Calgary Jazz Festival spans the ages with musical variety

By Courtenay Adams

Audiences experiencing the 2008 Calgary Jazz Festival during June 24-27 gained great insight into the ways in which musicianship evolves. This year’s lineup featured artists of a variety of ages and experiences, from relative youngster Meaghan Smith–whose first full-length album is slotted to drop this year–to veteran Dave Brubeck–who has been in the business the better part of five decades. The rest of the lineup fleshed out the spectrum to make an inarguably successful event.

Smith, a Halifax native, proved that admitted self-consciousness blended with sardonic charm can help an artist relatively inexperienced in performing for big crowds make it through a quick set of folk-cum-jazz ditties, even in the face of technical difficulties and a skeptical audience–whose hearts were inevitably turned by the time she left the stage. Smith’s quirkiness was an effective strategy in managing a crowd, though contrasted sharply to fellow youngster David Virelles’ near aloofness to onlookers. Widely considered a prodigy in his field, his performance could not have been more different than Smith’s. As the piano-playing leader of an up-and-coming quartet, Virelles’ songs were characterized by complex layering that can only be described as the musical equivalent of sleep talking: the interactions between the instruments didn’t always make sense and yet some part in the back of the brain managed to make the necessary connections. Both performers were awkward, yet successful in their own right.

Pink Martini was perhaps one of the more curious selections cushioned between old and young. Guided by classically trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale, the group seamlessly traipsed through songs with all sorts of beats and rhythms from waltzes to pop tunes to latino-fusion numbers. China Forbes, the wide-ranged, smoky-toned lead vocalist, skillfully negotiated lyrics in a myriad of languages including, among others, Spanish, French, Japanese and Arabic. The band made for a highly enjoyable evening, highlighted by their performance of the more well-known tune, “Hey Eugene,” a sarcastic swipe at a guy from “that party” that never called, despite all the flirting, making-out and babysitting of his “skinhead friend.”

Of course, despite the strengths of the younger performers, the command of musicianship held by Brubeck and his quartet was unparalleled. Brubeck, who is nearing 90 years old, seemed intimately comfortable with the situation, bug-eyed glasses and all. Indeed, there were times when he even looked asleep at the piano, and yet there was nothing tired about the way his fingers could move. The playing of his onstage buddies was also nothing to snore at. Saxophonist/flautist Bobby Militello may have somewhat resembled a giant, rotund penguin, but his dexterous fingers and well-punctuated breath proved again that looks are deceiving. Meanwhile, bassist Michael Moore and drummer Randy Jones seemed to be in constant conversation, their instruments doing most of the talking. Like seasoned runners who have caught their stride, however, even when they did use their mouths to speak, they never missed a beat. Together, they all appeared as old pals gathering together to show the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed youngsters in the biz the true meaning of jazz.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet rightfully earned multiple standing ovations, a traditional white Stetson from a representative of the municipal government and a “That was awesome!” from one of two drunk college guys in the audience. Had the rest of the festival been a miserable failure, this one performance could have saved the whole intergenerational ark from sinking. Fortunately, talent manifested itself in musicians of all ages and levels of experience, sailing this year’s fest successfully into the first skies of summer 2008.

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