Paying homage to those who shaped jazz

By Mollie Kaye, March 1, 2016

Last call for this season’s Sunday afternoon “tribute” concerts at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Maureen WashingtonJAZZ IS A GENRE defined by collaboration, creativity, interaction, and improvisation. While attending any musical performance can counter the isolating effects of our screen-driven culture, jazz’s unique alchemy reliably provides a sense of being in the flow of creative energy. Performances are influenced by whatever is happening in the moment. The internal landscape of the musician’s mood and the external landscape of the space and spectators can inspire shifts in melodies, harmonies, repeats and time signature, providing a you-just-had-to-be-there experience which, like a dream, can be difficult to describe after the fact.

The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV) hosts an annual series of intimate, Sunday afternoon jazz concerts in the lofty-ceilinged heritage splendour of the Spencer Mansion’s main floor rooms, perfect for those who crave intimate and inspiring jazz and a low-key, daytime venue. Organized by the Universal Jazz Advocates and Mentors (U-JAM) Society, these “chamber jazz” performances give acoustic musicians and small audiences a way to meaningfully connect.

Victoria-based professional pianist Dave Paulson is an original founder of U-JAM. He leads me through the “old” part of the AGGV and gestures to one of the elaborately-tiled fireplaces. “This is usually where we set up the band,” he says, his voice reverberating in the naturally vibrant acoustics of the light-filled space. When I mention how much the room echoes, he assures me that when the maximum-capacity crowd of 75 people gathers, the music sounds rich and clear.

There’s a cluster of three large rooms on the main floor, all conjoined, and not all 75 spectators can fit into the one the band plays in. Paulson gestures to the dark, wood-panelled foyer (the one with the grand spiral staircase) and confesses that this is his favourite spot to perch during a concert. The acoustics are quite different from the livelier front rooms, and Paulson confirms that sitting here makes the sound even clearer. If you aim for the foyer, you’ll still be able to see the band.

That is, if you can get in. These Sunday afternoon U-JAM concerts at the AGGV, which happen roughly monthly from January through April each year, are typically sold out, even thoughVictoria is a notoriously last-minute town (much to the chagrin of event organizers). Your best bet is to reserve as soon as you read this; there are two concerts left in the season. Both are in April, and both are sure to be popular.

First up is “Maureen Washington sings Carmen McRae,” with Karel Roessingh on piano and and Joey Smith on bass. Late jazz diva Carmen McRae’s “dramatic and nuanced readings of standards put her at the forefront of vocal jazz,” says Paulson. “One of the best ever,” raves vocalist Maureen Washington, who personally chose the artist to whom she wished to pay homage. “It was an easy choice for me. I love her approach to singing. She imparts her own style while staying true to the song.”

Washington, who hails originally from Prince George, is one of the most popular singers in Victoria, and for good reason. She won 2014 “Best Jazz and Soul Act” at the Black Canadian Awards, and her renditions of MacRae’s best-known songs, such as Dave Brubeck’s classic “Take Five” (performed with lyrics) are both lithe and rich, with a dynamically deep and soulful sound. Her local following is large, so this opportunity to hear her in a smaller venue will likely be a hot ticket.

The men backing her up have their own loyal fans as well. Joey Smith is arguably one of the best bass players in Canada, and has a jam-packed schedule performing with many other esteemed musicians in the region when he’s not backing up Washington. Karel Roessingh has star quality as an innovative pianist, composer, and veteran of film and TV scoring.

If you’re reading this too late to get in on the early-April action, there’s another concert later in the month: “Conversations with Bill Evans,” featuring Brent Jarvis on piano, bassist Ken Lister and drummer Hans Verhoeven. Bill Evans “helped re-define the sound of the jazz piano in the 1960s with a minimalist, introspective approach to the instrument,” says Paulson. “His early trio recordings were also unique in that they gave equal room for expression from the bass and drums, rather than being piano-centred.”

Jarvis, who chose Bill Evans as his tribute, hails from “the unlikely jazz hub of Port Alberni” and received a performance degree in Jazz Studies from Humber College. He’s also a producer and composer, one of many accomplished musicians who make their home here. “We’re really lucky with our musicians in Victoria,” Paulson says of this bounty of local talent.

A music educator as well as performer, Paulson helped found U-JAM 11 years ago with a mission to advocate, mentor and act as a resource for lovers of music. (Paulson is wary of defining “jazz” too specifically, except to say there is some kind of improvisation involved.) “We came together to envision a new society to bring together various resources and act as an accessory to what the Jazz Society was doing. They produce the Jazz Festival and many concerts, but the educational mandate was a way [U-JAM] could contribute.”

And educate they do. U-JAM’s “Young All-Stars” project meets every week. “We bring together kids ages 12-18 on Saturdays to rehearse with a mentor from the jazz community,” explains Paulson. There is a similar mentoring program for adults, who get together with others who may have skills on an instrument, but want to learn about playing collaboratively.

Rick Gibbs, a retired schoolteacher and amateur musician, came up with the idea for the gallery series to offer musicians and audiences a new way to interact. U-JAM approached the gallery with the idea of having a concert series in the winter, “and they were pretty enthusiastic about it,” Paulson says. U-JAM and the AGGV split the ticket proceeds. This is the series’ seventh year.

“On Sunday afternoon, you get a different crowd than those who would go to Hermann’s on a Friday night,” says Paulson. “You get admission to the gallery for the price of the ticket as well. We encourage people to visit the gallery during he interval.” Musicians play two sets with a 20-minute intermission, during which there is tea, juice, and a chance to chat up the musicians.

Paulson seeks to inspire and build community through these tribute concerts. “You don’t just sit and listen, but ask questions and interact with the performers, who share anecdotes. It’s more personal. You get a better knowledge of how the music was created and where it came from when you understand who the artist was and what they were dealing with in their life.”

Jazz at the Gallery: Sunday, April 3, 2 pm, “Maureen Washington sings Carmen McRae” with Karel Roessingh and Joey Smith. Sunday, April 24, 2 pm, “Conversations with Bill Evans” with the Brent Jarvis Trio. At the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Tickets (including admission to the Gallery’s exhibits) $35, with discounts available for AGGV and U-JAM members. Tickets at 250-384-4171 ext 0.

Writer and musician Mollie Kaye celebrates all the ways community is being built through collaboration, song and performance.