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Mixing jazz and Indigenous history

Celebrated jazz musician Andrew McAnsh will be performing a five-part suite supported and inspired by Canadian Indigenous history and art, as well as an exploration of his own Sicilian/Metis roots, at The Loft on March 10
Andrew McAnsh

Award-winning trumpeter, composer, and educator Andrew McAnsh’s upcoming performance in the Sault next month is more than just another tour stop.

It has a deeply personal connection for him.

Born and raised in Cambridge, Ont., McAnsh’s father Doug was born in the Sault.

“Even though my father was born there, I actually have never been,” says McAnsh.

“I am quite excited to visit his birthplace because much of this music is an attempt to tell the story of his experience, particularly his adoption and the story of so many involved in the sixties scoop.”

A recent masters graduate of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute, McAnsh’s upcoming performance will be of music from his third full-length album, Music of the Great Lakes: A Songbook for the Canadian Indigenous, a five-part suite supported and inspired by Canadian Indigenous history, is also a musical and personal exploration of his own Sicilian/Metis roots.

“I was embarking on a graduate program in 2016 at Berklee Global Jazz Institute under the direction of (Anthony Scibilia and others) … near the beginning of the program, we needed to decide the focus of our thesis,” he says.

“Being the only Canadian in a globally diverse environment where students are all unanimously using music from their home countries and fusing it with jazz, I decided to do the same. Instead of Joni Mitchell or Stompin’ Tom, whom I both love, I wanted to dig deeper and get in touch with the people of this land.”

Of course, the music is also “autobiographical.”

Each part of the suite sees McAnsh explore the music of an individual great lake as it hosts tribes including Chippewa/Ojibwe, Cree, Dakota/Sioux, Huron, Iroquois.

“Anthony Scibilia, who is a phenomenal artist, professor and adviser, guided me to musically interpret several paintings as well as to stand behind my message of uncovering the horrors of Canadian history which seemed to create some controversy in the program. We focused on keeping it real.”

Some of those paintings that inspired McAnsh were by Norval Morrisseau, an artist from the Bingwi Neyaashi Anishinaabek First Nation, widely regarded as the grandfather of contemporary Indigenous art in Canada and one of the founders of the Woodlands school of art.

The process in which some of the music McAnsh came to be, involved interviews with Indigenous elders.

“My interviews included questions pertaining to their personal experience, life on the 'rez,' issues in education, human rights, and grounding philosophies,” he says.

“Near the end of each interview, I would ask for them to sing or hum something, anything they wanted. It could be a ceremonial, round dance, an improvisational moment, or Mary Had a Little Lamb. I would then quickly write down the musical phrase on a small manuscript and stow it away in a shoebox of musical sketches I had accumulated.”

As a writer, whenever he experienced writer's block, he would simply consult the shoebox.

“These ideas would be expanded upon and used in the suite in some way or another either.”

It is not lost on McAnsh, that the opportunity to play on the land that was one of the great meeting places for Indigenous peoples for generations, carries a great significance. 

“I firmly believe in the land-spirit connection,” says McAnsh.

“Land is vibration to which all forms of life resonate.”

It was when McAnsh attended his first powwow that he realized the power and strength of Indigenous music.

“It knocked me out,” he says.

“I felt an immediate connection to this land and realized that music isn’t for itself. It had been accompanied by dance, by prayer, by ceremony for the ancestors in gratitude. I keep this all in mind/spirit when composing and performing.”

The music he composes and performs has evolved and grown over time, taking new forms that build upon the jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane who first inspired him at the age of twelve.

As his musical pallet grew, so too did McAnsh’s reputation.

He has performed at major international festivals such as the Newport Jazz Festival, Monterey Jazz Festival, Panama Jazz Festival and many others.

One jazz artist who McAnsh has had the privilege to play with regularly is acclaimed drummer Larnell Lewis.

“Every time I enter a space which includes Larnell, the vibe of that space elevates,” says McAnsh, who also plays in Lewis’ band. 

“I consider myself very lucky to get to see Larnell as often as I do. He’s producing my record and he is a key role model for me. His clarity in communication, his awareness of the space, absolutely phenomenal musicianship, and family and community-driven values have shaped my being in ways I wish to pass along.”

At McAnsh’s upcoming performance at The Loft, he will be performing with his own incredible band made up of world-class musicians Jonathan Chapman, Andrew Marzotto, Rob Christian and Mateo Mancuso.

“As a bandleader, I commit to surrounding myself with the highest level of musicianship possible, making quality decisions, and most importantly, staying out of the way,” he laughs.

It is clear that McAnsh’s relationship with his band is about more than just musicianship.

McAnsh met bass player Jonathan Chapman back in their high school days.

They both continued on to study at Berklee.

“We share a level of tenacity and seriousness which is not limited to the practice room, but extends into our being.”

McAnsh and guitarist Andrew Marzotto are similarly both musical educators and share mentors.

“We share not only a divine musical connection, but we see eye-to-eye when it comes to the power and responsibility of music education and using music as a vehicle of social change.”  

McAnsh first met multi-instrumentalist Rob Christian (flute, sax, keyboards) when he moved to Toronto in 2007.

“We share a birth year, we both play in a Larnell Lewis' band, and we've been there for each other at our highest and lowest points,” says McAnsh.

Rounding out the line-up is drummer Mateo Mancuso, who comes from a prolific musical family.

“It’s been beautiful to witness Mateo’s personal journey of overcoming present and past ancestral trauma and how it has been met with unparalleled courage, humility, and musical excellence,” says McAnsh.

“It is truly an honour to know Mateo.”

Presented by the Algoma University Music Department, Andrew McAnsh’s performance of Music of the Great Lakes: A Songbook for the Canadian Indigenous will be on Friday, March 10 at 7:30 pm. The performance will take place at The Loft (75 Huron St.).

Tickets for the event can be found here.

Find out more about Andrew McAnsh and his music at or on his Instagram page.

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