There can be no doubt that the second annual Brantford International Jazz Festival was a musical success. Every act, from the opening big band numbers of the Rob McConnell Tentet to the closing (and sizzling) Latin rhythms of Lady Son Y Articulo Veinte, displayed virtuosic ability in its particular branch of jazz.
For true jazz aficionados, the best moment of the weekend surely must have been the decision by the band of organist and Saturday headliner Joey DeFrancesco to welcome guitarist Larry Coryell, the preceding act, onto the stage for an (allegedly) impromptu jam session. For others, the highlight was definitely the Toronto-based Shuffle Demons, whose manic saxophone-oriented act included two dancing ventures around Harmony Square and into the audience.
Somewhere between the two was an outstanding performance from renowned vibraphonist Peter Appleyard. The 81-year-old astounded the crowd not only with his primary instrument, but also by taking the reins of a piano and a drumset for extended solos.
If there is a gripe to be had with the event's organizing committee, it is not with any of the acts who were invited to perform, but rather with the scheduling. While Rob McConnell is legendary in Canadian jazz circles, the first songs of his set were not the sort of upbeat, high-tempo numbers which would have captivated the crowd from the beginning. Although a strong rendition of Horace Silver's "The Outlaw" was able to perk up the crowd, it only came after fifteen minutes of mellow tunes, which were not what the crowd was looking for.
In fact, the entirety of Saturday's lineup – save for the occasional bit of DeFrancesco or songstress Susie Arioli – followed a similar pattern. If patrons wanted the more universally-accessible type of jazz, they would only find it on the local or youth stages.
This is not to take anything away from the bands that were playing on the side stages; particularly memorable performances were put on by The Dixie Demons, the James McEleney Tentet, and Corner Pocket, but they were not the ones drawing people to the downtown, and they should not have been the ones receiving the most vibrant reactions.
Contrast this to Sunday's experience: Caché, Peter Appleyard, Jackie Richardson and the rest of the main stage acts completely transfixing the crowd, with the side stages serving a purpose closer to being something to listen to while waiting for the next featured act to come on. – and iIt's almost as if Saturday and Sunday were part of two separate festivals. Had Shuffle Demons opened the Saturday portion, getting the crowd going with tunes like "Funkin' Pumpkin" and "Cheese on Bread," and perhaps another of Sunday's crowd-pleasing bands switched out for one of Saturday's acts, the end result might well have been a more balanced festival overall.
Also seemingly lacking were jazz standards; I still remember renditions of "Spinning Wheel" and "Tea For Two" from last year's event. While some bands did perform easily-recognizable numbers this time around, including Susie Arioli singing a riveting version of "Beyond the Sea" and Peter Appleyard delivering "Sweet Georgia Brown" as a memorable finale, the inclusion of other familiar tunes might have been another way to immerse the casual crowd in the jazz experience.
Finally – and this is perhaps beyond the scope of what the festival organizers can accomplish on their own – the jazz festival remains an extremely localized event. While Harmony Square and the stretch of Dalhousie between Queen and Market were dedicated solely to music, it was possible to walk half a block in any direction and not realize there was anything going on nearby. Were more downtown businesses and organizations finding ways to tie themselves into the festival, it could create something much bigger, thus drawing in even more spectators. Additionally, it would provide a nice distraction for those who might not enjoy a certain act, whereas this year, their only choices were to watch that performer or to leave entirely.
All of these are minor complaints, however, and should not take away from the fact that the Brantford International Jazz Festival cannot be regarded as anything other than a huge success, drawing crowds to downtown Brantford that would have been thought unbelievable only a few years ago – and able to attract some of the best jazz musicians from across the continent.
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