After offering up a "preview concert" last Wednesday night featuring living legend Sonny Rollins (a show I unfortunately had to miss because I was out of town), the newly-named TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival officially kicked off this past weekend. And when a festival like this -- featuring such must-see acts as Roy Hargrove, Martha Wainwright, Terence Blanchard, and The Roots -- takes place in our back yard, you know ShowbizMonkeys.com will be there!
Throughout the next week, you'll see a few posts talking about the most exciting shows of the festival, as well as previewing what acts you shouldn't miss, in case you happen to be in Winnipeg this week and looking for some great jazz (or "jazz-ish" music, as the festival continues to bring in acts with new sounds that may not seem like jazz on the surface). Tonight, I bring you my thoughts on the opening weekend, which featured a trio of amazing shows -- two that I had already planned to attend, and one which I stumbled into and, ultimately, was thoroughly blown away by!
Roy Hargrove, at only 40 years old, is already one of the biggest names in jazz music. A multiple Grammy winner, Hargrove brought his quintet -- saxophonist Justin Robinson, drummer Montez Coleman, bassist Ameen Saleem, and pianist Jonathan Batiste -- to the Pantages for a headlining set Saturday night filled with multiple jazz styles. Though he's known to stretch even further outside of the traditional jazz umbrella, such as projects with D'Angelo, Erikah Badu, and Common -- he and his quintet only ventured as far as latin-tinged tunes on this night.
While it's known that Hargrove is one of the best trumpet players working today, I knew very little about his backing band, but they were worth the price of admission alone! Robinson, in particular, blew me away, and he had a great rhythm with Hargrove in their synchronized licks along with some breathtaking solos of his own. Hargrove really allowed his rhythm section take centre stage at times, moving off to the side to just enjoy the musicianship of Batiste, Saleem, and Coleman. And even with issues with the bass amp, the band pushed on for a great hour and half set that sent the crowd -- as sparse as it was for such a big name (shame on you, Winnipeg!) -- very happy.
The only thing I would've liked is a bit more chatter between songs. Opener Christian Scott, a young trumpet player who's building a pretty great resumé of his own (even grabbing a Grammy nomination last year), definitely enjoyed the opportunity to say a few words after each tune. And though some may disagree with me, and instead prefer Hargrove's method of flowing one song into the next, never really stopping the music at all, I like to hear these great jazz players talk a bit -- about the songs, about the band, about the city they're visiting. Two years ago, when Wynton Marsalis brought his big band to Jazz Winnipeg, he fed the crowd lots of interesting stories and information nuggets in between songs, and it was greatly appreciated by yours truly.
As for Scott, I wasn't able to catch all of his set (which was a disappointment, since I've been checking his stuff out ever since seeing him sitting in with The Roots on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon), but what I did hear, I really enjoyed. I heard a few younger jazz fans in the crowd say they weren't really "feeling" his set, but I'm not sure what they were listening to. While Scott has a bit of a non-traditional set-up, often featuring distorted guitar from Torontonian Matt Stevens, the New Orleans native is still an extremely skilled player, who played his horn beautifully throughout the tunes I saw. Definitely keep your eyes and ears tuned to this guy!
Immediately following the Hargrove show at Pantages was some hip-hop -- Canadian style -- at the Pyramid. Opening up the late night show was local outfit The Lytics, who I'm sad to say I hadn't heard of prior to seeing their name attached to this show. But luckily, I've now seen them and know who they are, because they are undoubtedly going to be the next big hip-hop act coming out of Winnipeg. Featuring a DJ and 4 emcees, they kept things pretty old school despite their young age, and got the place moving way more than I've seen an opening act do in quite some time. Their beats are sound and their rhymes are pretty tight, and I'm glad I made it over from the Pantages early enough to see their whole set.
They were getting things going for Nova Scotia native Buck 65 (also known as CBC Radio 2 "Drive" host Rich Terfry), who despite making music for 20 years now, and touring extensively across this country, I had never actually seen live before. There were some sound issues to start his set, and instead of leaving the stage, Mr. 65 took the liberty of keeping the mic in hand and dictating every bit of the fixing process. When things still weren't fixed, he decided to kill time by rapping sans-music for a bit. Frankly, it was very entertaining, sound problems or not.
Once the sound was fixed, and music was coming out of his computer properly, he laid into some new tracks and some more familiar to the crowd. He also brought on a vocalist to help him with a few songs. That vocalist was Valery Gore, who's been joining Buck 65 this summer across Canada. Her CD was unfortunately sold out by the end of the night, but her music comes highly recommended -- her vocals could be compared to Regina Spektor and Feist, but still totally unique-sounding (which is hard in this era of so many great indie piano pop artists). She even performed one of her own songs solo during the night's set.
As for the main attraction, Buck 65 is hard to explain to people who don't know his music already. He's kind of like country, folky, indie hip-hop? Essentially, what you get with a Buck 65 show is some unique rapping over slick beats about all sorts of diverse topics and non-sequiturs, not to mention some "awesome" dancing. It's definitely something that I wish I had seen live sometime before his 20th anniversary as a musician.
The big surprise of the opening weekend came on Friday night at the West End Cultural Centre. While well-known around the world, and respected by her peers (sharing the stage with Lenny Kravitz, Ani DiFranco, and Elvis Costello, amongst others) and critics alike, Toshi Reagon is a phenomenal force in music. I only came to the WECC in hopes of seeing Raúl Midón, the great singer/guitarist, but I sadly arrived just as his set was ending. I decided that, since I was already there, I'd stay for the second act, who was Ms. Reagon. I was very glad I stayed.
Toshi Reagon encompasses all that is right with music, and she and her incredibly skilled quartet (a scaled-down version of her normal backing band, BIGLovely) brought all of that with them to the Winnipeg Jazz Festival. Mixing all sorts of genres -- including folk, soul, country, R&B, rock, and jazz -- came easy to Reagon, and her powerful voice suited every last one of them. The crowd, many of whom appeared to be big fans of hers, were enjoying every minute of her music, but it was her work in between tunes that brought the show from good to great for me. Talking about everything from being so into someone who doesn't seem to "get it", to the history of racial injustice experienced by African Americans for hundreds of years, to how great the Winnipeg Jazz Festival was (after her show at the Calgary Jazz Festival was cancelled, along with the entire rest of the festival, the Jazz Winnipeg organizers told her and the band they could stick around Winnipeg and check out some other shows over the weekend), Ms. Reagon showed off the huge personality behind that amazing voice.
The main feature was still her voice, of course, and it filled up the WECC like few have in the countless shows I've seen at that wonderful venue over the years. A soulful version of Heartbreak Hotel may have been the highlight of the evening, but whether things were slowed down or up-tempo, the crowd could feel every ounce of what Toshi Reagon was putting out there. It was obvious that everyone on stage was having an absolute blast, and those watching definitely felt the same way. And I went from not knowing who she was, to becoming a big fan in a matter of 90 minutes.
So that was the opening weekend, but there's lots more to come. Our own Luke Schick will be posting his review of the big Monday night show, the legendary Roots, and I'll be back on Friday with my thoughts on the best shows of the week, and a preview of the free closing weekend at Old Market Square!
As for what to be on the look out, if you don't have tickets yet and are interested in checking out some shows: The Great Lake Swimmers play the West End Cultural Centre Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 8:00pm; Terence Blanchard headlines a Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra tribute to jazz in film on Wednesday night at 8:00pm at Pantages; The Keith Price Trio is playing the Rachel Brown Theatre at 9:00pm on Wednesday; and Kid Koala Presents The Slew (featuring the former rhythm section of Wolfmother) at the Pyramid on Thursday (Canada Day) at 10:00pm. Those are the big shows not to miss, but it's almost guaranteed that if you stop by Times Change(d), Aqua Books, or the Rachel Browne Theatre on any given evening, you'll find an amazing show taking place as part of the Jazz Festival.
Paul Little is the founder and Managing Editor of ShowbizMonkeys.com. When not interviewing his favourite musicians and comedians, he can also be found at The Purple Room in Winnipeg, where he is Artistic Director. (@comedygeek)