The Canada-U.S. border can be surprisingly porous when it comes to musical ties.

Take, for example, Alan Jones – a drummer, composer, and educator who's an important part of the jazz scene in Portland, Oregon. Jones is bringing his All-Canadian Sextet to the Ottawa Jazz Festival on Friday, and to the Jazz Bistro in Toronto on Saturday.

All-Canadian? Actually, yes. Five of the six star jazz musicians in this group live in the U.S., but every one is a Canadian citizen.

Alan Jones (image used by permission of the artist)
Alan Jones (image used by permission of the artist)
Saxophonist Seamus Blake, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and pianist Jon Ballantyne reside in the NYC area. Jones and bassist Tom Wakeling are in Portland. Only saxophonist Phil Dwyer lives in Canada, on Vancouver Island, and even he did live in the U.S. for a while in the 1980s.

So what you'll see on the festival stage will be mostly musicians who for family or musical reasons have chosen to live the expatriate experience. Jones himself is a perfect example: he's lived in various cities in Canada, the U.S., and Europe before settling down in Oregon a few years ago, and he argues that that roving was important to his musical development.

But what might not be quite as obvious is the long-standing musical ties behind this group. Jones has been playing with all but one of these musicians for decades – and those ties started in and were strengthened by experiences in Canada.

As he says, these are “my favourite Canadian musicians”. He picked the instrumentation of the sextet and wrote his compositions based on their capabilities, rather than picking the instruments and then finding musicians to play them.

Canadian citizens – finally!

The idea of the sextet started about three years ago, when Jones and Wakeling finally got their Canadian citizenship.

Jones said that his mother was and still is a Canadian citizen, while his father is a first-generation American (both his parents came from Canada). Jones was born and grew up in Washington state, but he had numerous relatives in Canada and spent summers and all his vacations there. When he reached 18, he confidently expected to be able to apply for joint citizenship and was very disappointed to find he was ineligible.

Wakeling was in a similar situation, Jones said. When Canadian law changed to allow them to apply, he alerted Jones and they both became joint Canadian-US citizens.

Jones started writing for and organizing the sextet “immediately when I got my Canadian citizenship. I was really excited about this idea of being able to explore Canada, of writing new music that ... I mean, I've played in Canada a lot, but I haven't ever played as a leader with my own band. It's always been as a side man, as a drummer.”

“The first thing I thought was, 'Cool. I'm going to go up to Canada, I'm going to travel around, play with all of my favourite musicians, and write new music that is designed to express my Canadian heritage – my feelings of the land and how it speaks to me.'”

“It always has. Expressing that in music with what I feel are a group of the best musicians Canada's produced is very exciting.”

A web of long-time associations

Central to the group is multi-instrumentalist Phil Dwyer, whom Jones met in NYC in the mid-1980s when Dwyer was only 15 or 16. They became close musical associates there, and even closer when they spent 2-3 years on the road together with bassist David Friesen's band. In 2005, the two, along with bassist Rodney Whitaker, released an album called Let Me Tell You About My Day [Alma]. They currently play together in The Bridge Quartet.

For this tour, Dwyer will play alto sax, although he's better known on tenor. “He's just a great musician: it doesn't matter so much what instrument he has in his hand. He makes it sound great. I love his sound on alto, [and] his conception of the music as an alto saxophone player.”

I'm not [jumping off cliffs] for some weird death wish, I'm in it because I love it and I want to do it again. It's the same with the music.

Through Dwyer, Jones met Ingrid Jensen. She moved to Vienna at the same time Jones did, and they performed together regularly there, including in a band Jones organized. In Paris, Jones was writing for a band full of expat Canadians, which was a precursor to his current sextet: Jensen was part of that project as well.

Jon Ballantyne and Jones met at the Banff Centre: “one of the great experiences of my music education, to be sure. There was nothing that compared to that time spent at Banff. That was actually the very beginning of my thoughts of being a composer. I had done it before, but I'd never really seriously thought I wanted anyone to play my music.

“That's where I put together my first sextet, and Phil was in that, and Jon Ballantyne was in it, and Jim Vivian and a couple of other crazy people.”

Since then, they've played occasionally together when Jones was living in NYC and in Toronto, “but it's been years. I was really excited. When I thought about this idea of putting together my favourite Canadian musicians, there was just no question, I wanted Jon.”

Tom Wakeling is “a bass player that I actually grew up idolizing in Portland. He is just enough older than me that he was in a different league when I was growing up. He's played with a lot of the great musicians of the world, but has spent his life in Portland.”

Seamus Blake is the odd man out – almost everyone else in the band has played with him except Jones. “I got Seamus on this tour because Phil and Ingrid said, when we were talking about putting this band together, they said, 'Yeah, you should get Seamus. He's the right guy.' So he will be the right guy. They both have played with him a lot, and so has Jon Ballantyne.”

"A little bit dangerous"

This is the first all-star project Jones has organized. “Up until now, I've always just put together the best people that I could in the place that I was in. Because from a practical standpoint, this music requires a lot of preparation. You have to rehearse, you have to understand the music. A lot goes into the cohesion of the band in terms of how much time we've put into the music collectively.”

Which makes it “a little bit dangerous. ... It doesn't give you very much time for rehearsal, and we don't know how this exact group is going to gel together. But I know how it's going to gel together.”

The group was only scheduled to have one formal rehearsal before its first show in Edmonton on June 21. “But Ingrid has played this music, some of it. Phil has played quite a bit of the music before. Everyone is a musician at such a high level that they're going to be able to read most everything, and what they can't read, we're going to have time to work out in the rehearsal. I'm not worried about it at all, in fact it's the opposite. I'm excited that I'm going to be able to play the music with these musicians, and I know what they're going to bring to it.”

It was also a considerable challenge logistically to arrange the tour dates, get Canada Council funding to subsidize travel – and keep everything in the air while waiting for approval. “I guess it's a tribute to how much everybody was interested in doing it that they made sure that they had the time free. There's a lot of challenge in getting everything organized in a way that you can say it's definitely going to happen.”

Jones said was delighted that the tour was reaching smaller Canadian cities, like Medicine Hat, “because I haven't been there. I want to get to every place in Canada at least twice. I was sad, I had to turn down a number of festivals further out east because of timing restrictions. Just the impossibility of getting to one place and not another. We couldn't hit Montreal, and we couldn't do, oh shoot, there was somewhere in Nova Scotia. There were a few places I really wanted to do. Next year.”

"These songs can go anywhere."

All the sextet's music is composed by Jones: some older pieces and some especially composed for this tour. But that doesn't mean it's a fixed set: “The music adapts to every venue. The way I've always run things as a band leader is, I may make a set, but I almost never stick with it. We have a group of songs that we know are going to be drawn from, but I never know what order it's going to come in, nor do I know where an individual song will go.

“These songs can go anywhere. They can become really something to dance to, or they can become the background of a horror movie. Each of the songs certainly has a character, but what I love doing is manipulating that character.

“It has much more to do with the feeling of the audience and how they respond, and where a song on any given moment or night is going to go. It's going to be what does this feel like right now, now I'm going to count the tune off a few clicks faster, or really push the solo to get more intense, because the venue is calling for that. People are feeling the music that way.”

And what will it sound like? “My musical tastes are pretty diverse. I like old Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong, and I like Lester Young, and I like the Miles Davis Band from the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and the 80s. I like fusion music from Weather Report, and I like free jazz from Ornette Coleman to Anthony Braxton. I like what's happening now. I like the music that's being written, the crossover music of hip hop and jazz. Really it's silly, but I really love music. I love all forms of it. When I write, I'm drawing from all of those things.

“But it's heavily jazz-oriented ... I'm writing sections and then there's improvisation and that improvisation is based on what was written right before that. Then I'll write something else as part of the same song, and then there'll be improvisation based on that. I think that maybe the best way to put it is I enjoy this interplay of composed sections with improvised sections.”

Feeling the excitement, in music and in jumping off cliffs

That love of improvisation is also related to what Jones sometimes does when not playing: climb mountains and jump off cliffs.

“I've always liked to be outside, I've always been drawn to the more radical forms of adventure. I've done a lot of climbing, a lot of whatever. I will dive off of cliffs into the water, I'll dive off with a bungee cord, or with a climbing rope, whatever.”

And the excitement he gets from climbing is similar to what he gets from improvising. “I love that part of the music. That's what drew me to it originally, was that there's excitement in it. You don't know what's going to happen, there's risk, there's danger. You have to be prepared for those things, because I don't like dying, either.

“I'm not in it for some weird death wish, I'm in it because I love it and I want to do it again. It's the same with the music. I want to be a very good musician, so that I can feel these excitements that come up and turn them into something that works, rather than something that's a disaster.”

The expat experience

Jones says he has “always been a traveler. Certainly being a musician plays into that. I had to travel in order to make a living. I would just settle down for different reasons in different places and live there for a while.”

He moved to Toronto around 1986 “because the people I wanted to play with were up there. My best friends musically have always been Canadians for weird reasons I don't understand. I played with Perry White. I lived in Perry's closet. And Mike Murley and Jim Vivian.”

He said that living outside one's home country – rather than just touring – did change one's experience as a musician. “I don't think there's any way that it couldn't. I'm not sure it changes it in the negative. My experience has always been the more places I see, the more I travel, the richer my music becomes.”

“It doesn't matter where you live. It matters what you do with it. When you make a choice to live in New York, you're making a choice to continue your traveling. I think that Phil for example made a choice to chill out a little bit on that, and not travel so much. Or not be part of the rat race quite the same level. But, it doesn't work. You know? He's still traveling all the time.”

“For me, I moved back to Portland to raise my children and make sure that there was a stable place I really wanted them to grow up in. That worked for that, but it didn't really stop me from traveling.”

He said he could hear different regional styles in the different cities he's lived in, “even though those are extremely difficult to pinpoint. Every time you try you end up looking like a fool, because there's no way to put a small enough umbrella over that many different people and that many different styles. That being said, there's definitely a vibe in different places. Vancouver has a different vibe than Toronto, very different vibe than Montreal. Every place has its own sort of feeling, but trying to codify that and express it clearly and accurately is impossible.”

Vancouver is more similar to Portland or Seattle, for example, than it is to Toronto or New York, he said. “There's a similarity from San Francisco to Vancouver. 'Similarity' is not the same as 'the same.'”

Recording and touring again next year

Jones said he planned to record the sextet – and all the new compositions he wrote for it – likely in the winter of 2014. “That's something I'm really looking forward to.”

And then he wants to tour again next year to cities they didn't reach this year. “What I would love to do is use this band as a vehicle for exploring Canada. I'd like to get to all of the places I haven't been, and this is the band I'd like to write for and to take.”

He emphasized “just how happy I am that I'm able to play with these remarkable musicians. To be able to get the people that I am most confident are going to express my music the way that I envision it being expressed, is a real honour. It's a real treat for me. To be able to combine that with this excitement that I have about being a Canadian citizen, and the potential that it will turn into something that is long-term, that is going to be able to realize a lot of musical ideas that still I haven't written down yet.”

    – Alayne McGregor

The Alan Jones All-Canadian Sextet tour:

  • June 21 – Yardbird Suite, Edmonton, Alberta
  • June 22 – The Bassment, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
  • June 23 – The Dekker Centre, North Battleford, Alberta
  • June 25 – The Ironworks, Vancouver, BC
  • June 26 – The Esplanade Studio, Medicine Hat, Alberta
  • June 28 – Confederation Park (Great Canadian Jazz), Ottawa Jazz Festival, Ottawa, Ontario
  • June 29 – The Jazz Bistro, Toronto, Ontario