After low key start, Jazz festival hits high gear

Herbie Hancock GigCity EdmontonSo much jazz, so little time – especially if it’s “free” jazz where “time” takes on a completely different meaning, as does “free,” because you still have to pay to see it.

Hope that helps. It’s always hard to choose among so many acts at the Edmonton International Jazz Festival. It didn’t really have a slam-bang opener for June 21. The biggest shows are in the second half of the festival, running through June 30 at venues across town. Selected highlights (click the links for advance tickets):


Esperanza Spalding, Winspear Centre, 7:30 pm – Sexy, funky bass player alert right here. Not since Meshell Ndegeocello have we seen such a triple threat: Accomplished bassist (schooled at Berklee), talented songwriter, and gifted with a sultry voice deployed with impeccable technique. The kudos don’t lie: Grammy award, performed for President Obama, was on Letterman, played with Wayne Shorter for Herbie Hancock’s 70th birthday. She’ll have a big band – “The Radio Music Society” – at this gig to deliver her cool fusion of jazz, rock and funk, including a seven-piece horn section. Yowza. Bet Taylor Swift won’t have a seven piece horn section when she plays down the road at Rexall Place on this night.


Courtney Pine, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 8 pm – There seems to be a lot of highly lettered jazz musicians coming to Edmonton this year. This British reedsmith has a PhD in music from Leeds College, and is a professor of music at Westminster University, in addition to being a HUGE jazz star in his native land. Yes, this is the rare case where the words “jazz” and “huge” and “star” can appear in the same sentence. Anyway, Dr. Pine doesn’t need to tour to make a living – he does it for love, and that has to count for a lot. This show, featuring a steel pan drum player in addition to the usual jazz band instrumentation, will draw from his latest studio album, House of Legends.


Herbie Hancock, Winspear Centre, 7:30 pm – Hopefully Esperanza Spalding can stick around for a couple of days to sit in with this for-real, stone-cold jazz legend – or better yet, jam together later at some small club. Does this sort of thing even happen anymore? Either way, seeing Herbie is always a treat. He’s even bring his $250,000 piano with him. Not one to rest on his laurels – for one thing, being in the middle of every phase of jazz in the last 50 years and still making new music – the 70-year-old pianoman has a style almost instantly recognizable, elegant phrasing used with lyrical economy, which makes his flurries of fancy fingerwork mean so much more. Check out the hardware: 14 Grammys and an Oscar, among others. They don’t give these things to just anybody, you know.


An Evening of Swing with Bob Draga and Rollanda Lee, Arts Barns, 6:30 pm – You can take mom and dad to this one, which is promised to live up to its title: Swing, without which it don’t mean a thing. What is “it,” you might ask? Find out at the show. These jazzers have been around for a long time, and they know exactly what they’re doing. Expect some Gershwin as Draga, an award-winning clarinetist, shares the spotlight with Edmonton’s queen of swing, also known as Edmonton’s “first lady of Jazz.”


Patricia Barber Trio, Yardbird Suite, 8 pm – If you’re looking for artful jazzification of tunes not normally considered jazz, look no further. The general rule in jazz is that if you’re going to cover someone else’s song, make it your own. No argument here as the Chicago pianist and singer has become widely known for her intoxicating renditions of such hits as Black Magic Woman and Light My Fire and Summertime, and we’re back to Gershwin again. She writes her own stuff, too, by the way, though it takes a lot to overcome the “queen of the covers” label.