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August 18-31
VOL.14 ISSUE. 26
HOME / STORY

Advice From The Don

Don Griffith
Published Thursday June 25, 07:08 pm
Saskatoon’s doctor of jazz dishes on this year’s festival

SASKTEL SASKATCHEWAN JAZZ FESTIVAL

June 25-July 5

Various locations

Most people know by now that the SaskTel Saskatchewan Jazz Festival is much more than just a jazz festival. People who are surprised to see The New Pornographers or Wyclef Jean as part of this year’s lineup probably don’t realize that modern-day jazz festivals present non-jazz acts in order to pay the bills and to raise the profile of the festivals within their communities.

Jazz Fest artistic director Kevin Tobin says that the festival “strives to find the right balance between jazz and non-jazz performances.” His approach to programming is one shared by most North American jazz festivals. Even the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, held in the city known for giving birth to jazz, boasted a decidedly non-jazz roster this year with headliners Keith Urban, Elton John, The Who and Jimmy Buffett and The Coral Reefer Band.

Tobin maintains that our 2015 festival is over 90 per cent jazz and says, “the remaining 10 per cent attracts and engages new audiences that may not normally attend a jazz event or the Festival.” With numbers like that, it might be time to end the tired debate over the pros and cons of presenting non-jazz acts in a jazz festival. (And maybe if pop acts in a jazz festival is good enough for The Big Easy, it should be good enough for Saskatoon.)

Spread out over 11 days, this year’s festival will present over 170 shows in 24 venues. With an expected turnout of 85,000 music lovers, the festival will be relying heavily on its crew of 450 knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers to make this the best festival ever.

As usual, Jazz Fest offers four main ticketed series. I like to call the TD Mainstage Series in the Bessborough Gardens the “Money in the Bank Series.” Tickets on the Mainstage range from $39 to $74 for high-profile acts such as The Roots, Michael Franti and Matt Andersen. Able to accommodate crowds of 3000, the Gardens is Jazz Fest’s largest venue. With great natural acoustics and a beautiful sunken grass lawn surrounded by a forest of stately evergreens, it’s also one of the most attractive outdoor live music venues in the country. Add Barndog Productions’ audio, lighting, staging, backline and techs to the mix and you have the potential for the ultimate outdoor concert experience.

The Broadway Theatre Series features six shows in the comfortable environs of the venerable 440 soft-seat community-owned theatre. With the exception of bluegrass superstars Steep Canyon Rangers’ show on July 3, this Series showcases the festival’s biggest mainstream jazz stars. Broadway Jazz Fest shows are always well-attended, with part of the fun happening during intermissions when concert-goers line up for wine and popcorn in the crowded lobby. People naturally spill out onto the sidewalk on Broadway, and suddenly you feel like you’re in New York or New Orleans. (Okay, that might be stretching it a bit, but it sure feels fine hanging out with friends on a warm summer evening on Broadway waiting for the second set to start.)

The Bassment Series has ten diverse offerings — ranging from the June 27 hyper-eclectic Kneebody show, to the July 5 TD Jazz Intensive show showcasing local high-school and university jazz musicians. For those of you who may’ve been in hibernation for the past few years, The Bassment is “the” jazz club in town. Blessed with superb acoustics, great backline gear (Canadian jazz genius David Braid has said that the club’s piano “is the best piano of any club in Canada”), and a pretty good wine-list, The Bassment is known for being one of the best jazz clubs in Canada. But don’t take my word for it — check out the Wall of Fame at the back of the room where past performers have left some very flattering comments. One bit of advice: Try to sit up front, and make sure you avoid sitting behind the Pillar of Perpetual Blindness.

As the name implies, The Groove Series is less about acoustic swing jazz and more about the funky, bluesy and electric sounds of jazz. The list of clubs in the Series includes some of the best live venues in town: Amigos Cantina, Bud’s on Broadway, The Capitol and Village Guitar. Groove Series shows start at 8:00 pm at Village and at 10:30 pm at the other venues. Blues fans will be happy to know they can catch BC Read’s 8:00 pm show at Village on June 25, and still make it to Bud’s for Jack Semple’s 10:30 pm BB King Tribute.

In addition to the ticketed shows, the festival also presents a multitude of free shows. In fact, 60 per cent of the festival’s shows are free. There are three locations for the free shows: The first location features vocal and instrumental jazz groups, ranging in size from duos to quintets, on small outdoor stages on 21st St; the second location has a selection of vocal groups at The Spadina Freehouse, 2nd Avenue Grill, the James Hotel and Mano’s on 8th.

The third location for free shows is in Friendship Park on the southwest corner of the Broadway Bridge. For many jazz fans, the PotashCorp Club Jazz is the Jazz Festival. With a lineup of 42 shows and a hugely varied list of artists — ranging from Regina’s Pile of Bones Brass Band to Cuba’s Adonis Puentes & The Voice of Cuba Orchestra — Club Jazz will become an 11-day home for serious live music fans.

In addition to the live music, Club Jazz also offers people a chance to chow down on a Bassment Burger, sip a beverage or two in the beer gardens, or even just spread a blanket out on the grass and relax on the banks of the South Saskatchewan. A word or two of warning: there’s a direct relationship between the number of beers you consume in the beer gardens and the likelihood that your rickety folding chair will collapse beneath you. Also, no matter how hot it is, how refreshing the river looks or how many beers you’ve had, resist the temptation to go for a swim. Bands do not appreciate hearing mid-concert ambulance sirens and watching paramedics race across the dance floor.

 

One major change to this year’s festival is the move of the late night jams from The Bassment to the Battleford Room in the Bessborough Hotel. While it remains to be seen how the potentially sterile atmosphere of a hotel banquet room can compare with the authentic big-city jazz-club feel of the previous jams at The Bassment, this move could have a couple of potential advantages. All the performers are staying in the Bessborough Hotel, and it’s far more likely the musicians would consider showing up for a jam that’s only a short walk and elevator ride from their rooms. Also, with proximity to the Festival office on the 7th floor, the lobby box office, Club Jazz and the Bessborough Gardens, the Bessborough Hotel is the de facto centre of the Festival. The jams will happen at 11:00 pm on July 3 and 4. With a ridiculously low cover of $10 and the potential for some mind-blowing sessions, the jams just might be one of the gems of this year’s festival.

 

People are always asking me what shows they should see. While I usually offer some advice, in the end I can’t really predict that they’ll have a good time. As with most things in life, having a great festival experience has a lot to do with attitude: If you rush around trying to cram in as many shows as possible so that you can say you saw everything, you won’t have much fun. This is a festival. It’s a party, so slow down. Don’t run. Smile. Say hi to your friends, and make some new ones as well.

 

Many years ago, jazz great Lester Young was hassled backstage at the Newport Jazz Festival for smoking a funny cigarette. When reminded that he was at the Newport Jazz Festival, Lester smiled and replied, “Then, let us be festive.”

 

AND NOW, THE PICKS!

That’s enough about the nuts and bolts of the Festival. It’s time to make some choices.

 

KNEEBODY

(June 27, The Bassment)

Playing a fusion of free-bop, jazz rock, hip-hop, indie rock, and classical minimalism, this Los Angeles quintet is just too hip to be missed. By the way, James Harvey, Saskatoon’s Genius of Jazz, says this will be the best show of the Festival.

 

CECILE MCLORIN SALVANT

(June 26, The Bassment)

She’s been compared to Billie, Sarah, and Ella… Say no more.

 

THE BAD PLUS / JOSHUA REDMAN

(June 25, Broadway Theatre)

This is a perfect pairing of two cutting-edge major jazz acts.

 

THE ROOTS

(July 1, Bessborough Gardens)

There’s a reason this legendary group is back. If you don’t know what it is, it’s time to find out why.

 

JOHN PIZZARELLI TRIO

(June 27, Broadway Theatre)

Mr. P is a smooth jazz crooner, a wicked guitarist, and a very funny guy.

 

DEE DEE BRIDGEWATER / IRVIN MAYFIELD

(July 2, Broadway Theatre)

Backed by the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, these Grammy Award-winners are jazz superstars.

 

KENNY WERNER TRIO

(June 28, The Bassment)

The piano-playing author of Effortless Mastery will show you just how easy it is.

 

JAGA JAZZIST

(June 28, Broadway Theatre)

This nine-piece all-star ensemble proves that Norwegians can play jazz.

 

HILARIO DURAN’S AFRO-CUBAN JAZZ

(June 30, The Bassment)

Canada’s number one Cuban jazz pianist takes the Bassment’s Yamaha S6 grand piano out for a punishing test drive.

 

STEEP CANYON RANGERS

(July 3, Broadway Theatre)

This ain’t jazz, but it is the hottest bluegrass band in the world. /DG

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