Not any more

Markham Jazz Festival: A little fest with big ideas

In Canada on August 16, 2010 at 18:54

Traditionally, one of the unspoken rules on the jazz festival scene has been that big festivals think big, and small festivals think, well, small.

Guitarist Michael Occhipinti never quite bought into that logic. “Because I play a lot at different festivals, I see how some small festivals work, and think about what I would change about them,” he says. So when he wound up interviewing for the job of Artistic Director at the Markham Jazz Festival, one of the ideas he pitched was that being small didn’t have to mean thinking small.

“The Guelph Jazz Festival was one festival I kept referring to,” he says. “They started out as a small festival, and compared to Montreal, they still are small. But they’re a smart small festival, and that’s what I hoped we could do in Markham.”

This weekend, Occhipinti’s idea comes to fruition as what may be the best overlooked jazz festival in Canada opens Friday. It starts with a gala at the Markham Theatre featuring guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli, as well as the Cameron Brown group, with singer Sheila Jordan and clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron, and over the weekend will host performances by pianist Hilario Duran, the raga-schooled jazz band Tasa, and jazz singer Yvette Tollar, among others.

In a particularly inspired move, Byron – the festival’s Artist in Residence – will also appear on Saturday and Sunday, each time with a different band playing a different kind of music.

On Saturday, he’ll be playing Unionville’s Central United Church with his New Gospel Quintet, a group devoted mainly to the music of gospel composer Thomas A. Dorsey, the author of Take My Hand, Precious Lord and countless other classic spirituals. “He invented a lot of the harmonic moves that say ‘gospel’ to us,” Byron says, by phone. “He was the person who really established that the highest level of blues singing would somehow be the sign of religious devotion, as opposed to being the devil’s music.”

Then, on Sunday, Byron will sit in with Occhipinti’s band, Triodes, which also includes the guitarist’s bass-playing brother, Roberto. That show will emphasize an approach reminiscent of such acts as the Headhunters, the Meters and the Skatalites. “It all comes from life experience,” Michael says of Triode. “We all play a lot of different kinds of music, and we all listen to a lot of different kinds of music.

“I suppose that’s why I like Don Byron. Listening to him play [years ago] with Bill Frisell, it was like – Wow, these guys are doing everything from Bob Dylan to Aaron Copland. It was like being given permission to do whatever I wanted to do.”

Over the course of his career, Byron has played and recorded in an incredible variety of styles, including klezmer, traditional New Orleans jazz, avant-garde, the “bug music” of Raymond Scott, and the R&B of Junior Walker. But it wasn’t an easy path, and he had to deal with a good bit of genre snobbery, even within jazz circles.

“When I came to New York, if you were to play straight-ahead music, the avant-garde guys didn’t like you,” he says. “If you played avant-garde stuff, the straight-ahead guys didn’t like you.”

Apart from Byron, Pizzarelli, and Cameron Brown’s group, most of the Markham Fest’s artists are, as Occhipinti puts it, “people who don’t have to travel very far to get there.”

But again, the festival thinks smart with those. “You know, in America, if they had a Grammy nominee or a Grammy award winner on the program, it would be a big part of how they promote that artist. But in Canada, we sometimes don’t want to do that,” he says.

“So I thought, why don’t we get some of the Juno award winners? That’s why I booked [drummer] Terry Clarke, who won for the traditional jazz category, and [singer/guitarist] Jack DeKeyzer, who won for blues, and [singer/guitarist] Dominic Mancuso, who won for world music. Why not celebrate the fact that they won this prize?”

The Markham Jazz Festival runs August 20-22 in Markham, Ont. For further information, go to www.markhamjazzfestival.com.

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