Saskatchewan Jazz Festival 2017 Review

This year's highlights: Feist, Begonia, Kenny Barron and a whole lot of Pride

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Another Saskatchewan Jazz Festival has come and gone, and for whatever reason this year’s event flew by astonishingly fast.

Perhaps it was the middling line-up, or maybe it was the near perfect weather that had us enjoying the outdoors in a variety of venues.

Note: We are trying to stay as positive as possible. That said, the line-up this year wasn’t the talk of the town as it has been in previous years. Maybe it was the few “mainstream/indie” acts that took over the Main Stage with nary one actual jazz artist to be seen. Sure – the festival has evolved to include an eclectic mix of genres and acts, something we’ve always loved about the event. But, to be fair, country artist Brett Kissel might be the most paradoxical addition to the schedule yet.

However, we get it – even with a large budget, it’s next to impossible to curate a line-up that both draws crowds and keeps die-hard fans happy. Take Boston Calling, a festival held twice a year. A recent Pitchfork article rated it the least unique festival of 2017. Still, we are pretty certain that the majority of the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival’s 75,000 attendees (ourselves included) had a great week!

Hawksley Workman

Anyway… here are some highlights from this year’s festival:

One of our favourite moments came when the Saskatoon Pride Festival teamed up with the Jazz Fest on June 24th at the Club Jazz Free Stage. The conjoined festivals brought an amazing and diverse crowd and downtown streets were packed to the brim following the Pride Parade. Really cool to see!

Unfortunately the rain came during Anna Haverstock’s set, which left her playing to the most hard-core of fans.

However, Hawksley Workman playing the free stage later that night around the same time Serena Ryder played the Bess Gardens was a bit of a tear-jerker – I guess we (still) can’t be in two places at the same time. The relocation of the free stage to directly next to the Bessborough brought one of the largest crowds we’ve seen and added fuel to the party as people bounced between the free and ticketed events. Both artists played delightful sets and had everyone dancing.

Begonia is a new artist that caught our ears this year. A relatively new solo project from Winnipeg, this performer possesses a powerful, emotional and raw voice that can be hard to come by on the prairies.

The Kurt Rosenwinkel Capi Band was one of the biggest jazz treats of the fest, as evident by a near-sold out crowd at The Bassment. Playing songs off his recent album Capi, Rosenwinkel, a prominent guitarist in the jazz world who has played with artists like Joshua Redman (who played the fest a few years ago), easily kept the audience mesmerized.

Given David Bowie’s fame, one would have thought his last band leader, Donny McCaslin Group might have played at a larger venue and drawn a slightly larger crowd – at the Ottawa Jazz Fest, he played at the National Art Centre Studio. The accomplished saxophonist played two transfixing sets that left the crowd at The Bassment more than happy. And that band though, which included keyboardist Jason Linder, bassist Nate Wood and drummer Mark Guilana – damn they were good.

Walk Off The Earth

Opening with a cover song, especially Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” is something that most bands would avoid, however, Walk Off the Earth fully embrace being a cover band. The high energy group from Ontario had the sold out crowd Bess Gardens dancing – including pregnant singer Sarah Blackwood. Okay, fine, “cover band” isn’t exactly an endearing term, but who can argue with that many people having so much fun?

As a jazz fan, every once and awhile there’s a show that is completely captivating. That was the sold out Kenny Barron show at The Bassment. At 74-years-old, Barron primarily played a set of standards with his own unique harmonies laid over top. It was a solo set that could only be described as honest, and it was one that kept the audience on the edge of their seat.

And while his music might not be pushing any creative edges, festival regular Michael Franti knows how to get a crowd engaged; and it’s a good time! With dreads-a-flowing Franti is still at it, running through the audience getting them dancing. Saskatoon’s Bombargo was one of two openers for the show with front man Nathan Thoen, who recently did some social media on tour with Franti, being invited on stage to sing a song with the headliner. Quite an experience for a young band.

Annually, one of the most fun show of the festival is the Jazz Jam at the Bassment. Often times musicians from some of the big headliners (front-people or sideliners) get on stage in late night workshop-like jam. This year had some talented Jazz Intensive students get up on stage. Disappointingly though, there was only one jam this year, and it was poorly advertised. Fix this next year please, Jazz Fest!

While we managed to miss Arrested Development’s Canada Day bash (we were off eating hotdogs in the woods – sorry, not sorry), headliner Feist managed to bring us together with the majority of her set pulled together from her latest album Pleasure. The highlight – okay, one of many – was the song “Any Party”, which left several in the audience clutching their partner’s wayward hand, dabbing at their eyes with the softest of smiles.

Thanks for the lovely moments Saskatchewan Jazz Fest. Can’t wait to hang with you again next summer.

– Photos by Mike Morien. Words by Morien, Ryan Smith and Chris Morin.

Feist