Jazz player keeps it in the family

Jake Koffman

A new generation of jazz musicians is emerging in Canada, and saxophonist Jake Koffman is one of its brightest stars. 

Koffman, 28, has been making a name for himself playing at Toronto clubs and recording. He’s working in the family business – making music – as did his two grandfathers, Canadian jazz icon Moe Koffman and Toronto Symphony Orchestra conductor Victor Feldbrill.

Moe Koffman was best known for his Swinging Shepherd Blues, a 1957 Canadian and U.S. hit he wrote and recorded on flute. The single became a standard and helped to put Canadian jazz on the map. 

Like Moe, Jake is a woodwind player. He learned to play clarinet at 13, while attending St. Andrew’s Junior High School in Toronto. A year later, he began studying saxophone, his main instrument today. Around that time, he visited his grandfather several times for music lessons. 

“He taught me the fundamentals, proper breathing technique and how to get a nice sound from an instrument,” Koffman said. 

That year, 2001, he played Swinging Shepherd Blues on alto sax at St. Andrew’s and, coincidentally, two hours later was summoned to the school office to hear devastating news about his grandfather. 

“I got called down and [was] told he had just passed,” Koffman said. 

But other family members were there to support the budding musician. Koffman’s father, Herbie, used to play trumpet, and his grandfather, on his mother’s side, is Victor Feldbrill, 90, a violinist who conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra in the 1970s.

Koffman said Feldbrill, who bought him his first clarinet, is more of an encouraging grandfather, while Moe was his first musical influence. Jake didn’t expect to make music a career, but over time discovered his own ability. 

“I never thought I would get into music until I noticed that it came easier to me than other people,” he said.

From the age of 13, Koffman has been gigging, playing in punk, hip hop, blues, R&B, reggae and wedding bands, but he confirmed his dedication to jazz when he enrolled in the Humber College jazz program. Since graduating in 2009, he has established himself as a band leader and sideman and he released his first CD last October. 

Koffman loves performing – “and the big rush you get from playing in front of people,” – but going into the studio to record his first CD was nerve-wracking, he said. 

“Making a studio album is a lot different than playing live. I was obviously nervous.”

Koffman’s excellent debut album, The Jake Koffman Quartet, showcases ballads and the up-tempo bebop Koffman enjoys playing. His grandfather was one of the first Canadian jazz players to adopt the bebop style that came out of New York in the early 1940s. 

Most of the material on the CD is original, including Koffman’s minor blues Drake Lake and Moe Koffman’s For Jezz, which is dedicated to Jake’s step-grandmother. A couple of the tunes were written by the quartet’s pianist Bernie Senensky, who played with Moe, and one was penned by the group’s drummer, Morgan Childs. 

Koffman plays saxophone and flute, and Neil Swainson, who also played with Moe, is on bass. One of the CD’s tracks, Laura, a standard, has been on rotation at the radio station JAZZ-FM. 

For the past three years, Koffman has been a member of the horn section of singer Nikki Yanofsky’s band whenever she plays Toronto. Koffman was thrilled when Yanofsky’s mentor, Quincy Jones, a record producer who’s worked with some of the great musicians of the 20th century, introduced Yanofsky’s band at one of her performances here last spring.

“He grabbed my sheet of music and said, ‘Yeah, it looks good,” Koffman recalled. “It was a great experience.” 

Although being a musician can be a precarious lifestyle, Koffman said he wouldn’t have it any other way. “It can be scary because you never know when your next paycheque is coming. But I love it. I wouldn’t do anything else.” 

You can listen to Koffman’s album on Spotify and download tracks from iTunes, and you can connect with him on Facebook. For more information, visit www.jakekoffman.com.