Saskatchewan Jazz Festival 2005
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."