They are the wind beneath unfolding Canadian jazz wings:  dynamic brass players 40 and under who are extending the legacies of such veterans as Jane Bunnett, Christine and Ingrid Jensen, Guido Basso, and the late Rob McConnell. You can find them coast-to-coast-to-coast: exciting composers and players who are honing their craft and exploring new frontiers while pushing jazz boundaries.

Chilliwack-born Tara Kannangara is a promising trumpeter and singer, carving out her own niche in a geographical corridor of Western Canada that includes Vancouver saxophonist and flautist Ben Henriques; Winnipeg-born, now New Orleans-based trombonist Chris Butcher; and his fellow Heavyweights Brass Band saxophonist, and Winnipegger of origin, Paul Metcalfe. Kannangara’s recent sophomore album It’s Not Mine Anymore exhibits a diverse range of styles that cull inspiration from all worlds.

“I have a lot of influences, and types of music that I love, and thankfully I’ve developed a pretty large palate through all the people I’ve played with, and my mentors,” says Kannangara, who writes primarily on piano. “So, I end up writing a melding of all those genres that sounds pretty multi-dimensional. My only mandate is to write music I’d like to listen to.”

Moving East, Toronto enjoys a vigorous jazz movement. Globe-trotting trumpeter Mike Field, and saxophonists Alison Young and the JUNO Award-winning Allison Au lead a pack that can be found playing jazz at such specialty venues as The Rex Hotel and The Jazz Bistro.

“It’s a very healthy scene,” says Au, originally inspired to learn her instrument by The Simpsons’ Lisa Simpson. “People aren’t making the money the way they are in other fields, but it’s very active, with a lot of talent. It’s relatively easy to get a gig, though often it’s pass-the-hat. Sometimes there’s a guarantee, but you’re probably not walking out with a lot of cash in your pocket.”

Au, whose quartet will be making its Monterey Jazz Festival debut this year, cites the piano as her compositional instrument. “When I get into a groove, it’s usually at the piano, and I’m just noodling around,” says Au, whose latest, Wander Wonder, is her third album as a bandleader. “I’m not the best player, but I did study classical for 12 years as a kid. I noodle around until I find something intriguing, often a vamp. Sometimes, it’s a melodic idea. and I try to figure out harmonically where that may lead. I just follow my ear.”

Once the basic concept is down, Au’s imagination naturally expands the instrumentation. “I do hear my band members playing things – which is a driving force for me, more than the sound of the saxophone,” she says. “I hear the band instrumentation I use – bass, drums and piano – very clearly.”

“Part of the composition is choosing your musicians.” – Rachel Therrien

While jazz is a much-loved idiom that constantly challenges the disciplines of those who play it, its financial sustainability as a sole occupation can be arduous. Many players teach, and they often play in several projects at once, and perform other kinds of music on the side. For example, Montréal trumpeter Rachel Therrien admits that although jazz is her sole focus as a composer, it’s not her exclusive bread-and-butter.

“I have a lot of side-man gigs, which aren’t all in jazz,” says Therrien, who recorded 2016’s Pensamiento in Colombia. “I play a lot of West African music, Cuban music, and Moroccan stuff.  But I’ve always wanted to play those cultural styles, because it influences a lot of my writing.”

Part of a community that includes saxophonists Claire Devlin and Marie-Josée Frigon, Therrien says that although her local scene is healthy – Montréal has always been a “jazz city,” and the 40-year-old Montréal International Jazz Festival has only helped that (as have summer jazz fests in most major cities across Canada) – jazz-exclusive venues are still hard to come by. “There are maybe four official clubs, but you can’t rely on them to pay your rent,” she notes.

Therrien, who recently recorded her fifth, an-as-yet-untitled album in Paris, says her compositional technique starts in her mind. “I compose with pen and paper first, and then I start to write harmonies,” she says. “Most of them start on paper as well.”

Where Therrien, a frequent performer in New York and France, differs from many is that she often thinks of specific musicians while she composes. “Jazz is largely improvised music, so the composition is the structure on which you improvise,” she explains. “Part of the composition is choosing your musicians, so that their way of playing suits your taste.”

In Halifax, saxophonist Ally Fiola is a bit of an anomaly: she’s a jazz composer intent on breaking into film scoring, and says one discipline often affects the other. “Whenever I compose on the jazz side of things, I have a bit more personal expression,” says Fiola, who released her debut album Dreaming Away in 2018. “My jazz compositions definitely lean toward more melodic and harmonic ideas. Whereas when I compose for film, it’s to serve the story and the filmmaker’s vision. The cool thing about it is that I get to explore more diversity. I just started film composing about three years ago, and it’s definitely expanded my palate.”

In a city that includes trumpeter Patrick Boyle and saxophonist Kenji Omae, Fiola – who intends to delve into cohesive New Orleans-style jazz “with a modern twist” for her next album – is quite comfortable composing on her principal instrument. “Because I’m a sax player, I tend to find melody first, so often I’ll be doodling on my saxophone and come up with melodies,” she says. “Then I’ll write out a lead sheet with an E-flat, B-flat, C and bass clef, for my five-piece band.

“I also find melodies on the piano because that’s how I primarily compose for film scoring. From there, I’ll figure out a harmonic progression to go with it, which is why I think sometimes my compositions have progressions that are different from standards.”

As with most jazz practitioners, education is paramount to Fiola. She’ll be attending Kingston University in London, England, to pursue a Master’s degree in music for composition in film and television. “I enjoy music so much – and with jazz and film scoring, I hope to sustain myself financially,” says Fiola.

The biggest survival lesson these versatile Canadian jazz ambassadors learn daily is based on the essence of jazz itself: improvise.

Given the limitations of space and resources, it wasn’t possible to mention all of the young, SOCAN-member, brass-based jazz composers working in the field. This is a small sample of them.

Reeny Smith says the song that she’s most proud of writing is “Dream,” a gorgeous piano ballad she released in 2014 that encourages listeners to “dream big, don’t dream small.” “It’s the song I use to motivate myself every day,” the Nova Scotia native admits all these years later. It also is, in some ways, a song that has helped her get over the obstacle of feeling like she wasn’t a strong enough songwriter.

In Smith’s online biography, there’s a quote of hers that says, “Songwriting was never something I thought I was good at.” For a while, the R&B artist only saw herself as a singer. “The biggest hurdle I had to overcome was my own insecurities and expectations,” she explains, looking back on that mindset now. But validation came when she saw that her music – especially an early cut like “Dream” – not only served as an inspiration to herself, but also to others. “I became more confident in my writing after seeing how my music helped people.”

In fact, her songwriting helped land her a deal with CYMBA Music Publishing. Award recognition also helps, and in recent years, Smith has picked up quite a few trophies, from the 2018 African Nova Scotian Music Award for Artist of the Year to being crowned The Coast’s “Best of Halifax” Best R&B Gold winner last year. This year, she also earned two East Coast Music Award nominations. All of that attention stems from the release of her 2018 debut full-length, WWIII: Strength Courage Love, a collection of soulful tunes that incorporate Gospel and dance elements, and gracefully explore the highs and lows of love.

It’s clear that Atlantic Canada is enamoured with Smith, and that feeling is mutual. “I’ve never felt pressure to move,” Smith reveals, acknowledging that Canada’s major music scenes are more concentrated in cities like Toronto or Montréal, but displaying no urge to pack up and leave her home. “I love where I live, and I love that I can be an example to show some of the talent that we have here on the East Coast.”

It was a year-end recital that Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) students will never forget.

Toronto’s Frank Dukes, currently one of the production kingpins of the contemporary pop era – with recent credits like Camilla Cabello, Drake, and Post Malone bolstering his global profile – spent three days with RPSM students in the winter of 2018-2019 to record Parkscapes, a charitable twist on his own ground-breaking Kingsway Music Library.

The story behind the Grammy-nominated Dukes (a.k.a. Adam Feeney) is that he’s revolutionized the sample business by creating and licensing his own atmospheric, ethereal loops to bypass the often lengthy clearance process. And the premise of Parkscapes, which is offered by Kingsway, is that Dukes would provide samples with fresh arrangements, and the RPSM kids would play the instruments.

“It was all stuff that was written before,” Dukes explains on the line from L.A. “Either I’d write a demo on the piano, or a demo that I’d laid down myself. Then I would teach the kids the chords, and come up with different arrangement ideas on the spot. If I was playing piano, then the recording you hear on Parkscapes might be the kids doing a vocal line, or playing a steel pan lead melody. Same writing, just different arrangements.”

Dukes confirms that all Parkscapes income will go directly to the school. “Say somebody uses those samples for a Drake song,” he says. “They would clear the sample, and the proceeds – the sample clearance money – would go to the school and then, just like how my regular libraries work, there would be a royalty. Over the next two years, the royalty would be paid out and distributed to fund the program.”

The timing of Dukes’ generous gesture couldn’t be better – especially in the light of heavy funding cutbacks to the arts and non-profits by the Ontario Progressive Conservative government under the leadership of Doug Ford.

Dukes said he was approached by long-time pal Rana Chatterjee, a former hip-hop radio host, and currently Associate Creative Director at BBDO Canada Advertising and Creative Agency in Toronto, with the idea. “I think, at the time, he wanted to propose the idea of something  called Sample School,” he says, “where I’d bring in kids from Regent Park School of Music, and incorporate them into one of my music school libraries, and it sort of blossomed from that initial seed.

“We refined the idea a little bit more, and we came to the conclusion it would be a cool idea to make a music library. It’s really amazing, because there’s potential to fund the school in a really big way, depending on what happens with the library. And the library, in the past, has been sampled by everyone from Drake, to Kendrick Lamar, to Logic, and more.”

Dukes, known for nurturing such Toronto acts as Bad Bad Not Good, River Tiber, and Mustafa, was impressed by the kids who participated in the recording. “The talent level of the kids was really remarkable,” he says. “They were really, really special and gifted kids. I think for me, it was being able to create something of a bridge between maybe something they listen to and what they do on their own.

Dukes in Demand
Currently at the apex of high demand, Dukes has several upcoming projects bearing his production stamp, including those by James Blake, Post Malone, and of course, Camilla Cabello’s sophomore effort, hot on the heels of her Dukes-produced, global-hit, chart-topping smash, “Havana.”

“It was powerful for them to see that there’s infinite possibilities, and that if you really want to apply yourself when you’re passionate about something, you can make a career out of it, and do what you really want to do.”

An unexpected by-product of the Parkscapes sessions was the enthusiasm expressed by some of the shyer kids in the program. Says Dukes, “Speaking with some of the instructors afterwards, they were saying, ‘Wow, that was insane! Some of the kids, they’re not really vocal, or [don’t] participate too much in the day-to-day classes – but to see them so engaged, and excited, and invigorated in this was really amazing!’ This was fun for me, and for them too, to live in that energy for a little bit.”

Dukes, who sold his first recording artist sample to U.S. rapper Lloyd Banks for $5,000, says his specialty is predicated on emotion. “For me, it’s just a feeling,” he explains. “A good sign is that I can hear a song on it – and I can listen to it over and over again and not get tired of it – something I want to hear indefinitely.”

And there will be more Parkscapes, Dukes vows. “It’s a model of something I’d like to bring to different areas and different places, different cities and different countries,” he says. “Really develop it into more of a project that I think is, like, really positive and impactful to kids growing up – especially in areas like Regent Park.”