Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

March/April 2016: Aaron Diehl

Will Bonness: Halcyon Days

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A new Will Bonness CD is cause for celebration in this town—it’s a pretty fair guess that the West End Cultural Centre will be bursting at the seams on May 11 to witness the arrival of Halcyon, Will’s second CD as a leader, a follow-up to his 2009 recording, Subtle Fire. (As Will admits in his self-deprecating way, “I tend to be a little bit slow with my projects.”)

But the time is right. Will was eager to make a recording that reflects the changing landscape here in Winnipeg, and to go into a studio with his colleagues in the Jazz Studies program at the University of Manitoba. “I’ve been playing with Steve Kirby for 13 years, and Quincy Davis for five or six,” he said. “Derrick Gardner and Jon Gardner? Not quite as long. But we play every week at The Hang, and knowing each other so well musically helps a project come together organically.”

Will began playing piano as a kid. He grew up in a household filled with music, and he has been known to mention the terrific music on Mr Rogers, so presumably he soaked up everything musical that came his way. He was still a teen when he toured internationally with Maynard Ferguson’s band in 2003-4, and began sitting in at The Hang around the same time. Since then, he has burned through the Jazz Studies degree at the U of M, studied privately with great pianists and teachers in New York and Boston, composed and performed at a dizzying pace, and played on countless recordings. Four years ago, he joined the Jazz Studies faculty himself; he’s the youngest member of the crew, but absolutely a musical peer.

His new album Halcyon is both elegant and atmospheric, and shows off his sophistication as a performer and composer-arranger. He had already recorded the title track when it occurred to him that he could capture the impulse behind the whole CD with that title. “I liked the many connotations of the word,” he said, “such as calm, peaceful, prosperous, and happy, and its suggestion of the sea—and it ties into many of the other composition titles, such as ‘Reflections,’ ‘Puddles,’ and ‘Staring Into The Sun.’”

It’s true. There’s grace and serenity throughout Halcyon, even when things get wound up a bit—as they invariably do when you gather these musicians together! “The musicians on the record really captured the different moods I was going for,” Will says. “Derrick is muscular and driving on ‘Too Marvelous For Words,’ yet soulful and reflective on ‘Staring Into the Sun.’ Jon plays an elaborate yet lyrical solo on ‘Puddles,’ his main feature. Steve and Quincy, holding down the foundation of the record, are swinging, ethereal, driving, or spacy depending on what each composition calls for. I’m very grateful to have been able to record with such high caliber musicians and they really brought the music to life.”

As everyone knows from watching Will develop over the past fifteen years, he’s a brilliant pianist, both virtuosic and sensitive, with seemingly inexhaustible inventiveness, extraordinary lyricism, and uncommon musical maturity. Over the years, he’s become a first call musician for anybody needing a pianist, and in pretty much every imaginable style—jazz, classical, rock, Latin, experimental… (Steve Kirby calls him “the playing-est pianist out there.”)

That breadth has been both a deliberate choice and an accident of necessity. In the early days, he accepted gigs of every variety because he wanted the work. But because he’s a consummate artist, and because, as he says, “I don’t like to do a poor job of things,” he then put in the time and research to play new styles. The upshot? He’s a diverse and flexible musician who sounds at home in every imaginable musical situation.

The one situation that’s still new is being a leader. He admits it’s a bit tricky for a man who’s by nature reticent and accommodating, but he points out that “a lot of great musicians don’t really become leaders until around age 30—which is where I’m at now. It’s not the focus of my career yet, but it might become that way soon.”

On May 11, Will Bonness will dazzle audiences at the West End Cultural Centre with his artistry. Sharing the stage to launch his new recording are Derrick Gardner, Jon Gordon, Quincy Davis, and Steve Kirby. As somebody with the good fortune to hear the advance cuts, I know that Halcyon is set to become the go-to on playlists across the country and further afield. It’s superb. 

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