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Sound samples 

From the song of the tabla drum to the bellows of the Hammond organ, from world to blues, a taste of this year’s Atlantic Jazz Festival.

Sierra Maestra

July 14, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 7pm, $25.

Along with samba, son is one of the leading musical forms to define music from Latin America, particularly Brazil and Cuba, at least to many North American listeners. Son combines African percussive rhythms with Spanish-based melodies and string instruments. It is the quintessential Afro-Cuban music.

Sierra Maestra defines the son sound today, so having them open the festival this year is a treat for Halifax. The band’s name refers to the mountain range in the eastern part of Cuba where the music originated. Headed by Juan d’Marcos Gonzales, the nine-piece band Sierra Maestra got together at the University of Havana in 1976. Back then, according to some reports, son was on its way to being forgotten, a little more than 50 years after its heyday in the 1920s.

Son changed during the ’70s in terms of instrumentation and feeling—bumping up the tempo a little to become more about a big group celebration and less about the slow dance in the heat, according to one history of the band, and replacing acoustic instruments such as the marimbula with electric bass.

The music the band plays is also often referred to as charanga. Taken together, the two forms of son and charanga mean you can expect that awesome, jubilant group singing, layered and full percussion, strings such as the violin, flutes and piano.

Sure, there was the Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon and that served a vital purpose to get more people appreciating this excellent music. Sierra Maestra has led the changes for 30 years now. Considering their history and the anniversary they’re celebrating this year, that’s every reason to take them in.

–Sean Flinn

Kaba Horo

July 15, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 8pm, $20.

At only 19 years of age, Lubo Alexandrov emigrated from Bulgaria in 1990, when the country was still ruled by a Communist regime. Lucky for Canada, he decided to make this country his home.

He started in Newfoundland but ended up studying music and math in Montreal. After more travel and transplanting, Alexandrov came back to the jazziest of Canadian cities—Montreal. “It was the opportunity, it was cheap to live and there were all these musicians living here,” Alexandrov says about his city. “And people are so open-minded to music.”

With his band Kaba Horo, he’s set to open Haligonian minds to music that combines the often-frenetic folk and jazz forms. “They’re very related,” Alexandrov says of the mix in his band’s music, which stirs in Bulgarian folk dance, Gypsy and Turkish songs, and groove-oriented jazz. Back in Bulgaria and in the Balkans, he says, “They were influencing each other.” He likens it to the crossover in Celtic and Quebecois music in his home province.

According to Alexandrov, Kaba Horo’s music emphasizes the celebratory, though slower and more sombre numbers arise as well, all filtered through jazz harmonies. “People always like to dance when we play. And when they dance, we get into it.”

This artist still travels, keeping up the frenetic pace. After touring for the early part of this summer, Alexandrov is taking off in August to Turkey, where he’ll study for three months with the renowned fretless guitar player Erkan Ogur.

“It’s very voice-like,” Alexandrov says about the instrument he discovered several years ago. “It’s about freedom. It’s so fluid,” he says. “From there I just became insane about it.” On fretless guitar, he can embellish and use many “untempered” notes, which are not found in Western music—a fact that only adds to the allure of Kaba Horo.

–Sean Flinn


July 16, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 8pm, $20.

The tabla is deceptively simple. Far more than just a drum, the instrument’s range is expansive, as tabla player and Tasa composer Ravi Naimpally will demonstrate at Jazz Fest. “The tabla is a drum which can imitate the range of sounds that the human voice can make,” Naimpally explains from Toronto. “The tabla repertoire is all based on poetry and while we learn to play the sounds on the drum, we first learn to sing the rhythms and compositions.”

Naimpally, who spends part of his year in India, points to the tabla’s ability to support and strike out on its own. He’s heard solos in various Indian performances go for two or three hours. Although in many Canadian cities, including Halifax, some ears are attuned to the tabla’s role, Naimpally knows he may have some new listeners in his audience.

“I usually sing and then play a few of the basic sounds, and then progress to more advanced phrases and end with a tabla composition. This gives people a sense of what is going on when they hear tabla. I always find that audiences really appreciate that.”

Naimpally is joined on stage by drummer and percussionist Alan Hetherington, bassist Chris Gartner, guitarist John Gzowski and saxophonist Ernie Tollar. They have a few albums from which to draw material, most recently Urban Turban. Vocals come courtesy of Samidha Joglekar. “She has a beautiful quality in her voice and her singing fits very well in the band sound,” Naimpally says. “Usually I try to find someone who has a vocal quality and phrasing that I like. I also look for someone who can improvise since we do a lot of improvising in the tunes.”

It’s not surprising that improvisation happens during Tasa shows, considering that tiny drum is at the fore.

–Sean Flinn

Tena Palmer Trio

July 17, Holiday Inn Select Commons Room, Quinpool & Robie, 9pm, $25.

In a word, singer Tena Palmer is smmmokin’. When I took in her gig at the North Street Church with the musically adventurous Upstream Orchestra a while back, I snuck looks around for the fire marshal. Gifted as a natural, audience-friendly, dramatic artist with scant aversion to risk-taking, she makes her performances stick-in-the-mind memorable. Jazz composer and musician Paul Cram of the Upstream Orchestra says, “She’s fabulous,” and this guy sets for himself—and others in his field—very high standards.

This dynamic, totally easy-on-the-eyes vocalist, with a Bachelor of Music in jazz performance (voice), plus a diploma in jazz performance on baritone sax and flute from St. Francis Xavier University, is also a musical changeling who can switch from free-blowing outings to forays into Celtic jazz. Her current bass player, John Greggie, was a member in her Celtic jazz band, Chelsea Bridge. Guitarist Dan Artuso is the third member of the trio.

Usually, creatively restless artists actively seek out challenges. Or new directions. Keeps them fresh. Vital. Forward moving. Sometimes a new focus can seem downright puzzling, especially on such cliche-ridden genres as country, bluegrass and folk. Then again, in the right hands (or throat), wondrous transformations can be made. For example, the eccentrically innovative American jazz guitarist Bill Frissell, who headlined last year’s Jazz Fest, transmogrified old-timey country tunes into hauntingly silvery jazz dreamscapes—more David Lynch-ville than Nashville. Expect no less from Tena Palmer. Her wonderful voice and sharp, inventive intelligence is as supple, sensual and witty around a songline as any of the outstanding jazz divas—Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday or Sarah Vaughn. Chameleon-like, she’s also at ease playing hurtin’ country with all the plaintive ache and passion of a Patsy Cline.

Playful, pellucid, entertaining, Tena Palmer’s a rare bird worth watching.

–Graham Pilsworth

Jerry Granelli

July 17, 18 at The Sonic Temple, 1674 Hollis, 8pm, $15.

For as long as Halifax jazz fans can remember, drummer Jerry Granelli has been a presence at the Atlantic Jazz Festival. It’s his tireless devotion to the local scene as a musician, teacher and supporter, as well as his connections from time spent in the United States and abroad, that allow him to snare the best musicians for what generally turn out to be some of the most exciting and unique events at the festival. This year is no exception.

Granelli welcomes the V16 project to the Sonic Temple for two nights of freeform and improvisational jazz with renowned slide guitarist David Tronzo, guitarist Christian Kögel of Granelli’s former band UFB, and his son and musical peer J. Anthony Granelli on bass.

The name V16 comes from the idea of creating a car from two V8 engines. The idea symbolizes the project that seeks to unite the combined sound of two guitars and stretch it past its usual boundaries. The band will record their performances at the Sonic Temple in front of a live and intimate 60-person audience.

“I’ve always liked the idea of going somehow beyond the rock sound of two guitars and create sort of a string orchestra,” Granelli says. “And V16 allows us to play free. It’s definitely grounded in blues and roots , but it can go in so many different directions.”

The ambassador of east coast jazz is also backing up Mississippi Delta piano great Mose Allison on July 15, and leading a Creative Music workshop, as are Tronzo and baritone saxophonist David Mott. The workshops feature several of the visiting teaching artists in a classroom setting, providing young music enthusiasts of any discipline a chance to learn from the best the world has to offer.

“For years, we were the only ones offering it, where kids could go to concerts and artists would come in and do workshops,” Granelli says. “We never asked for anyone to be at a certain level to get into these camps. We’ve taken everyone—it’s a matter of how much they like music and how much they want to learn.”

– Johnston Farrow

Celso Machado

July 19, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 8pm, $20.

From his home in Gibson’s, British Columbia, a 40-minute ferry ride to West Vancouver, Celso Machado travels the world, playing his brilliant baiãos, sambas, solos on guitar and the West African kora (harp)—not to mention a southern Italian tammuriata dance (he lived and studied in Italy for several years) and much more.

“Each song requires a different touch,” Machado says about his latest recording, Capivara.

Machado has the right touch. For example, on the acoustic guitar solo improvisation called “Céu Nordestino,” he uses a nordeste ponteado (finger picking) style. Considering sambas, he has what he calls “melancholic sambas” in his repertoire, along with more lighthearted takes. Fans of Brazilian sambas, whether the jazz-influenced versions of Joao Gilberto or the pop-fusion of Caetano Veloso or Milton Nascimento, will have much to appreciate here.

The kora solo, “Griot de Coraçã,” is, Machado says, his first try with recording the kora, an instrument the classically trained musician’s been studying for several years. “I wanted to take a risk,” he says. He carefully composes percussion parts for his music as well. For some songs, he layers up to five percussion instruments. Regarding “Poeira do Chão,” Machado admits: “Besides the beat very fast, physically it was very hard.” During recording, he’d be playing “non-stop tambourine.” A take could run more than three minutes non-stop—no dropping the beat or he had to start all over again. “My arm was very sore.”

Machado is accompanied by mandolin player Estanislau Gubiotti, who plays on the waltz “Sersta ao Luar,” and he’ll also demonstrate his use of body percussion. “You’re going to get sounds every time you tap your chest, your mouth or clapping,” he says, adding it’s not a tradition he’s drawing on. For example, an elbow bumped on a wall makes a bass noise. “It’s the kind of thing you do as a kid. Every person will try it.”

–Sean Flinn

Sageev Oore

July 18, DalTech HA19, 5410 Spring Garden, 6:30pm, $5.

Sageev Oore is one very funny guy and a helluva musician to boot. During last year’s festival, I caught Oore improvising incidental music to a selection of Buster Keaton silent films. He (and Keaton on screen) killed, as they say in standup comedy when every joke works. It was like Oore had a bottomless repertoire of pop, jazz and classical music spanning all eras, all styles, with which to match Keaton’s on-screen antics.

Oore’s accomplishments make a worker bee seem like a slacker. Or dead. Oore is a professor of computer science, animator, dancer, busker, comedian and an award-winning concert pianist. The Dora-nominated composer studied at Juilliard, UBC, University of Western Ontario and York University. He’s performed at the Atlantic Jazz Festival, Toronto Jazz Festival and Montreal International Jazz Festival. And somehow, in his spare time, he has squeezed in musical collaborations with jazzman extraordinaire Jerry Granelli, Dancemakers, The Tragically Hip, Rheostatics and The Flying Bulgar Klezmer Band. At this year’s MUSICFILMWORDSPACE silent movie and live music series, he’s partnering up with the great Charlie Chaplin.

To play Carl Stallings (the Looney Tunes musical genius behind the classic Warner Brothers cartoons) to Chaplin is no easy feat. Chaplin discovered that, paradoxically, his comedy became richer by making it more serious. He could then draw attention to zealous seriousness and its absurdities. This created a superior storytelling structure for his character-driven comedy.

This all goes to say that not any ordinary Charlie could ably accompany this level of comedy. Lucky for us, Sageev Oore is no ordinary Charlie.

–Graham Pilsworth

The Vanessa Rodrigues Soul Project

July 20, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 8pm, $20.

Every year at the Atlantic Jazz Festival there’s one show that stands out as the cutting-edge performance—one that forces audiences to think outside the box. The Vanessa Rodrigues Soul Project might hold that honour in 2006.

Formed by 27-year-old Hammond organ virtuoso Rodrigues in Montreal, the Soul Project takes cues from the funked-up, hip-hop organ trio Soulive. The Edmonton-raised Rodrigues leads guitarist Olivier Renee-de-Cotret, drummer Jean-Pierre Levesque and DJ Killa-Jewel through a groove-filled set that’s sure to get the festival tent on their feet. Although they are all established jazz and soul musicians, it’s Rodrigues’s organ that takes centre stage.

“Maybe it’s because I’m small and I’m a little girl and I have a complex, but it has a huge sound and it’s so powerful,” she says about her love of the Hammond organ. “The whole band has to go with you. I wouldn’t say I’m on a power trip—it always has to be musical and it always has to make sense.”

One of the more interesting elements to the band is talented DJ Killa-Jewel, AKA Julie Fainer, an upcoming turntablist who performed with Buck 65 at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Rodrigues immediately knew she wanted to work with the DJ when she witnessed her blow away all the other artists at a friend’s local turntable jam session.

“The DJ stuff is interesting because it’s not like I have her scratching to fill in the blanks,” Rodrigues says. “She’s actually playing the melodies with us and more. She’s a musician in the group as opposed to a texture.”

Regardless who’s playing with her, curiosity is piqued simply by Rodrigues’s MySpace bio, which describes her as “a big, funky black man with a huge afro, trapped in the body of a petite brunette woman.”

“It’s a little more special than playing at a bar,” she says of her excitement about playing Jazz Fest. “It’s a little more formal, although it doesn’t feel stuck up. It seems like a bigger deal than a show you’d play at a small club—it’s a different energy.”

–Johnston Farrow

David Braid and Phil Nimmons

July 21, Holiday Inn Select Commons Room, Quinpool & Robie, 9pm, $30.

Everything about the duo of pianist David Braid and clarinetist Phil Nimmons is striking. The good looks. The critical acclaim. The 53 years between them. Quoi? 53 years? Ooh, man. A world—no, worlds apart, surely. So you’d think, but not so. This is no pairing of a fading luminescence bolstered by a fast rising young star—this Braid guy lives, breathes, maybe even sweats, jazz for all we know. Touted as an artist to watch and one of Canada’s most gifted, Braid, 30, has said, “You don’t really notice the age difference.”

Nimmons, 83, stretching a career over six decades as a performer, arranger, bandleader (Nimmons and Nine Plus Six) and composer, has scarcely spent his time of late resting on his laurels. This Juno winner (for his Atlantic Suite) nailed the National Jazz Awards in the Clarinetist of the Year category in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

You have to know this about Nimmons. The friendly, hip Director Emeritus of Jazz Studies at University of Toronto relishes new challenges. Keeps him “fresh and alive,” he says. This happy pairing of pupil and mentor took wing as a result of a concert the duo played in a church in Dundas, Ontario. A CD, Beginnings, was recorded.

They were after something “uncategorizable.” No rehearsals. What happened, happened: a modus operandi similar to pianist Keith Jarrett’s hugely successful stream-of-consciousness recorded concerts. That it worked so well—the music being as tight as a single mind at work—attests to their sharp ears and copacetic musical skills.

If Beginnings is anything to go by, expect tangy sets of accessible, in-the-moment, high-quality jazz performed with irresistible verve. Propulsive hard bop with evocations of George Gershwin, modal piano poet Bill Evans and, of course, the blues.

–Graham Pilsworth

Morgan Davis

July 22, Festival Tent, Spring Garden & Queen, 8pm, $20.

Blues singer and guitarist Morgan Davis, 2004 Juno winner for his album Painkiller, successfully conducted his career in Toronto for 33 years. After gigging across Canada for decades, he decided it was time to move to one of the hottest spots for his favourite genre of music.

“My wife and I wanted to get out of the city and into the country,” Davis says about his move out east. “Of all the places I’ve been in Canada, the Maritimes—there was something about them. We found the perfect place here. I never have to move again.”

The blues scene in Halifax is a hidden gem on the national stage, but it’s also one of the most vibrant, as evidenced by Garrett Mason’s 2005 Juno win for best blues recording. Davis showcases that scene to the Jazz Fest audience on its closing night.

“One grew out of the other,” says Davis about the relationship of the blues to jazz. “Jazz grew directly from blues and no matter how experimental the jazz got, all the musicians would say that you have to learn how to play the blues before you learn how to play jazz. It’s such an integral part of that expression.”

Davis promises an eclectic line-up of songs that span the history of the blues, touching on some of his personal influences such as Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. He also plans to perform a selection of originals, including songs inspired by his time in Nova Scotia. The Atlantic Jazz Festival’s dedication to the homegrown talent Davis has grown to love has him singing praises.

“This exposes local artists to a crowd that may not be going to nightclubs,” says Davis, a Bearly’s regular performer. “It’s a wider demographic of people that will be coming to listen to the music. Every festival, especially here in the Maritimes, always has a mix of local people with international talent. I think the exposure for local folk is tremendous.”

–Johnston Farrow

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