Artist’s Choice: Matthew Stevens on Must-Hear Canadian Musicians

Guitarist and composer selects cuts by Ingrid Jensen, Ed Bickert and more

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Guitarist Matthew Stevens (photo by Matthew Perrin)

In compiling this playlist, I looked for things about these artists’ writing and music that I connect with personally, and for an overarching sense of musical priorities. They all have a real emotional pull in their music, and they are all unique. Their music embodies things I gravitate toward regardless of genre: great feel, great sound, great time.

Paul Bley
“All the Things You Are”
Sonny Meets Hawk! [Sonny Rollins and Coleman Hawkins] (RCA Victor, 1963)
It’s a classic album but still a little bit under the radar. I heard that solo on “All the Things You Are” and I was completely blown away. It felt like a precursor to everything I’m hearing now. It was really different than a lot of the forward-looking music happening at the time, because it was still dealing with the harmony very directly but in a previously unexamined way. Everything was incredibly clear but incredibly fresh. It’s captivating and magnetic.

Oscar Peterson
“Brotherhood of Man”
Oscar Peterson Trio + One/Clark Terry (Mercury, 1964)
I don’t have a lot to say about Oscar Peterson that hasn’t been said before, but you can’t have a playlist that includes Canadian jazz without him. This track was some of the first swing-based music I ever heard. The rhythmic propulsion behind Oscar’s and the band’s playing is infectious and amazing. It’s sophisticated—musicianship at the highest level. I feel like you could send it up on a space capsule to represent some of the best jazz has to offer. It puts a smile on my face.

Ed Bickert/Lorne Lofsky
“Ah-Leu-Cha”
This Is New (Concord Jazz, 1990)
In the Canadian jazz world there’s a really strong tradition and style of guitar playing that I’m influenced by but wouldn’t fit squarely into. It stems from Lenny Breau being around Toronto; Ed and Lenny both have this unique way of playing guitar that is very pianistic, harmonically sound, influenced by Bill Evans. The [Charlie Parker] song is perfect for two guitarists, the way they’re playing counterpoint against one another. They have such similar sounds that I remember not being able to tell who was who until they were playing their solos. Lorne was my teacher, and I feel these two guys are some of the best of what Canada has to offer in terms of relatively straight-ahead jazz guitar playing.

Daniel Lanois
“Bladesteel”
Here Is What Is (Red Floor, 2007)
He’s my personal musical hero; I can’t get enough of him. His breadth as a musician and his ability to create a compelling musical universe unto himself are remarkable. This track just stuck with me. The combination of instruments and the way he blends in certain soundscapes is fascinating. It’s patient music that unfolds slowly. It’s beautifully recorded and there’s so much consideration given to where things are in the mix and how things sound.

Ingrid Jensen
“Michelle”
The Mosaic Project [Terri Lyne Carrington] (Concord Jazz, 2011)
I love her playing so much. I’ve played this Beatles tune with her and Terri a lot. Ingrid was one of the people who helped me feel that maybe I could do this too. I’ve always been impressed with her tone and fluidity on the trumpet; the way she moves through registers effortlessly is remarkable. Ingrid’s number-one priority is listening, which is something we can forget to do at times. She’s really great at generating a lot of interest on tunes without a lot of harmonic movement; she can create tension and development on stuff that’s relatively stagnant. She has a really interesting way of playing chromatically as well.

Cold Specks
“Winter Solstice”
I Predict a Graceful Expulsion (Mute/EMI, 2012)
[Singer-songwriter Ladan Hussein, who performs as Cold Specks] guested on a track by Ambrose Akinmusire [“Ceaseless Inexhaustible Child (Cyntoia Brown)”]. She’s representative of a broader movement in music now, which is totally wide-open. “Winter Solstice” develops in a way that has a lot of emotional pull. Canada is starting to have a stronger cultural identity, and artists like Cold Specks borrow from American roots music, collaborate with American jazz musicians and add electronic elements. It’s not unlike what Joni Mitchell did. I think [Hussein is] a great lyricist and writer.

River Tiber
“Prophets”
Self-released single, 2014
Tommy Paxton-Beesley has done some producing for BadBadNotGood and is another young Canadian who is unapologetically taking and borrowing from all kinds of different influences. There’s a really strong electronic-music influence and moments that are more in line with Radiohead or Explosions in the Sky. The song unfolds over five minutes with no repeated material. It creates an interesting arc and is mixed in a way that is compelling. The vocals are also tucked into the mix in a cool way where they become part of the whole, as opposed to the focus of the song. Finally, it’s textured, dark and minimalistic.

Kevin Breit
“Estória da Zona Norte”

Ernesto and Delilah (Poverty Playlist, 2015)
The album feels traditional in terms of the harmonic and melodic content, but this track is wild and sophisticated and harmonically daring and fresh. It has a real buoyancy to it. Kevin is on some Cassandra Wilson and Norah Jones records and is a Canadian treasure. He plays acoustic roots music—he’s playing mandolin here—but also plays electric guitar really well. He makes interesting solo records and everything he does is visceral and intense and emotive.

[As told to and edited by Jeff Tamarkin]

Matthew Stevens is a Toronto-born, New York City-based guitarist and composer whose latest album is Preverbal (Ropeadope). For more information and tour dates, visit his website here. 

Read Giovanni Russonello’s profile of Stevens here.