Robi Botos ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Robi Botos won in the Jazz Album of the Year: Solo category of the 2019 JUNO Awards for his album Old Soul. He performed his song "Budapest" from that album when he played with Molly Johnson recently in Ottawa © Brett Delmage, 2019

The 2019 JUNO Awards served up three first-time winners and one repeat in the jazz-related categories announced tonight: Toronto vocalist and CBC broadcaster Laila Biali, Vancouver improviser Gordon Grdina, improvising group Andy Milne & Dapp Theory, and Toronto pianist Robi Botos.

They beat out many previous, highly-touted JUNO winners, in albums  that split between mainstream and the improvised avant-garde.

Biali won in the Vocal Jazz album of the Year category for her self-titled album, which includes primarily her own compositions plus songs by Randy Newman and David Bowie. She was also featured on vocals on another album in this JUNO category, by Vancouver bassist Jodi Proznick, and called out to Proznick in her acceptance speech: "I share this award with you. You are my soul sister!".

Biali additionally beat out albums by previous JUNO-winners Diana Krall, Holly Cole, and Diana Panton. This was Biali's first win, although she was previously nominated in 2011. In her speech, Biali recounted how, when she first started playing jazz in high school, she covered Diana Krall's music in a talent competition: "I can't tell you what it means to be nominated in the same category as Diana Krall, who really introduced me to jazz, and Holly Cole, I fell in love with your music when I was 15!"

Gord Grdina is well known as an important part of Vancouver's avant-garde/free jazz/world-music scene, playing guitar and oud in many different groups. But he won in the Instrumental Album of the Year category for his first solo album, China Cloud. It was recorded during a number of intimate and completely-improvised solo performances at the Vancouver underground art space China Cloud. It features him playing both acoustic and electric guitar and oud, as well as improvising with tape loops, effects, and percussion, and even singing on one number.

This was Grdina's first JUNO nomination and win; he beat out albums by Kevin Breit, the duo of Ida Toninato and Jennifer Thiessen, the Aerialists, and the Fretless. He wasn't expecting the win, he told the crowd: "When I looked at the nominees I was like there's no way I'm going to win, so at least the food will be good."

Pianist Andy Milne and his Dapp Theory group won the the Jazz Album: Group category with their album The Seasons of Being. Milne, an ex-pat Torontonian who has spent the last two decades in NYC, combined “lyrical jazz piano, funkified polyrhythmic exploration, and spoken word poeticism” in his music while creating an “optimized environment for improvisation”. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his bandmates, particularly his wife La Tanya Hall on vocals: "it's great to have musicians in my midst that help make my ideas come to fruition."

He also acknowledged his fellow nominees: "We're all in the trenches together making creative improvised music and it's difficult out there." Other nominees in this category included Mike Murley and Dave Liebman, the Allison Au Quartet, the Andrew Rathbun Large Ensemble, and Quinsin Nachoff's FLUX.

Toronto pianist Robi Botos won his second JUNO in a row in the Jazz Album: Solo category for his album Old Soul. It included touches of funk, soul, and gospel, paying homage to his homeland of Hungary and his childhood neighbourhoods. He told the JUNO audience he was a little shocked at his win, and thanked collaborators Mike Downes, Larnell Lewis, Seamus Blake, Cory Henry, and Ingrid Jensen, as well as engineer John Bailey, "for putting all your hearts into the project".

Also nominated in the category were Toronto musicians Larnell Lewis (who played drums on Botos' album), Alexis Baro, and Alison Young, as well as NYC pianist Renee Rosnes.

Michael Bublé won in the Adult Contemporary category for the second year in a row, this time for his album Love, a collection of mostly jazz standards as well as a few pop ballads. Jazz vocalist Molly Johnson was also nominated in that category for Meaning to Tell Ya.

The awards were given out at the JUNO Gala Dinner tonight in London, Ontario, at which most non-pop awards were announced.

You can watch a videocast of a live show on Friday hosted by Biali with an all-star jazz band, including herself, Mike Downes, Allison Au, Alison Young, Robi Botos, Larnell Lewis, and Quinsin Nachoff, to showcase music by Au, Young, Lewis, Botos, and Nachoff, at cbcmusic.ca/junos.

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