At only 28 years old, Jeff Morrow has already built a very successful résumé composing for film, television, radio and commercials. But where some find success by traveling established pathways, he’s done it by following his own course.

Growing up in Toronto in a musical family, Morrow’s propensity to forge his own path emerged early on.

“I don’t know if it was just dumb luck, but I quite literally Googled ‘music production Toronto’ and dropped off a CD, and it sort of worked out.”

“I had a lot of piano teachers who were frustrated with me because I didn’t want to sit down and practice,” he says with a chuckle. “I wanted to noodle around on my own. I didn’t want to practice what some old German guy had written.”

Later, he studied jazz at McGill, composing for their chamber jazz ensemble and big band. He also played in various groups as a trombonist, until he saw the writing on the wall. “I realized I wasn’t going to be a top-tier jazz musician. I just didn’t have that in me,” he says. “I enjoyed writing music for other people to play a lot more.”

So he headed back up the highway to Toronto, and it was there – either as a result of yet again following his nose, or perhaps through sheer serendipity – that he caught a break.

“I don’t know if it was just dumb luck, but I quite literally Googled ‘music production Toronto’ and dropped off a CD, and it sort of worked out,” he says with a laugh. His demo disc impressed the Eggplant Collective production company, and Morrow spent the next five years there writing music for TV shows and advertising jingles.

In 2012, he was selected as one of two composers-in-residence for the Slaight Music Lab at the Canadian Film Centre (CFC). As a result, more film work started coming his way. Morrow’s approach to film scoring also reflects his penchant for avoiding the well-worn path.

“I’m not a huge fan of film music that sounds overtly like film music,” he says. “I prefer more quirky, unique-sounding scores that jump out at you a bit. With technology the way it is now, there are endless ways to experiment with new sounds and new ideas – there’s not much point in reverting to old ones.”

Morrow now divides his time between work in Los Angeles and Toronto. As for the road ahead, his course is predictably simple: travel back and forth and see what happens.

“It’s funny; I kind of always wanted to be a film composer, but it seemed so far-fetched,” he says. “I didn’t think I could ever attain it because I didn’t know anyone who did it, so I feel pretty lucky to have worked my way in.”

Sometimes it pays to follow your own compass.

Track Record

  • Morrow has worked with such directors as Gemini Award-winner Cory Bowles, Amar Wala (The Good Son), and the acclaimed Sam Catalfamo (Innocent Things).
  • His compositions appear in more than 30 television shows, numerous CBC radio news programs and in more than 20 advertising campaigns.

Selected Credits: Film: Anatomy of Assistance (2013), Cold Feet (2013), The Secret Trial 5 (2014). TV: Rocket Monkeys (Teletoon), WordGirl (PBS), The Bridge (CBS), Crash Canyon (MTV), The Fifth Estate (CBC), The Passionate Eye (CBC). Radio: CBC Hourly News, The World This Hour (CBC), The House (CBC).|
SOCAN member since 2010

Fontarabie (not to be confused with the Spanish commune of Fontarrabie, spelled with two r’s in French) is the name of an ambitious music project undertaken by Malajube leader Julien Mineau between two album releases by his highly popular band. Part film soundtrack and part classical or pops orchestra music, Fontarabie’s recently released first self named album stemmed from Mineau’s desire to take a break from Malajube’s brazenly diverse music style and try something different in the privacy of his own Ste-Ursule, Québec, home.

“I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, and a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period.”

“I’d been working on personal projects and learning new techniques alone in my house for quite some time,” Mineau explains, “but I always lost interest before I could complete anything. It was either too complicated, or I was too busy playing with Malajube. Solo projects always ended up being dropped. This last project required a certain level of creative maturity, and I also wanted to be relaxed and without any stress. I wanted to create something meaningful that didn’t feel like work. I turned my house into a training lab. I bought mics, set up a small studio and leaned a few trades, such as those of arranger, mixer and sound technician. I quite enjoy doing stuff on my own without having to wait for a grant.”

Spread over a two-year period (2012-14), the creation of Fontarabie progressed slowly in an appropriately serene environment. “It’s been an extended studio session,” says Mineau. “I hardly went out to take in live music. I isolated to some extent, but I was comfortable at home with my girlfriend and my dogs. I’m a bit of a hermit anyway, more of a homebody.”

The 14 pieces on the album are only a fraction of the material Mineau accumulated for his impressive solo project. In making his final selection from some 50 songs, his chief consideration was the unity of the finished product. “I didn’t want to spread myself too thin,” he says. “I wanted something coherent with meaning and an overall thrust. Initially, it was all over the place, but I sorted things out, and that was quite a long process. I went about building the album instinctively, but I re-did some pieces dozens of times before I could finally say I was pleased with the result. That’s always been my attitude with music – I do it for myself first and foremost. I have to admit that I ended up putting pressure on myself toward the end, though. I fine-tuned many of the songs. I’d call myself a perfectionist, but not a maniac – that would be too dangerous,” he deadpans.

Sometimes reminiscent of Danny Elfman’s film compositions, Fontarabie’s music (performed by six musicians including Timber Timbre’s Simon Trottier) can also be likened to Hammer Productions or David Lynch film soundtracks. “I’m not a great listener to film music,” Mineau admits,“but that was certainly in my subconscious. I wanted to create evocations of early motion pictures, kitschy stuff, Columbo, violin glissandos. It was an exercise, really. Plus, I don’t like blending the colour of my voice into the music I make. I often think that this could alter the mood by providing too much information. That’s why half of the album pieces are instrumental.”

Even for film-like or mysterious instrumental selections such as “Morula” or “Cosmogonie,” Mineau invariably turned to the piano to compose his pieces (although he plays some ten instruments on the album). The writing of the lyrics, however, was his greatest creative challenge. “Had I decided to go without voices altogether, the album would have been able to come out last year,” he says. “All the music was ready. I must say, writing lyrics is not my idea of fun. It’s time-consuming, and much less instinctive. And more painful, too. I can come up with the music for three songs in a single day, but when it comes to lyrics, I’m always a bit stuck. I refuse to write meaningless sentences or bad puns. I’ve changed since I started out. I wrote Trompe-l’œil when I was 22. Now I’m 33, a completely different person. There’s very little left over from that earlier period,” he stresses.

After performing a memorable show last summer at the Montreal FrancoFolies festival (with 17 musicians onstage), spending some time in the New Brunswick countryside and taking part in the Festival de musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue (FMEAT), Mineau’s future plans are simple: “Writing and performing music on a daily basis, that’s what I want to do right now. Also, we never know where Malajube is going to go next, but I already have one or two Fontarabie albums in the bank. I’m on a roll in the studio, and I’d rather play stand-alone shows that go on tour at this stage in my life. Plus,” Mineau prudently adds, “I’ve made a copy of my hard drive. So, if my house burns down, I won’t lose all that work.” And neither will we.

“There’s a way of playing safe, there’s a way of using tricks and there’s the way I like to play, which is dangerously, where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.”

The late Dave Brubeck wasn’t Canadian, nor was he a SOCAN member, but the quote attributed to him could easily describe a number of SOCAN members who are exploring jazz and taking the genre in bold, innovative new directions.

Canada has been blessed with pioneering artists like pianist Oscar Peterson, arranger Gil Evans, guitarist Lenny Breau and big band-leading trombonist Rob McConnell forging trailblazing reputations in the past, but 2014 has its own share of groundbreakers: bands like Bad Bad Not Good with their hip-hop sensibilities; composers like soul-jazz experimenter Elizabeth Shepherd; Kellylee Evans, whose breathtaking interpretations of rap have been eye-opening; The Heavyweights Brass Band, who put an old-time spin on contemporary standards and new originals; and adventurous trio Myriad3, who are forging their own lexicon.

“I placed myself in that tradition of people who have found ways to hack the big band.” – Darcy James Argue

And there are these four: Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Christine Jensen, Colin Stetson and Jane Bunnett’s latest project, Maqueque (pronounced mah-KAY-kay).

On the big-band front, Vancouver-born Darcy James Argue and Montreal’s Christine Jensen each offer their own distinctive takes on the 18-member format with their recent efforts Brooklyn Babylon and Habitat, respectively, both to international critical acclaim.

Argue, who has been twice nominated for Grammy Awards for 2010’s Infernal Machines and 2013’s Brooklyn, takes credit for self-labeling his music “steampunk big band,” a sound that references everyone from the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis era to Monty Python faves John Philip Sousa, and veers from minimalism to a full funk blowout.

“I was taking some pretty old-school musical technology full of brass, hijacking it, and making it do something it wasn’t originally designed to do,” Argue explains from his New York home. “The big band is so strongly associated with a particular time and place in history, but there have always been the freaks and weirdos of the jazz world who have clung to, and have found innovative usage for, this particular instrumentation that is wildly divergent from the sound of the big band era. By claiming that label, I placed myself in that tradition of people who have found ways to hack the big band.”

Argue, who spent time studying music at Montreal’s McGill University, was invited by trombonist Bob Brookmeyer – “a great mentor of mine and a master of big band writing,” says Argue – to study at the New England Conservatory of Music.

“They had something totally unique – a student big band, devoted entirely to student compositions, that meets every week,” Argue recalls. “This was a great opportunity for me to hone my skills.”

Argue admits that he never intended to specialize in big band, but his time at the New England Conservatory helped focus his sound.

“I really became enraptured with the possibilities of writing music on a larger scale, having the ability to have dense harmony and counterpoint, and wider tone palettes than you have in a small group,” says Argue. “There’s also the kind of intricacy and raw power that comes from having 14 brass and wind players blowing right in your face. It’s an experience you can’t really duplicate. It became something that I couldn’t live without.”

Christine Jensen has a similar tale in terms of unexpectedly tackling a larger ensemble, although the alto saxophonist prefers the term “jazz orchestra” to “big band.”

“It’s my music and it’s a bit contemporary,” she explains. “It’s not easy listening – there are challenges in the composition for the listener to hear new ideas.”

Scoring rave international reviews and a JUNO Award for her latest album Habitat, Jensen – the sister of renowned Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen (who plays in Argue’s Secret Society) – says the album’s inspiration grew out of her prior small ensemble release,