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The 2005 Medicine Hat Jazz Festival

Mark Sabbatini By

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(Note: This is part of an occasional series looking at jazz festivals and culture in lesser-known locations around the world.)

Jimmy Bosch went from playing in front of 20,000 people at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles to fewer than twenty at a small theater in "The Gas City" of Canada. He was rushed there straight from the airport after a ten-hour journey, his pianist missed the flight and he didn't have any CDs to sell, saying customs requirements were too strict.

But his workshop had to be a welcome diversion for residents of Medicine Hat during a week where tornados threatened to wipe out events—if not venues—and the local newspaper went through the "worst nightmare" in memory when a massive blackout left it facing the possibility of missing an issue for the first time in its 120-year history.

Bosch, a New York trombonist and leader of an eight-member Afro-Cuban ensemble, said he wasn't even sure where he was going when his manager told him where he was playing.

"I thought it was a club or something," he told an audience of several hundred during a dance party the night following the workshop. "But look, it's a real live place."

Nobody's going to mistake the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival, now in its ninth year, with globally known events occurring about the same time in Vancouver and Calgary. Even festival producer Lyle Rebbeck refers tongue-in-cheek to the community of 55,000 as a conservative Midwestern town. But many performers stop in Medicine Hat as part of a countrywide tour, often giving audience members a better chance of knowing them personally, and Rebbeck says many come away feeling it was more than a typical "fly-in fly-out" gig.

"I think they come here with these expectations and they're amazed," he said. "I've got pages of unsolicited endorsements from people saying this place has the cultural buzz of Montreal."

Medicine Hat's nickname comes from being perched atop a large petroleum reserve the original of the city's name is much more interesting—and lengthy—native story). It's about a three-hour drive west of Calgary, whose newspaper featured stories all week about massive flooding in the region from storms - and the bizarre consequence of severe water shortage that forced unprecedented water restrictions. Feuds resulted as hundreds reported neighbors illegally watering lawns and showering longer than five minutes, and some wondered if the "sewer police" were using newly available technology to monitor various forms of drainage from homes. Tourists seemingly had nothing to worry about, with a large Holiday Inn newspaper ad promising "heavy showers" from the industry's best showerhead.

Tuesday: Big Name, Big Tepee

The 2005 jazz festival featured more than 40 events during six days, a day longer than previous years. The lineup ranged from local students to a number of prominent Canadians (if not as famous as Diana Krall) to contemporary artists from Sweden, Holland and Indonesia. Ironically, the town's most famous musician may be "Canadian Idol 2" winner Kalan Porter, but he was booked doing jazz festivals and other events elsewhere—not to mention expensive - and the festival's headline act was his out-of-town runner-up Theresa Sokyrka.

"Theresa was very appropriate for the jazz festival circuits because she sings more in a jazz and blues vein," Rebbeck said. "I don't usually go for an act that's popular and pop-oriented just to make money. This is a jazz festival. But in this case it's appropriate."

Her concert and many others were in theaters at Medicine Hat College, located on the opposite site of the highway from the tourist center and "The World's Tallest Tepee." The tepee isn't an actual tent, just a large metal frame, and there's no obvious display indicating its height (215 feet high, according to a tourist Web site). There are ten large circular Native murals around the inner posts detailing Native tribal stories, as the tepee overlooks a valley with an archeological site featuring Native remnants from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Sokyrka's opening-night concert June 21 at college's main theater sold out well in advance and the handful of all-access passes sold to the public (usually snapped up within hours) weren't valid for the performance. So I missed the performance, although I managed to get a good idea of her work through her 2005 album These Old Charms and two hours of free songs from her web site (see review).

But while she sold the most tickets, the most buzz for the day was generated by the subsequent 10:30 pm performance by Sophie Milman at the university's smaller Black Box Theater. Milman, 21, a Russian-born vocalist who grew up in Israel before moving to Canada as a teenager, delivered a passion and intensity that shocked many listeners with little or no familiarity with her brief professional career (she recently released her self-titled debut album; free full-length sample tracks are available at her web site and reviewed separately).

"I have never heard anyone with vocals like that who's 21 years old," said Linda Gordon, a local in charge of the festival's committee and volunteers, describing the third-year commerce student as a performer already in her prime.

Wednesday: Playing Up a Storm

"We're glad it's a beautiful day after the tornado warnings and everything last night."

Those were the opening remarks from Jeremy Cooper at the festival's first outdoor event, as organizers closed off a block of downtown for the first time for a set of midday concerts. The weather was hot and muggy, causing the audience area to look desolate as many of the hundred or so listeners dragged chairs into the shade on curbs, but nobody was complaining after storms and baseball-size hail pounded nearby communities.

Performers included an international fusion quartet on a 76-city tour as Tulips 2005, a peace/veterans' tribute, and the Canadian Forces Air Command Band. A ceremony with the Tulips group presenting Mayor Garth Vallely with 600 tulip bulbs to honor World War II veterans preceded their performance from a bus with a side that opens to serve as their sound stage. Lavishly decorated, modified with things like spare airplane parts and carrying an assortment of wonders including a grand piano, it quickly became something other performers sought out for an "insider's" tour.

Their contemporary mainstream performance at times wandering into territory sounding like gospel blues and early Chick Corea Elektric Band fusion. The most colorful flourishes came from Indonesian violinist/vocalist Luluk Purwanto, who bowed rapid sax-like riffs, at one point from the crowd using a wireless mike, and contributed some well-harmonized high-pitch wordless scat. Netherlands pianist Rene Van Helsdingen was also notable, alternating runs and stabs of dense chords with a close two-hand technique.

The Air Command Band, like a number of modern military ensembles, showed a proficiency beyond stereotypical big band by adding such pieces as Pat Metheny's "Dream Of The Return" and Kenny Wheeler's "Gentle Peace" into the mix. While voiced well by featured soloists, they might have benefited from less support from the ensemble, which tended to give them that militaristic hue. A handful of solos on classic pieces, including tenor saxman Jeff Cooper's biting contemporary tone on extended segments, made the muggy weather worth enduring.

The afternoon workshop by the jet-lagged Bosch, billed as "New York's most sought-after trombonist," was a chance to watch him assemble songs in various Latin and Afro-Cuban styles instrument by instrument (and explain his lyricist's improvised vocals were recounting their hard trip). They jammed with a couple of people who brought instruments and Bosch proved the trip didn't erode his humor, telling one attendee who asked a detailed, academically oriented composition question "in the 34 years I've been playing trombone I've never thought about lydian, mixolydian or any of that...my education has been strictly playing live and from the heart."

The cocktail hour extended the genre lineup with the hip-hop Sekoya, a group with credentials and talent, but not at their best during their gig at the Palm Pub. Perhaps it was because only three of the band's seven listed members were there, robbing the band of many of the horn textures and more complex harmonies that grace their intriguing self-titled debut album. DJ/electronics guru Dan Kearley overwhelmed much of the show with beats that drowned out vocalist Amalia Townsend's poetry-and-protest lyrics and Alvin Cornista's flute (out place in contrast to the intensity from the other two). The crowd was sparse and most sat back from the stage. At one point Townsend noted the departure of some people, saying she hoped the band wasn't scaring them off.

A feather in the cap of sorts marked the the day's featured performance, as the world premier of "The Canadian Suite" was played by composer/pianist/trombonist Hugh Fraser and his fifteen-member Vancouver Ensemble Of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI) ensemble to commemorate their 25th anniversary.

"This piece was just finished on Sunday, actually," Fraser said.

The horn-heavy cast, fronted by a slightly unusual quartet of three tenor and one alto saxophones, put on a show of style versatility and plenty of noteworthy solos during the six-movement suite.

The first movement alone opened with a drum/percussion collaboration against a screaming trumpet solo, a tenor sax solo against a mainstream/hands-clapping/mainstream-again background, and Frasier conducting both standing and seated at his piano—extracting sound out of it at times by smacking the wood above the keys and reaching into the body to manipulate the strings. It ended with a drop into classical motiff, backed by wordless Methenyesque vocals from Christine Duncan. The variations continued, proving to be both the strength and weakness of the suite—it felt more like a piling on of styles than a cumulative compositional whole, and at times individual moments that should have stood out got lost to the group. Duncan in particular was a victim, with her voice too quiet to be heard well over the frequently busy and loud instruments. It wasn't until the final segment that her true talent emerged for the audience, opening with a series of animal-like calls, trills and howls resembling a digeridoo, some maniacal laughter and scat, and finally some gutsy blues/funk lyrics that more than held their own against the ensemble.

A sold-out, late-night show by Toronto pianist Nancy Walker capped the day, coming across as thoughtfully smooth with just a bit of tastefully grittiness after Fraser's exploration of styles.

"She's Diana Krall," one audience member said before the show, claiming their styles and backgrounds are similar. Thanks to fate "one of them actually went on to be Diana Krall and one didn't."

Walker actually displayed bit more hard-core jazz in her fingers than Krall, at least the version who's been cranking out market-driven albums in recent years. Walker's trio of instrumentalists also proved a complimentary fit for a style largely aimed at easy engagement, with drummer Barry Romberg giving a bit of extra kick into a series of lyrically oriented contributions from saxophonist Kirk MacDonaldson and bassist Kieran Overs. It wasn't ground breaking, but it satisfied the crowd and proved a suitable ending for a long day.

Thursday: Getting Squares Into Circles Pegged

In a perfect world everyone would attend a small, intimate workshop by the musician before a performance. In the real world only a handful of people may show up because it gets left off the schedule.

Only three people who weren't festival officials were at the opening of an afternoon workshop by saxophonist Joel Miller, an up-and-comer familiar to many in Canada's jazz world. A few more came in as things progressed and perhaps the fact all seemed to pay close attention made the effort feel worthwhile to him.

Miller said his compositions often focus on finding a good bass line to compliment his melodies, rather than coming up with chord structures for his sextet. Besides the instrument-by-instrument auditions, the audience also got insight about why songs are often played where they are ("Aqua Land" is a common opener because, being played in the key of C on a tenor sax, it makes a good warm-up piece). He also gave a more detailed explanation about the title track from his 2004 album Mandala (which, along with a second song, can be downloaded free from his web site). The word is a Sanskrit description of a circle enclosing a square; the song features four phrases representing each side of the square with pauses ("holes") in-between.

"When we're improvising we fill the holes," Miller said, adding it's something he heard from Miles Davis.

His late-night concert didn't quite draw the crowd at Walker's sold-out show, but his group's loose and often playful style running from Rollins to Scofield lived up to its billing as a progressive mainstream presence. On tunes like Mandala the solos extended beyond the "holes," giving them a feeling of tastefully coloring outside the lines—something those not at the workshop may not have gotten a chance to fully relate to.

The evening's main act was Bosch's Afro/Cuban dance party for several hundred people at the town's Moose Lodge, a more impressive venue than its name might suggest. The first set (which I missed) was described as better listening than dancing music, but it appears the reverse applied to the second as the floor was crowded and was more a chance to soak up the cumulative rhythms than intricacies of Bosch's somewhat infrequent trombone.

Friday: Getting Schooled And Soaking Up Second Acts

Local students making up the high school's CHAZZ big band got their moment in the spotlight during a noon concert Friday at a downtown park bandshell. Reviewing a student concert is as appealing as studying finals, so instead this reasonably balanced opinion is provided by Ryan Skinner, fifteen, a guitarist in the ensemble.

"It was probably one of our best performances," he said. However, "the trumpets probably overpowered the band because there were so many of them."

Students interviewed seemed to have more of a casual interest in jazz than any long-term leanings, with preferences leaning expectedly toward alternative, punk and similar genres. At least it's a good time for such music: a recent Canadian issue of Time featuring a cartoon on last page titled "I Told You To Finish Your Miles Davis," about parents "forcing good taste on their reluctant kids," has a cover story feature on Canadian indie rock (supposedly now at its pinnacle, in the eyes of the international community). An accompanying essay by star performer Brendan Canning says the success is because "this is not music made with venom or spite, or in the name of fashion photography. This music is meant to conquer and comfort."

The evening schedule for the weekend featured overlapping performances at a couple of restaurant venues (but playing on multiple days, making it possible for a careful planner to hear most of them). A novice to jazz would learn something critical from a couple of the performers: never judge anybody solely by their first set.

A set of easy-on-the-ears standards greeted the just-off-work patio crowd at Earl's, a typical trendy/casual restaurant across the street from the town's main mall with lots of exotic drinks and fried appetizers stacked on fancy tower plates. Few seemed to be listening to the trio led by vocalist Shannon Gaye, billed as a funk/soul performer, but during an interview between sets she promised a more avant-garde set of originals was coming. The opening act was to appease the crowd of the moment, she said, but a performance the previous evening left her "amazed at how responsive they were to the progressive stuff" when it came to the dedicated listeners. Sure enough, the second act was more Scofield funk than lounge fodder, with Gaye sounding like Alanis Morissette at times, and tunes like "Shake Everything You've Got" replacing the first-set repertoire of "Route 66" when it came to recognizable standards.

The day's featured show was Chicago pianist Ryan Cohen, who was intriguing enough to Rebbeck that the festival director brought him in last year despite other Canadian cities passing him up (and drew enough acclaim to be booked in some of them this year). Another sold-out crowd crammed into the smaller college theater and responded enthusiastically to a show high on energy throughout.

Cohen put on a good display of intensity, romping and comping with heavy chords and quick runs all evening, but ultimately much of it felt like too much reliance on repetitive riffs that played well to the crowd rather than true extension and engagement with the other members of his quartet. The night's best contributions came consistently from saxophonist Geof Bradfield, whose rapid fingering could tease like Rollins and challenge like Marsalis depending on the moment. Cohen did turn in a stellar interpretation of Duke Ellington's "Don't You Know I Care" near the end of the show, using the relatively laid-back setting to infusing a far more intellectual and passionate canvas of thick chordings and complex phrases than heard much of the rest of the night.

His performance ran long, causing the late-night concert by the Nordic Connect quintet to start even later. As such, they get short-changed here, as I bailed out after sampling the first few songs. Since a review of such limited exposure might cheat or give them undue credit, I'll just say the quintet seemed to have a pretty good interplay going, especially between sisters Christine Jensen on saxophone and Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. The Canadian women were accompanied by a trio of Swedish musicians, hence the group's name for the tour, with pianist Maggi Olin providing a nice counter rhythm to the early work and drummer Jon Wikan kicking in with beats that rumbled even when quiet and dominated with that ahead-of-the-times mentality I've come to expect from Scandinavian musicians when he stepped it up.

Saturday: Jams And Redefining Street Music

If festivals gave blue-collar awards, pianist Ray Martens and the others making up the trio Soul Farmer would win Medicine Hat's every year.

The country/blues nightclub group only plays jazz once a year—during the festivals—but draws yeoman duty by hosting jams that run daily from 11 pm to 2 am. They play in a club next door to the hotel where many of the performers stay, with the idea being those so inclined can drop in and jam, with results ranging from pedestrian to wildly inspired and diverse.

"Some nights we've had a great crew of musicians in town joining them, other nights they've held things down on their own," said Bob Reid, a Saskatoon resident helping out with festival activities.

Those lacking the stamina to hear and/or play the moonlight gigs (guilty) got a taste of the experience during an afternoon jam session at the college hosted by Reid, with the Soul Farmer members getting things started and then stepping away at times for others playing the same instruments. Typical of such sessions it was uneven and rough at times, but it's hard to find fault seeing students playing alongside seniors in their 80s, both trying to pick up on each other's ideas.

The polish was back on during a pair of gigs at the Vineyard restaurant downtown, starting with the duo of vocalist Johanna Sillan'paa and guitarist Aaron Young. Compared to artists such as Tuck and Patti, they generally turned in a show more worthy than lounge fodder, but were considerably better on originals and more obscure songs than covers like "True Colors," which seemed off-pace and out of place.

A second Vineyard show gave more credence to the "don't judge by the first set" theory, as a trio led by multiinstrumentalists David French and Louis Simao evolved from a first-set lineup of quaint Latin standards to a second set full of intriguing world music experimentation. Like Gaye the night before, French seemed to be reading the crowd, but gave a heads-up to those there to hear what was billed as an improvisation-heavy display of free music.

"Let us know if we're playing too loud for you. we don't want to scare anyone," he said before the first set. "Eventually, though, we may heat up."

If the restaurants were for unwinding, then the streets were the place to wind it back up Saturday evening as maybe the biggest crowd of the festival filled the outdoor cement structure of the downtown bus terminal for a dual concert featuring the worldbeat percussion ensemble SWARM, followed by the popular Calgary R&B band The Real Deal. From a jazz perspective SWARM proved more intriguing, with the four-member group putting on a highly improvised show as much about movement as the music they played on a wide range of unusual-looking drums. They extended their range by banging industrial hoses against the pavement, recruiting crowd members to clap and play various handheld percussion (sometimes while moving around in patterns resembling childhood games), and whatever else came to mind.

A more subtle ear was needed to appreciate the intensity of the Hutchison Andrew trio during the late-night gig at the Black Box Theater. Calgary bassist Kodi Hutchison looks a bit like a young Charlie Haden, perhaps the reasoning for at times associating his sometimes-sparse and sometimes-verbose upright acoustic lines with the master. Pianist Chris Andrew proved capable of seducing phrases as easy to absorb as Bill Evans, but would evolve almost unnoticed into a more complex buildup with his co-players into something resembling Brad Melhadu's more intense live trio dates. Drummer Tyler Hornby also proved capable of plenty of modern flourishes, such as brushing thick snare layers to thicken typical ballad beats.

Sunday: Coda

There was a lineup Sunday. I missed it because I was on the road to my next stop in the neighboring providence of Saskatchewan.

The main attraction of the day was an evening concert by Swedish saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar. To say I regretted missing him is an understatement, especially since I arrived too late late to hear his subsequent gig near my new destination (read all about this festival next week). He drew raves from workers at the Saskatchewan venue, including those with only a casual interest in jazz.

In Medicine Hat, organizers generally seemed pleased with the turnout and performances, with none of the potentially serious obstacles such as the weather ultimately playing a major role. Rebbeck said total festival attendance last year was about 8,500 (including attendees at multiple shows), a figure that might be boosted notably with the addition of the daily noon outdoor performances. Early indications from some festival officials were that total ticket sales may have lagged somewhat, possibly due to the weather, although most of the featured shows were at or near capacity.

A new performing arts center opens this fall, one of the indicators Medicine Hat is at a cultural crossroads, Rebbeck said. A clear snapshot of where that road is leading may emerge clearly when the jazz festival celebrates its 10th anniversary next year.

"We've stopped trying to be the Vancouver Jazz Festival and we think we've been very successful" establishing the identity we sought, he said.

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