35 best Canadian jazz artists under 35
As jazz fest season gets underway, we are excited to share the first annual list of 35 under 35, dedicated to Canada's great young jazz instrumentalists and vocalists.
Inspired by the annual classical edition, this list was selected after an in-depth research project polling college and university jazz programs across the country, as well as leaders in the jazz business including managers, festival promoters, fellow musicians and teachers. What resulted is a list of artists who truly represent the jazz of our country: instrumentalists who are pushing new boundaries in improvised and soulful music; bands that are taking collective improvisation to new heights; vocalists who are honouring the deep jazz tradition while moving the art form forward by fusing the jazz language with new musical influences. This is the future of the music.
We also have a paired web stream, playable above, that highlights all the artists on this list. So, jazz fans, you have a truly immersive experience here to learn about the next generation of future jazz legends, as we roll into the world-class Canadian jazz festival season.
Go out and support live jazz around the country this summer, and watch out for these young names in jazz.
Alex Goodman, guitar
From Toronto; currently living in NYC
Goodman is easily one of Canada's most accomplished young jazz exports. Since completing his master's in jazz performance at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, he has been burning up the NYC jazz scene and is truly making his mark as one to watch. Goodman received a 2013 Juno nomination for best contemporary jazz album, and won the 2014 Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition.
Alison Young, saxophone
Near the very top of an expanding group of Canadian brass and woodwind players is Alison Young. She is deeply rooted in the soulful jazz pantheon, and has studied the greats on the saxophone, including Hank Crawford, David Sanborn, Lou Donaldson and so many other masters. Young is also one of the busiest musicians in Toronto, currently playing with everyone from Alysha Brilla, Big Rude Jake and the Heillig Manoeuvre, while leading her own quartet.
Alison Au, saxophone
Toronto is blessed with two amazing saxophone players named Alison. Au is perhaps known within the modern jazz circles a bit more, and shines as a composer, arranger and leader. Her sound shows an open-minded saxophonist who experiments with different ideas and embraces new concepts and sounds in her playing.
Her influences range from Charlie Parker to Miguel Zenon to Canadian great Seamus Blake, and everywhere in between. Check out her two Juno-nominated albums — Forest Grove and The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey — as a leader, and watch out for this incredible talented young saxophonist.
Amanda Tosoff, piano
From Vancouver; currently living in Toronto
Tosoff has established herself as one of the most exciting new talents on the Canadian jazz scene. On her brand new release, Words, she takes an adventurous leap beyond the confines of conventional jazz: Tosoff has taken poems and lyrics that possess a personal resonance and framed them in original, new compositions that utilize vocals for the first time (sung by another artist on this list, Felicity Williams, of such bands as Hobson's Choice, Broken Social Scene and Bahamas). The result is an eclectic collection that incorporates elements of pop, art song, classical, folk and jazz.
Ashley Summers, bass
From Vancouver; currently living in Chicago
Ashley Summers comes from an incredibly musical family. Her brother is a beautiful saxophonist, living and working in Nashville, her father a well-known and beloved music teacher in B.C., and Summers is truly both — a well-respected educator who has taught and adjudicated students throughout North America, and a fascinating musician, composer and arranger with a vast range of musical influences. Her new album, True North, is absolutely gorgeous, and is surprisingly her debut as a leader.
Easily one of Canada's most exportable and internationally renowned jazz-influenced groups, BadBadNotGood has emerged as a trailblazer in the blending of jazz, groove, hip-hop and jam music. As a band that started by interpreting songs from Odd Future in a jazz and groove-based context, the likelihood of this group breaking through as one of the most sought-after live acts in improvised music was not, well, good.
Fast-forward a few years and the band is recording and touring with Tyler, the Creator, Ghostface Killah, Kendrick Lamar and many others. BadBadNotGood has become the go-to band for hip-hop collaborations in a jazz context and has taken the trio concept to a whole new level, surpassing contemporaries like the Bad Plus.
Barbra Lica, vocalist
"Barbra Lica is a dazzling performer who has talent to burn and vocals that will knock you over," wrote former CBC Radio host and current Jazz FM CEO Ross Porter. Truer words have never been written about a young Canadian jazz vocalist, and Lica has already found herself spoken of in the same breath as Canadian jazz vocal legends like Diana Krall, Carol Welsman, Holly Cole and Denzal Sinclaire.
Lica's approach is very different than the aforementioned singers, though, with a great deal of humour in her lyrics and delivery, a charming presence and a developed ability to phrase a beautiful melody and tell a story with the lyrics. Many will hear Blossom Dearie and Doris Day in her sound, but there is so much more to be explored.
Ben Dwyer and Nomad, bass player/group
From Toronto; living in Montreal
Being a jazz musician who is, in turn, the son of a Canadian jazz legend/Order of Canada recipient can be a daunting and potentially tiresome role. One thing that you immediately get from Ben Dwyer — accomplished jazz bassist and son of saxophonist/pianist/(now) lawyer, Phil Dwyer — is that Ben is his own cat, influenced by his father and some of the giants of jazz history, but totally connected to the musical influences of his generation.
His group, Nomad — which he shares in billing with Simon Millerd on trumpet, Mike Bjella on reeds, Ted Crosby on bass clarinet, Jacob Wiens on guitar and Kai Basanta on drums — is one of the more interesting improvised music ensembles in Quebec, taking the concept of a true music collective to a new generation.
Bria Skonberg, trumpet/vocalist
From Chilliwack, B.C.; living in NYC
Skonberg has recently taken her talent to huge international heights. Her recently released album, With a Twist (produced by one of the best in the business, Matt Pierson), is her second for Sony Masterworks U.S., and it brings out different sides of this multi-faceted trumpet player and singer. Many jazz artists skip the tradition in jazz music, fast-forwarding past the music of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Duke Ellington and going straight to Bird, Trane or Monk.
Skonberg has cut her teeth playing in hot jazz bands, deeply studying the solos and phrasing of Armstrong and truly paying her dues in the foundation of jazz music. Added to this is her beautiful, expressive voice and deep knowledge of the jazz idiom. Watch out for Skonberg playing in a club in your town — before she is playing the big halls.
Chelsea McBride, saxophone/composer/arranger
From Vancouver; living in Toronto
The one constant comment we received when canvassing opinions on the most deserving artists for this list was "Just don't leave out Chelsea." Perhaps the worry from the masses comes from knowing that an artist this prolific can sometimes be forgotten, as they do not conform to how the industry chooses to label them.
What makes McBride particularly interesting is that, at a young age, she is completely disinterested with definitions. Whether it's her big band (Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School), her jazz trio (Chelsea McBride Group), her pop-fusion band (Chelsea and the Cityscape), her Latin-soul nonet (the Achromatics) or her video game cover band (Koopa Troop), McBride is one of Canada's most diverse young musicians, who refuses to stay in one creative box.
Chris Butcher, trombone
From Winnipeg; living in Toronto and New Orleans
Whether it's as leader of the uber-popular Heavyweights Brass Band, as a section player/soloist/arranger with many of the great Latin jazz groups in Toronto, as a member in the three-trombone section of the new Sheepdogs sibling group Bros, or as a shining light in the music of Hilario Duran, Jane Bunnett and Jay Douglas, Chris Butcher is the most prolific trombonist in Canada — and beyond. Winnipeg is like the Minneapolis of Canada — Prince, Bob Dylan, and so many other geniuses come Minneapolis, and we have Burton Cummings, Remy Shand and now Butcher up in Winnipeg, to name a few. Canada needs more instrumental jazz musicians like Butcher — there is no telling where his burgeoning career will take him.
Curtis Nowosad, drums
From Winnipeg; living in NYC
The era of post-bop and burnout jazz music gave us so many of the greats of jazz history – artists like Tony Williams, Ralph Peterson, Louis Hayes, and Jeff "Tain" Watts represent the greatest of their craft— and Nowosad keeps this flame alive in his fiery and inventive playing and composing. A graduate with a master's degree in jazz from the Juilliard of jazz schools — Manhattan School of Music — Nowosad is currently burning up the scene in NYC and adding to the impressive list of Winnipeg-born artists who are turning heads in the jazz world.
Eli Bennett, saxophone
It's hard to talk about Eli Bennett without immediately referencing his numerous accolades and accomplishments. This is an artist who, at a very young, 20-something age, has shared the stage with Oscar Peterson, Hank Jones, Terence Blanchard, Dave Holland and the Neville Brothers. Bennett has been nominated for — and won — plenty of awards, and yet he remains one of the most underrated instrumentalists in jazz today. The greatest aspect of this virtuoso musician is his chameleon-like ability to master funk, soulful music, bebop, modal jazz and all styles in between while keeping his distinctive sound.
Ellen Doty, vocalist
Anyone involved in the music scene knows that Ellen Doty is one of the hardest-working, most talented artists on the scene. Her voice is soft, sweet, confident and assured, and combines her deep love of jazz with the influences of the great singer-songwriters of our time. Doty has toured throughout Canada, released a beautiful debut entitled Gold and has just recently completed the recording of her sophomore album in Toronto with Justin Rutledge, Danny Vacon and drummer/producer Davide Direnzo. With an honesty and warmth that sets her apart from so many artists, Doty is an emerging Canadian talent who is clearly one to watch for 2017 and beyond.
Emily Steinwall, saxophone
There are a few musical families in jazz, but one that many people probably aren't aware of is the family tree of young saxophonist Emily Steinwall. Her grandfather, Jack Long, is co-founder of instrumental retailer Long & McQuade — as well as a legendary trumpet player. Growing up in this musical environment not only gave Steinwall first dibs on great horns that came through the stores, presumably, but the ability to be mentored by Long.
Steinwall has taken her love for the saxophone a long way in a short time, and has a pure, lyrical tone on the instrument. Her collaborative project Bloom is a quartet featuring fellow graduates of the Humber College program, and it derives influences from many styles of music including folk and classical. It is contemporary, ethereal, gorgeous music with influences from leaders like Mark Turner, Seamus Blake and Kurt Rosenwinkel.
Emma Frank, vocalist
The marriage of singer-songwriter or folk music with jazz and improvised music is one that has both endured and found new resonance over the decades. Artists like Tim Buckley, Elvis Costello with Bill Frisell, Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell on her brilliant Mingus album — these artists all found a partner in jazz, which gave them new ways to approach their compositions, melodies and the palette the songs were based on.
More recently, artists like Norah Jones, Jesse Harris, Tony Scherr, Toronto's Michelle Willis and now, Emma Frank, have taken this combination to an ethereal place. Frank's last album is a subtle but insightful journey weaved throughout 11 fantastic songs. A new album with some of the NYC scene's heavyweights — Aaron Parks, Jim Black, Rick Rosato and Franky Rousseau — will be released later this year.
Evan Shay, saxophone
From Seattle; living in Montreal
The remarkable young saxophonist Evan Shay was fortunate to study with Clarence Acox at Seattle's Garfield High School, arguably the greatest high school for jazz and big-band music in the world — with Acox standing as one of the greatest known jazz educators.
What is notable about Shay is that he has taken the fundamental knowledge that playing in a Grammy-recognized, award-winning, world-class high-school big band will ultimately give you, and built on it. Shay has grown into a multi-faceted musician who performs avant-garde and deep, improvised music with odd musical configurations (Run & Hide), contemporary jazz ensemble groups (Lawful Citizen) and more traditional combos with his Evan Shay Standards Band.
Felicity Williams, vocalist/improviser
It is not uncommon to find jazz musicians performing and recording with indie-rock bands like Broken Social Scene or Bros or Bahamas, but jazz musician/vocalist Felicity Williams stands alone in many ways as a true anomaly. Not only has she performed with Bahamas and BSS, but she has been a key part of two of the most important Canadian jazz albums of the last five years: The Words project from Amanda Tosoff, and the Border Crossing album from Alex Goodman. Both Juno nominees, Tosoff and Goodman's music has actually been inspired by Williams's unique sound.
To call Williams a jazz singer alone would be a disservice to her deep originality. She is frequently a wordless singer who uses her voice as a section instrument much like a saxophone, and as a lead improviser she discovers melodies over the form and harmony of the song in a way that 99 per cent of singers in the world simply cannot. An album featuring Williams can be, in many ways, still considered an instrumental record — an incredibly refreshing discovery in a world scattered with jazz singers singing standards.
Jake Koffman, alto saxophone
Perhaps the greatest Canadian example of a generational link in jazz music is that of Toronto-based alto-saxophonist Jake Koffman. His grandfather was saxophonist and composer Moe Koffman, one of the great original saxophone voices in jazz history and the composer of the classic "Swinging Shepherd Blues." Jake has run with the torch — and horn — and used it to further the bebop language with his own lyrical and expressive tone. A future great in the history of jazz saxophonists.
Karl Schwonik, drums
Named one of Calgary's "Top 40 Under 40," Yamaha Drum Artist and legally blind drummer Karl Schwonik grew up on a farm near Gwynne, Alta. Early on, he was exposed to a wide range of musical situations from jazz to polka. Fresh out of high school, Schwonik embarked on a tour with two-time Canadian Country Music Award nominee Heather-Dawn. This was followed by an invitation to study at the Banff Centre, where Schwonik was the youngest participant ever in the long-term career residency program.
Schwonik has won the TD Grand Jazz Competition at the Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Lieutenant Governor of Alberta's Emerging Artist Award, the VSA Arts International Young Soloist Award, the AFM International Diversity Award and the Queen's Jubilee Award.
Kristen Violet May, vocalist
From Montreal; living in Toronto
Kristen Violet May will be new to many Canadian jazz fans, but don't underestimate her ability; she is one of the rising voices in soulful pop and jazz. May's voice has emotional depth, control, nuance and technical range that is well beyond her age. Her songwriting comes from a place of life experience and loss, with a hopeful outlook amidst a darker past — Lana del Rey meets Corrine Bailey Rae at a smoky jazz club. Although May hasn't released her new album yet, there is buzz already about this incredibly talented vocalist and songwriter.
Larnell Lewis, drums
Ask almost anyone for the biggest band in jazz right now, and they will invariably say Snarky Puppy. The collective is the Broken Social Scene of jazz, revolving musicians and singers with the core band and touring the world at a dazzling pace, attracting audiences who love gospel, jazz, R&B and jam-band music. The group's last three albums have won two Grammy Awards for best pop instrumental album and one for best R&B performance.
Snarky Puppy's drummer — for a majority of recordings and tours — is Toronto-based virtuoso Larnell Lewis. He grew up singing in the church, and his gospel roots are present in everything Lewis plays. These days, he keeps busy playing with everyone from Laila Biali to Robi Botos to Molly Johnson to Glenn Lewis and countless others. Lewis is the first-call drummer for jazz and soulful music, and is one of the busiest clinicians in the world.
Lauren Falls, bass
From Port Alberni, B.C.; living in NYC
Ashley Summers, Brandi Disterheft and Marika Galea are among the Canadian jazz bassists who've become first-call musicians wherever they go. Now add Lauren Falls to the list. Falls comes from a musical family and has been a mainstay in the New York jazz scene for a few years now, having completed her master's in music at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. She is an educator, composer and incredibly talented improviser with a deep knowledge of the jazz tradition, and is helping pave the way for the next generation of the art form.
Luis Deniz, alto saxophone
From Camaguey, Cuba; living in Toronto
The term "effortless mastery" was coined by a jazz musician named Kenny Werner, and is an apt way to describe this prodigious saxophonist, originally from Cuba. Winner of the Montreal Jazz Festival's Grand Prix de Jazz and a Juno-winning and Grammy Award-nominated recording artist, Deniz has a facility on the instrument that is absolutely awe-inspiring, but a lyrical side and tone that will break your heart — and make you fall in love with this music.
Luke Sellick, bass
From Winnipeg; living in NYC
Sellick may be one of the lesser-known artists to Canadian instrumental jazz lovers, but don't let that fool you; it is only because he left Winnipeg at such a young age and made a name for himself in the competitive NYC jazz scene. At 26, Sellick has already attended Juilliard, studies with legendary bassist Ron Carter (of the Miles Davis Second Quintet) and apprenticed with the great Johnny O'Neal.
Today, he is the first-call bassist for jazz legends like Russell Malone, Jimmy Greene, Renee Rosnes and many others. He lives in Harlem and plays regularly at the most esteemed jazz clubs in the world, including the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard. Sellick's debut album, Alchemist, is now out on Vancouver's Cellar Live label, featuring a cast of brilliant instrumentalists from New York's next generation.
Marika Galea, bass
From Toronto; living in NYC
One thing that's clear in listening to Marika Galea's work is her deep desire to tell a story through her music, whatever the genre of influence. This has even extended into filmmaking and film composition projects. Galea's palette of influences is so wide, and it is clear how intensely she has studied and done the work it takes to tell your own story. Galea is a supremely gifted young artist with a lifetime of stories to tell in the future.
Maxwell Roach, drummer
Maxwell Roach is blessed with either the best or worst possible name as a jazz drummer. On one hand, having the same name as — arguably — the greatest jazz and bebop drummer in history could be an opportunity for errant Google searches landing on your music. On the other hand, you have to compete with Max Roach, an artist who helped define the 1940s and '50s jazz scene in New York and influenced an entire generation of jazz musicians — while also helping to create the soundtrack for the civil rights movement.
Toronto's Max Roach is well on the way to writing his own story in jazz history, with numerous appearances on some of the best jazz records of the last decade, including new albums from Alex Goodman and David Restivo. Roach is also affecting change in his own way, with the invention of a zero carb, zero gluten "cloud bread" that allows dieters and healthy eaters to enjoy a bread substitute. Perhaps an unlikely turn for a jazz musician, but this is what game-changers do.
Maya Rae, vocalist
The world of jazz has been blessed with child prodigies for as long as the genre has existed. People forget that Ella Fitzgerald debuted on the hallowed stage of the Apollo when she was just 17 years old, and was singing on the streets of Harlem for a year before that. Maya Rae is faithfully continuing the tradition of young, prodigious voices taking their incredible talents to the jazz art form, and at only 15 years old she has an incredibly bright future ahead.
Her debut album, Sapphire Birds, produced by Cory Weeds, one of the hardest-working cats in the business, was released earlier this year on the Cellar Live label, and shows a supremely gifted artist who is able to phrase like Sarah Vaughan but write a lyric like Joni Mitchell. Watch out for this talented singer and composer.
Michelle Willis, vocalist/pianist/composer
There are certain artists who bring you into their world and emotional zone so intensely that you feel like you know them, even when you have never met. Michelle Willis is that person, and her indescribable charm and intimacy — in both her music and live performance — makes her truly one of Canada's most promising artists in any genre.
Willis doesn't live solely in the world of jazz music, but she is constantly informed by it. Currently, she is working with the brilliant bassist, label head and co-founder of Snarky Puppy — bassist Michael League — and Willis's latest album is on League's GroundUp label. She is currently touring with League and his bandmates in Snarky Puppy, as well as with legendary songwriter and singer David Crosby. Willis even debuted with Crosby on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon recently.
Myriad3, jazz trio/improvisers
Myriad3 was an accident. The musicians who make up the trio — Ernesto Cervini, Chris Donnelly, and Dan Fortin— had never played together until a few substitutions and twist of fate put them onstage as a trio in late 2010. That was the beginning of one of the most lasting relationships in the Canadian jazz scene. Myriad3's four albums for Alma Records/Universal Music Canada have been critically acclaimed worldwide, and the trio has taken group interplay and improvisation to modern and newfound heights.
The three artists' versatility and ability to captivate audiences of all backgrounds with their explosive and nuanced live performances are a big part of why this band has toured the world so extensively. There aren't a lot of working jazz groups in Canada that have kept the same lineup for more than five years — it is hard to keep groups working regularly enough to sustain the continued writing and recording of new music — but with this trio of talented young musicians, you can bet they will be recording, touring and creating for many years to come.
Nikki Yanofsky, vocalist/composer
It would be pretty tough to talk about the greatest jazz artists under 35 in Canada without seeing Yanofsky's name near the top. She was a true child prodigy, having been discovered early on by André Menard, head of the Montreal Jazz Festival, at the age of 12. From there, her career grew at a meteoric pace, resulting in collaborations in the last decade with some of the greatest artists and producers in modern music history including Quincy Jones, Marvin Hamlisch, Tommy LiPuma, Phil Ramone, Stevie Wonder, will.i.am, Wyclef Jean, Herbie Hancock, Ron Sexsmith and countless others.
At only 23 now, Nikki has released an EP, two full-length studio albums, a live album/DVD and a fully produced live DVD concert and PBS special. Add to that numerous compilation appearances, and the single "I Believe," the official theme of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Through all of these opportunities and incredible artistic achievements, Yanofsky has remained grounded and keenly focused on continuing to develop as a writer, singer and performer. Her most recent music may be better described as soulful pop, but there is no avoiding Yanofsky's deep jazz roots, and incredible mastery as a vocalist.
Rachel Therrien, trumpet
From Montreal; living in Brooklyn
Rachel Therrien describes her goals in music best in her own words: "Jazz is a philosophy of conversation between musicians from different backgrounds through improvisation, and that we, as musicians, it is our mission to keep jazz alive and to make sure that our generation of non-musicians live the experience and appreciate that unspoken language." In the case of Therrien, it is prescient as to where she is taking her own music in the future.
Therrien's work in Cuba, deep study of the jazz tradition and the Afro-Cuban influence in jazz, plus her efforts in the creation of a series dedicated to supporting Montreal-based composers, are all culminating into the development of a complete artist — one who is truly creating music that will speak to the next generation of fellow artists and non-musicians alike.
Sam Kirmayer, guitar
Katie Malloch, former host of CBC's Jazz Beat and Tonic, has been a strong supporter of Sam Kirmayer's career and contributed the liner notes for his debut offering, saying, "Sam's dexterity, his love for the richness of jazz and his sheer joy at making music are all over this, his first CD ... a great introduction to Sam's solid sense of swing ... get ready to groove!"
Kirmayer is probably the busiest jazz guitarist in Montreal, and one of the most in-demand sidemen, period. This is well-earned, as he is a monster musician with an incredible tone on the guitar reminiscent of greats like Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Grant Green. His sense of swing, rhythmic sophistication and melodic phrasing translate into swinging, effortless-sounding and smile-inducing jazz. Kirmayer's debut album, released this spring, is a beautifully recorded outing with some of Montreal's strongest support cast, and this is a name to check out when you are in Montreal.
Tara Kannangara, trumpet/vocalist/composer
From Chilliwack, B.C.; living in Toronto
Like its fellow provincial sister Nanaimo, Chilliwack seems to have something in the water — or education system — that gifts the world with incredible artists. Two of the best young Canadian trumpet players in jazz, Bria Skonberg and Tara Kannangara, hail from Chilliwack, and they really couldn't be any more different from each other in terms of influence, compositional style and sound.
Kannangara's debut album, Some Version of the Truth, was nominated for a Juno Award in 2016, and showcased the artist's unique compositional style, lovely voice and almost hypnotically enticing trumpet tone. There is a new album to come out later this year, and one can only imagine where this artist will be in a few years' time. The triple threat of vocals, trumpet and songwriting, along with having something to say in this music, is a recipe for a long and rewarding career.
Trevor Giancola, guitar
"Playing with innate grace and beautiful, loping lines, Trevor Giancola plays wise beyond his years, like an old master," wrote Raul da Gama on his site, Jazzdagama.com. A true staple of the jazz and creative music scene in Toronto, Giancola is a deeply talented artist, composer and band leader who recently released Fundamental, one of the most assured and interesting jazz albums of the year, with an incredible cast of supporting musicians. Giancola was a key member of the band that accompanied vocalist Sophie Milman for many years, so it's nice to hear him stepping out with the support of Adam Aruda and the brilliant Neil Swainson on this first album. Jazz guitar has never been in better hands than with the current crop of young artists.