WATERLOO ON., Sept. 29, 2014 --- About four years ago the Brooklyn-based tenor saxophonist and composer Petr Cancura made a life-changing trip to Senatobia County, Mississippi for the annual Otha Turner Family Goat Roast & Picnic.
The music Cancura heard that August weekend inspired him like nothing else. After returning to Brooklyn, he wrote more than enough music in one month for a new recording. That music, a jazz-blues fusion, will be front-and-centre Saturday night in The Jazz Room. The CD is called "Down Home."
"It just changed my life," Cancura says in an interview with New City Notes.
Otha Turner started the annual goat roast and blues jam decades ago. Turner led The Rising Star Fife and Drum Band. He was featured in Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winning movie The Gangs of New York, and in Scorsese's documentary series on the blues. Hill Country and Delta Blues musicians take turns playing on the back of a flat-bed truck at the annual picnic. Turner's granddaughter, Sharde Thomas, plays the fife in the band, and his grandsons play drums.
Cancura could hardly believe what he was seeing and hearing. It took him way back to his roots. . Cancura was born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia, far behind the Iron Curtain of Cold War Europe. His father was charged with treason and threatened with 15 years in prison for buying a Yamaha keyboard.
When he was nine-years-old Cancura's family escaped to Austria, spent eight months if a refugee camp and then settled in Ottawa. Later Cancura studied music at Carlton University. Then he studied jazz at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston - one of the best jazz programs in the world.
"Pretty soon after I got heavily into music I went back and started checking out all this Eastern European music, Gypsy music," Cancura says. "That stuff just really speaks to me. Really , all it is is an Eastern European version of the blues. I have been studying and playing jazz for over 20 years at this point, and that's become part of my life. When I went down there and checked out this picnic, I got those same shivers that I do when I hear Gypsy music."
The CD "Down Home" is nominated for a Juno Award, and Cancura comes to The Jazz Room fresh from a cocert and workshop at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.. The Jazz Room is Cancura's second stop on this Canadian tour. He plays tenor sax, clarinet, banjo and mandolin. Cancura is also the programming manager for the Ottawa Jazz Festival. The Down Home project taps into everything this multi-instrumentalist has to offer.
"It's kind of combining a lot of southern-kind-of-blues and folk traditions,' Cancura says. "And then letting loose with a bunch of really incredible improvisers from New York."
After graduating from the New England Conservatory in 2006, Cancura headed for New York City. He lives in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn.
"It is a great, booming little neighbourhood that is packed with musicians," Cancura says.
He plays a semi-regular gig at Barbes, a performance space and bar at 9th Street and 6th Ave. in Park Slope. He also plays IBeam in the Gowanus area Brooklyn, a performance, rehearsal and teaching space for established and emerging musicians.. Cancura's also played the Cornelia Street Cafe and the Blue Note in the West Village.
"I like it," Cancura says of New York City. "I have been here for a long time, I have been here for eight years. And it's tough, but it's great. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, so we are always talking about should we stay, should we not?"
But Cancura and his partner always decide to stay.
"It's expensive, it's a hard place to live, but people seem to fight for their life here in a good way," Cancura says. "They fight for it, if we are talking music and art, they really fight for it. And when people come to a rehearsal or session to play, they mean it, and it makes it pretty special."