The Prince Edward County Jazz Festival is going anti-theme but remaining 100% jazz in 2016, according to its creative director, Brian Barlow.

Prince Edward County Jazz Festival creative director Brian Barlow ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Prince Edward County Jazz Festival creative director Brian Barlow ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Unlike previous years, the festival, which runs August 16 to 21, will not feature any tributes to past jazz icons. “This year, we just chose people that we had wanted for a long time,” he said.

Those jazz musicians include two 2016 Juno Award winners – vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow and pianist Robi Botos – plus saxophonist Phil Dwyer, pianist Mark Eisenman, bassist Jodi Proznick, saxophonist Mike Murley, pianist Bernie Senensky, and a restaging of Joe Sealy's Africville Stories with vocalist Jackie Richardson. The festival's artist-in-residence, trumpeter Guido Basso, will also be featured in several shows.

And, as always, Barlow's star-studded big band will close the festival – this time featuring vocalist Alex Samaras.

In 2015, festival concerts commemorated Miles Davis' Kind of Blue and the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday's birth; in 2014, George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue, Jim Hall, and Dave Brubeck; in 2013, Benny Goodman's 1938 Carnegie Hall Concert, and Oscar Peterson's Night Train album.

“We have done a lot of themes and tributes over the years, and a critic actually said that that must be what this festival only does – tributes and themes. I thought OK, this year, we're not going to do that, and so there's nothing whatsoever,” Barlow told OttawaJazzScene.ca.

He said that the festival's four-person artist selection committee, for example, had wanted to have his daughter, Emilie-Claire, return. “I'm extremely careful about the whole idea of nepotism, so I'm very cautious about that, but the committee had been asking for her for a couple of years to come back.”

She was actually booked before she won the Juno, he said. “That was fun to have that happen.”

Emilie-Claire Barlow has been performing large-scale lately – in her latest album, Clear Day, with the NAC Orchestra in Ottawa, and with a 60-piece orchestra at Massey Hall in Toronto. But her festival concert on Thursday, August 18, will be with a quintet of well-known jazz artists: pianist Amanda Tosoff, bassist Jon Maharaj, saxophonist Colleen Allen, drummer Fabio Ragnelli, and guitarist Eric St.-Laurent. An arranger as well as a vocalist, she'll perform innovative arrangements of Great American Songbook standards, bossa novas and ballads.

"A truly incredible story. A Canadian story."

Barlow said Joe Sealy's Africville Stories had also been on the festival's list of possibles for the last four years, and he was “thrilled” to finally present it. It's a reworking of Sealy’s Africville Suite album, for which the Toronto pianist won a Juno in 1997, and tells the story of the oldest black community in Canada.

Africville was founded in 1840 by former American slaves on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1970, it was expropriated and demolished by the city in the name of urban renewal – leaving the black community homeless. In 2010, Halifax City Council finally apologized. Together with the federal government, it compensated families, rebuilt a replica of the local church, and created a museum. Sealy's music added greatly to public awareness of the Africville story.

“What I like about that is that it's a truly incredible story. A Canadian story. The music is fantastic, and the musicians are great. So it's a big, big package to present anywhere,” Barlow said.

Barlow said he himself had once toured with this show, up to Inuvik and Yellowknife, and the material in it continues to evolve and change, particularly the story-telling and dialogue. Award-winning Toronto jazz, gospel, and blues vocalist Jackie Richardson – who appeared as blues singer Willie Mae Thornton in a play at the National Arts Centre in 2013 – will narrate the stories, as well as singing.

Proudly all-Canadian, and mostly from Toronto

Although the festival has occasionally included musicians from New York, this year it's proudly all-Canadian. As “a working musician myself”, Barlow said he was “aware of the high calibre of musicians that we have in this country. So it's important to me that the great Canadian jazz musicians be part of this festival. That is balanced with our desire to present the highest quality of jazz we can present.”

Almost all the featured musicians perform in Toronto's jazz scene (as does Barlow), with the exception of drummer Dave Laing from Montreal, and bassist Jodi Proznick from Vancouver. Proznick, who is returning for a second year, is being showcased in four different concerts: in Guido Basso's quintet; performing a Saturday morning duet with Mike Murley in a small, restored chapel in a cemetery; in a duet with Robi Botos; and as part of Barlow's quartet in a Sunday morning Jazz Mass.

Proznick has won numerous National Jazz Awards, including Bassist of the Year in 2008 and 2009, and is well-known on the west coast as a composer and bandleader. But she had to be introduced to Prince Edward County audiences last year, Barlow said. “And they fell in love with her”.

An amazing piano player, who doesn't play like anybody else

Robi Botos after winning the TD Grand Prx at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Robi Botos after winning the TD Grand Prx at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Robi Botos, on the other hand, is a perennial at the festival. “Robi's really been part of our family out here for ten years or more, I think ever since he first came to Canada, he's been out here.”

“There's nobody like him; he's really quite an amazing piano player, and doesn't play like anybody else. And that's because the input that he had growing up was different. So we're really thrilled to have him come back out here. We keep waiting for the time that he gets too big a deal for us to be able to afford him [laughs]. We're having him whenever we can.”

Botos is in Barlow's big band, “so that's been a real treat.” Besides playing the duet with Proznick and in the Jazz Mass, he'll also run three nights of late-night jam sessions at a local restaurant.

The festival opens with a non-musical event on Tuesday, August 16: “Basso Backstage”, an on-stage interview with veteran jazz musician and Order of Canada member Guido Basso. Basso's career started with three years touring with singer Pearl Bailey in the late 50s. By the 1970s he was one of the biggest jazz names in Canada, a virtuoso on trumpet and flugelhorn, performing with Ella Fitzgerald, Woody Herman, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Frank Sinatra. He was also well-known as a big band leader, composer and arranger, and was a founding member of Rob McConnell's Boss Brass.

Phil Dwyer ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Phil Dwyer ©Brett Delmage, 2012
The following day, a local winery hosts a gala dinner and concert with the trio of pianist Mark Eisenman, featuring award-winning saxophonist, composer, and instrument designer Phil Dwyer, who's performing in Toronto this summer in his vacation from his law studies in New Brunswick.

The following four days are filled with evening concerts, dinner shows at restaurants, musical events at wineries, and concerts in churches – in locations scattered around the county, although the majority are in Picton, its largest town. The county, which juts into Lake Ontario, is about half-way between Ottawa and Toronto, and near Kingston and Belleville.

The shows will feature a wide variety of local and visiting musicians: for example, veteran Toronto jazz pianist Bill King in a duo with R&B vocalist Michael Dunston. On Saturday, the Chameleon Jazz Band will pile into a Jazz Van and play four 45-minute concerts at locations across the county.

Barlow said the festival emphasizes promoting up-and-coming young musicians. This year's schedule includes concerts by groups led by saxophonist and Ottawa native Claire Devlin; Toronto trumpeter Andrew McAnsh; and Toronto jazz and big band vocalist Kalya Ramu. “There are so many musicians out there that people need to know, need to hear, especially the younger ones.”

Top-quality big band jazz

On Sunday evening, the festival closes with Barlow's Big Band, which includes many well-known musicians in Toronto's jazz community, and Barlow himself on drums.

“I've been fortunate in that this is the 11th year I've had this band, and almost all the players have been there since the beginning. We occasionally will have a sub, but I think Robi, in 11 years, has only missed three jobs that we've done.”

Instead of a tribute concert, he said, this year the band “decided we're just going to go out there and do what we do, which is be a really top-quality big jazz band, and to feature the soloists that we have. So there's no theme or anything – it's just ... And the band is full of great soloists like Russ Little, and Alex Dean, and Perry White, and Robi. It's been a real delight for me to have that band.”

Alex Samaras, most recently heard in Ottawa in a tribute to Stephen Sondheim with Bobby Hsu, will be the featured vocalist. “He's one of the finest vocalists I've ever worked with, and yet he's not really all that well known. He does everything! He's an incredible singer.”

Samaras performed with Barlow's big band in several tributes to Frank Sinatra's 100th birthday last year, Barlow said. But he has a wide range of musical interests: “Alex also does a lot of new music, really far-out new music. The first time he was actually out in [Prince Edward] County, a number of years ago, he was involved in a really very out-there presentation he had with an artist which could only be described as new music – but there was an improvisational jazz element to it as well. He does all kinds of things, and with the band, he sings swinging big band music.”

Barlow said his big band did a concert last year with Samaras of Billy Strayhorn compositions, “and he sang that music just beautifully, so we'll probably do that” in this year's festival concert – plus including some suggestions from Samaras himself. Maybe even Sondheim: “there have been big jazz bands who have played Sondheim – it's all in the way it's arranged.”

Tickets are required for six of the festival events: $75 for the gala winery dinner, $38 for the four evening concerts at the Regent Theatre, and $25 for a Saturday afternoon show. The jam sessions also have a cover charge. But “all day Saturday and Sunday you can go see jazz for free,” Barlow pointed out, and other restaurant shows have no cover charge.

One thing will stay constant in the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival, however: it's defiantly all-jazz.

“It is a pure jazz festival. You don't find any other kind of music at this festival. And that was a decision made I think in the 4th or 5th year that that would be part of our mandate. I think it's put us in a really great position, not only for our audience, but for the musicians who come out here. The real jazz musicians want to work here,” Barlow said.

“And it's great for our audience, too. We never get anybody who's disappointed. You don't have to search out the jazz. And I'm not putting down other jazz festivals: I fully understand why they do it. They think it gives them an opportunity to broaden their audience and probably bring in higher revenues. But I just thought all along that if you're going to call it a jazz festival – if this was a Renaissance Music festival, I wouldn't have Argentinian tango music. I'd have Renaissance music. So I think, why not have a jazz festival that just is jazz, no matter where you go?”

    – Alayne McGregor

Read our companion stories to this article about the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival:

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