5 jazz underdogs to watch at this year’s Juno Awards

Some of the biggest names in Canadian jazz will be recognized during this year’s Juno Awards weekend in London — but it’s the up-and-comers that are worth a closer look.

Highly acclaimed singers Diana Krall, Holly Cole, Diana Panton and even Tony Bennett bring their star power to the vocal jazz album of the year category, while prolific players Robi Botos and Renee Rosnes look to add to their trophy cabinets in the solo category for jazz album of the year. Molly Johnson has crossed over into the adult contemporary category with her sixth studio album Meaning to Tell Ya, and David Braid is up for classical album of the year for his choral piece Corona Divinae Misericordiae.

But there are also several newer and smaller names who are making their own buzz in the Canadian jazz world, and they each make a compelling case for walking away with an award at Saturday’s gala. Here are five nominees to keep an eye on.


Credit: alexisbaro.com

Alexis Baro

This is the first Juno nomination for this Cuban-born trumpeter, whose album Sandstorm is up for solo jazz album of the year.

“I feel grateful,” Baro says. “I was really surprised because this is my sixth album I’ve released here in Canada. I wasn’t really expecting it because so far I haven’t been lucky enough to get mentioned, so it took me completely by surprise.”

After studying at the prestigious Amadeo Roldán Music Conservatory in Havana and playing in Cuban superstar Omara Portuondo’s band, Baro moved to Toronto in 2001 and has since been making a name for himself on Canada’s jazz scene.

Baro’s resumé is impressive. Upon his arrival in Toronto, he played for eight years with iconic drummer Archie Alleyne’s hard-bop group Kollage. He’s appeared on more than 60 albums, including as a featured soloist on Hilario Duran’s Grammy-nominated From the Heart. He’s performed alongside Michael Bublé, Paul Anka, Andrea Bocelli, Nikki Yanofsky, David Foster, Robi Botos, Danilo Pérez, John Patitucci, Jimmy Bosch, Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez and more. He’s opened for Herbie Hancock. He’s toured Canada’s festival circuit and is a three-time nominee for the Canadian Jazz Award for best trumpeter.

But Baro’s solo output has taken a while to gain attention. He released his first album Havana Banana in 2004, and after a six-year break has been steadily pumping out albums of Afro-Cuban-influenced original compositions over the last decade. With Sandstorm, he took on a more jazz-fusion style that combines Toronto’s eclectic mix of cultures.

“Maybe that was the lucky style,” Baro says of the record being nominated for a Juno Award. “Every album that I do, I try to be very true to myself. All the albums have a different sound, a different influence … a different vibe. But I still try to be true to myself.”

Baro faces competition from a couple other emerging soloists — Larnell Lewis and Alison Young — plus bigger names in Renee Rosnes and Robi Botos. But all Baro hopes for is that his Juno nomination helps him reach a wider audience, so that “more people are touched by what I do.”


Credit: alisonyoungmusic.com

Alison Young

Having toured the world and played on nearly 30 albums, this saxophonist had wanted to make a record of her own for years, but kept putting it off. Alison Young credits Jeremy Darby of the Canterbury Music Company for helping to give her a push. She won free studio time in the veteran producer’s annual contest for emerging artists, which gave her that extra nudge she needed to get into the studio and record her songs, even though she didn’t feel quite ready.

Obviously, it paid off. Young has already gotten herself a Juno nod with her solo debut So Here We Are.

“It is such an honour. I’m thrilled,” Young says. “When you put your music out there you think, ‘I hope somebody enjoys it,’ but to actually get recognized like this is huge.”

Young gives a lot of credit for the nomination to her quintet of seasoned players Jeff McLeod, Chris Wallace, Ross MacIntyre, Eric St-Laurent and Sly Juhas. The album also features Guido Basso as an extra special guest.

Young says she grew up listening to classic Blue Note jazz albums, and she played her first gigs with a soul and R&B band. She brought those two sides of her early beginnings together for So Here We Are. “My musical priorities are melody, energy and joy,” she says. “This band is such a joy to play with, and I think you can hear that on the record.”

Young joins Baro in vying for solo jazz album of the year. She says just being in that conversation pushes her to keep going.

“It’s hilarious to be in the same group,” she says. “It’s very inspiring. Everyone’s voice is so different and so deep. It makes me want to write more and practice harder.”



Laila Biali

This rising star is in the rare position of being nominated twice in the same Juno category. Laila Biali’s self-titled album is nominated for vocal jazz album of the year, and she’s also the featured vocalist on Jodi Proznick’s Sun Songs. 

“I was delighted,” Biali says of the nominations. “It’s a huge honour to see my own release nominated, and as a longtime friend and fan of Jodi’s, the feelings only doubled when her album was also included. It felt like a win-win.”

Hers is the category with the biggest names in jazz, with Diana Krall and Tony Bennett’s Love Is Here to Stay, Holly Cole’s Holly and Diana Panton’s solstice/equinox. 

“It’s humbling,” Biali says. “I listen to and love each of these artists. In fact, I really discovered jazz through Diana Krall and Holly Cole when I was still a teenager.”

For Biali, her latest album felt like a new beginning. She had long been exploring a jazz sound with a pop edge, and on her previous album, House of Many Rooms, she delved even further into the art-pop space. Her Juno-nominated effort marks a return to her roots, of sorts: flavours of pop with jazz at the base.

“On this album, the spirit of jazz informed the fundamental approach from start to finish, with elements of spontaneity and improvisation on every track,” Biali explains. “It truly felt like the amalgamation of everything I’ve done and love to do — as thorough a representation as I could accomplish at the time it was recorded.”

Biali continues to tour as she looks to reach an international audience. She’ll also be recording a new album this spring and summer that will be released in 2020.


Credit: allisonau.com

Allison Au Quartet

This four-piece band has a chance to take home their second Juno Award for best jazz album of the year by a group, for their third album Wander Wonder. In a span of seven years, all three of their albums have earned nominations — quite an exceptional feat for an independent group of young musicians.

“For each album the band has released, we’ve just hoped that someone listens to it,” says Au, the band’s saxophonist and leader. “I think many independent artists feel that way — they just hope at least one person checks out their work and hopefully enjoys it or walks away with a new perspective or appreciation. So to receive a Juno nomination is a really wonderful nod from the community on a national level.”

Among the other contenders in her category are journeyman Andrew Rathbun, nominated for his jazz orchestra’s suites based on Margaret Atwood’s poetry; the Liebman/Murley Quartet, with highly decorated veteran saxophonists Dave Liebman and Mike Murley; and Andy Milne, a former student of Oscar Peterson who has recorded numerous albums and scored several films and collaborated with Bruce Cockburn, Ravi Coltrane, Steve Coleman and others.

So, Wander Wonder is in elite company.

Au says the group’s consistent recognition at the Juno Awards has had a noticeable effect on their visibility across Canada, helping them land new opportunities to perform. But she says winning a Juno was also a humbling experience.

“It has reminded me to never rest on your laurels and to never expect anyone to help you with anything,” she says. “You have to work for everything you wish to attain or achieve. The work never stops.”

Wander Wonder follows 2015’s Juno-winning album Forest Grove and their 2012 debut The Sky Was Pale Blue, Then Grey. The product of three years spent performing, editing, adding, cutting and reworking new music, Wander Wonder is another strong, expressive and collaborative effort from a band that’s remained together since its inception.

Au says she was inspired by a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle that reminded her of the importance of maintaining one’s sense of wonder at the world.

“I know how quickly we can become jaded about certain aspects of life, and how easy it is to lose inspiration,” she says. “Wander Wonder is inspired by the idea that we all need to stay in touch with and cultivate our childlike curiosity towards life, learning and our creative pursuits. We can all benefit from taking time out of our day to stop, look, wander and wonder about the incredible world that surrounds us. As adults, we don’t do that enough.”


Larnell Lewis

It’s not often that a Canadian artist wins a Grammy before they even get nominated for a Juno. But that’s the case for drummer Larnell Lewis, who’s already won a Grammy with Snarky Puppy and now finds himself nominated for his first Juno after releasing his solo debut In the Moment. Not only that, but he also appears on both Baro’s and Botos’s albums that are nominated this year.

Considered one of Canada’s most promising up-and-coming drummers, Lewis has also backed up Laila Biali, Molly Johnson, Fred Hammond, Lalah Hathaway, Lisa Fischer and Kellylee Evans. Amid his busy schedule of recording and performing, Lewis is also a part-time professor in Humber College’s music faculty.

An album of all original compositions, In the Moment explores Lewis’s “deep connection” to jazz and his Afro-Caribbean roots.

“Sharing my heart on the drums has been second nature to me for most of my life,” he said in an interview on Humber’s creative arts website. “This is just another step in that direction.”