Did someone mention jazz?

Jamie Howison’s picks for this year’s jazz festival

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very year at about this time, I like to take the liberty of offering up my own personal recommendations of what you might want to see at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival. There’s usually one or two shows that in my books are the real gems of the festival, and this year is no exception. The two must-see shows are the Robert Glasper Trio at the West End Cultural Centre on June 24, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the Pyramid Cabaret on June 25. Read on a bit, and I’ll tell you why.

But before going there, it is fair to ask why I would bother doing this on a church website? Well, mostly because I do believe that it is important that as a church we really should engage the arts and culture in a critically thoughtful way.  And because I really, really like jazz, this is one area of the arts on which my opinion might actually be worth sharing.

My tendency is to look for shows taking place in clubs or smaller venues, as I think that is where jazz is best experienced. Occasionally I have taken in one of the larger theatre shows—last year’s concert by the legendary Sonny Rollins at the Pantages Theatre being a notable example—but on the whole I am happiest in a smaller room. Frankly, this year’s Jazz Festival doesn’t include anyone who could entice me into one of the bigger venues. Certainly the year’s big name headliner, the Jazz at the Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, won’t do it for me. The Orchestra is very good at what they do, and Marsalis himself is a technically brilliant player, but on the whole this will be a pretty conservative big band show. The whole Marsalis/Lincoln Center agenda seems one of conserving the jazz tradition and of elevating its profile as “America’s classical music,” and I’m afraid for me it just isn’t all that interesting. Great players, solid arrangements, and a very articulate bandleader… but that isn’t enough to get me to part with $65.

So on to my recommendations.  Hands down, Robert Glasper is one of the best jazz pianists currently on the scene, and his trio format offerings are very, very fine. While still very much rooted in the conventions of jazz, the trio explores and expands the edges in very listenable and engaging way. And the West End really is a nice room for jazz.  You can hear a free streaming concert by the trio, recorded at New York’s legendary Village Vanguard simply by clicking here. (Incidently, the young pianist also records and performs in a unit called The Robert Glasper Experiment, which actually pushes into hip hop and fusion… maybe we’ll get to experience that some other year.)

As for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, simply put they are a blast. I saw them here a couple of years back at the Centennial Concert Hall, when they warmed up for Al Green. This time around they’re at the much more intimate Pyramid, and I’d imagine that they’ll just about tear the roof off the place. Think of a New Orleans brass band, ramped up, rocking and pushing the boundaries just to the breaking point… this one will be a lot of fun. There’s a great little documentary available here.

Now, a few more general recommendations which somehow manage to cluster on June 22:

Mark McLean’s Playground – June 22, 8pm at Aqua Books (or free at noon that day in the Market Square).

  • A serious drummer, with a solid jazz track record.

Greene/Allen Project – June 22, 10pm at Aqua Books

  • This one features the sax player Jimmy Greene (of the U of M Jazz Studies program), along with saxophonist Kris Allen and pianist Jen Allen.

The New Gary Burton Quartet – June 22, 7:30pm at the Art Gallery

  • One of the best vibraphone players of all time…

I might also mention Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, June 23 at the West End.  While what I’ve heard from the most recent album suggests it is really more of a pop record than it is jazz, this guy can play. You can watch him meet the challenge of Wynton Marsalis at the House of Blues in New Orleans. And as you watch, remember that he is first and foremost a trombone player…

I’m afraid when it comes to the other major headliners, I just can’t recommend Pink Martini. They are pretty wildly popular – making their third Jazz Festival appearance in just five years – but for my tastes they hover just on the verge of being a novelty act, albeit a musically very competent one.  And while Robert Plant and The Band of Joy will be a strong draw for many, it is a serious stretch to categorize Plant as a jazz singer… though I suspect the Led Zeppelin fans in the city will be delighted!

Jamie Howison

One Response to Did someone mention jazz?

  1. This Year, as well as most of the past 11 years, the jazz festival has made popular styles of music their focus and this year is not different.

    Of 76 acts only 25 are jazzmaking this possibly the least jazzy festival ever.

    As well with so little jazz on tap they either put, as you mention, cluster on some days or have none on some days and show little imagination by, as you mention, booking the same people regularly.

    My full thoughts can be found at

    http://riverheightsmusicwinnipeg.blogspot.com/2011/06/jazz-music-takes-backseat-to-popular.html

    I am going to see Gary Burton and Robert Glasper. I would have seen Wynton again but, like many, not @65 when they were here 2 years ago.

    To add to your list I would say Kellylee Evans is a vocalist worth checking out

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