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Free Jazz, eh? Scores of MP3s from North of the Border

Mark Sabbatini By

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A pretty free exchange of ideas and culture seems to exist between the U.S. and Canada. As a college student in Washington right next to the border, I saw the young flock north for its lower legal drinking age and older folks camp at our malls in RVs every weekend so they could bargain shop.

But a few quirks set us apart. Hockey dominates sports headlines up north despite a yearlong strike, pushing U.S. obsessions like the NBA championship to secondary status. They eat french fries with gravy and curds (admittedly more appealing fast food than Australia, where burgers are topped with beets and fried eggs). Meanwhile, a huge majority of Canadians openly mock Americans for reelecting George W. Bush, although some women formed a group offering to marry an apparently large number of U.S. men looking to emigrate after the election.

Now I'm supposed to come up with a jazz-related analogy for this.

After a limited tour of the country and listening to numerous performers, including the scores of free downloadable songs below, I can't say Canada has nearly as distinct a feel as Brazil or African, or even the subtlety of Scandinavia or free-thinking tilt of Poland. There does seem to be less commercially oriented smooth jazz - when Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr. are top commercial names, compared to Norah Jones and Kenny G, that probably speaks in favor of the northern folks. They also seem to have more European- style trance and electronica, part of the same continental mentality that favors the metric system and futbol over football.

As for the artists of likely interest to "serious" jazz fans, the good news is there aren't many differences. Their roots are in Monk and Miles, like much of the planet, and there's no shortage of forward thinkers. I might argue our best tops their best, but that's at least partially a numbers thing. We have more people and recording contracts.

Thanks to Dubya it now takes a passport to get back from Canada, but thanks to the internet one can listen to performers countrywide without fear of being added to any "no- fly" lists. Typical of giveaways, many are from "emerging" artists of varying talent, but anyone unable to find a few hours of worthwhile listening below has taste issues beyond the scope of any border dispute.


More than 300 free jazz MP3 are available from this Canadian-based, including a healthy selection of the country's musicians. Navigation is simple and descriptions, while promotional, offer good overviews of performers and their work. The Canadian diversity alone is impressive, including contemporary big band by the Absolute Faith Orchestra, trumpeter Brad Turner capturing the spirit of Miles Davis from the '60s on "Caller," Roger Scannura's happy guitar-and-chorus world music on "Caller" and genre-benders like the gritty R&B of guitarist Michael Pickett's "Blues Money."

Swing Is In The Air

Podcasting may be the big "new" thing, but Jacques Émond has been hosting "Swing Is In The Air" in Ottawa for more than 20 years. As a result, the music and commentary of the shows he recently started making available for download are far more interesting than most. Several shows highlight artists appearing at the 2005 Ottawa International Jazz Festival, but there's also themes such as a tribute to saxman Johnny Hodge, profiles of male and female vocalists, and a focus on classic reissues.


The 20 artists here are a bit heavy on the experimental/electronic side, but most live up to the site's "unknowns with talent" concept. Some offer an album's worth of downloads and obtaining them is easier than many similar sites featuring multiple artists: Just go to a group or musician's page and click the download button next to each of the songs. Among the gems is a collection of five modern big band compositions by guitarist Guytare Bergero, accurately described by the site with phrases like "horn section kitsch" and "playful cheer." The Ron Davis Trio offers a light-spirited Oscar Peterson-like sampler, including the African jungle-like romp of "Mark's Mungle" and bright introspection of "Drew Bouree." Fillmore North's eight blues songs range from hard rock to West Coast smooth in nature. Then there's the mixed-quality stuff. Panakronic and Foul do variations on experimental sample/electronic/lyrics, although the latter captures a bit of The Bad Plus-like piano madness on "Owls Aim For The Eyes." Chad Steward's generous Latin collection is mostly thickly arranged smooth/easy listening crooning - but since it's labeled as such few are likely to experience dashed expectations.


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