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10 outstanding Canadian jazz albums of 2017

By
Chris Maskell

Over the past 12 months, many Canadian jazz musicians have stepped out to share their music with the world.

This year's releases were strong across the board and offer something for fans of any style, from classic swing to more progressive jams. And as the music showed us, it doesn't take a Juno winner to make a great album — some artists put out fantastic work and are just getting started.

In the list below, we've highlighted some of this year's strongest records from ensembles of all shapes and sizes.

Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet, Octet Vol. 2 (Modica Music)

This year, Toronto jazz stalwarts Dave Young and Terry Promane rallied their Juno-nominated group back together for another release featuring their impeccable arrangements of favourite standards. While each track has its great moments, the album’s highlights include saxophonist Mike Murley’s lush feature on "Detour Ahead," a slower than usual (but highly swinging) version of "Bebop" and Cedar Walton’s "Hindsight" to close things out. From start to finish, this record is a masterclass on the Toronto (jazz) sound.

Personnel: Dave Young (bass); Terry Promane (trombone); Vern Dorge (alto saxophone); Perry White (baritone saxophone); Mike Murley (tenor saxophone); Kevin Turcotte (trumpet, flugelhorn); Terry Clarke (drums); Dave Restivo (piano).

Dave Young/Terry Promane Octet.

Gentiane MG, Eternal Cycle (Independent)

Throughout her debut record, Montreal-based pianist Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon plays with striking musical maturity, a nuanced touch and plenty of fire. Along with bassist Levi Dover and drummer Louis-Vincent Hamel, Michaud-Gagnon delivers an expertly crafted program of her original music including the dramatic (and catchy) "War 99," the pensive ballad "Green Ashes" and "In Another Life," a lightning-fast piece that the group just breezes through. This first release shows much of Michaud-Gagnon’s deep musical identity — we can’t wait to hear what she has coming next.

Personnel: Gentiane Michaud-Gagnon (piano); Levi Dover (bass); Louis-Vincent Hamel (drums).

Chet Doxas, Rich in Symbols (eOne Music)

Besides touring with high-profile jazz group Riverside and being involved in lots of other projects, Chet Doxas is on everyone’s radar this year with another innovative release from his own quartet. The Montreal-born, New York City-based saxophonist wrote every piece on this album while viewing his favourite works in visual arts museums, which led to genre-defying results. Using electronics, overdubbing and lots of through-composed song forms, each piece fuses jazz with many other influences to create a wide range of musical moods. If you can catch Doxas's group performing live in a city near you, you should: they add a visual element to the music by projecting an image of each piece’s inspiration behind the stage.

Personnel: Chet Doxas (saxophone, flute, clarinet and synths); Matthew Stevens (guitar); Zack Lober (bass); Eric Doob (drums); Dave Douglas (trumpet); John Escreet (piano); Dave Nugent (guitar); Liam O’Neil (synths).

Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School, The Twilight Fall (Browntasauras Records)

At 25, saxophonist and composer Chelsea McBride already has some significant achievements under her belt, with this record being one of them. Featuring her big band made up of up-and-coming artists from Toronto’s jazz scene, The Twilight Fall is filled with twists, including a trumpet solo accompanied by a choir during the title track. McBride conceived all of the instrumental music on the record, and many of the tracks feature vocalist Alex Samaras, who does great justice to McBride’s memorable lyrics and melodies. We're excited to welcome another fantastic large ensemble to Canada's jazz scene.

Personnel: Chelsea McBride (conductor, tenor saxophone); Alex Samaras (vocals); Collen Allen, Naomi Higgins (alto saxophone); Anthony Rinaldi, Patrick Smith (tenor saxophone); Conrad Gluch (baritone saxophone); James Rhodes, Justin See, Tom Upjohn, Brownman Ali (trumpet/flugelhorns); William Carn, Aidan Sibley, Jill Richards, Nicholas Sieber (trombones); Chris Bruder (piano); David Riddel (guitar); Steven Falk (upright & electric bass); Geoff Bruce (drums).

Norman Marshall Villeneuve, Montreal Sessions (Independent)

While it was just released in November, this disc documents important Canadian jazz history. Through remastered material from personal reel-to-reel recordings, drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve gives listeners insight into the music that was heard in Rockhead’s Paradise and the Black Bottom — two of Montreal’s most historically significant jazz clubs. The recordings date back as far as 1963 and feature a variety of standout musicians, such as guitarist Nelson Symonds, bassist Charlie Biddle and trumpeter Allan Wellman. As an added bonus, the final three tracks are never-before-released studio recordings of Symonds, Biddle and Villeneuve that showcase the trio’s solid musical relationship.

Personnel: Norman Marshall Villeneuve (drums); Nick Aldrich (bass); Alvin Pall (tenor saxophone); Allan Wellman (trumpet); Linton Garner (piano); Buddy Jones (Hammond B3 organ); Bernie Mackey (guitar); Ivan Symonds (guitar); Nelson Symonds (guitar); Charlie Biddle (bass).

Diana Krall, Turn up the Quiet (Verve)

No stranger to lists like these, Canadian crooner Diana Krall needs no introduction. Like the title of her release this year suggests, this collection of jazz standards falls onto the softer side of the spectrum. Not to say the record drags on by any means — quite the opposite, in fact. Refined arrangements cast Krall’s husky contralto in different duos, trios, quartets and quintets (including some arrangements with full string accompaniment), which consistently vary the pace. Fans of Krall’s earlier standard songbook releases won’t want to miss out on this one.

Personnel: Diana Krall (piano, vocals); John Clayton, Jr., Christian McBride, Tony Garnier (bass); Jeff Hamilton, Karriem Riggins (drums); Russell Malone, Marc Ribot, Anthony Wilson (guitar); Stefon Harris (vibraphone); Charlie Bisharat, Kevin Connolly, Neel Hammond, Tamara Hatwan, Mario Deleon, Natalie Leggett, Songa Lee, Katia Popov, Michele Richards, Marcy Vaj, Ina Veli, John Wittenberg, Kathleen Sloan (violin); Alisha Bauer, Jodi Burnett, Jennifer Kuhn, Vanessa Freebairn-Smith (cello); Andrew Duckles, Kate Reddish, Michael Whitson, Colleen Sugata (viola); Stuart Duncan (fiddle).

Roddy Ellias, Sticks and Stones (Independent)

Ottawa-based guitarist Roddy Ellias presents his take on acoustic trio music in this standout record. Over the course of his original compositions and one cover, the group’s deep listening and remarkable blend make for beautiful music. The record carries the distinct feeling of chamber music blended with small-group jazz, with no need for showy chops (although these musicians have them in spades). Give this album the listening attention it deserves and you’ll be rewarded.

Personnel: Roddy Ellias (guitar); Marc Copland (piano); Adrian Vedady (bass).

Cory Weeds, Let’s Groove (Cellar Live)

The music of Earth, Wind & Fire gets a soulful six-piece treatment in this latest release from Vancouver saxophonist Cory Weeds. The album has the feel of a 1960s Blue Note record, using hits like "Getaway," "You and I" or "After the Love has Gone" as launching points for great solos all around. Mike LeDonne’s organ is the glue of the group, offering rock-solid bass lines and conversational comping. Earth, Wind & Fire fan or not, this is feel-good music that can't do wrong.

Personnel: Cory Weeds (alto saxophone); Mike LeDonne: B3 Organ, Steve Kaldestad: tenor saxophone, Dave Sikula: Guitar, Jason Tiemann: Drums, Liam MacDonald: percussion.

Matthew Stevens, Preverbal (Ropeadope Records)

This trio record from Toronto expat Matthew Stevens is a great example of one of the many directions that jazz is going today. The New York guitarist uses samples and other post-produced layers to create a rock-influenced record that wraps mysterious harmonies in catchy grooves. The pacing throughout the album is fantastic, with each track slowly unfurling from one section to the next. To cap things off, vocalist Esperanza Spalding (with whom Stevens performs regularly) makes a dazzling appearance on the album’s final track.

Personnel: Matthew Stevens (guitars, sampling, synth, bass) Eric Doob (drums, sampling, synth, programming); Vicente Archer (bass).

PJ Perry, Alto Gusto (Cellar Live)

Anyone who attended these two nights at Edmonton's the Yardbird Suite in May heard some very refined jazz. Throughout the live recording, Edmonton-based saxophonist (and Order of Canada member) PJ Perry melodically weaves his way through well-chosen standards along with the rest of the tight-knit ensemble. Within the first two minutes of the opening track, an audience member can be heard murmuring “yeah” to themselves after a particularly tasteful moment. We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.

Personnel: PJ Perry (alto saxophone); Jon Mayer (piano); Steve Wallace (bass); Quincy Davis (drums).

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Legendary Canadian Jazz saxophonist Phil Dwyer digs through his extensive collection of Canadian jazz recordings to bring you the ultimate Canadian Jazz music experience. A recipient of the Order of Canada and winner of several Junos, Phil has personally played on over 200 recordings alongside Canada's most beloved jazz artists. Hear: Phil Dwyer, Diana Krall, Oscar Peterson, P.J. Perry, Guido Basso, Molly Johnson and more