Saskatchewan Jazz Festival 2005
Haggling as a hemp dealer in the park is a strange initiation for a jazz festival volunteer. But tackling the unexpected head-on is vital for a group whose composing and improvisation skills are frequently equal to the performers on stage.
Besides, like musicians who can make "So What" forgettable or funky, what counts is how the story is told. Here the makings of mellow are woven into an absurdly oversized shirt that somehow attracts the attention of the one person I see all week who's a perfect match and buys it after some dickering.
Whether I possess negotiating authority I'll never know, but since I never hear from anybody with an official title I'm probably safe resuming my cannabis-free lifestyle. Far more interesting and important duties are ahead such as hauling gear, beer runs and serving as sheet-of-paper carrier to the stars.
Many such moments are at least as memorable as the music at the 2005 Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, a 10-day event featuring more than 80 concerts mostly in the providence's largest city of Saskatoon (population 237,000). Like attending a performer's workshop, it's an exceptional way to broaden knowledge about music and the jazz world in general in ways merely listening to a concert can't.
I now know, for example, Dave Holland's band likes salt-free club soda as part of their drink selection and hip-hop singer K-OS (or a member of his band) is listening to Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novel "Kidnapped" on tape during his bus tour around the country. A $15 bottle of a regional wine generally is a better hospitality gift than a pricey vintage and it's smart to stay focused on conversations since a co-worker may be chatting at length with someone like Joni Mitchell while you're zoning out in ignorance nearby.
In a way, everything and nothing is improvised by festival organizers and volunteers. Details are meticulously planned, yet nearly all seem to go through constant and various amounts of adjustment. There's no guarantee the "show will go on" - a point made strikingly clear in May when Edmonton cancelled its festival (scheduled about the same time as Saskatchewan's) for the first time in its 25-year history due to booking, sponsorship and other problems.
That affected Saskatchewan's festival by interrupting the flow of performers who might normally pass through as part of a tour, said Festival Manager Kevin Tobin. More artists were needed who could perform exclusively for the local festival, placing some restrictions on who was available.
Saskatchewan, roughly a five-hour drive east of Edmonton, is known as the "City Of Bridges" because of the series of them crossing the South Saskatchewan River that runs through the heart of town. The more flattering label "Paris Of The Prairies" is credited to Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip, and visitor guides promote things such as the 6,000- year history of the Northern Plains Indians, early Ukrainian settlers and 12-acre corn maze.
The city hosts a somewhat bigger event than one might suspect, coming in behind landmark festivals like Vancouver and Montreal - but ahead of Calgary - in size. Many are locals and national artists participating in tours across the country, but there's also a handful of top-name acts, with this year's lineup including Holland, Arturo Sandoval and Los Lobos.
Volunteering means submitting an application in advance specifying duties you're interested in and times available, plus paying a $10 fee. Volunteers must sign up for at least three three-hour shifts, and many do considerably more, by choice and/or due to on-the-fly needs and filling in for no-shows. While tasks such as artist transportation and meet-and-greets rank as glamour duty, most helpers are needed for basics such as concessions, hauling gear and set-up/cleaning.
Volunteers get a neck ribbon with a name tag and various buttons attached, good for admission into shows not sold out. They also get a bright red T-shirt with the festival's logo, making them easy to spot in a crowd.
"When the T-shirts are gone that means no more volunteers," says Erin Ebach, coordinator for the volunteers working concessions, noting there's about 200 this year.
I arrive after the opening weekend, much to my regret as that means missing several noteworthy performers such as Los Lobos, drummer Ed Thigpen and Swedish saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar, all of whom draw raves during some casual conversations with attendees. Another miss is "Canadian Idol 2" runner-up Theresa Sokyrka performing hybrid folk/jazz/rock in her hometown, but that's lower on my "bummer" list.
What follows is a look at the harmonization of happenings on and off stage at this year's festival. Because workers are highlighted, many assessments of the concerts are from volunteers and other organizers. Most helpers possess a lengthy and in-depth knowledge of jazz by local and outside artists, and obvious puffery and favoritism is weeded out as much as possible.
Monday: Bridging heavy beats and lightweight notes
First days at a new job are nerve racking, especially after offering to help wherever and whenever needed with no idea of what that may actually mean. All I know is to be at the "Artist Hospitality" room at the swanky Delta Bessborough Hotel downtown at 11:30 a.m.
The classroom-size space, behind a door with dark glass panes just a few feet from the check-in desk, looks nothing like a posh place to welcome performers. It's a work area - whiteboards listing transportation assignments and other duties are leaning against a non-working bar, stacks of T-shirts and other souvenirs are piled in another part of the room, dozens of water and soda bottles for the artists are chilling in a refrigerator against a wall, and organizers do paperwork on a couple of long folding tables.
I pick up my T-shirt and am told I'll be selling souvenirs at a stand in a park about a block away, where a series of free concerts featuring mostly local artists are taking place all week. They're also hoping I'm available for "hospitality" duty starting mid-afternoon, which today means hauling gear for some of the day's main acts to a garden stage just outside the hotel.
The souvenir stand in the park is small and not terribly busy, with the large hemp shirt from a previous festival one of the few sales during my initial shift. The lunchtime quartet concert led by vibraphonist Roy Sydiaha, a longtime local symphony and club player, is two sets of mostly subdued standards, although it's interesting watching him break down "Happy Birthday" into a piece-by-piece demonstration of jazz composition for a group of students on their last day of school.
One of the day's more significant problems arises early in the afternoon as a storm delays Sandoval's plane from Toronto, forcing organizers to delay the 8 p.m. scheduled start to 9: 30 p.m. To someone's credit I hear the announcement a few minutes later on a local radio station as I begin "hospitality" duties by assisting maybe half a dozen others move dozens of boxes of gear in protective cases through the hotel's kitchen and back hallways.
If officials are overly stressed by the delay they aren't showing it since, as one notes, there's nothing they can do about the weather. Besides, there's no shortage of other tasks and people coming through. Among them is a younger-looking man asking about meal vouchers and getting paid immediately after their concert "because we have to fly out right away." After getting vouchers (organizers wonder only afterward if he's supposed to get them) and reassurance someone will take care of money, he exchanges a few pleasantries and leaves - at which point I learn he's Shawn Hewett, opening act for the day's featured K-OS concert. The encounter boosts a personal theory that it's easier dealing with famous people when you have no idea who they are. Most of the performers probably appreciate it as well, getting treated like real people instead of the awkward/fawning often experienced.
Getting the gear to the stage is the heavy lifting, so to speak, but little details take at least as much time. Among them is making sure drinks the performers want for the hip-hop concerts are brought out about an hour beforehand; making a run to nearby liquor store to get a bottle of wine for one of the performers; moving the barriers with sponsorship logos into place once gear is in place so audience members can't get backstage; plus plenty of other trivial details.
"Hey, do you have a sheet of paper?" shouts Hewett (I believe) from the stage as I'm getting ready to drop off the last barrier.
Being a reporter, I've always got a steno pad, but those are too small. So after making sure he doesn't need anything else obviously related to the request like pens or tape I find a nearby official who just happens to have a sheet of graph paper in his pickup. Easily my lightest delivery of the day, but also one of apparent significance.
By about 6:30 p.m. my share of things is done, right about the time people start lining up for the garden concert. I've already decided to do the hip hop shows since I'm trying to listen to local/Canadian acts instead of outsiders when possible. Sandoval is supposedly sold out, anyhow, and while a persistent volunteer might find a place to squeeze in, it's not something I'm inclined toward today.
It may be the wrong choice - and that's not just from someone a generation older than the target audience for the performers.
K-OS is better live because "there's more going on," but the evening's performance is somewhat off, especially renditions of well-known covers such as "Hit The Road Jack," says Robert Crowther, 11, a student entering sixth grade this fall who spends much of the week volunteering with his family.
"He put on kind of a bad show," he says, adding "he didn't sing that well."
Dedicating Pink Floyd's "We Don't Need No Education" to Michael Jackson ("leave those kids alone") instead of the last day of school seems a bit odd and the instrumentals seem mostly into crowd-pleasing riffs, sort of like Kenny G's insisting on endless circular breathing until the crowd applauds. Still, the crowd is large and generally receptive, making the festival's goal of reaching younger listeners a success in that regard.
Sandoval's delayed show at the Broadway Theatre, meanwhile, is described as "high energy" by Tony Allen, a retired teacher who volunteers for the shows there all week.
"They were tired but, my gosh, they never stopped," he says. "They played for nearly two hours and the breaks between songs lasted about 10 seconds."
Sandoval was constantly in motion, changing instruments and singing at times, Allen adds.
There's also an all-ages jam session featuring the Brothers Jazz at The Bassment, a downtown club popular for jazz throughout the year. In retrospect this may have been the best option for my mission and taste, but I make the mistake of assuming more such sessions are likely without actually reading the full week's lineup.
Tuesday: Freeform and Dave Holland don't mix
Even the freest improvisers need to follow some rules to be effective.
The best make even the most improper notes sound correct - as Charlie Parker did to taunt a skeptical young Miles Davis - but the landscape is littered with so-called musicians whose "play what you feel" mentality is little more than random, ear-assaulting noise.
Today I contribute my own bit of noise pollution off the stage.
The day is cold and occasionally rainy, so a sparse crowd takes in the lunchtime park performance by the Fred Ballantyne Quartet, where I'm selling souvenirs again. It's a better fit and less sleepy than the previous day's concert, with standards like "Don't Get Around Much Any More" and "Satin Doll" played in a classically disciplined style. Not especially innovative, but also no real missteps except a couple of poor vocal numbers that feel like a get-your-feet-wet experiment for one of the band's members.
At about 2:30 p.m. is my glory duty for the day: A meet-and-greet for Dave Holland's quintet, although they're a bit late arriving from the airport. I sort out their room keys, meal tickets and lists of room assignments, attaching them with paper clips that have to be scrounged for one-by-one from around the hospitality room.
I wait with a second volunteer, a middle-age woman, near the entrance for the van to arrive. She encounters a woman leaving the hotel she obviously knows and they spend a few minute chatting, seemingly about art. I'm staring out the door looking for anything resembling the festival's minivans. Only after the woman is gone do I learn the stranger is Joni Mitchell, who was raised in Saskatoon and wrote "Big Yellow Taxi" sitting in a local cafe. Apparently she's in town helping a friend with an art-related project.
Holland's van pulls up moments later, and I hold the door open and utter the usual cheerful greetings as everyone but his manager enters. There's something surreal about introductions involving people whose names, faces and talent are so familiar - "Hi, I'm Dave; this is Chris Potter" and so on - but it's all quick enough there isn't time for me to utter anything overtly stupid, as nearly everyone heads for their rooms immediately after getting their keys.
"Can we take you on the road with us? You've all been so helpful," Holland says. He's probably said the same thing in a thousand hotel lobbies; still, it feels sincere and appreciated.
He asks the hotel clerk about internet access in the rooms, which they have. He asks us if there's going to be any snacks at the late-afternoon sound check at the Broadway Theatre. Wine and drinks are on the list, but apparently no munchies. He doesn't seem too perturbed, but after I do my last meet-and-greet duty by storing his manager's bag - with a probably-too-familiar "Dave, just so you know, your extra bag will be here in the hospitality room for the moment" - I ask the volunteer coordinators about a quick impromptu run to store, offering to pay for the snacks since the other volunteer is willing to drive, seeing as how there's no official approval for the expense.
I'm not the only Holland fan in the room, but they explain to me it just isn't done that way - there's a need to stay within defined contracts and protocol, track expenses even if it's volunteer money. Upon later reflection it makes sense - if snacks show up with no record, someone not in-the-know is likely to go nuts and waste a lot of time figuring out where they came from.
Ultimately, after about three minutes of discussion by the people who know what they're doing, it appears some food will be fetched on-the-fly after the band is dropped off.
Oh, yeah - they play a concert that night. It's, as Tobin the festival manager put it, awesome in a "very in your face and aggressive" way. It's not like they have any weak links, but Potter's intense soprano sax is cited as a highlight.
Meanwhile, I don't completely bomb at my improvisational efforts. My last task is dropping some envelopes off for a few performers at their hotel. One is saxophonist Joel Miller, who I met the previous week at the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival in the neighboring providence of Alberta, but is not on the hotel's list of registered guests. Drawing on my previous week's experience, I say "he might be under the name Medeula; that's the name of his current group." Sure enough, the reservation is under that name and I turn in feeling pleased in a rather absurd way.
"Record rainfall soaks Saskatoon."
This will be tomorrow's front-page headline in The Star Phoenix, getting bigger play than the Canadian government's decision to recognize gay marriages, a lead story for news organizations around the world. But all I know upon waking this morning is I'm in for a terrible day. The rain is coming down in wind-driven sheets and, while the souvenir tent at least has a roof, I can't envision any scenario where T-shirts, bug spray and admittedly some very cool-looking shorts are likely to be in demand.
As it turns out, Canadians prove they're rugged in their tolerance of bad weather, but not insane.
A call from a coordinator as I'm leaving my room lets me know the park concerts are being cancelled and, since Wednesday is the lightest day of the festival with only one evening show scheduled, I'm off the hook until tomorrow. I celebrate by looking around the downtown mall (the usual stuff) and various stores lining the streets, including a used record store with a bunch of High Times issues in the magazine rack and a petition to form the Saskatchewan Marijuana Party hanging near the register. I buy roughly 30 to 40 new and used CDs by various Canadian jazz artists I've never heard of and spend the rest of the day catching up on writing and sampling the albums, happy enough to be dry I end up skipping pianist Maurice Drouin's quartet-plus-two-vocalists performance at The Bassment.
Meanwhile, some residents will feel the effects of the nearly three inches of rain for days, as the river and a sewer system already overtaxed by a series of heavy storms in the region leads to sandbagging of neighborhoods and basements flooded with backed-up wastewater.
Thursday: Harmonizing in the park
They say everyone has the same 12 notes - it's what you do with them that counts.
That theory was colorfully illustrated under nearly cloudless skies at the souvenir tent in the park Thursday as Marlene Henderson and Paulette Andrieu arrive for the early- afternoon shift. The roughly dozen items for sale are in their usual places on the bins, if a bit haphazardly, during a noontime concert by the Jim Moffat Quintet (interesting collaboration of old-school piano/sax/drum mingling with progressive guitar/bass from players at least a generation younger). Henderson and Andrieu immediately launch into a professional and thoughtful display of harmonization, putting coordinating shirt/short combinations on hangers, adding flourishing touches on high (hung) hats and making sure all the notes (price tags, brochures) fall into place. It's the difference between sitting in on "So What" with a Jamey Aebersold CD verses Miles Davis in his club days.
Henderson, a semi-retired teaching/medical assistant who moved here from her lifelong hometown of Edmonton in 1968, says selling clothes was one of her former occupations. She says her move to Saskatchewan was only supposed to be for a few years, but she "felt at home right away and never left."
"When you get into an elevator people smile at you," she says. "People would never do that in Edmonton."
The musical talent in the tent belongs to Andrieu, a retired teacher now working in a vitamin store, who started singing a few years ago ("old ones like Ella, Sarah") and spends much of a performance by the Don Watson Octet singing, humming and swaying to two sets of mostly old standards. She says several times the vocalist sounds a lot like local judge Grant Curry ("satiny smooth"), who it turns out to be. She notes many members of the band have played together for years, describing their performance as "swinging, mellow, very cohesive, very blending together."
Among the evening's main concerts are saxophonist Joel Miller and pianist/trombonist/ conductor Hugh Fraser, both of whom I saw and enjoyed in Medicine Hat the previous week. The third act is the funk-oriented Moses Mayes And The Fusion Orchestra, making it the obvious choice for the evening once my writing/editing chores are done - not an unpleasant task as a saxophonist (Miller?) is practicing a variety of phrases in the hotel room one floor down from mine.
But it seems my fate is to first review the four-show "Concert On The Roof" rock marathon setting up literally outside my window, which is doing full-volume sound checks by 5 p.m. and scheduled to go until 2 a.m. (so much for my request weeks in advance for a quiet room so I can work).
Shortly after the rest of the perfect storm hits. The internet goes down in the middle of editing/writing the day's work, the uncontrollable climate system drops to frigid levels and the toilet's flushing system fails for the third time this week. I throw my stuff into a dozen plastic grocery bags and check out early - a first for me - relocating a few blocks away to a place costing twice as much. By now Mayes' show is about to start, but I notice he's playing the next night and I therefore broaden my knowledge of Canadian culture watching Edmonton and Winnipeg play football (plenty of diehards will tell you the CFL is much more fun than the NFL, where it's impossible to witness the 105-yard touchdown pass I saw).
Friday: A holiday all-star tribute
"Closed for the holiday - will reopen July 4."
This is a bizarre sign for an American to read, but they are everywhere on July 1, which is Canada Day. The few places open downtown are American imports like Starbucks, McDonald's and 7-11, as Canadians celebrate their history and culture.
A series of park concerts attracts, as expected, something larger than the usual weekday crowd. But it's one of the less memorable lineups for Kara Uzelman, a Vancouver installation and sculpture artist ("it's not really sellable for me") working at her parents' coffee wagon for the week. The stand does a brisk business all week selling pie made from ingredients on their farm; by the end of the festival they're forced to buy pies from other farmers to keep up with demand.
Uzelman says the line-up, featuring a bluegrass/New Age/reggae/reggae-funk quartet of bands, isn't terribly impressive and lacks a jazz presence (the third band, Natural Mistik, plays far too many Bob Marley covers). But the day's concluding performance by the thirtysomething-piece Salvation Army Celebration Band strikes a better and more energetic note.
"Whoa. Listen to this," she says. "It sounds like 'Star Wars' or something."
The concert coincides with a 7 to 9 p.m. party for the volunteers in the park's Club Jazz beer garden, which mostly is just a excuse for many of them to get together since they still have to buy their own burgers and beer (for the half price discount they get all week). Those carrying two-way radios seem to mostly be ignoring them and drivers are, in theory, able to drown a few from the area's Great Western Brewery since no artist transportation is scheduled.
Festival officials also hold a drawing between sets, giving away 32 prizes to volunteers, beginning with pair of tickets to a Willie Nelson concert. Other non-jazz prizes such as ballet and symphony tickets are handed out along with the expected assortment of t- shirts, CDs and travel mugs with sponsor logos. A few volunteers joke about getting something more practical like certificates to pay for their cell phone bills for the week. Tobin says afterward he'd like to offer a "grand" prize like a trip to the Montreal Jazz Festival in the future if such a donation can be arranged.
The night performances are highlighted by vibraphonist Matthias Lupri, a former rock drummer who's gone the intellectually progressive mainstream in thought and tone. His twin two-mallet touch is, in fact, lighter and more subtle than I expect, but some such moments are also among the more intriguing, such as using a bow to extract metallic hums from the sides of his pipes. Meanwhile, saxophonist Donny McCaslin blows away the room in a variety of high-energy ways, such as mixed long tones at the high and low extremes with a flurry of punctuating runs on the opening "Wondering Wandering." Nate Radley contributes a sort of chorused electric guitar poetry on "Glass Stairs," stringing together a series of not-quite-complete phrases into a solo that still manage to form a collective whole. Drummer Jordan Perlson shows good alertness throughout, changing beats frequently in ways generally fitting where his co-players are going, although at times it seems more like change for change's sake than true interaction.
Those volunteer neck ribbons are great for easy admission to venues, but also make one a potential target. As I'm settling in at my table one of the bartenders asks if I can bus tables between sets since the person scheduled to do it is a no-show so far. I'm agreeable, although I spend much of the first set nursing unspoken concerns about dropping trays of glassware. But it all comes to nothing, as the scheduled help finally shows up.
Saturday: Getting down to the roots
There's no doubt the jazz festival is an "other" concert today, as even many participants are talking about the worldwide "Live 8" concerts. But maybe that's just as well.
A poll indicates 60 percent of Canadians favor spending proposed aid money to Africa on domestic health and social programs instead. Celine Dion is widely booed for performing via satellite instead of live in the country. A woman sets off a wave of disbelief in one crowd by asking "who's that guy?" when Nelson Mandela appears on an outdoor TV screen to speak.
It's a good day to focus on the basics.
So I go to the weekly farmer's market early in the morning outside city hall, where none of roughly a dozen sellers I talk to have been to the jazz festival. Most live at least an hour or two outside of town and say they are too busy farming this time of year. Potatoes, rhubarb, Saskatchewan berries and other hearty species dominate the produce booths; I opt for a more traveler-friendly assortment of elk, buffalo and other jerky.
My last shift at the souvenir stand, from 2 to 6 p.m., turns out to be one of the more enjoyable thanks to a solid pair of concerts anchored by an African drummer and trumpeter who play both shows (and whose names are inexcusably unknown to me). The first by Afri-Brazil is a percussion-heavy set of recognizable standards; the second by Oral Fuentes is a larger funk/reggae collaboration that, unlike Friday's shows, is heavy on fresh material and interactive jams. It's one of the few times all week I see a decent number of people dancing and the only performance I witness that gets calls for an encore.
The featured show is a tribute to Frank Sinatra at the Broadway Theatre by the Metro Jazz Ensemble, which I'm told is sold out. My second choice is the funk group Mobadass, but they're starting well beyond the advertised 9:30 p.m. due to two opening acts. So for the third time in a week I cave in to the fatigue resulting from getting up relatively early to work and staying up late for the music. Another reason enlightenment comes as much off stage as on it.
The plan on an abbreviated closing day is to hit the Bessborough Gardens to hear the highly touted 11-piece Orquesta Eneria ensemble, plus some other Latin/Afro-Cuban acts scheduled as part of the mid-afternoon concert. But black skies threatening serious rain drive me instead to the Broadway Theater for the All-Star High School Band And Choir concert, featuring students from the providence who successfully auditioned for the show. They spent a week working with bassist/vocalist Kristin Korb, pianist Llew Matthews and other professionals.
"At the beginning everybody's afraid to scat solo, but at the end everybody's so into it," says Danny Fong, 16, a vocalist in the choir who also sings in an a cappella quartet he formed with some friends a year ago.
"I've learned you can never stop improvising," says Andrew Kesler, 16, the pianist for the school jazz band, who says his influences include modal work by McCoy Tyner because "although it sounds a bit alternative, he knows which notes to hit."
It's a fun two-part performance, aimed at giving students improvisation challenges on short notice as well as those worked on during the week. Korb, introducing a student choral performance of Pat Metheny's "James," notes a series of individual scat improvisations are being arranged on the fly.
"There are several solos today," she says. "They have no idea which one is theirs."
Some of the vocalists are on, others a bit rough - not unexpected for this setting. Similar choral arrangements of songs like Sonny Rollins' "Tenor Madness" and Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry About A Thing" represent the first half of the show. The second shifts to the student all-star jazz band, with the best solo performances standing out for their crispness among the ensemble. A melodic lead trumpet on "A Child Is Born" and loose group jam on "Freedom Jazz Dance" close out the concert nicely. It's not the best performance of the week, but I've certainly heard plenty of student "all stars" do worse.
I'm sitting at a table in the rear of the theater so I can write on my laptop computer, which just happens to have some CDs by Matthews for sale. So I'm asked to handle stray sales during the show, but everybody does their buying afterward. Somehow after a week of working most of the shows I've heard, being a passive observer is at odds with my identification of the festival.
Being a volunteer is no big deal in itself; there are many all serving their small roles. But it's something I recommend any fans of jazz do once and preferably more - for their own sake at least as much as the organizers who rely on unpaid help. Not once did the experience feel "just like a job," and any of a dozen moments involving artists and workers away from the stage would have justified the week even if did feel like drudgery.
And it's not like it's tough to get a foot in the door. Before the week was over Volunteer Committee Coordinator Della Beal was already making her pitch for next year.
"We had 200 this year," she told the volunteers during the raffle. "We'll probably need more next year. It seems to grow every year."
Visit the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival on the web.