Forty-two years ago this week, guitarist Lenny Breau, just turned 20 and fresh from Winnipeg to Toronto, went into the Hallmark recording studio on Grenville Street with bassist Rick Danko and drummer Levon Helm, members at the time of Ronnie Hawkins' Hawks and later of the Band. This unlikely trio recorded seven jazz tunes and two country pieces, to which Breau added four flamenco solos -- all now issued for the first time as The Hallmark Sessions (Art of Life Records).
The recordings predate Breau's hitherto "first" LP, The Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau, by seven years and yet they're far more than merely formative performances. The guitarist is immediately identifiable by his touch and technique -- a diamond in the rough, perhaps, but recognizably a diamond all the same. (And yes, Danko and especially Helm acquit themselves with surprising sympathy.) The Hallmark Sessions is one of several recent releases that, however coincidental, suggest a surge of interest in Canadian (as opposed, more customarily, to American) jazz history. There has been a scattering of similar CDs over the past 10 years, including other long-lost Breau sessions from Guitarchives, a Swing Canada series from Cowtown and a miscellany of titles from Just A Memory. Lately, though, the pace of such releases has increased:
Smiles and Chuckles (CBC Records) by the Royal City Saxophone Quartet of Guelph, Ont., honours the Six Brown Brothers, an Ottawa family whose internationally successful vaudeville act during the 1910s established the saxophone as a useful instrument in the music that predated jazz. (A book about the Browns, That Moaning Saxophone: The Six Brown Brothers and the Dawning of a Musical Craze, by Californian Bruce Vermazen, will be published early next year by Oxford University Press, together with a compilation CD from Archeophone Records of the sextet's old 78s.)
Two Oscar Peterson CDs, Tenderly and Vancouver, 1958 (both from Just A Memory), capture the celebrated pianist in his prime at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre 45 years ago.
Vintage Nimmons 'n' Nine (Sackville Records) presents the Toronto clarinetist Phil Nimmons' tentet in two CDs' worth of studio performances drawn from its regular CBC radio broadcasts between 1959 and 1964.
Jazz en liberté 1969 (Just A Memory) finds the Montreal bassist Michel Donato with trumpeter Al Penfold and two legends of the Canadian scene, tenor saxophonist Brian Barley and drummer Claude Ranger, in a broadcast recorded at l'Hermitage for the weekly Radio-Canada series Jazz en liberté.
The Moe Koffman Quintet Live at the Ontario Science Centre, a promotional CD just issued by JAZZ.FM 91 in conjunction with its current fundraising efforts, features the late Swinging Shepherd in a breezy, boppish performance from 1985. Like the Peterson concerts, and the Nimmons and Donato broadcasts, it has never been issued on record before.
Some of these releases have greater commercial potential than others, but financial gain is not necessarily the first consideration behind any of them. Jean-Pierre Leduc at Justin Time Records in Montreal, parent company to the Just A Memory imprint, expects international sales upward of 10,000 on each of the Peterson titles, a quite respectable figure. As to the Donato CD, however, he suggests, "If we could sell 1,500, that would be nice."
The Nimmons set, meanwhile, has an initial pressing of 1,000; so far, according to John Norris of Sackville Records in Toronto, 500 have been sold, with a promotional push still to come. (Proceeds will go to the Phil and Noreen Nimmons Jazz Scholarship Fund at the University of Toronto; all parties involved in the production of the CDs have donated their services.) So the motivation behind these nods to history is rather purer. "The whole point of departure for Justin Time is music," notes Leduc, "and you can't forget that. We're not selling shoes. You have to be able to indulge yourself over the financial wing of the company -- the accountants who tell you that you can't do this, you can't do that. You have to be able to say, 'Look, this needs to be done, this should be done, this hasn't been done up 'til now.' "
At least two of the artists involved have pronounced themselves pleased that it has been done at all -- Donato, in the notes to his CD, and Nimmons, in conversation. A jazz musician might be concerned about the release of his music now more than 30 years old, jazz being the evolving and highly personal art that it is. Not Nimmons. "I really dig it," he says, lapsing into the vernacular of the era from which his recordings were taken. "I think it's great to have a representation of that period, 1959 to 1964, and I guess the fact that it's two CDs means it's a sizeable representation."
And more than just a representation of his music, he adds, it's also a tribute to the musicians who played it. Jazz has only been documented on record to any comprehensive degree in Canada during the past 20 or so years, leaving many important figures from earlier times unrecorded or at least underrecorded.
There are several such musicians in Nimmons 'n' Nine, a sleek, mobile unit that, thanks to the leader's canny writing, splits the difference between small-band bebop and big-band jazz without losing the attractions of either. Nimmons' guitarist, Ed Bickert, is certainly no stranger to record collectors, but tenor saxophonist Roy Smith, trombonist Jiro (Butch) Watanabe and accordionist Vic Centro are now among the forgotten men of the Canadian jazz scene. Smith, who died in his mid-40s in 1976, is a particular force here with a looping sort of lyricism that shows the influence of Stan Getz.
So, too, is Brian Barley on the Donato CD, albeit in a freer and far more expressive manner that complements Donato's affinity for the explorative music of trumpeter Miles Davis in the mid-1960s. Barley, dead in 1971 at 28, is one revelation in this bristling, visceral set; the interaction between Donato and Claude Ranger -- once dubbed the "thunder and lightning kids" by a Globe and Mail reviewer -- is another.
And then, speaking of saxophonists, there's that Six Brown Brothers tribute. The Royal City Saxophone Quartet is essentially a classical ensemble and, as such, seems a bit literal in its handling of the old arrangements and rather self-conscious with those "moaning saxophone" effects. But its intentions, no less than its intonation, are just fine.
From the Browns to Roy Smith to Brian Barley -- the saxophone has come a long way, as has jazz in Canada. Only now are we really starting to hear exactly how far.