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Toronto’s Karen Ng is a shining sax star

February 4, 2016

The Feist and Broken Social Scene collaborator keeps busy with the Somewhere There festival.

Photo: John Oswald

Saxophonist Karen Ng is a whirlwind force in the Toronto music scene. Alongside performing with up and coming pop acts like Germaphobes and Del Bel, she has hit the stage and the studio with higher profile artists such as Feist, Broken Social Scene, and the Constantines’ Bry Webb.

However, it is Ng’s work in the worlds of jazz and improvisational music where her hustle truly becomes clear. She regularly performs in countless Toronto ensembles including Ken Aldcroft’s Convergence, Imaginary Flesh (formerly Clarinet Panic), Dave Clark’s Woodshed Orchestra, and many more.

In 2015, Ng was awarded a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to study in Amsterdam and Berlin with the legendary ICP Orchestra (no relation to the Insane Clown Posse). She also takes great pride in paying it forward as a woodwinds instructor with Long & McQuade and in her home.

This month, Ng tosses on her programmer cap for the Music Gallery’s Emergents event on Friday, February 5 featuring Linsey Wellman and L CON. She is also the organizer of the upcoming Somewhere There music festival, with jazz, polka, and turntablism taking over Toronto’s TRANZAC Club from February 26-28. Read on for our interview below.

AUX: You’ve toured with Feist and taken the stage with high-profile acts like Broken Social Scene, Bry Webb, and Charles Spearin’s Happiness Project. Open question: How do those experiences playing with rock and pop acts differ from your activities in the jazz world?

Karen Ng: I play in numerous kinds of projects – from a shadow puppet show with Germaphobes to brass band parades with the Woodshed Orchestra or live film scorings with Del Bel. It’s still all about performing and supporting original music.

There is so much awesome music happening here in Toronto all across genres, it’s really flattering to get to take part in any of it, whether it’s “high profile” or to four people at the Tranzac! So in the grand scheme of things it’s no different at all, it’s just different musical contexts, but so long as everyone is expressing themselves creatively and honestly, I’ll be there to support it!

You also appeared on Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich’s From the Basement music series with Charles Spearin. How was that experience?

To be honest, it was totally terrifying! Trying not to swoon and be a super fan in front of Nigel Godrich was a challenge indeed. I was just happy to be a part of it and get to hear and play Charles’ music in a different context and have that moment in time documented. Snowblink was collaborating with us on that performance, and of course having Feist and Mountain Men singing with us… it was beautiful! A very satisfying musical experience for sure, and all done in 10 minutes!

Your bio says you took a “unique journey through post-secondary institutions” and studied with some of Canada’s top sax players. What kinds of things made your education unique?

I think like most young musicians jumping through the hoops of the institutional system that is music school, I had a hard time trying to figure out where this was all going. I went and completed my degree at York with a huge reluctance to come out of there with a standard “jazz vocabulary.” I was 21 when I finished and ended up going to Humber College for some extra time.

Not many people decide to do that but I was really happy that I did. It led me to some of my best friends I have now and I really did need more time to figure myself out. I learned that it is OK to take more time. What we each need as an individual doesn’t always fit exactly within the framework that is presented to us.

You received a grant to study with the famed ICP Orchestra in Amsterdam and Berlin last year. What was that experience like? Have any Han Bennink stories?

My time spent overseas was pretty life changing – playing and learning from such phenomenal people like Michael Moore and Ab Baars, it really had me reflect on what I thought was necessary to be musical in my own personal way and to not be so concerned about what others think of me (something I’m sure we all struggle with in our own way).

Above all, it was a chance to experience a community that was extremely supportive of each other and generating vastly different music than what is happening on this side of the globe. I’m so incredibly grateful and lucky to have had this opportunity. Thanks again to the OAC and Chalmers family!

Funnily enough, I didn’t get to meet Han til the show Somewhere There and Rough Idea put on here in Toronto. The day I was supposed to meet and finally see him play live in Amsterdam, I was trapped in a train station that was in complete chaos from a power outage, looking for my brother without a phone… but that’s another story!

In your write-up for the Emergents show you programmed at the Music Gallery, you highlight the “single voices” of Linsey Wellman and Lisa Conway (a.k.a. L CON) Can you tell me a bit more about why you chose those artists?

I chose Linsey and Lisa because I’m a huge fan of their music, plain and simple. It only occurred to me after that there was this hidden parallel between what they do.

Linsey will literally be a single voice during his solo sax set, but he’s able to conjure up really thick sonic textures. Lisa will have three voices to play with where it would be easy to create filled out lush textures, but indeed usually chooses to keep things sparse and bare with unison voices.

Linsey’s transitions within a piece will have the audiences wondering how sections relate to each, while Lisa’s pieces will have us tuning into the relationship between voices as they depart from each other and come together again (or not!). They make supremely different choices through elements that are similar but opposite. I thought it would be fun to present them together and have the audience consider what these things might be.

[pullquote]Hopefully it will draw out some new faces, and maybe rouse their inner weirdos to create something.[/pullquote]

You also organized the upcoming Somewhere There music festival, which includes jazz, polka, turntablism, and a talk on community from show recorder/scene booster supreme Joe Strutt. What ties those disparate strands together?

Same as I said above, that we are all here to support original music. And that we’re all weirdos trying to do our thing. And there’s LOTS of different things going on – it’s fun to see what everyone’s up to!

In the end whether you like or enjoyed the sound of a band is a personal opinion, but this is really just a chance to celebrate the fact that we live in a city that has a really diverse scene. Everyone is able to make the music that they want and are free to be really creative and weird! It’s a real luxury, and hopefully it will draw out some new faces, and maybe rouse their inner weirdos to create something as well.

On a deeper level, it’s a chance for musicians from so many different genres to socialize and hear music they might not get to hear within their normal circles. Within the broad spectrum of music that’s being presented, we actually all have lots to share musically and professionally. The hope is that this will provide a chance for exchange in whatever capacity. Marie LeBlanc Flanagan‘s talk last year spoke of inclusion and breaking down barriers between social circles. Perhaps there will be an opportunity for this as well.

I noticed you’re performing with four different groups at Somewhere There. Do you typically play live that often as a go-to sax player around town, or will it be more exhausting than usual?

I realize that seems conflicting hahahahah, organizing something and then playing in it so many times, but it really was a coincidence! Ronley Teper I know from the indie scene, Jay Hay and I play in horn sections often together, Kyle Brenders and I have similar backgrounds with our European teachers (and I’ve been lucky enough to play in his big band once or twice!) and Ken Aldcroft I’ve been playing with in the improv scene for a few years now. So this is sort of a typical weekend for me, just centralized in the same space for once!

It’ll be less exhausting in the way that I won’t have to cab from venue to venue like some other times. I’m happily donating my time as well to playing in the festival – though we are generously being funded by the Canada Council and OAC. We (at Somewhere There) are really happy to get to pay everyone well this year and not be limited to small ensembles.

You’ve taught as a woodwinds instructor with Long & McQuade, and now offer lessons both at home and with the Regent Park School of Music. What sorts of challenges and inspirations do you find in teaching?

I will never grow tired of teaching, it really is a great joy and inspiration. It humbles you and makes you wise and patient. These are lifelong goals for me and I get little glimmers of this every time I teach. It’s incredibly flattering that people willingly sit in a small room with me for any amount of time every week to hear what I have to say. And at the same time, I get a real kick out of trying to figure out how people take in and organize information!

Young and old, everyone has a different outlook in life and I get to peek into what these are, how different or similar they are from mine. I learn lots from teaching – though I’m the teacher, we discuss lots of other things and it isn’t necessarily one way and instructional, it’s best when it’s not. It’s one of the most honest exchanges I get to have daily. I’m very lucky to get to do this all the time.

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