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Saskatchewan Jazz Festival 2005

Mark Sabbatini By

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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.

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