York student ensemble heats up the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival

More than 1,500 Canadian and international jazz musicians have poured into the city for the 19th annual Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival. The talented hordes include the York University Student Jazz Ensemble, who will perform a free concert on Thursday, June 30 from noon to 2pm on the Youth Stage, located at Oscar Peterson Place (TD Centre, King and York Streets).

Directed by York music Professor and jazz drummer extraordinaire Barry Elmes, this year’s dynamic quintet features Mike Cado (guitar), George Karounos (trumpet), James McEleney (bass), Karen Ng (alto sax) and David Steffan (drums). They will entertain audiences with a variety of vintage standards plus some original works, including Elmes’ “Isabel” and McEleney’s “Jaki’s Blues”. During their two 45-minute sets, the group will swing between full-tilt ensemble playing and solo spots.

Right: From bottom left, clockwise: Barry Elmes, Mike Cado, David Seffan, George Karounos, James McEleney and Karen Ng

“This year’s York University Student Jazz Ensemble not only plays exceptionally well, both as a group and individually, but each musician also possesses the additional qualities displayed by any great professional musician: desire, creativity, compatibility, discipline and a sense of humour,” said Elmes. “It has been an absolute delight to work with this talented group.”

For these young players, representing York University at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival is an exciting opportunity to showcase their talent in a program shared by some of the biggest names in jazz today, including sax great Sonny Rollins and Canadian jazz diva Diana Krall.

Guitarist Mike Cado recently completed his MA in jazz composition and is working towards a PhD in ethnomusicology at York, where he also teaches jazz workshops, guitar and musicianship. Cado leads the jazz tentet Nimmons ‘N’ Nine…Now!, which comprises some of Toronto’s hottest jazz musicians, including York music faculty David Mott and Anthony Michelli.

The other four performers are all undergraduates in York’s BFA Honours Music program. Drummer David Steffan has just completed his first year of studies, while Karounos, McEleney and Ng have completed second year.

Trumpet player Karounos cites John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Chris Potter as major infuences. “I absolutely can’t get enough of the trumpet because of its distinctive sound,” Karounos said. The high point of his musical career to date has been playing with local, hotshot trumpeter Alexis Baro at last year’s Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival. “Music is a good emotional outlet for me; it keeps me sane,” remarked Karounos.

Bassist McEleney also plays with another York student ensemble, focusing on jazz arrangements and Klezmer melodies. “Charles Mingus is by far my favourite jazz musician and has been my greatest influence, as well as Charlie Haden,” said McEleny. “The high point of my musical career has been enrolling at York University and meeting and playing with lots of serious musicians, as well as working with amazing professors.”

Alto sax player Ng said: “A very supportive music teacher from high school days got me loving music. I started seriously considering music as a profession in grade 11, while performing in the symphonic and jazz bands. Then, I truly found my interest for jazz at York, thanks to the amazing faculty that teach here.”

Kicking off this year’s festival was York alumnus, crooner Matt Dusk (BFA ’02), who opened for Jacksoul. Nominated for best new artist of the year at the 2005 Juno Awards, Dusk studied jazz theory with Jon Gittins and jazz vocals with Bob Fenton and attended masterclasses with legendary jazz pianist Oscar Peterson while at York. He will also be performing at the Elora Festival on July 16.

Right: Matt Dusk

The success of York’s three-decade-old jazz program is reflected in its illustrious graduates, many of whom are performing at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival. They include multiple Juno Award-winning saxophonist Mike Murley; guitarist Roy Patterson; Suba Sankaran, the vocalist and pianist for the Juno-nominated Autorickshaw; guitarist Michael Occhipinti and pianist Paul Neufeld, leaders of the award-winning big band NOJO; and Shuffle Demons Richard Underhill and Stich Wynston.

For more information, visit the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival Web site.  

This article was submitted to YFile by Mary-Lou Schagena in the Faculty of Fine Arts.