestad (tenor saxophone); Renee Rosnes (piano); Peter Washington (bass); Lewis Nash (drums).
Robi Botos, Movin' Forward (A440 Entertainment)
Among its great compositions, infectious grooves and inspired solos, this album has it all. The all-star lineup audibly has a lot of fun tackling Botos's memorable originals and clever arrangements, which fuel the group's endless musical creativity. Regardless of the style, the rhythm section lays down a rock-solid groove and saxophonist Seamus Blake consistently knocks his solos clear out of the park. The album is worth picking up just to hear "Heisenberg," a tune by Botos that's named after a certain television character.
Personnel: Robi Botos (piano, organ, Nord keyboard, Fender Rhodes, clavinet); Seamus Blake (tenor/soprano saxophones, EWI); Robert Leslie Hurst III (bass); Jeff "Tain" Watts (drums).
Jim Doxas, Blind Leap (Addo Records)
This year, Jim Doxas made his debut as a leader with the release of Blind Leap. Alongside fellow Montreal heavyweights Paul Schrofel and Morgan Moore, he delivers a record filled with forward-thinking music. From the start, it's evident that you won't find any jazz clichés here, as the trio often changes musical directions on a dime. This open-minded approach is applied to many of Schrofel's compositions and several covers, including a refreshing take on Wayne Shorter's "Fall." This album is a prime example of the creativity that can happen when everyone keeps their ears open.
Personnel: Jim Doxas (drums); Paul Schrofel (piano); Morgan Moore (bass).
Oliver Gannon and Bill Coon, Two Much More (Cellar Live Records)
Vancouver-based guitarists Oliver Gannon and Bill Coon follow up 2006's Two Much Guitar with the aptly titled Two Much More, which should serve as your go-to fix for Canadian jazz guitar. The two friends seem to share a telepathic musical connection, and their nuanced duo rendition of "In a Sentimental Mood" is a prime example of this. As a whole, this album of straight-ahead jazz standards feels like a relaxed jam session, where everyone involved is having a great time.
Personnel: Oliver Gannon and Bill Coon (guitar); Darren Radtke (bass); Dave Robbins (drums).
Cory Weeds, Condition Blue (Cellar Live Records)
What better way to pay tribute to saxophonist Jackie McLean than by beginning and ending an album with a blues? On Condition Blue, Cory Weeds joins forces with one of the best organ trios in the business to do the late alto master justice. Track after track, the band digs into driving solos with gusto and doesn't pull any punches. Just like you'd expect, this album leaps out of the gate and doesn't stop swinging until the very last note.
Personnel: Cory Weeds (alto saxophone); Mike LeDonne (organ); Peter Bernstein (guitar); Joe Farnsworth (drums).