Africville Suite CD cover
Ginny Simonds was first introduced to jazz by Joe Sealy's JUNO-winning album, Africville Suite. Now she's paying tribute to Sealy with her quintet's concert of Sealy's compositions.

Ginny Simonds still remembers the first time she heard the music of Toronto jazz pianist and composer Joe Sealy.

“I first heard him on the radio. He had just won jazz album of the year that year with Africville Suite, and Peter Gzowski was playing him on Morningside. They played the tune, “Song of Hope”, and I loved it! It was really my first introduction to jazz. I literally pulled the car over and I wrote it down so I wouldn't forget.”

Simonds has kept listening to Sealy, even as her passion for jazz has increased. And next Wednesday, March 14, her quintet will pay tribute to his music in a concert at Live! on Elgin.

Sealy is probably best known for his JUNO-winning Africville Suite, an uplifting chronicle of the legacy of the black community of Africville, outside Halifax, Nova Scotia. Africville had to overcome a multitude of challenges, but managed to survive for more than a century before it was razed in the late 1960’s as an “urban improvement” measure. It's since been partially restored.

He's also known, however, for his long-standing collaboration over many albums with Toronto bassist Paul Novotny, and as a radio broadcaster and record label president. He toured with Blood Sweat and Tears and performed with jazz musicians including Joe Williams and Milt Jackson. He has received four JUNO nominations, and, in December 2009, he was appointed to the Order of Canada. He last appeared in Ottawa with an abbreviated version of Africville Stories in 2012.

Simonds said that what speaks to her in Sealy's music is that “you can feel his heart behind his music. It's not intellectual at all. He has deeply rhythmic music first of all, but also a diversity that goes from ballads to waltzes to blues to Latin rhythms, creative arrangements, standards that I've never heard before.”

Four years ago she met Sealy in person, at the Home Smith Bar in Toronto. “It was just a quiet little jazz bar, and there were only about 15 people there, so I got the chance to talk to him and he played a solo version of “Song of Hope” for me! It was great.”

Sealy has helped with this show, she said. “He's been incredibly generous. He has shared charts and been a little bit of background help with this concert.”

Simonds started playing jazz herself about seven years ago, after years of performing and teaching classical piano. She regularly performs Brazilian and Latin jazz with Wave trio, as well as accompanying local singers and playing in small jazz ensembles. Other jazz musicians whose music speaks to her in the same way as Sealy's include Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, and Ahmad Jamal.

Over the last several months, she said, she's immersed herself in learning Sealy's style, “so now I feel like I have integrated a lot of elements of his particular way of doing things.”

Ginny Simonds
Ottawa jazz pianist Ginny Simonds (image provided by Simonds)

She decided to do this show because “I wanted a chance to really get into some music. So often in gigs, we're just showing up, we've maybe had one practice. We make some good music, but I wanted to really get to know a particular artist, and learn the music really from the roots up. And then my main goal was just sharing his music, really bringing up his name in people's minds in the amateur jazz community, and with friends and family. I think he's worth listening to.”

For this show, she's collaborating with four Ottawa musicians: saxophonist Peter Woods, bassist Howard Tweddle, drummer Lu Frattaroli, and vocalist Betty Ann Bryanton. Bryanton will sing four songs in the first set, and recite a poem and sing “a really beautiful tune” called “Deep Down Inside” in the second set.

“We've split it into two sets, so the first set are arrangements of standards, and some originals, about half and half, I would say. And that one I just cherry-picked: I listened to his albums, and I thought I liked this one, I don't like that one as much. And I just pulled out the ones that I really thought are great. [There's] a beautiful version of [Cole Porter's] “Night and Day” that I'm excited to play.”

The second set will showcase the Africville Suite. It will begin with “Inverness”, from the Dual Vision album with Novotny, about a little town in Cape Breton. “So we're travelling over to Nova Scotia, and then all the rest of the tunes in that set are from the Africville album.”

Simonds said she hope that the audience “can just close their eyes and float away on whatever mood he's taking them on whatever song we're playing in that minute. There's so much diversity. There's a really crunchy Monk sound, it's called “When Vince Meets Monk” [from The Man In the Red Suit], which is going to take them to a different place than “The Autumn Waltz”, or “A Quiet Place”, or “Kildare's Field”, which is a samba.”

“For me, the highlight is going to be playing “Song of Hope” with just a fabulous bunch of musicians. I have my own ties to that tune, obviously.”

The show at Live! on Elgin is marked as sold out, but Simonds has already scheduled a shorter, noon-hour show at MacKay United Church in New Edinburgh on June 21. She's also applying to Merrickville's Jazz Fest. “We'd like to do it two, three, even four times over the next year, if we can.”

There's enough depth in Sealy's music to justify the repeats, she said. “We've spent a lot of time preparing these tunes. They're great! They're worth hearing. We hope to hit a bunch of different audiences with it.”

The Ginny Simonds Quintet will perform The Road: featuring the music of Joe Sealy, on Wednesday, March 14, 2018 at 8 p.m. at Live! on Elgin. Tickets are $25, but the event is currently marked as sold out. Live! on Elgin is at 220 Elgin Street (near Lisgar Street). It's on the second floor: look for the doorway beside Dunn's leading to a steep stairway going up. OC Transpo routes 5 and 14 stop right outside, or you can take any Transitway route and walk about 5 blocks south from the Metcalfe stop.