Treeline.“It took me a long time to get the courage to go into the studio with a large band and really lay it down [for Habitat],” admits Jensen. “It also took me a lot of time in post-production to figure out the sound, because there’s a lot of ways you can go with that many musicians.  I ended up getting four extended compositions together, and then added a few from my old repertoire that hadn’t been previously recorded.”

Jensen says that jazz represents her ideal form of expression. “Whether I’m playing by myself or with 20 other people, it’s about communication,” she says. “It’s about putting your own sound on top of a sketch or a lead sheet or an idea from a composer’s point of view. It’s just as important to express myself through the saxophone, as an improviser in the moment. That’s why everyone calls jazz the music of freedom.”

It took me a long time to get the courage to go into the studio with a large band and really lay it down.” – Christine Jensen

For Ann Arbor, Michigan-born and Montreal-based multi-reed player Colin Stetson, that freedom extends to the physical. His New History Warfare solo album trilogy is inspired by the sweat he pours into his trademark bass saxophone.

Using techniques such as circular breathing and overblowing, Stetson – who’s also played studio musician to Tom Waits, Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, among others – pushes the envelope, uttering drones and Philip Glass ostinato patterns as part of his fascinating sonics.

“The solo writing, though not exclusively, tends to come from the physicality of the instrument,” says Stetson. “It always has to come from there, because ultimately I’m coaxing a certain palette out of it.

“There are times when I have ideas and more fleshed-out themes for full songs. I’ll bring that to an instrument and contextualize it. Ultimately, everything is filtered through the medium of my instrument and the way that I can play it.”

Saxophonist and flautist Jane Bunnett, a Canadian den mother of Cuban musicians, is breaking gender boundaries as well as sonic ones. Her latest album, Maqueque, introduces and earmarks the numerous talents of young female Cuban musicians, a stark counterpoint to that country’s male-dominated music scene.

She discovered them during her annual jaunts to Cuba on behalf of The Spirit of Music Foundation, launched by Bennett and her husband, trumpeter Larry Cramer, to take instruments to the country over the past 25 years.

“We’ve gone into the schools and a good 60 to 70 percent of the audience are young girls,” says Bunnett. “I just found it so surprising that there weren’t a lot of instrumentalists out on the scene.”

Bunnett says she met singer/percussionist Daymé Arceno, 18 at the time, during one of the couple’s Cuban sojourns and was immediately impressed. “She held her own with some of the legendary Cuban guys and I was very impressed by her chutzpah,” recalls Bunnett. “She sang well beyond her years, and I found out she loved to compose.”

Comprised of Arceno and her fellow Cubans Yissy García on drums, Yusa on guitar and fretless bass, Danae Olano on piano and Magdelys Savigne on percussion – all  but Yusa in their early 20s – with Bunnett herself on soprano sax and flute, Maqueque is named for a word translates into “the spirit of a little girl.”

“We’ve got this really great combination of instruments and vocals I’ve kept in play,” says Bunnett of Maqueque, which has garnered enthusiastic album and live reviews throughout Canada.

In the true spirit of jazz, and in the true spirit of being Canadian, the frontiers of adventure await.

Given space constraints, it was not possible to mention all of the SOCAN members who are forging new directions in jazz.

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

Though his latest album of original compositions, Fou (Crazy) goes back to 2005, Dan Bigras has been active as an actor in the 30 Vies television series, as a film director for La rage de l’ange (2006) and, more recently, as Éric Lapointe’s mentor on La Voix. This past February, he resurfaced as a singer-songwriter with Le sans visage [Faceless].

On the other end of the line, Bigras took time from his Dominican Republic vacation to answer our questions – the first one being, why had there been such a long break between his last two album releases?: “Having adult attention deficit disorder,” Bigras replies, “the concept of taking a break is alien to me. In fact, I have the opposite problem. I have to jot down all my ideas right away because I know they’ll be gone in three minutes flat. I get back to all of this stuff later on and pick what I need.”

“As a creator, you must involve yourself to the point that there is no bloody difference between you and your work.”

We also wonder how difficult it was, for a creator who had accumulated 50 new songs over the past few years, to make a meaningful choice among a varied output dealing with such diverse topics as contented love, lustful relationships, society’s forgotten people, powerful, life-long friendships, social networks and their opinion overdose, and so on – and to turn this into a coherent album.

“Saying that I wrote 50 songs just to keep 15 in the end makes it sound like a lot of work,” Bigras explains, “but the truth is, you write 10 songs, then 10 more, and the second batch makes the first one sound like shit! So you keep going and, three years down the road, you’re up to 50 tunes. Once you realize you’ve been writing the identical same song three times, you know it’s time to quit. You’re there. All that’s left to do is clean things up here and there, cut off the dead wood and keep the good stuff for an album.”

How, then, can he manage to put both dark and upbeat songs back to back on the same album without making it sound unbalanced? Bigras’ answer to that is tied to his own definition of what balance is: “I learned a long time ago that balance does not mean steering a middle course. Balancing extremes means playing both ends against the middle. It’s the story of my life. Toeing the line has always made me miserable, ever since I was a small boy. That’s what got me attracted to extremes. In my songs, it’s the same thing, I need contrasting feelings and moods. That’s how I was able to find a balance on Le sans visage.”

Bigras freely admits that, as he gets older, he’s more likely to spend time by himself when he gets into a creative mood. Alone in his home studio, he talks to himself, laughs out loud, curses his equipment and generally has a great time doing it all. Since he’s quit drinking, these moments have become his favourite way of letting loose.

Isn’t there a risk, at some level, of a lack of oxygen while working in isolation without a fresh pair of eyes helping you see things differently? “Claiming that a creator has to distance himself from his work is a serious mistake,” Bigras corrects, with the authority of one who’s been there. “That’s what many producers will tell you to justify their big fees… As a creator, you must involve yourself to the point that there is no bloody difference between you and your work. Later, you can take some time to think. Besides, I have a record company with a staff, I have friends I can involve in listening groups along with industry people. But I only do that once I’ve reached a certain stage, not while the creative process is in full swing. I couldn’t work with a producer who would ask me to put in a little bit of this and take out a little bit of that. I couldn’t stand it.”

Another thing Bigras couldn’t stand for a long time was the sound of his own singing voice, a very distinctive instrument he has learned to accept for better or for worse. “I’ve long since stopped complaining that I’ll never be a great singer,” he explains without any false modesty. “I somehow realized that, of all the instruments I was playing, my voice was the only one conveying words, and that these words originated from deep inside me, straight from my heart. I was able to see that this is what matters in the end. I am old enough now to be able to start listening to my own voice. And a good job it is, too, because let me tell you, when you spend the whole day listening to yourself at the mixing stage, if you hate that voice, you’re in for one hell of a time… I’ve created albums where I’ve cut corners just because I could no longer stand the sound of me. Now I can. I suppose you become more fatalistic over time, and you can accept that what there is, is all there will ever be.”