Jazz Festival Winnipeg 2015 Edition Good times (but all is not forgiven)

So usually before this time each year it would be my annual tirade against the NoJazz Winnipeg Festival. Admittedly at first glance I may have thought (and posted ) that it was another crappy, self serving, jazz hating joke. The first things I saw in the line up were; Buddy Guy (yet again) a weekend opener with almost no jazz and the same blatant favoritism to a handful of younger locals.

But then I looked closer33 of the 79 acts were right on or close to the money jazz wise (though still under half.) But then if you include the latin, the blues and music that could be mistaken for jazz in a dark alley, you have a festival where at least ½ the music makes sense on some level.
Half you may say? It’s a jazz festival dammit! It should be 100% jazz and directly applicable!! You’d be right but since we have had the crap of crap for the last 15 years with little breaks, well I’ll take this one festival over most of the last 10 attempts.So, in order to show my super upbeat positive side, we’ll take a look at the shows I went to.Monday: Fred Hersch
This was great! From the intimate setting most trios should be preforming in, to the sound guy actually caring. This was the best show for me. 2 sets for $35.

Originals, standards Monk and Coleman all timely placed, explained but not dumbed down. You could rap with the guys between sets and and after. Lots of the local jazz scene players were in attendance (as they should) Though the ‘artistic’ director popped in briefly looked at his phone most of the time and left. Now there’s a jazz fan.

Most notable moment? Well outside of the music it was when CBC’s Izzy Posen said “If you’re a jazz fan, you really have to love this year’s line up.” Wait what? If I am a jazz fan shouldn’t I love that it’s jazz festival week??? Oh I see what you did there, in a way 5 billion times more diplomatic than I could ever say it, you were pointing out the jazz festival usually sucks!

Wednesday: Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra w/Ingrid Jensen & Robi Botos opening. 
Your tax dollars at work in a great way! A Toronto quartet opening for the Montreal based big band. I think it was the quartet’s first gig as an ensemble but they played very well. It took a while for the sound guy to get the piano to sound good but, after a long while of it being harsh and too loud, it settled down. My only compliant is they got a little ‘jammy’ and extended their set. The Jensen big band was really good and Ingrid used her looping pedal effectively on a few numbers. Both bands had fun with dynamics and metric modulation.

Friday: Kenny Barron Trio with Otis Brown III
Otis was a nice surprise. I really hadn’t checked him out before but boy am I glad I got to this night. Long before he got to his version of Andre Crouch’s ‘God is on Your Side’, I felt like I was in church. The way the trumpeter would hold his horn before and after playing was, to me, reminiscent of the way a priest holds up bread at communion.

Kenny Barron is the prototypical piano trio. Play head, solo the heck out of it, hand off to the bass player, trade 4’s with the drummer and recap the head. He did this a few times, then some solo piano and then back to it.

The bass player was amazing the drummer too but took a lot of chances and a couple of times got (ever so slightly) off the rails. Luckily he had that awe some bass player to fall back on.

Saturday: Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland
This was all that you’d expect it to be with 4 players at the top of the jazz food chain. They basically came out, said hi and played like demons. I can’t tell you the names of the tunes or who wrote them of if it was a suite or what. I don’t know if they CD’s for sale.

Over all the MC’s at these shows all alluded to ‘wow what a line up’ again the obvious underlying statement is ‘the other line ups sucked’. The “I don’t care how bloated the festival is with non jazz as long as I get 2-3 concerts” crowd was placated and only one show had you paying top dollar to see an international act only to have the opener be someone you can see for free all year

I was wondering if bringing in Chick Corea between jazz festivals (Late September 2014) was the beginning of Paul Nolin finally seeing the light. I went to that and you can read about it here.

I haven’t paid one penny to see anything at the jazz fest since Gary Burton was here and I haven’t seen multiple shows in so long I can’t even tell you. So, for me to rearrange students and go to 4 shows, is a big deal and says a lot about this year’s content.

Many of us are wondering what this means. After uncountable years of justifying thin jazz content and ridiculing jazz fans who had concerns…NOW they have a decent festival?

Well there could be a number of factors and there have been some changes.

  • They have lost a lot of money the last few (5?) years.
  • They ticked off a lot of people (even some of their rabid apologists)
  • They got rid of the puffy D.J. who was the anti-social marketing person (remember last years meltdown/shutdown?)
  • Probably the lowest act count in years (not a bad thing)
  • Still doing the 1920’s poster marketing but I actually saw them in my neighborhood.
  • I actually saw a neon billboard ad for the festival. I don’t know if being one of 5-10 ads rotating on a sign along an 8 lane expressway is effective marketing, but they get full marks for at least trying something. I just hope they are tracking results.
Now this may be a blip on the screen to get them back in the black so they can return to their jazz hating ways, but let’s hope not.

Somethings never change. Now in case you think I have gone soft with all this positive stuff I am here to tell you that there are still plenty of things screwy.

Local pop acts having the 1st set before out of town jazz at Maw’s on Friday and Saturday. All kinds of talk on how rude the crowd was for Otis Brown III. Likely because the Chic Gamie crowd stay with those stupid wrist bands

We still have the BIG GIANT FREE OPENING WEEKEND (with almost no jazz) the latin music was a good fit Friday but Saturday night of the JAZZ FESTIVAL’S BIG GIANT FREE OPENING WEEKEND had zero jazz (Sunday to had no jazz as well)

Lots of recycled bands in the local jazz offerings with the same players in so many of the shows. Leader on this, sideman on that, then special guest on this, sitting in with that. Basically you could have gone to the first night and taken in 2 groups and have seen most of the players for the rest of the week local wise.

Basically the local content was U of M staff, former and current attendees..over and over again.

Along the same lines, their is nothing dumber than being in competition with yourself.
Let’s say you are only want the blues from the festival? Well Buddy Guy and Little Miss Higgins same night same time.

On the nights there was good international jazz content in the theater there’d be local jazz in the clubs and at the cube for free. They also had the vocalists dueling it out with them starting at similar times. So on Friday you had Grace, Martha and Nadia all playing at similar times. Saturday you had Amber and Rose Marie squaring off. You had all these folks in competition with the theater series. Kinda dumb but more so when you have weekend spots full of rock bands on prime nights with no jazz…well nothing new here just another dumb move repeated year after year.

Speaking of repeats… there way too many see for free, for fee and see them whether you want to or not. I do not understand the logic behind putting a touring act that you want people to pay to see but put them on for free or opening for someone big. I would have paid to see Otis Brown but he he opened for Kenny. The Heavy Weights got 3 gigs (I guess it pays to come home to visit Mom and Dad) one in the Cube One opening for a non jazz show and a club gig.

Seriously who would see the same act twice or 3 times in a week?

Let’s get serious, your #1 consumers of jazz are jazz and other types of musicians.
It is unfair to ask them to play on the nights when actual top notch international stars are playing.
It is unfair to ask jazz fans to choose between supporting their friends (and lets be real, for most of the locals booked as leaders this IS there main, if not only, gig for the year).
It is unfair to deny the touring jazz acts the maximum potential in audience members, particularly an entire segment above the norm of jazz knowledge and appreciation.
While there is no way to force the local jazz musician contingent to attend the theater shows, I think it is important to make it possible.

From a jazz educator point of view the culture around U of M Jazz Studies and Jazz Winnipeg is an odd one. Seems that passing your audition and getting a JW gig are synonymous (even if you aren’t playing jazz)

Playing a jazz festival might make you feel like you have arrived when you have no business having that feeling.

Bottom line, these new jazz babies really need to see how it is done on the national and international level and to put them on the stage when they need to be in the audience is truly a disservice to all.

Anyhow

Let’s hope this is a return to a decent balance in OUR jazz festival and that the other foibles are cured and not merely a return to the core fans to get back in the black before returning to their jazz hating ways.

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