Jodi Proznick turns a tough time into Sun Songs

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      Wheelchair-bound and scarcely present, Jodi Proznick’s mother is in an extended-care facility, in the late stages of the terrible disease known as dementia. But the local bassist can still hear her voice whenever life gets tough, offering the kind of homespun wisdom that you’re unlikely to find in any self-help book.

      “She’s a rodeo girl, right?” Proznick explains, interviewed on her cellphone from downtown Vancouver. “She grew up on the Prairies, with horses. So my favourite quote from my mom was ‘Jodi, there’s always a pony in the big pile of shit.’ And I didn’t really understand that until the past eight years unfolded, with a whole lot of foundational stuff getting pummelled.”

      Proznick goes on to explain that, just as she and her pianist husband, Tilden Webb, had their first child, her mother was entering the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Anyone who’s lost a parent that way knows that it’s a frightening time for the entire family; add the stresses of motherhood, and it’s no wonder the bassist felt far too overwhelmed to think of making her own music—even if she kept up with her career as an educator and first-call instrumentalist on the local jazz scene.

      Still, fragments of tunes and snippets of lyrics kept accumulating until, about a year and a half ago, Proznick realized that she had the bones of what would eventually become Sun Songs, an undeniable creative breakthrough. It’s the pony she unconsciously knew she’d find: between her delight in her son and her fear for her mother, she’s broken with the instrumental format of her 2006 debut, Foundations, to write a collection of songs that look at love from multiple perspectives. The tone is often bittersweet, understandably, but Proznick’s resilience shines through.

      “That earlier album was bouncy, joyful, and swinging—you know, a part of my personality that I wanted to express and explore,” the 42-year-old musician says. “But this has really shifted things. I’m more comfortable with my grief and my fear and my anger—and I’m realizing that’s incredible soil for art-making. I just don’t know if I can ever go back.”

      Sun Songs being about the bonds of family, it’s appropriate that its making was a family affair. The always stylish Webb plays especially beautifully on the disc, and Proznick credits her husband with stepping back from the creative process so she could find her own compositional voice.

      “He said ‘I’m going to pour my heart into playing the piano for you, but you need to do this. This is your story,’” she explains. “So I knew I had to create amazing voicings to realize it, and I wrote it at the piano. It’s really about the composition, not about being a fancy bass player.”

      Jesse Cahill’s resolutely sympathetic drumming might have something to do with the fact that he’s married to Proznick’s sister. Saxophonist Steve Kaldestad has known Webb since high school, and Proznick almost as long. And, claiming that she has too sunny and small a voice for the material, Proznick made the wise choice of asking another family friend, Laila Biali, to sing. The Montreal chanteuse responded with one of the most emotionally engaging performances of her career.

      So now that she’s found her pony, where will Proznick ride next?

      As of yet, she’s not quite sure. But when her next round of inspiration strikes, she knows she’ll be ready. “This has been a special project. It’s very personal and vulnerable, and I feel like throwing up some days,” she allows. “But I also know that you have to be brave, and you have to be willing to open up your heart, and that’s where the juicy stuff happens.”

      Jodi Proznick hosts a release party for Sun Songs, with Laila Biali guesting, at Frankie’s Jazz Club on Thursday (November 23).