Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2010: Kenny Barron and Mulgrew Miller

Will Bonness and Amber Epp:
Coming of Age

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The premise of Jazz Winnipeg’s Nu Sounds series is pretty straightforward: book strong local players and invite them to share what’s really firing them up these days. Now in its fourth season, Nu Sounds has offered Winnipeg audiences some amazing music—and a fuller notion about what jazz musicians here are doing with their time and talents.

The next concerts in the series feature two recent graduates of the U of M’s Jazz Studies program, both of whom have already made their mark on the local performing circuit.

Pianist Will Bonness is well-known to Winnipeg audiences as a player with tremendous fluency and inventiveness. For the last five years or so, he has been first-call pianist with high-profile players at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, the Izzy Asper Jazz Performances series, the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, and the U of M’s Summer Night Jazz Fest—a short list includes Oliver Lake, David “Fathead” Newman, James Carter, Stefon Harris, and Jon Faddis. A gig in Winnipeg with Avishai Cohen so appealed to the trumpet player that he booked him to play at New York’s famous jazz club, Small’s. Bonness joined Steve Kirby and Larry Roy on their CD Wicked Grin, confirming his talent as a composer as well as a performer. The band toured the festival circuit last spring, and made a big impact on audiences from the west coast to Montreal.

Last November, Bonness released his first CD, Subtle Fire, a trio recording featuring Steve Kirby on bass and Terreon Gully on drums. The bulk of these pieces are Bonness originals—beautiful works, with an almost sculptural sensibility to counterbalance the forward drive—and the others are inspired reconsiderations of familiar tunes like “Gingerbread Boy” and “It Never Entered My Mind.” Ross Porter, now the jazz mastermind behind Toronto’s Jazz.FM91 calls Subtle Fire “no ordinary debut. Will Bonness is a brilliant player, and bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Terreon Gully deepen and extend his expressive range on cut after cut. This is musical conversation at the highest level—smart, sensitive, profound, and absolutely exciting.”

Will Bonness will perform at the Park Theatre on Sunday, March 14, with Julian Bradford on bass and Curtis Nowosad on drums. Expect a wide-ranging program, with a strong connection to history but plenty of contemporary influences.

In the middle of April, singer Amber Epp will take over the same stage with one of her several ensembles, Amber Epp in Rhythm. When Epp left high school in Steinbach en route to the U of M, she was aiming for the classical piano program. Fortunately for audiences, her heart was swayed by jazz icons like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, and she opted for the jazz stream instead. Over the last three years, she has established herself as a singer with an infectious energy and a throaty big sound, and she’s carved out several niches. She sings a mean blues, many of them her own originals. She gives new life to instrumental standards, performing original lyrics and vocalese. And she has discovered her passion for Latin—so much so that she has been learning Spanish and Portuguese, mastering Latin percussion instruments, and performing regularly with Papa Mambo and her own Trio Bembe.

In November, Epp launched her first recording, Trio Bembe, alongside Will Bonness’ Subtle Fire—it was a party to remember, and was recorded by CBC. Soon afterward, she headed for several months of study in Cuba. Her Nu Sounds concert on April 18 will be a chance to welcome her back to Winnipeg. She performs that evening with her five-piece ensemble, Amber Epp in Rhythm—that concert will showcase the whole range of her interests as a jazz vocalist. In the afternoon, she shares the fruits of her winter musical adventures in Cuba in a TD Canada Trust Jazz Lab focused on Latin stylings.

Many of us in Winnipeg have watched these two young musicians hone their craft at the Cool Monday Night Hang and other stages around Winnipeg. They’re disciplined, playful, and passionate about this art form—just the sort of ambassadors we want representing the next generation of jazz artists here in the Jazz Capital of Canada.

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