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The Canadian Jazz Collective

The Black Forest Session

by Howard Lawes

In 2016 a satirical Canadian radio programme called This is That featured an imaginary university jazz course that guaranteed its graduates financial stability as jazz musicians.  The irony of this scenario will no doubt bring a smile, not just to Canadian jazz musicians, but to anyone with an interest in jazz. Canadian jazz has a long history and as if to emphasise its wealth of current talent the Canadian Jazz Collective, fronted by three of Canada's most acclaimed and accomplished musicians, is releasing an album called Septology - The Black Forest Session on HGBS Blue Records, distributed in the UK by Proper Music.


Here is a video introducing the band.

The Canadian Encyclopeadia has a comprehensive article about jazz in Canada and what follows is a mainly a brief summary of that article

Many will know that Livery Stable Blues was the first jazz music ever recorded, played by The Original Dixieland Jass Band in 1917, but a little less well known is that they also recorded The Darktown Strutters' Ball  in the same year and this song was composed by a Canadian called Shelton Brooks.  Canada, being the country geographically closest to the US cities of Chicago and New York, was always going to be a popular destination for visiting American jazz musicians and Montreal in particular, not being subject to the strict prohibition of the 1920s, became an entertainment hub, welcoming many world-class jazz musicians during the roaring twenties and into the thirties. 


While some Canadian nationals became jazz musicians their largest potential audience was denied them by restrictive union laws during the Depression and until after WW2.  However, some Canadians followed their jazz dreams by moving to the US or the UK and these included Toronto-born Gil Evans, Dennis Farnon and Kenny Wheeler; Maynard Ferguson who was born in Verdun, Quebec; Guy Lombardo from London, Ontario whose band was called The Royal Canadians while Paul Bley and Oscar Peterson came from Montreal.  Moving in the opposite direction, trumpeter Stu Eaton, who was a significant figure on the early jazz scene in Edinburgh, played in one of clarinetist Sandy Brown's earliest bands around 1946/47, later emigrating to Canada in 1954.

The 1930s and 1940s were a period when big bands played jazz, or swing, which was music to dance to.  In reaction to what became known as The Swing Era, jazz music began to diverge into sub-genres that tended to appeal to rather different audiences.  On the one hand, a revival of traditional New Orleans or Dixieland jazz came to be known by many as Trad jazz while on the other Bebop, with a sophisticated approach to harmony and rhythm, epitomised by the music of Charlie Parker, demanded more of both musician and audience. In Canada, it seems that audiences in Toronto tended to favour "trad" while those in Montreal were more inclined towards bebop. Many veteran “trad” and Dixieland musicians in Toronto are of British or European origin and include a large contingent of Scottish players.


In the 1950s and 1960s, the jazz world tended to subdivide into ever more strands, both artistically and geographically.  In the UK in particular, trad jazz achieved its zenith of popularity while in America hard bop, cool jazz and free jazz developed.  Canadians such Gil Evans had a huge impact as arranger for some of Miles Davis's most iconic music such as Miles Ahead (1957) and Sketches of Spain (1960); Paul Bley worked with Ornette Coleman in California, while Dennis Farnon (composer and arranger), Kenny Wheeler (jazz trumpet and free improvisation) and Maynard Ferguson (jazz trumpet and band leader) prospered in the UK and USA. One of Canada's most famous jazz musicians, Oscar Peterson, produced probably his best album, Night Train, in 1962.

The Canadian Encyclopaedia talks of "the conservative Canadian jazz establishment" and how "most of the harmonic and rhythmic advancements in jazz were not fully embraced in Canada until the 1980s" but at least three elements have been instrumental in bringing contemporary jazz to a wider, Canadian public.  Firstly, although Oscar Peterson and Phil Nimmons established an Advanced School of Contemporary Music in 1960, which operated out of Peterson’s Toronto home, this was short-lived and formal jazz education programmes were not established at Canada's leading universities until a course at McGill University in 1981, followed by the University of Toronto in 1991. Secondly, jazz music festivals were established, such as Montreal in 1981, that have become hugely successful and the city now is one of the best cities in the world to listen to jazz.  Thirdly, the fame and success of stars such as Diana Krall testify to the popularity of jazz in Canada and jazz from Canada around the world.

Now the Canadian Jazz Collective is looking to uphold, not only the tradition of jazz in Canada but also to demonstrate that Canada has no shortage of great, jazz musicians and in fact, the leading members of the collective encapsulate quite well the state of jazz in Canada.  Saxophonist, Kirk MacDonald, was born in Nova Scotia and is mentioned in the Canadian Encyclopaedia as one of those young players who embraced progression in jazz exemplified by John Coltrane and who has gone on to have a stellar international career as a musician winning many awards. He has also become one of Canada’s most respected and in-demand educators with a 30-year career leading jazz studies programmes at the University of Toronto, Humber College and McGill University.  Lorne Lofsky, from Toronto, first met Kirk MacDonald in the 1980s and together they have been a mainstay of the Toronto contemporary jazz scene for many years. Lofsky was the guitarist on the excellent Oscar Peterson album, The More I See You (1995) which heralded the comeback, following a stroke, of the piano maestro, and he has played, toured, and recorded with a host of international stars. In addition, Lorne Lofsky has been a faculty member at York University’s Fine Arts/Music Programme since 1978 and also teaches at the Humber College Community Music Programme.  Trumpeter, Derrick Gardner was born in Chicago and learned his trade both in conservatoires and with big bands such as the Count Basie Orchestra and the Harry Connick Jr Big Band. In a reversal of the traditional route, Gardner has moved to Canada from the USA where he is an associate professor of jazz trumpet and Babs Asper Professor in Jazz Performance at the University of Manitoba. He leads The Jazz Prophets, a band that celebrates the African origins of jazz and a community-based jazz orchestra called The Big Dig! Band.  Making up the septet are Virginia MacDonald on clarinet, Brian Dickinson on piano, Neil Swainson on bass and Bernd Reiter on drums.

The album subtitled The Black Forest Session was recorded at the iconic MPS Studios (Most Perfect Sound), a studio in Villingen, Germany that was one of Oscar Peterson's favourite studios.  The first track, Dig That! on the album seems like a bit of a warm-up with a straightforward head of descending chords introducing solos from Gardner, Virginia MacDonald, and her father Kirk who then trade eights with drummer Bernd Reiter.  Silent Voices, has a lovely, swaying melody with Gardner's muted trumpet creating added atmosphere while MacDonald father and daughter provide an improvisation duet.  Waltz You Needn't composed by Lorne Lofsky is a lovely tribute to Thelonious Monk and his bebop style.  The tune originally featured on Lofsky's solo guitar album, All Of You (1992) but seems very well suited to this septet with excellent soloing from Virginia MacDonald and Brian Dickinson on piano. Mindful of his African roots Derrick Gardner's composition Terre DuSable commemorates Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, the first permanent non-Indigenous settler of what would later become Chicago.  This energetic piece features most members of the band with Lofsky's guitar standing out.  Lorne Lofsky's composition, The Time Being, is a reflective piece "relating to my musical development thus far in my life" he says, but generously highlights pianist Brian Dickinson and other members of the band.

The excellence of the musicians within the Canadian Jazz Collective has been widely recognised through their winning awards and appointments at Canadian universities and conservatoires.  In addition, several members of the septet have played together over many years and have developed a profound understanding of each other and a rapport that is plain to hear on their album. The collective is touring Europe and is due to play at Ronnie Scott's Club   in London on 13th May before a New York debut at Birdland Jazz Club in July.  They have a great album which is a fine advertisement for the quality of jazz being played and enjoyed in Canada now and it also introduces, to non-Canadian audiences, the splendid Virginia MacDonald who has been described as "one of Canada's brightest rising stars".

Here is a video of Virginia soloing on Thelonious Monk's Misterioso.

Here are details and samples of the album.

Canadian Jazz Collective Septology.jpg
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