Planed in to the Halifax airport after an hour of steady aerial gaze at trees and waves. Found the Jazz Fest, despite the one-way maze of the downtown cavalcade. Viewed from the Marriott rooftop bar, the site is a windy parking lot with two tiers of bleachers, a Casino Nova Scotia lounge, a record shop, a demo Volvo CX90, two bars and on-siteTD ATM’s. A row of food vendors surrounds a southern exit that leads onto the Harbourwalk. Extending for 3 Km. along the shoreline, it leads eventually to Stayner's Wharf, an off-site club venue. And just up the hill is the gorgeous St. Matthew's Church where the more intimate performances are scheduled. Far away, on the shady strip known as the North Entertainment District is a fourth venue,The Company House, where late night musical goings-on can continue late and unabated. A workshop hall is also in operation but we never made it that far.
The afternoon is permeated with the sounds of Ms. Lauryn Hill's 3-hour sound check, raucously blending its echoes with construction rumble and clatter. Volunteers and vendors are straightening lanyards and sorting utensils. Consummate publicist Kimberley Sinclair is approaching warp speed hustle as the long-awaited promise of the event begins to come true.
Local diva, Cyndi Cain, "The Honey Bee Of Soul", opens the proceedings at sunset with a well-blended show that includes novelty dancer Neville Provo, guest vocalists, and crowd-pleasing favourites from the soul and r&b songbook. Particularly rousing is an original song by local poet Garry James, We've Been Here, which situates the significance of black Haligonians within the context of history and current public struggles for respect and recognition. "Marcus Garvey docked his Black Star Liner...Right There!" The direct connection that Cyndi elicits from the crowd bolsters the emotional aura of the whole evening. As the spirit deepens, liquor lines grow long and sometimes unruly. Waxing half moon tone pervades.
The magical night becomes even moreso when Ms. Lauryn Hill hits the stage ( right on time, btw ) after a reggae-riding DJ elevates expectations of her imminent eminence. An acoustic guitar and casual elegance hang from her every shrug as the band gets back in gear on Conformed To Love. Her vibes are light and maybe a little stand-offish.
Then this sparkle comes across the middle of the night sky. Suddenly the stage is evacuated as a precaution against a lightning storm entering the harbour from inland. Many many many exit the show like they'd exit a turnpike, while others stand their ground and laugh and clap after every bolt. Serious rainfall ensues, but the turbulence soon moves out over the Atlantic. "We salute you," enthuses the queen as the charged-up festivities kick back in with zero surge protection. Rapidly flung lyrics spit through the ozone as she urges the band upward and gestures to the sound tent to take it all the way loud. The crowd rages and waves with delight at the hyper-live intensity of familiar hits, and covers of Bob Marley and Nina Simone anthems. Quite the inception.
Wednesday on-site features a breezy warm whirlwind full of aficionados and true survivors. Willem Paynter is leading his Hard Bop Band through a scholarly but eclectic repertoire in a seasonally inappropriate camel blazer, sparked occasionally by ecstatic spasms of tyrannosaurus sax from Colin Harnish and heroic drumming from young Brendan Melchin.
Deep Toronto new-sound prodigy Tara Kannangara takes over the stage at mid-afternoon with verve and versatility, levitating the audience with her original music, her vivid trumpet flavours and her opulent fur-lined vocal style. The sound man, unfortunately, takes the edge off of her band's lively dynamics with a too-bright bias to the voice. Nonetheless, the music streams out sumptuously, with the extra intensity of an end-of-tour climax performance.
As evening comes on, St. Matthews Church fills up with curious and canny concert goers ready for the broadly conceptual serenades of California's Julia Holter quartet, featuring drums, keys, bass and viola. Her songs are exotic intoxicants of allusive lyricism and unexpected instrumental architecture. Acoustics are grand and the band is securely locked and stocked with enough complex harmonic strategies to put the dream over with selections from last year's Have You In My Wilderness and rarer items from their back catalogue. A prismic and angular re-imagining of Bacharach / David's Don't Make Me Over concludes the encore and the evening crystallizes into a purple crepuscule.
While Metric and Hali's native rock hero Adam Baldwin are tripping the light bombastic at the main venue, Mike Cowie, a trumpet luminary of the coastal scene is at Stayner's Wharf, with bassist Ronald Joseph Hynes, a veteran keyboardist reminiscent of Don Thompson in style and appearance named Gerry Carruthers, and our friend from the afternoon Brendan Melchin who seems to be as busy as a Bb playing drums all over the festival. Onstage, Mike manages a casual and gregarious singing style that evaporates immediately as his horn solo splits the atmosphere with a manic overflow of ideas recalling a hot night with Cootie Williams. Like a boxer in the tenth round, he retreats from the spotlight and summons his mojo while the band spins out the groove; then he returns to the mic with his mellow coolness intact. These are the jazz glories.
Thursday's program brings us the retiring octagenarian, Oliver Jones who summons a transcendent career retrospective for the audience in St. Matthew's, accompanied by Jim Doxas and Eric Lagacé. A Gershwin medley ("my favourite composer") brimful with heartfelt passion and the heat of reverence, brings his first set to a close. Moving beyond words, he sends the crowd to jazz heaven before returning to take requests up until his final bow.
It's an effort to gear back down to the emotional middle ground for a charming and well-attended mainstage set by Basia Bulat. But the one-trick, alt-sentimentality of the headliner, City & Color soon becomes too obvious to ignore, so we head into deeper territory to check out the pride of North Preston, Reeny Smith in the Gottingen St. wilderness. She is burning up the place with magnificent zeal on material by Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin. The two harmony singers are obviously packing a little something extra. And it's obviously Jesus. Precision and consecrated grit lift the trio of singers into a realm of feeling that rainbows lightning as they emboss familiar pop material with a stamp of profound authority.
A trio of musicians, a bassist from Detroit and a keyboardist from Nashville, with Reeny's brother on drums, bring heavy funk gravitas to steady cataclysms of rhythm and bolster the proceedings. Together they transform that bar room into a sanctuary state. If only churches had dance-floors...
Friday afternoon's audience is full of escapees from surrounding offices and residences sampling the beautiful weather and a free pre-weekend concert by Montreal progressive Rachel Therrien. Now based in Brooklyn, the founder of the Montreal Jazz Composers Series brings some lively tempos and a sympathetically improvising band to draw out dancers and the more erudite jazz brokers. Rachel was also presented with the $3000 Stingray Music Rising Star Award at the Festival. In the evening we saw a well-oiled reggae band with fine players and original tunes, named Verbal Warnin'.
Much more went on but we were on up the coast Saturday morning to visit Cape Breton, my other homeland, and to see the sites that only Cape Breton can offer. Halifax Jazz 2016 was a major success, thanks to the fine weather, some careful curation and the shamanic talents of the brave and inspirational performers who lit up the air with their souls.