Thursday, August 18, 2011

From Goliath to David: A Tale of Two Cities

Chapter 2
Saint-John's Sites and Sounds

Marc Chénard

There are as many reasons to attend a festival as there are events designated as such. If they deal with the arts, for instance, their credibility hinges on the nature of their programming, so content must remain the driving force, or the prime incentive to stage it in the first place, let alone to attend it. But then again, context can be another motivating factor. Actually, it is by no means uncommon that audiences are lured by the prospect of going to some distant place known for its picturesque surroundings.

Of the almost legion of jazz festivals now occurring in Canada throughout the summer, the Wreckhouse Jazz and Blues Festival (WJBF) in Saint-John's, Newfoundland, certainly lays outside of all beaten paths. Situated just about at the very Eastern tip of the country (the village of Cape Spear actually being land's end), this maritime port city is really one of the more unlikely places to find an event dedicated to an essentially urban music. In a sense, it takes as much courage to bring jazz to Newfoudland as it does to bring Newfoundland to jazz. Though it is the youngest province in the Canadian Federation, it bears one of the oldest music traditions in the land, the age-old celtic and Irish folk musics that are as ingrained in its people as the blues are to those of the Mississipi Delta. When walking down Water Street, one of its two downtown main drags, any visitor is likely to come across a busking folk musician (weather bearing). On the weekends, down home sounds spew out from any of the local pubs, and there is such an authenticity in hearing those strains as to make any other music sound out of place. Bringing jazz to that distant outport is akin to, say, trying to import Balinese Music to Alaska. A tall order to say the least, though not impossible to fulfill. (In all fairness, Newfoundland has produced a handful of home grown talents, the likes of John Nugent, Jim Vivian, Tom Walsh and Jeff Johnston, all of whom had to leave their home in order to pursue in a career in the music. And there are others as well, two of whom will be talked about in this review.)

As a sidebar, it so happened that the International Council of Traditional Musics (ICTM) was holding its world congress during the festival, yet this writer was apprised of its activities at Memorial University by a chance encounter with one of its delegates wanting to check out a jazz festival show. Certainly would have been nice to know in advance…

Ten years after its first edition, and two name changes later—its actual one borrowed from an area lying on the province's other coast, go figure— the WJBF has soldiered on bravely since its inception with basically modest means. (It's worth noting here that the city also sports another July music event, and a most unusual one at that, i.e. the Sound Symposium. Held bi-annually, this one is dedicated to all forms of experimental musics, including a fog horn concert. But this was the off-year for it, alas.) From its opening Wednesday night show on July 13 to its closer on the 16, the WJBF schedule counted 38 shows, for the most part grouped in double bills, and held in a variety of venues all in walking distance of each other. Not unlike other jazz festivals, it too adds in a fair deal of blues and world music presentations onto its slate; come to think of it, it could reverse the 'jazz' and 'blues' labels in its title to better reflect its programming priorities. Given its folk tradition, it should be of no surprise that blues and world musics have better drawing capabilities than jazz, a fact noticed in more than one venue.

Case in point, the opening concert certainly drew a capacity audience to the Majestic theatre (a rather quaint ballroom-like hall that looked and felt like a throw-back from another era). Harry Manx is a kind of modern-day multi-kulti troubadour, and he certainly delighted the townsfolk with his whimsical apartes and blues refrains, not to forget his collection of plucked instruments (including a banjo and a multi-stringed guitar that looked like an Indian sarod). Along the way, he was joined by Clayton Doley (playing a rather tinny electric keyboard), his role reduced to that of a musical sidekick not adding that much to the proceedings. The headliner on the bill was Kevin Breit, spearheading his band Sister Euclid (no girls there, if you had to ask). In spite of the leader's well established musical credentials, it was basically rock and roll time from that guitar honcho, with all the flashy licks and sound overload warranting a hasty retreat after four numbers.

After cursorily scanning the leaflet, the only documentation available to the audience (the media having access to an e-mailed info package beforehand), this writer elected to head out to another double-bill on the second evening. In yet another quaint hall, housed in city's Masonic Temple, a rather thin audience braved one of the many drizzles befalling the city over the festival's run. This time there were two duo acts, both with trumpeters and both exiled Newfoundlanders. Pat Boyle, now residing on the other Canadian Coast, first shared the stage with percussionist Curtis Andrews; together they served up a mix of jazz and ethnic beats, resulting in a rather tame-sounding hybrid, pleasant but hardly captivating. Somewhat more punchy, and unmistakeably jazzy, was the duo H2, its partners being Mike Herriott (another native son, now in Toronto) and New York guitarist Sean Hearkness. While the latter was a most nimble guitar technician (effortlessly switching from strumming chords to picking away single note lines), the former blew fluegelhorn exclusively; known for its mellowness, this instrument can also ring with much of the trumpet's brilliance, as shown by this seasoned musician. Overall, their set adhered to the customary head-solos-head scheme, and given the limited instrumentation, their performance wore thin after awhile. The prospect of heading out to catch singer Jill Barber afterwards was not the most appealing to this vocalist-weary scribe, and still overcome by the fatigue of my previous trip, t'was time to call it a night.

The following evening, at the same venue, it was a double bill of vocalists, starting with local songstress Mary Barry. While she writes her own songs (a number of which were in French, surprising she performed so many in that most Anglo of places), there was nothing particularly distinguished in the material or the performance for that matter (at least she doesn't scat). But then again you can't be too hard on a home favourite. With my vocal dose for the day (I gave a pass on Alex Pangman for the second half), it was off to the Majestic Theater again to try out a dose of big band music. Apparently the local all-purpose musician, pianist Bill Brennan, slipped out after the singer's set to direct what looks (or at least sounded) like a semi-pro outfit going through well-weathered (if not withered) charts by Phil Nimmons and Ross McConnell. Numbers featured one or two soloists, competent for the most part, but nothing to write home about. Now craving for some more substantial music, it was time to slip away at the break to another venue (and miss this band's all-latin set in the second part). In a large loft-size room atop the Rocket Bakery (I kid you not), ex-Toronto drummer Mark McLean (now in New York) drove along his Hogtown charges in a brawny manner. The opening two numbers of the set were however marred by slick Fusion stylings (with an overdose of guitar licks served up by Ted Quinlan and neo-Breckerish phrases from tenorist Kelly Jefferson, albeit decidely gutsier than in his Montreal days). The third number, however, proved to be the ringer of the evening, if not the whole festival, thanks to a sterling solo by David Baird (who was fortunate enough to have the sole acoustic grand piano available at the festival, at least in the venues this writer went to.) As they were about to go into a Gershwin tune, a fellow writer cajoled me into going to another act, I may well not have bothered to go to without his counsel. When a group calls itself "Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People", chances are it is either ludicrous or a kind of silly put up. As per my colleague's recommendation, the outfit used to be a crazy large-size outfit spearheaded by, yes, one Friendly Rich. A trained composer (who studied under no less than R. Murray Schafer), he comes across on stage as something of a mix between Frank Zappa, in his definite rocker attitude, and Tom Waits minus the self-indulgence (but with some of the gravel in the voice). Somehow the ludicrousness of it all or the silly put ups (if you wish) just didn't cut it after half a hour (should have stuck it out with McLean and co, oh well…). And the embarassingly thin crowd in the bar seemed to indicate that this was certainly not the local's cup of tea. Of the band, trombonist Scott Thompson was a nice touch, though he wasn't heard to good advantage in the over-miking of the electric instruments (a frequent problem at this festival).

By and large, this is one festival whose means do not allow it to secure many jazz headliners (generally pricier than the blues or world music names). One name that might ring a bell to some is drummer Kenwood Dennard, a flashy technician who's right up the alley of all plastic fusion buffs. Seemingly an old-time acquaintance of the festival, he provided the fireworks for the closing concert at the Majestic. But as feared, this was as egregious as one could get in the genre, so it was bailout time after the first number to enjoy the company of a new found acquaintance. Returning for the second half, these same musicians (plus 'artistic director' Kirk Newhook plucking guitar in the background, talk about inviting yourself on a gig…) provided more tasteful acommpaniement for Dutch Robinson, most likely the Maritimes one and only soul-music star. In some ways, this concert enabled the festival to come back full circle, with blues-based musics bookending the festival and other similar acts strewn throughout its schedule.

Personal preferences or dislikes aside, if a festival provides enjoyment to its most regular patrons, which in this case are the locals (only three out-of-province journalists attended it), then what is there to object? So we can only wish the best to its organizers for the future, and acknowledge the work of the many volunteers without whom such an undertaking could never happen in the first place.

p.s. In my report on the Copenhagen jazz festival below, in the review of the show of Dave Douglas with Kenny Werner, I confessed to not being sure what the the second horn of the saxophonist Benjamin Koppel was, stating it could have been a 'saxello' or a 'straight alto'. The instrument is called a 'mezzo-soprano', a horn specially devised for this musician.



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