Adversity has its rewards, and the unexpected is the essence of art. Jane Bunnett was studying classical piano in Toronto when tendinitis put an end to her concert hall dreams. Rather than abandon music, she took up the flute at age twenty, and then the soprano saxophone — the instrument that has brought her most recognition — and her tastes moved toward jazz.

As Bunnett explored improvisation, her interests moved toward the more progressive sounds of the times. She was strongly influenced by the music of Eric Dolphy and Steve Lacy, the master of the soprano saxophone; eventually, supported by a Canadian government grant, she was able to study with Lacy in Paris. Another grant took her to New York, where she apprenticed with Don Pullen, a pianist and composer who combined the spirit of the avant-garde with a passion for the whole jazz tradition. She collaborated with Pullen on her first recording, 1989's New York Duets. She followed it the next year with a quintet release that also featured her husband and bandmate, trumpeter Larry Cramer.

But by this time she was already moving in a very different direction. In 1982 she and her husband took a vacation in Cuba, and the experience literally changed their lives. Bunnett discovered a rich musical world largely untouched by homogenizing commercial pressures. The couple kept returning to Cuba, discovering new musicians, helping deliver instruments to the impoverished country, and learning the complex rhythms and melodic patterns of the island. Nine years after their first visit, they released Spirits of Havana, with local musicians. This was not "world music" muzak, but a meeting of artistic traditions, and it pointed the way for a new direction in Bunnett's musical search. The CD title became the name of her new band, which includes Cramer and Cuban players resident in Toronto.

The Caribbean island is small, but it is the home of many different musical traditions, and its music is continuously evolving; Bunnett and Cramer work with young Cubans to keep in touch with new developments. Spirits of Havana's latest release celebrates the music of Cuba's Guantánamo and includes one of the last recorded performances by the late saxophonist Dewey Redman.

Though the Cuban connection dominates Bunnett's work, she also keeps expanding her musical horizons, recording her versions of folk songs from around the globe with a band augmented by a string quartet, or exploring American gospel. And one should never forget that she is above all a great soprano saxophonist. Many play the instrument but few have mastered it, and she has done her teacher Steve Lacy proud by developing a rare individual voice on this horn.

The Spirits of Havana visit the Firefly Club on Saturday, November 4.

[Review published November 2006]