All photos courtesy Waterloo Jazz Festival

All that jazz

All photos courtesy Waterloo Jazz Festival
All photos courtesy Waterloo Jazz Festival

The Sun Life Financial Uptown Waterloo Jazz Festival returns for its 21st birthday party

Kevin Delaney

This July marks 21 years of free jazz in Waterloo as the Sun Life Financial, running July 19 to 21, returns. The annual event is hosted by the Uptown Waterloo BIA and is one of the longest-running jazz festivals in Canada, not to mention one of the largest free festivals of its kind in the country with over 35,000 people expected to attend.

The festival is a three-day extravaganza with artists performing on two stages. But its origin was a humble one. “It used to be called Jazzinʼ It Uptown,” says Patti Brooks, the executive director of the Uptown Waterloo BIA and the vice-chair and artistic/media director of the Jazz Festival. “What the marketing team back in the day did was hire musicians to play jazz on King St., in Uptown Waterloo.” As the festival evolved, so has the calibre of artists who have come to play.

This year, all the headliners are Canadian and are all JUNO nominees. Friday night is R&B singer and multi-instrumentalist Ivana Santilli; Saturday, itʼs jazz crooner Matt Dusk; and Sunday is Vancouver-based party orchestra Five Alarm Funk.

Filling out the ranks of performers will be a host of musicians and bands from the K-W area, a deliberate choice on the part of organizers. “Tim Lewis is a good example. He has recorded all over the world and he is a local,” says Brooks. “We have an incredible wealth of talent here in K-W.”

The BIA also seeks to involve local musicians and the entire K-W community through jazz workshops and clinics. “We started that four years ago and it has been incredibly successful,” says Brooks. “We’re very excited to have Jackie Clue doing that for us this year and we’ve engaged some of the performers that are actually playing at the festival to do some of the teaching in a few of our adult workshops.” The clinics are held at The Jazz Room and are free of charge.

The entire festival is free of charge, something Brooks says is made possible by the 100 people who volunteer for the festival. “Well over 70 per cent of our volunteer base has been with us for 15 years. If it weren’t for them we wouldn’t have this.”

Satellite Stage, Friday July 19, 3 p.m.

For those interested in hearing the rising stars of the Jazz world, the Allison Au Quartet is a must-see.

Au, a Toronto native in her late twenties, is a talented saxophonist, flautist, composer and arranger. The Quartet, rounded out by Todd Pentrey on piano, Jon Maharaj on bass and Fabio Ragnelli on drums, has been playing together since late 2009 and they have been turning heads on the jazz circuit in Toronto.

Not lacking in accolades, they were the recipient of the TD Jazz Fellowship Scholarship in 2011 and the Alfred and Phyllis Balm Scholarship in 2012. The Quartet’s debut album, The Sky was Pale Blue, Then Grey, was a 2013 JUNO nominee for Best Contemporary Jazz Album of the Year.

“I’ve been trying to create a sound that sounds different,” said Au. “But obviously the influences of the people I listen to are there. Iʼm very much influenced by John Coltrane, Joe Henderson and Charlie Parker. These guys who I will eternally look up to.”

Au is a graduate of the Humber School of Music, but she got her first taste of jazz at a young age. “The first thing that drew me to jazz specifically was hearing Ella Fitzgerald sing,” she said. Her desire to play saxophone came from someone far closer to home. “The band teacher [I had in elementary school] happened to be a female who also played saxophone on the side. I was really inspired. I think she was the earliest role model I can remember because I had never heard a girl play saxophone.”

Au has taken that inspiration and crafted it into a unique brand of jazz that has its
roots in the traditions of the genre, but has been shaped by the modern musical climate.

“There are so many other things that come into play. And I wonder too if its because my generation is so heavily raised on the iPod. All those different songs in rotation if you push shuffle. I’ll hear certain harmonies and think ‘that sounds pretty cool, maybe I’ll try to see what I can do with this sound.’”

Main Stage, Friday July 19,
9 p.m.

It would be understandable if Ivana Santilli was content to live in the past; the
Toronto native has had an impressive ten years to say the least. Her first band, Base is Bass, earned a Juno in 1995 for their blend of funk and pop. Since parting ways in 1999, Santilli has released four solo albums to critical acclaim, played internationally from London to Tokyo and toured with big acts like James Brown, Tito Puente, De La Soul and The Roots.

Instead, the multi-instrumentalist has her eyes firmly set on the future. “This is an exciting time for anyone who survived the last ten years in the music industry,” says Santilli. “The openness, the possibilities. This is the time to test yourself. It’s the dawn of a new era.”

These words ring especially true for Santilli because her new album, Late Night Light, is slated for release on September 10. As an artist, she has never been afraid to experiment, exploring genres as diverse as soul and jazzanova — even playing drum and bass.

Late Night Light continues down this path of musical adventurousness as Santilli builds on her influences and her past, connecting them to modern elements and sensibilities. “The new record fits into now, but it doesn’t get stuck.”

Part of the timelessness that Santilli strives to achieve comes from the soul-baring lyrics she is known for, something she attributes to her desire to speak truthfully through her music.

“Really good songs have to be true,” said Santilli. “They have to be well translated, and they have to be a truth that people can relate too.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Santilli draws inspiration from her own experiences.

“This record is about getting back to my relationship with life, and where I’m at now as a grown woman,” she said. “People often ask ‘why are you still doing what you’re doing?’ Why do people put an expiry date on women in the music business like that? I encounter it a lot.”

Main Stage, Sunday July 21, 3 p.m.

At first glance, Five Alarm Funk seems an odd choice for a jazz festival. The ten-piece ensemble — comprised of a four-piece horn section, a three-piece rhythm section and a three-piece guitar section — play a riotous stew of rock ‘n’ roll tinged funk and soul, with added elements of latin and afro-beat thrown in for good measure.

All doubts will be laid to rest as soon as the band triumphantly take the stage, however, as their live show is a spectacle of top-notch musicianship and tightly choreographed dance moves.

“The thing about our show is we put as much energy and as much fun as we can into it,” said drummer, vocalist and founding member Tayo Branston. The self-proclaimed champions of the Vancouver party-funk orchestra scene have been playing the west coast for almost a decade now, but have built up a rabid cult following nationwide during three summers of Canada-wide touring.

Even the mainstream music industry has begun to take notice. Five Alarm Funk’s last album, Rock the Sky, earned a 2013 Juno nomination for Best Instrumental Album, as well as a 2013 West Coast Music Award nomination in the same category.

Accolades aside, Five Alarm Funk are only just getting started. Already they have songs ready to go for their next album, although they donʼt plan on releasing it until spring 2014.

“We do our stuff backwards,” said Branston. “We write all of our songs for the next album, then we tour all those songs, get them super tight with the band, and then we will go into the studio once we are done touring.”

This means that the band has a whole album of new material that fans will only be able to experience through the live show, although Five Alarm Funk have released the first song from the album, “We All Scream,” as a video to drum up excitement for this summer’s tour.

As for the album itself? “It’s a concept album that we’ve written,” says Branston. “Basically it’s Five Alarm Funk gets into an altercation with a deranged ice cream man who taints his ice cream formula with psychoactive substances. It’s a wild freak out of a story. It’s going to be one hell of an album when it is dropped.”