A funny thing happened to the Canadian jazz guitar master Lorne Lofsky as he walked down Mt. Pleasant Road in Toronto one day a little over 40 years ago, a thing that would lead the jazz piano titan Oscar Peterson to produce Lofsky’s first album.
At the time, Lofsky was a young, scuffling, jazz-mad musician looking for his first actual jazz gig. An alto player named Jerry Toth—someone he had never met—was coming toward him. To his great surprise, Toth stopped him on the sidewalk and said, “Are you a guitar player?”
Lofsky had played a few coffeehouses and bar gigs but so far had failed to achieve his goal of breaking into the city’s first (and, for a time, only) major jazz venue, George’s Spaghetti House. Toth had heard the young guitarist play at some minor, now-forgotten gig and must have liked what he heard. “I’ve got a week coming up at George’s,” Toth said. “Would you like to do it?”
“I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course I would,’” Lofsky remembered recently over Zoom from Toronto, where he still lives, plays, and teaches jazz guitar and arranging. The gig with Toth led to other offers from seasoned Canadian jazz musicians, including trombonist Jiro “Butch” Watanabe, who also had a one-week booking at George’s.
One of the tunes he and Watanabe rehearsed was “Hogtown Blues,” written by the trombonist’s childhood friend Oscar Peterson. “Then,” Lofsky recalled, “one night during the engagement, Butch says, ‘Hey, youngblood,’—that’s what he called me—‘guess who’s coming in tonight?’
Sure enough, Peterson came in, sat at a corner table, and heard the band play his tune. Later the young guitarist was introduced to the great man. “Oscar was polite,” Lofsky remembered. “And that was it.” Or so he thought.
“About a month later,” Lofsky continued, “I’m at home and the phone rings. ‘Lorne, this is Oscar Peterson.’ I almost fell over. ‘Are you signed to a record company?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, I’ve got Norman Granz here.’” Granz got on the phone and, on Peterson’s recommendation, offered to record the young guitarist for his Pablo label.
The result, Lofsky’s first album, It Could Happen to You, earned him an international reputation leading to stage appearances with Peterson, other high-profile gigs in Canada and, eventually, three years as a member of Peterson’s quartet in the mid-1990s. Lofsky, over the course of his career, has also played with Chet Baker, Joey DeFrancesco, Pepper Adams, Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen, Rosemary Clooney, and Dave Holland—in addition to Canadian jazz icons like his idol, guitarist Ed Bickert (about whom more later), trombonist/bandleader Rob McConnell, and saxophonist Kirk MacDonald.
American listeners have slept for too long on this major figure in Canadian jazz, whose gorgeous tone, technical prowess, and cool, cerebral approach to improvisation may remind admirers of the late Jim Hall. One fan is the American guitarist Peter Bernstein, who has played with Lofsky at Toronto’s popular jazz bar, the Rex. “You can tell that he loved Jim Hall,” Bernstein told me, citing his quiet tone, subtlety, and lyricism, “but he has his own approach and identity. [Hall’s) curiosity was his greatest attribute … That’s an attribute that Lorne has as well. His playing is spontaneous, adventurous, playful. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Lofsky grew up in Toronto in the ’60s and ’70s, the golden age of rock. “When I was 16, I had fantasies of being like Eric Clapton,” he said. He listened to Cream’s Wheels of Fire obsessively, copying Clapton’s solo on “Crossroads” note for note.
By 17, he said, “I was playing in bar bands and sounding pretty good. But the genre and skill set were pretty limited. Blues-based rock music has almost become a caricature of itself. The vocabulary hasn’t changed one iota. I got kinda tired of it. I loved music and knew that’s what I wanted to do for my life’s work. And I thought, ‘God, I can’t see myself at 50 doing bar gigs and playing the same three or four licks.’”
Friends who were into jazz then introduced him to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. “I didn’t understand a note of what I was listening to. But something reached me and grabbed my heart and ear.”
It was all jazz, all the time, after that. He attended York University (where he now teaches) for a year and a half. The academic approach didn’t take, however; he preferred to listen to Bickert records and “try to figure out what he was doing … I would take one of his solos and dissect it into little Lego-like structures. I’d take those parts and then found that I could reassemble them.”
Now he teaches his students at York and elsewhere to break down the music in the same way—not to transcribe, but to understand the components and be able to reassemble them in creative ways. “You don’t want to go out onstage and do the musical version of ‘To be or not to be,’” he said. “People will say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not you, that’s Shakespeare.’”
Ultimately, Lofsky came into Bickert’s orbit and lived out his dream of playing with the great guitarist. “It was like a master class with your sensei,” he said. The two of them anchored a quartet for about eight years; the partnership included a joint album on Concord, This Is New, now a collector’s item. His 1994-96 stint as a member of the Peterson Quartet took Lofsky all over the world. He’s featured on three Peterson albums from the period, including the double CD Oscar in Paris (Live at the Salle Pleyel).
So why have so few Americans heard of him?
“I’m not big on blowing my own horn,” Lofsky said. Besides, as Bernstein said, “Guitar players know about him. The people that know, know.”
Lofsky appreciated the opportunities Peterson gave him early on, but “I didn’t look at it as a springboard for launching a jazz career,” he said. “I learned a lot from it. For me, it’s always about the learning.”
“You don’t want to go out onstage and do the musical version of ‘To be or not to be.’ People will say, ‘Wait a minute, that’s not you, that’s Shakespeare.’”
The learning—and development—continues on a new release, This Song Is New, Lofsky’s first album as a leader in more than 20 years. It features longtime Lofsky associates Kirk MacDonald on saxophone, Kieran Overs on bass, and Barry Romberg on drums.
The album was semi-unplanned. Lofsky and company had assembled at Roberto Occhipinti’s Modica Music Studio in Toronto to run down some new tunes and arrangements with the thought of making a demo to get funding for a “real” album. There was a last-minute decision to record the session. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Lofsky said. “But Kieran and Roberto were saying, ‘I think you got a record here.’ I said, ‘I don’t know, man.’”
And how does he feel about it now?
“I can tolerate it,” he concedes. The set includes five new originals, as well as engaging reworkings of Benny Golson’s “Stablemates,” done as a bossa nova, and Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” in a bracing 5/4.
“I’m not a prolific composer. I write to learn something. I will revamp a standard and play it in different time signatures. It gets me out of my box,” he said.
Those who are familiar with Lofsky’s guitar approach often describe it as pianistic. “I realized that it’s important to listen to musicians who play instruments other than yours,” he explained. Most notably, he started listening to Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano, and began trying to apply to the guitar the kind of dynamic control he heard them achieving with their hands. In other words, he learned to regulate the volume of melody and accompaniment separately, something he found easier to accomplish by playing with a combination of fingers and a thumbpick. “It gives me more control,” he said.
Lofsky considers himself a lifelong student of jazz. “My priority is playing and studying music and gaining more musical wisdom,” he said. He’s happy to record more if the opportunity presents itself, but if not, “I’m totally fine with that too, because that is secondary to the study of music. It’s not about the product, it’s about the process. At some point I might do a solo record. I’ve had offers, but I say, ‘Well, maybe, we’ll see.’
“Because, for me, it cuts into my practicing time.”
It Could Happen to You (Pablo, 1981)
With Ed Bickert: This Is New (Concord, 1990)
With Oscar Peterson: Oscar in Paris (Live at the Salle Pleyel) (Telarc, 1997)
With Joey DeFrancesco: One Take Vol. 1 (Alma, 2004)
This Song Is New (Modica, 2021)