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In Montreal with the Tara Kannangara Group

Jason Stillman
Contributing Writer
jasonstillman@gmail.com / @jasonstillman

The Tara Kannangara Group is a Toronto-based quintet that features Kannangara on trumpet, flugelhorn, and voice, Chris Pruden on piano and keyboard, Colin Story on guitar, Julian Anderson-Bowes on electric bass, and McKenzie Longpre on drums. They played Café Resonance on Thursday night to kick off their four day "mini-tour" that included two nights at the Brookstreet Hotel in Ottawa and a Monday night performance at the Emmett Ray, in Toronto. I decided to check out their performance at Café Resonance and I am glad that I did.

It was immediately clear that the music incorporates elements of pop and indie-rock as much as it does jazz performance practice. The musicians are obviously trained jazz performers but the "band sound" is more rock or pop-inspired. It is also constantly changing between acoustic and electronic worlds as Pruden alternates between piano and keyboard (using a variety of synth sounds) while electronic effect pedals are added to guitar, trumpet and voice, creating additional textures to the band's already full sound. Kannangara's compositions juxtapose dense, rhythmically-charged writing, which often employ overlapping ostinato figures and odd time signatures, with wide open "release" sections that allow drummer Longpre to throw down a good old fashioned backbeat rhythm overtop of simplified melody and harmonies. The lyrics are interesting as well, if you are into that sort of thing. In fact, Kannangara set one of her melodies to John Donne's "Holy Sonnet 14", "Batter My Heart".

Story and Longpre were fantastic and did not hold anything back, regardless of the intimate setting and modest turnout. Kannangara as well gave an inspiring performance. She is clearly a natural performer, comfortable onstage and fun to watch. I particularly liked the way she interacted with the band during her trumpet or flugelhorn solos, which were approached more as group improvisations rather than what you might think of as typical trumpet features. The band played two sets of Tara's original compositions and arrangements, including two covers—"Edelweiss", from The Sound of Music (revealing her affinity for musical theatre) and Thom Yorke's "Atoms for Peace" (revealing her affinity for Thom Yorke).

The highlight of the evening may have been "The House Where I Live", which allowed the audience to focus on Kannangara's vocal work (accompanied only by Pruden on piano). Her control is impressive to say the least. Her tone is warm and balanced throughout her entire range and her vibrato, melodic embellishments, and soulful expression remind me of Stevie Wonder. Like her trumpet sound, Kannangara’s voice makes you sit up and listen. That is exactly what people were doing during her two sets at Café Resonance.

Watch for this group’s debut recording Some Version of the Truth, available September 2015.

Jason Stillman is a Montreal jazz saxophonist and a Doctoral student in Jazz Performance at the University of Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.