An aptly named event

Since starting as Artistic Director back in January, I've been practicing that oft-heard celebrity line, "Do you know who I am?" Always at home, always in jest, and always within earshot of my loving wife, who typically shakes her head, rolls her eyes, and walks into the next room. I've not actually ever used the line in public (and those who know me personally recognize that I could never really pull it off), and, frankly, the answer would most likely be "no" anyway (i.e. "No I don't know who you are"). However, I will admit to using my newfound connections to get into this past Monday's Polaris Music Prize Gala at the Masonic Temple. And I had a great time.

Polaris is known as the "North Star", one of the brightest stars in the night sky. And I think it's a great name for the music being celebrated on Monday night. My experience over the past twenty years has primarily been in the jazz and classical worlds, but the occasional gig with pop bands has made me aware of a whole other community of outstanding musicians that I rarely get to see in action. As a result, though I was familiar with some of the ten bands on the Polaris short list, I had never seen any of them live; it was exciting to see them all perform a couple of tunes. As you would expect, I liked some groups more than others (I still admit to not really getting Broken Social Scene), but without a doubt each of the musicians on the stage demonstrated that they deserved to be there. Each brought an interesting, unique approach to their art, and I don't envy the job of the final jury - it must have been a difficult decision. (I've been reading some of the reaction to the choice of Karkwa as the winning group. As far as I'm concerned, they came on stage and rocked, and deserve the prize as much as anyone else who performed that night.)

Two other aspects of the evening also stood out for me. First was the respect I felt in the room - respect between musicians but also between the audience and the musicians. There was no doubt that this was a gala event - alcohol was being consumed, connections (of all sorts, I'm sure) were being made, and there was certainly a glitz factor. But when it came time for each band to play, the audience was in their seats and the room went quiet. There was no talking through the bass solo. In fact, I don't think I even heard the clinking of glasses during the two acoustic tunes by Tegan and Sara. It was apparent that though people were there to party and have a good time, they were also there to honour the music and the musicians on stage. I enjoyed the vibe in the room almost as much as the performances.

The second thing that stood out for me was how many musicians I recognized on stage from the local jazz community. (And forgive me here if I leave anyone out...) Andrew Downing was playing cello with The Sadies; David French was playing sax with Broken Social Scene; Kyle Brenders (sax), Rob Piilonen (flute) and Steve Ward (trombone) were playing with Caribou; Tom Richards (trombone) and Bryden Baird (trumpet) played with Dan Mangan; Vita Carlino (baritone sax), Heather Segger (trombone, and with Broken Social Scene as well) and Rebecca Hennessy (trumpet) played with Owen Pallett. It served as a reminder that these musicians are not just great jazz players...but great players, period, and we should do everything we can to celebrate the outstanding musicians in this city.

Oh - and one of the best parts of the night? Free. Grilled. Cheese. Sandwiches. (With. Ketchup.) Brilliant.

The Polaris Music Prize states as its mission: "The operation of a not-for-profit organization that annually honours, celebrates and rewards creativity and diversity in Canadian recorded music by recognizing, then marketing the albums of the highest artistic integrity, without regard to musical genre, professional affiliation, or sales history, as judged by a panel of selected critics and experts." There will always be music writers and fans who criticize an initiative like this for one reason or another - not enough diversity of genre represented, a skewed jury, etc., etc. - but judging music is always subjective and the creation of a perfect music award (one that is not based on a hard figure such as record sales) will always be elusive. What I can say, with certainty, having been at the gala in person, and having seen the ten bands perform, is that I was blown away by the talent and variety of the musicians - all of the musicians - who crossed the stage Monday night. Congratulations to all of the short list nominees and to Steve Jordan and everyone behind the scenes who made the event (and who work year-round to make the event) happen.

What did you think about this year's Polaris short list?


P.S. - I was slightly disconcerted by the article in today's Toronto Star whose lead sentence claims "Whether you like opera or jazz, science fiction, roller-coasters or chocolate may be influenced by your genes, according to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research." Could this mean that in some secret-hideaway somewhere, an enemy of improvisation is working on a "cure" for jazz? I'm just kidding, of course...I think...I hope...

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