Getting an earful

Putting together a major jazz festival is a lot of work. As Artistic Director, it's my responsibility to listen to submissions; get out and hear live music; meet musicians; negotiate contracts; assemble lineups; and more, all while keeping the big picture in mind - balancing musical styles; balancing the local and Canadian talent with international artists; and ensuring that the festival will be accessible, interesting, and exciting for as many people as possible. And, along the way, a fair number of noses get out of joint. Why aren't more local artists booked? Why aren't more international artists booked? Why isn't there more swing? Why is there so much swing? (Etc...) It can be head-spinning at times.

But let's face it. It's a pretty darn good job.

Take Thursday, for example. After four hours of meetings related to a non-festival project, I arrived at 82 Bleecker Street with not a lot of time to get done what needed to get done. Soon enough, I was out the door again, feeling a bit frazzled, and not sure I was ready for the Artistic Director's Guide to the Festival - Live! I was about to moderate.

When I got to The Rex, however, any anxiety disappeared. For the next 90 minutes, I got to hang out in one of Toronto's best jazz venues, chatting about and listening to samples of great music, with one of the most creative musicians in Toronto. Thursday's session was all about the Next Wave Series, five concerts of more avant-garde jazz at the Music Gallery, and the session's guest was Christine Duncan. Although the turnout wasn't great (in the business I think that's called a "small but appreciative audience"), it was a blast to get Christine's input into the Next Wave performers. The session was a ball; Christine is smart and hilarious, we covered a lot of interesting territory, and recorded it for future potential podcast purposes. (If you haven't ever seen her in performance, Christine leads the Element Choir - an improvising choir - as part of the Next Wave Series on June 29.

After the session, I stuck around at The Rex to grab a bite to eat, and chatted a bit with Kevin Downing, one of our festival volunteers. It was fun to get to know one of the many people who make the festival run over its ten days. Plus, there was a pretty incredible band on stage: the Morgan Childs Trio - Morgan Childs on drums, John Maharaj on bass and Kelly Jefferson on sax. I hadn't heard this band before...and I was floored. The 6:30 pm weekday slot at The Rex sometimes features a more mellow brand of jazz, and the audience is typically a post-work drinking crowd. But the trio on stage commanded their attention. I found myself asking - can they really be doing a tenor-drums battle at 6:45? Can the drummer really be taking a full-chorus solo at this time of day? Is that allowed?! They sounded fantastic, and if I wasn't off to another concert, I would have stayed.

From The Rex I was off to the Polish Combatants Hall to catch The Swyves and Vandermark 5 as part of the VTOTEN Festival. I hadn't ever seen either band live, so it was to be a bit of a musical adventure. It was a fairly intense show: the room is small and loud, and the free improv reached fever pitch on several occasions throughout the evening. But I'm glad I was there to experience it in person - certain music needs to be heard live and this certainly qualifies. Each ensemble performed original compositions, and highlights of The Swyves' set included some acrobatic bass playing from Aaron Lumley, a rare tune for two baritone saxophones (Jay Hay and Jeremy Strachan) and Jay Hay's beautiful ballad written for his wife. The tunes performed during Vandermark's set took the audience on a journey - I think each was well over ten minutes, featured a variety of tempos and styles (I think I experienced "free funk" and maybe even "free Afro-beat" for the first time...), and fluidly switched between tight composition and free jazz. (You can experience the Swyves live at The Music Gallery on June 29 as part of the Next Wave Series.)

By the end of the day, I was exhausted but satisfied: between the session at The Rex, the Morgan Childs Trio, The Swyves and Vandermark 5, my ears and my brain had been given a workout. On the refreshing walk home, I tried to absorb what I had experienced over the previous few hours and reflected on how lucky I am to get to do what I do.

With the festival fast approaching, I'm preparing myself for ten days of activity like I've never before experienced (a colleague of mine said yesterday that I should do all of my healthy eating, sleeping and even laundry now since none will likely happen during the festival...). It's going to be exhausting...but I'm pumped. I may not get another post done before we swing (sorry) into gear, so I hope to see you out at our various venues - be sure to say hello.


P.S. - And remember - we're open for business as usual during the first weekend, despite the G20 kerfuffle. Be sure to take transit and, where possible, the subway instead of surface routes - we're only a short walk away from Osgoode Station.

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