The Toronto-based Griffith-Hiltz Trio will make its Yukon debut this weekend as the latest offering in the Jazz on the Wing concert series.

The trio consists of Johnny Griffith on alto sax and bass clarinet, Nathan Hiltz on electric guitar and bass pedals, and Sly Juhas at the drums.

Together, the three bring a wealth of experience gleaned from their work as composers, improvising instrumentalists and music educators.

In July of 2009, the trio released its debut CD, Now And Then, produced by the dean of Canadian jazz, Don Thompson. It was subsequently voted the top jazz album of 2009 on the influential Toronto not-for-profit radio station, JAZZ.FM91.

Reed player Griffith and guitarist Hiltz both studied composition and improvisation with Thompson at Ontario’s Humber College, and say they are extremely grateful for the wisdom and encouragement he has given them over the years.

This relationship evolved to see Thompson produce and play piano on the trio’s first recording. Now And Then includes tunes written by Griffith and Hiltz, both individually and collectively.

The pair continues to get together for weekly jams and toss around ideas for new pieces.

In these weekly sessions, Hiltz explained in a recent conversation, they try to develop new melodic and rhythmic ideas, as well as more abstract concepts such as “this one should sound like the soundtrack to a film…” as they jam together.

Many of the ideas that emerge are later developed further and added to the trio’s repertoire.

Two of the current artists they draw inspiration from are sax man Branford Marsalis and bassist Dave Holland, both of whom lead and write music for working bands that are at the forefront of modern jazz.

All members of the Griffith/Hiltz Trio play in a variety of bands that cover a range of musical genres, such as funk/hip hop, avant-garde and contemporary jazz, all of which inform their work together.

Hiltz says the trio is his most challenging gig as he plays the bass parts with foot pedals while he is playing guitar with his hands.

Griffith-Hiltz Trio personnel (l. to r.) Johnny Griffith, Nathan Hiltz and Sly Juhas PHOTO: Connie Tsang

In this regard, the group emulates the jazz organ trio, in which it is one player’s role to cover the melodic lines while laying down the bass parts at the same time.

Griffith and Hiltz are traditionalists, in that all the music they deliver happens in real time. Unlike some other musicians, they do not use loops or pre-recorded sounds… a playing style that requires high levels of both skill and confidence.

For its upcoming second recording, the Griffith-Hiltz Trio is moving in a new direction, planning to work with noted Canadian singer-songwriter, producer and sound engineer Hawksley Workman.

As fans of Workman’s music, they are looking to find a bigger, more produced sound with him.

Improvisation, though, will always be a very important element of their music. Part of that experimentation will involve finding new textures and different combinations of the varied instrumentation that is present in their performances.

The musicians are excited about the possibility of incorporating odd meters and Latin rhythms to add spice and colour to the songs. Hiltz even offered the possibility that Workman’s vocals may find their way into the mix.

The trio is currently working toward a new recording that will be ready for release next summer, followed by a fall tour to promote it.

While recording is important for any musical artist, Hiltz says the group is constantly driven by the reaction its songs receive in live settings, and playing live is what the band truly loves to do.

The aim of The Griffith-Hiltz players is to tailor their shows to what they perceive the audience wants.

The Jazz On The Wing audience can look forward to an evening that includes tunes from the Now and Then CD, as well as new tunes that will appear on the trio’s upcoming recording, and some fresh takes on familiar jazz standards.

More information about the Griffith-Hiltz Trio, including clips, can be found at www.jazzyukon.ca.

The trio’s Jazz on the Wing concert will take place at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, January 29, starting at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are available at the arts centre and Arts Underground box offices, or online at www.yukontickets.com

Steve Gedrose is a jazz aficionado and former owner of the sadly-missed Rose Music store in Whitehorse.