Lauryn Hill

The 2016 Saskatchewan Jazz Festival

Ms. Lauryn Hill, Metric, and Hiromi highlighted a diverse opening weekend of the 30th annual festival.

Being situated slightly off the beaten path can work to your advantage in the long run. With a metro population of 300,000 and nestled in the valley of the South Saskatchewan River, Saskatoon is neither a hub city nor a transient city. It’s not on a major thoroughfare like the Trans-Canada Highway. Rather, Saskatoon is not so much a “passing through” city; most people visit because they want to be there, not because they’re stuck there.

With provincial capital Regina 150 miles to the south serving as the bureaucratic center of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon has always been more focused on technology, education, and the arts, and over the last 16 years has come into full bloom, transitioning from a small city to a thriving urban center. Similarly, its major summer attraction, the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, has grown from its tiny-scale beginning in 1986 to becoming the second largest such event in Western Canada. Broadening its scope to include blues, rock, pop, hip hop, and electronic music, the ten-day festival now has the clout to attract major headliners, and that variety was on full display during an eventful, rainy opening weekend of the 30th annual fest.

While the festival is scattered among numerous venues throughout Saskatoon, the heart of the Saskatchewan Jazz Fest remains the main stage at the Bessborough Gardens. A Victorian garden in the shadow the shadow of the castle-like Delta Bessborough Hotel, its idyllic scenery is startling. Sunken into the riverbank, spruce trees and elm trees loom over the lawn around the perimeter, and when the sun sets the golden-hour light bouncing off the river and the east bank offer a stunning view. With a capacity of more than four thousand, it’s where people flock to see the big names, and the 2016 fest boasted a real coup in having Ms. Lauryn Hill kick of the event in style.

Late June is usually when Saskatoon’s weather is at its best, but Friday, June 24 introduced visitors to the volatility of the prairie environment, as a massive storm blew in from the western horizon, drenching the city center for two hours in the early evening. That didn’t deter any of the waterlogged people from attending Hill’s sold-out show, and by 9:00pm the clouds had lifted, the breeze feeling refreshingly cool as Hill’s DJ started warming up the crowd.

Hill’s reputation as a diva precedes her, and the fact that she waited as long as she possibly could before taking the stage didn’t do much to help things. Considering the venue has a very strict 11 PM curfew, it’s a deflating feeling to know you’ve shelled out $60 for tickets to what will essentially be an hour-long headline performance. In addition, it didn’t exactly help that Ms. Hill’s opening four songs on acoustic guitar – including “War in the Mind” and “Ex Factor” – came across as fussy and a little persnickety as she continually barked orders to her band and crew.

However, thanks in large part to an ace group of musicians behind her, the show took off once the guitar was discarded and some serious funk was laid down. “Everything Is Everything” was fiery, its drum syncopation stuttering underneath a fierce arrangement, while “How Many Mics” showed one and all that Hill’s vocal flow is still ferocious after all these years. By the time the concert climaxed with the perfect one-two punch of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” and “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, the packed venue was enraptured. The positivity of the crowd seemed to lift Hill’s spirits as well, as her mood brightened and her performance went from uncertain to sublime. Although everyone leaving the grounds were more than a little waterlogged, wet feet squishing inside their shoes – kudos to the smart few who brought their rubber boots – that discomfort was a small price to pay for what was ultimately a very rewarding experience.

METRIC / Photo: Alysse Gafkjen

In stark contrast, both musically and as far as demeanor is concerned, Metric’s headlining show at the Gardens the following night was a crowd-pleaser from start to finish. Like good, polite Canadians they took the stage at precisely the scheduled time, and hammered out a vibrant, slick performance that leaned heavily on their last two albums, 2012’s Synthetica and 2015’s Pagans in Vegas. Considering the popularity of the band’s 2000s output, it was a bold move, but the more the show went on the more it became clear that Metric’s edgier, synthpop sounds of the 2010s felt fresher, and frankly, impassioned.

After rote performances “IOU” and fan favorite “Help I’m Alive” the opening notes of Synthetica’s “Youth Without Youth” kicked in, and from that moment the show took off. Singer/keyboardist Emily Haines and her three bandmates found another gear, and aided by some beautiful lighting and the idyllic atmosphere of the venue, the momentum sustained throughout the rest of the 90-minute set. The newer tracks resonated especially well, including the thunderous shuffle of “Too Bad, So Sad”, the trance-influenced tones of “Celebrate”, the shimmering electropop of “Cascades”, and the show-stopping “The Shade”, which brought the set to a euphoric climax. Although the threat of rain cast a foreboding specter over the night, depriving folks the sensational view of a prairie sky at dusk, the weather cooperated, and the sheer delightfulness of the evening was not lost on Haines, who repeatedly stated how happy she was to play this festival once again.

Sunday night presented a quandary for anyone with a media pass: see the Tedeschi Trucks Band play the main stage, or make the short walk across the river to the cozy confines of the Broadway Theatre to catch Hiromi’s Trio Project. Essentially it boiled down to a choice between raucous and soulful blues rock, and raucous and daring jazz. Seeing that this is a jazz festival after all, the sheer audacity and experimentalism of Hiromi was too irresistible for this writer to pass up.

Just to have a pianist as gifted as Hiromi Uehara play the festival is enough of an attraction, but partnered with a pair of sterling collaborators in Anthony Jackson and Simon Phillips, it makes for a scintillating package. Jackson, a master of the six-string contrabass guitar, played bass on Madonna’s classic debut album and has recorded with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Steely Dan, Paul Simon, and Chaka Khan. Phillips, on the other hand, is a supreme session drummer, having recorded with Judas Priest, Toto, Tears For Fears, and Jeff Beck. When you combine these three musical forces, you get something extraordinary: a wild, ebullient hybrid of bebop, neoclassical, pop, and progressive rock.

It’s an eye-popping combination on paper, but in a live setting it is simply searing. Take the trio’s opening number “Spark”, for instance: starting with sedate, cascading piano that feels more like a classical recital than a jazz performance, the song segues into a joyously intricate progressive jazz rock suite, Phillips’s lively syncopation punctuating Hiromi’s nimble piano notes immaculately. Being a formidable rock drummer, Phillips didn’t hold back, and the fluidity and dexterity of his beats on his big double-kick kit is matched by the power of his hits, which jolted more than a few audience members awake. “Dilemma” sounded even more ferocious, a commanding, imposing blend of classical, Steely Dan, and Dream Theater. As intense as the composition is, the diminutive Hiromi, in her sparkly sneakers and whimsical topknot, would gaze coyly to the crowd as if to say, “Check this shit out.” “Take Me Away” maintained that energy, Jackson’s upper-register notes echoing Hiromi’s graceful progression, while the solo piano composition “Wake Up and Dream” beautifully shifted the mood to something more contemplative, the cascading notes echoing the great Oscar Peterson.

In the end Hiromi’s personality made this an especially extraordinary, 90-minute set. She’d be so into the music she’d have to stand and dance a little while playing. Other times she would attack her Yamaha grand piano with alarming force, hitting a harsh, atonal note with her elbow. While Phillips launched into a stirring drum solo, Hiromi snuck behind a resting Jackson and playfully poked him on the neck. All the while she remained engaged with the audience of 400, coaxing smiles, laughs, and applause from everyone, many of whom were on the edges of their seats.

The combination of the accessible and the edgy, as well as openness to different styles of music outside jazz, is what makes the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival such a quaint little jewel during music fest season in Canada. As Saskatoon continues to slowly shed its small-town mentality in favor of a vision that’s more cosmopolitan and diverse, its jazz fest is a perfect reflection of the changing times. It might go against the sense of defeatism that has been a part of the prairie mindset since the Great Depression, but this city is quickly learning the joy and liberation that comes from doing something as bold as throwing a big, diverse, inclusive ten-day party every summer.

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