The Ostara Project (celebrating Canadian women in jazz – new album)

Named after Ostara, the Germanic goddess of the spring equinox, “The Ostara Project” showcases the strength and creativity of Canadian women in jazz.

The “supergroup” is spearheaded by award-winning jazz musicians bassist Jodi Proznick and pianist Amanda Tosoff. While the ensemble’s membership is fluid – with vocalists Laila Biali and Shruti Ramani, and clarinettist Virginia MacDonald the most recent additions – what remains constant is that Ostara artists are all top-tier musicians, composers and bandleaders who reflect the geographical, cultural and creative diversity of Canada’s musical landscape.

Ostara’s self-titled debut album (out on Cellar Live now) features the compositions and talents of seven outstanding musicians who collectively hold nine JUNO nominations and three JUNO awards. This first iteration of Ostara features vocalist Joanna Majoko (Jane Bunnett’s Maqueque), trumpeter Rachel Therrien, saxophonist Allison Au, guitarist Jocelyn Gould, drummer Sanah Kadoura, and Amanda and Jodi on piano and bass, respectively. 

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Lisa Buck, the group’s Calgary-based manager, talked about the ensemble’s genesis, upcoming debut album, and future plans. Interview by Nicky Schrire:

The Ostara Project. L-R top: Sanah Kadoura, Jodi Proznick, Laila Biali, Allison Au, Amanda Tosoff, Valerie Lacombe.
L-R bottom: Joanna Majoko, Rachel Therrien, Shruti Ramani, Virginia MacDonald, Jocelyn Gould

LondonJazz News: Can you tell us about how The Ostara Project came to be? What was the catalyst for creating this particular Canadian jazz ensemble?

Lisa Buck:
The stars kind of aligned to launch Ostara. I happened upon a Facebook posting that featured an article about an Edmonton jazz singer named Judi Singh. Her background was fascinating: Black and South-Asian, from two prominent pioneering Alberta families. Judi sang and recorded with Tommy Banks, was a regular growing up at Edmonton’s iconic Yardbird Suite and, yet, living in the same province, I had never heard of her. As I delved into her background – she had a child early in her career with guitarist Lenny Breau – I was struck by the question of how Judi’s career might have unfolded differently had she been surrounded by a supportive community through those early years with a young child. And I realised that female musicians today still lack that supportive community. 

So I decided to imagine one: for Judi and for all the women artists I know. I called my friend, Jodi Proznick, an outstanding bass player in Vancouver, BC, and suggested the idea of combining archival footage of Judi with a contemporary recording recorded by female jazz artists. As it turns out, Jodi had long had a dream of creating an all-female super-group and had names at the ready. With funding from the Canada Council for the Arts, we brought together a group of seven outstanding musicians and shot the music video and a documentary on gender equity in jazz. Over four days, the group created the music video and documentary, gave two concerts and recorded an album and The Ostara Project was launched!

The ensemble has now recorded an album (to be released on Cellar Live on 18 November 2022) and completed their first Fall tour, performing in Yukon territory, Alberta and British Columbia. What has the public reception been like and how have you and the Ostara musicians received this experience?

LB: Honestly, the reception has been a little overwhelming. First and foremost, the group is made up of outstanding musicians and audiences have embraced how special it is to have all these award-winning musicians gathered on one stage. They are all bandleaders and composers in their own right and it is just a treat to see both the strength of their individual playing and the generosity of their support of each other. They have a lot of fun playing together and audiences see and feel that. It really is a pretty powerful thing to see seven women standing together, claiming their space and kicking ass musically. So audiences have been super enthusiastic and it has been wonderful to receive that energy.

During the tour you stopped in Calgary, Alberta, both to perform at JazzYYC’s Canadian Festival (alongside some of Canada’s finest musicians – Kris Davis, Christine Jensen and CODA, and more) and to screen your documentary “Change The Tune” at the “Tune In – Tune Up” Conference running concurrently. Tell us about the documentary and some of the reactions it received from audience members and other musicians in attendance.

LB: This tour was the first time we screened the documentary publicly – we showed it three times – and those experiences were both exhilarating and exhausting. We’re talking about deep emotions here: artists whose talent has been marginalised, even ridiculed, simply because of their gender. And the women who spoke in the documentary were so courageous in their honesty and willing to be vulnerable about the challenges they have faced.  

It was really amazing to see how deeply moved audience members were. People cried – and laughed, as there is a hugely ridiculous side to stereotypes about women instrumentalists. As trumpeter Rachel Therrien says about the perception that women are not physically strong enough to play the trumpet: “This is just blowing into a metal tube.” I think that many people are not aware of the egregiously low representation of women in the professional jazz community – estimates in Canada and the U.S. are between five and ten percent – and are truly shocked when they realise the situation is that dire. I’ve had several people say that we need to get the video into classrooms and they have offered to help with distribution. 

I was fortunate to be at the conference screening of “Change The Tune” and thought the documentary was beautifully lean while saying so much. I commented on a sequence that saw the Ostara musicians being made up for the filming of the live footage and asked you about the decision to include something so overtly “female”. These visuals both spoke to the idea of sisterhood and women gathering to prepare but I also worried they made the subjects vulnerable because a documentary or EPK about male musicians would likely not include a similar montage. You spoke to my query brilliantly and I’d love for you to share your thoughts behind this editing decision with the readers.

LB: It was important to me to represent the women in all their glorious fullness in the documentary and we did include a significant montage of them getting their hair and make-up done in preparation for the music video. Wanting to look your best, to look beautiful, does not take away from the seriousness of your art. Women instrumentalists sometimes feel that they need to downplay who they are physically – covering up their bodies in loose clothing and downplaying their attractiveness – in order to be taken seriously as musicians. I wanted to show them as multifaceted people. That prep time before the video shoot was so much fun and a bonding experience for everyone.  

What lies ahead for The Ostara Project and fans of the group?

LB: World domination, of course! We will be touring the Canadian jazz festival circuit this summer and that will bring us into many major Canadian centres. We want to invite a guest artist from each place to join the group on stage for a tune to highlight the women in the local community.  I’m looking into a European tour for 2024 and we’d love to play in Japan. The group has the potential to be a role model well beyond the boundaries of jazz: The Ostara Project represents women of integrity and character who have pushed through systemic barriers to create space to express the excellence of their art. That’s powerful.

The Ostara Project’s self-titled debut album will be released on Cellar Live on 18 November 2022.

LINK: The Ostara Project

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