Jazz Fest Keeps Its Groove

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Jazz Winnipeg knows how to announce a festival lineup. With the Fairmont lounge as the setting, Heineken as the sponsor and Winnipeg's Neil Watson Trio as the entertainment, Friday's announcement was a well attended affair.

Dan Michaels from Groove FM was on hand to bring greetings from the title sponsor, and to preempt cynicism about the station's commitment to jazz with their change in format from a jazz station to a smooth jazz adult contemporary format - "Cool" is now "Groove".

The Festival lineup features some notable tweaks and changes to the format, some fantastic touring acts and lots of great local talent. The event will wrap-up with the outdoor market square concerts again this year - it used to open with this event - but will end Sunday night instead of continuing on to the holiday Monday.

The biggest change to this year's festival is that the nightly club programming has been distilled down to five venues. The usual Pyramid Cabaret contemporary music series and the Windsor Hotel blues series are joined by Roots programming at the Times Changed. This is cool - if the Times is going to have music on that weekend anyway, might as well make it part of the festival.

Jazz programming has been distilled down to two venues, the Fairmont Lounge and the Exchange Events Centre. The Exchange will host multiple acts a night. This is in place of multiple venues spread around downtown with unfortunately too often meager audiences. This will give audiences and the musicians a chance to see multiple acts and mix and mingle. Should be great for contributing to the festival atmosphere. It's too bad that all the Winnipeg musicians playing in the lounge don't get a nicer stage and concert setting to play in. After all, they spend a lot of time playing lounges in Winnipeg already. But with fewer venues, they should get a nice audience to play for.

The headliner series looks similar to previous years, with the inclusion of two major Canadian pop bands - Stars and The New Pornographers. These shows are programed against two of the hottest actual jazz concerts of the festival, Ravi Coltrane (with the fantastic Francois Bourassa opening) and Brad Mehldau's trio, arguably the top working jazz trio in the world right now. I guess the festival feels that it has to give it's audience options, but I'm a big fan of all these acts so it feels a bit like programming a young hip band against another young hip band.

For the jazz fans there are some real gems in the lineup. Like the Mehldau Trio, Swedish pianist Esbjorn Svensson's trio (E.S.T.) is a contemporary working band that is exciting and inventive but with jazz integrity in spades. They are opening for John Scofield's trio, which includes Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart. The Francois Bourassa Quartet is one of Canada's best working jazz groups, they play twice on the opening Friday. Chris Tarry won the Juno Award this year for best Contemporary Jazz Album, his group plays twice on Sunday.

There is lots of great Winnipeg talent in the lineup including youngsters Will Bonness and Curtis Nowosad, veterans Knut Haugsoen and Jeff Presslaff, my fellow gen-Xers Chuck McClelland and the Juno winning indie band nathan, plus more than half a dozen great jazz vocalists.


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