The jazz band Way North crosses borders – in several senses.

Petr Cancura ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Ottawa saxophonist Petr Cancura shares his love of jazz and roots music with the other three members of the cross-border group Way North  ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Its four members – saxophonist Petr Cancura, trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy, bassist Michael Herring, and drummer Richie Barshay – live in three cities in two countries. And its music defies simple categorization: “when I have to describe it, I cannot be more specific than saying 'folk-world-roots-music-inspired' ”, Cancura says.

When the band plays at Canada's National Arts Centre Fourth Stage on Wednesday, the audience will hear touches of blues, a strong whiff of traditional New Orleans music, hints of African and Brazilian world rhythms – and most importantly, an approach that combines jazz's improvisation and the story-telling aspects of folk music.

All four musicians have strong jazz creds: Cancura in a wide range of his own projects ranging from roots-jazz to chamber jazz to mainstream, as well as Ed Lister's Prime Rib Big Band; Hennessy with her FOG brass band, the groove-based Drumhand, and the chamber jazz group Hobson’s Choice; Herring with the JUNO-nominated jazz group Peripheral Vision; and Barshay who has played with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea as well as in his own bands.

Cancura lives in Ottawa, Hennessy and Herring (who are married) in Toronto, and Barshay in Brooklyn, NY. It's a wide triangle to traverse – more than 800km on a side – which, along with everyone's busy schedules, explains why this is the first time they've performed together in 21 months.

The Ottawa show is part of an Ontario/Quebec tour this week to promote the release of the band's second album, Fearless and Kind.

The four musicians first started playing together in 2014 when they were (briefly) all living in the same city – Brooklyn. “Rebecca and Michael were on a study residency down in Brooklyn for about 6 months. We played a few times and then we did the first record. Then Michael and Rebecca had to go back home. I think we recorded the record the day before they went back up to Toronto,” Cancura said.

That return to Canada inspired the group's name, he said. “We were all talking about that idea that we recorded it down south but they're going back up north. Then I decided to move back up. We started playing around with the idea of north versus south, and we came up with 'Way North'.”

Finding their scene in Brooklyn

The jazz melting pot in Brooklyn helped them get together, Cancura said.

“With Richie and I, it was just we were at school together [The New England Conservatory], and we clicked immediately. So that we knew about each other. But I think what happens, especially in Brooklyn, is there's so many musicians in New York in general that you find very quickly the scene that you fit into. Or maybe not that quickly, but if you know what you're into, it is quick. And I always gravitated towards people like Richie. He associates with a lot of klezmer musicians, people like Kenny Wollesen who plays in Bill Frisell's band, Jeremy Udden – all these people also have a foot in the folk and roots thing.”

“So that's how I got into it – I'm attracted to the players who play like that. So I go out and see them and I meet them and then you play together. I think Michael and Rebecca, when they came down to Brooklyn they were attracted to the same scene. So we met each other fairly quickly because of the process I just described. They just started going out to see the same people that I was involved with. So inevitably we just put together a session.”

“That's the other thing that happens in New York a lot, that I've been thinking about trying to do more here, is just doing sessions, just getting together and playing and trying things out. So we did that, and it really clicked very quickly. We all had similar tunes, and it just worked. When you do a whole bunch of these sessions, you feel very quickly if it's working or not. And that was definitely working.”

After playing together for a month, they recorded their first album, Kings County, in one 6-hour session. “We just banged it out and it sounded fantastic.”

"Really confident after a tour"

The next time the group formally got together was in February 2017 for a nine-day tour of Western Canada, ending with a date at The Rex in Toronto. And then they went right into the studio in Toronto to record Fearless and Kind.

“That's my favourite thing about this record, is that it feels like it's after a tour. You work out a lot of things on tour, little intricacies, little details, how you trade off. The project ends up sounding really confident after a tour.”

“That, I would say, is a luxury that rarely happens. Usually you need a record to get a tour. If I could do every record that way, I would. I would tour it, where you really workshop the music, and then you record.”

The initiative to record was Herring's: “Every one of us in the band agreed, but none other except for Michael would have thought of that. Having said that, we entered into the tour, trying out a whole bunch of new tunes that we knew we wanted to record, and two weeks later, those tunes sounded fantastic!”

The album title came from a musician friend in Brooklyn, whose has frequently told them, “my motto in life is to be fearless and kind”.

“On that tour before we recorded the record, that came up a lot: to be confident, not be afraid of yourself and of anybody else, and at the same time how to be kind within that. That's a good way to go through life.”

"This is definitely a band"

The album, partially funded with a Canada Council grant, was released this month. And Cancura sees it as a milestone: “this is definitely a band.”

“We had a bunch of playing and a record to figure out how we fit in and worked, all the things we'd been talking about up till now. So going into that [second] record, we had more of a vibe, we had more of an understanding of how, what everybody's role is, what the possibilities are. So I think that comes across. When I listen back to it now, it feels just way more – even though I love the rawness of the first record, this one feels more settled. And in a good way, settled as far we found our voice and were going at it.”

On tour, Cancura said, he and Hennessy figured out how to blend their horns “by playing together, figuring out what works and what doesn't. Rebecca and I are very different, but we really play well together. What I love about Rebecca is how thoughtful she is and she has this beautiful sound. Especially when she plays quiet, it's just really gorgeous. So I try to play a bit quieter sometimes, when I can, [laughs] just because that's what I love about her. But then she also does the same, sometimes she'll lay into it, knowing that or seeing that I can really lay into it and get a certain amount of energy.”

Many different roots, blues, mariachi, and jazz influences

Each of the musicians brings a different history and inspirations to the record.

Cancura said that what he loves in music is the improvisation and rhythms in jazz, “the improvisational nature of bluegrass. I love the kind of story-telling aspect of actual singer-songwriter folk music. I like a lot of the rhythms that come from more rootsy things like world music – a lot of the African stuff. I like a lot of the Delta blues.”

“It's like I like a little bit of this and a little bit of that and a little bit of that – basically the things that speak to me, the things that raise the hair on the back of my neck. There might be little nuggets from different types of music.”

“I'm not borrowing anything super specific. Its just years of being inspired by all these different musics, and thinking about how can I do the blues thing on the saxophone? I've experimented a bunch with that, to work up some extended techniques to sound a bit like that. But then I really like the laid-back thing of the old blues and then the polyrhythmic thing of a lot of the African and Brazilian world music, so over years I just developed this kind of approach that borrows from all those things.”

Barshay “is into a lot of different rhythmic things from Mali, and Bali, and Colombia, and also the whole klezmer tradition. Rebecca has this deep history, a deep knowledge actually of Mexican mariachi music. She's been in really authentic mariachi bands for decades now.”

Herring keeps the band all rooted in jazz: “Michael is a really open-minded person. He's hip to embrace anything that anybody brings in. His own personality I feel is the most rooted in jazz. He writes these beautiful, strong jazz songs.”

“So everybody is coming from a slightly different angle. It's hard enough to describe just me, but then to describe everybody else's influences is just a colossal challenge.”

Despite those different angles, Cancura said they haven't had any fundamental musical differences.

“I think what works is that this is a real co-op band. So we all bring in songs together and I think everybody recognizes that they're trying to support the composer, as a sideman. So if we're playing Rebecca's song right now, I'm trying to do my best to articulate to Rebecca's vision of the song.”

“And then Rebecca gives me the freedom to be myself within the context of that. So if Rebecca is determined to try a particular way, even though I might not agree with it I'm going to back her. I think that's a really great professional attitude to have and I know everybody in this band definitely has that. So it's so easy to work with these people.”

One thing they all agree on, he said, is the importance of talking about the music with the audience, as folk musicians do.

“The traditional jazz thing is that there's the band, and then there's the audience. Personally, I realized years ago that I don't want that to be the case: I want to connect to the audience and just be connected. We do that naturally. We all talk about our songs and talk about the concepts.”

Cancura had the house lights turned on during a previous Fourth Stage performance so that he could see and interact with the audience better.

Originals - and Jelly Roll Morton

The album includes original pieces from all four musicians. Cancura said he writes for the musicians in the band with the tunes he contributes.

“We bring out a whole pile of tunes. We all constantly write and what I think about is, I think about the players. I think about what songs are going to sound good, what to bring so that Rebecca and I can have fun with it. If I'm thinking about Richie, I think about if I like the rhythm and what he could possibly bring to it. I also know that he loves and really shines around playing around complex rhythms or rhythmic hooks. He's really good at that, so whenever something like that I have around, I've got to try that with Richie, to see how that goes.”

“And then sometimes you play through something and you're like, 'OK guys, thanks for trying that one … we're never going to play that'. That's OK, because it might work with another band really well.”

It also includes two medleys of songs by Jelly Roll Morton, the famous New Orleans ragtime and jazz pioneer, which were brought in by Barshay. He was inspired by listening to avant-garde saxophonist Henry Threadgill's group Air, which recorded an album of Jelly Roll Morton and Scott Joplin compositions. When he brought that album to the band, they were also impressed.

“[Richie] was like, 'Hey guys, you've got to check this out!' And we were listening to that and we were like, 'Oh man, we've got to do that! That sounds so good.' ”

The Morton songs fit in with the band's originals because of their energy, Cancura said, and because they're a nod “to the traditional jazz when it was a roots music, when it was a folk music.”

New tunes for a new album

One advantage of playing at the NAC Fourth Stage on Wednesday, Cancura said, is that you can hear very soft as well as very loud sounds in the room.

“The two nights before that will be at The Rex in Toronto. I've played the Rex gazillion times and it's just a big massive loud room. There you have to be fearless. But at the Fourth Stage you can be fearless and kind [he laughs]. At The Rex, you can't play really quiet; even if you're playing a ballad, you have to play it loud. But the Fourth Stage allows you to have a big dynamic range. So I don't think the vibe is going to be any different; we're just going to play our songs the way we do but you're going to hear a big dynamic range, and everybody's going to shine!”

The band will play tunes from the new album, but also some newer, unrecorded compositions.

“We've talking about, 'Should we just play the record?' But everybody's like, we have all these new great tunes that are going to sound great with this band! So I think in reality after we've rehearsed it's going to end up being a combination of both: some new tunes and a bunch of stuff from the record.”

And that will naturally lead into a third album, he said, to be recorded in January right after the band has had the time to thoroughly shake out the songs on tour.

“This tour is we're doing now is just an East Coast thing, where we're playing Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, Kingston, and Ottawa. In January we're playing Halifax, and Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver, Nanaimo, Victoria.”

“And then we already have a studio booked right after that tour. So yes, we're definitely taking an example from this last record.”

Way North CD release tour:

2018:

  • November 5 – Toronto – The Rex
  • November 6 – Toronto – The Rex
  • November 7 – Ottawa – National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
  • November 8 – Montreal – Résonance Café
  • November 10 – Quebec City – Maelstrøm Saint-Roch
  • November 11 – Kingston – Kingston Jazz Society (Chalmers United Church, 212 Barrie Street)

2019:

  • January 6 – Halifax, NS – Open Waters Festival
  • January 14 – Toronto – The Emmet Ray
  • January 15 – Victoria, BC – tbc
  • January 16 – Nanaimo, BC – Quadwrangle Music at the Lighthouse Bistro
  • January 17 – Vancouver, BC – Frankie’s Jazz Club
  • January 18 – Edmonton, AB – The Yardbird Suite
  • January 19 – Saskatoon, SK – The Bassment

Way North (Petr Cancura, Rebecca Hennessy, Michael Herring, Richie Barshay) will perform on Wednesday, November 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the NAC Fourth Stage. Doors open at 7. Tickets are $25 (from the NAC Box Office free of service charge, and via Ticketmaster with fees on the NAC website.)

Get there! The National Arts Centre is located at 1 Elgin Street in downtown Ottawa; all downtown-bound OC Transpo routes, including those on the Transitway, stop within two blocks of the NAC. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to see your trip to this show!

Read other stories by OttawaJazzScene.ca about Petr Cancura's jazz-crossover projects