Gene Hardy and the Pip-Squeek Orchestra
When: Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.
Where: Hermann’s Jazz Club, 753 View St.
Tickets: $20 ($18 for UJAM/VJS members)
A banner on Gene Hardy’s website boasts an impressive proclamation: “One horn. Eight hundred bands.”
Can that be true? Hardy was asked this week of the number of acts he has performed with.
“That’s an old number, actually,” Hardy, 49, said with a laugh. “It’s easily double that now.”
The saxophonist and bandleader, who was born and raised in Victoria, cut his chops playing in a number of homegrown groups, with a roster of legendary local jazz and blues players. He was as busy as anyone during the early 1980s, and got even busier following a move to Toronto, where he still lives. Hardy graduated to playing with acts such as Big Sugar, Colin James and the Barenaked Ladies in the early 1990s, from which he has never looked back.
Hardy is back for a pair of performances at Hermann’s Jazz Club this weekend, backed by some of his closest friends and most trusted bandmates. Hardy, who will handle vocals, tenor sax and musical saw, has enlisted for his Pip-Squeek Orchestra a collective that includes Sean Drabitt (bass), Chris Van Sickle (piano), Casey Ryder (guitar) and John Lee (drums). Hardy said the homecoming gigs remain some of the most beloved on his jam-packed concert calendar.
“I didn’t understand how special this place was until I moved away,” he said.
Hardy first came to national attention as part of the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir. He joined the beloved Toronto group in 1990 at a time when the culture around that city was brimming. He wound up recording and performing with a who’s-who of the era in Ontario, including the Barenaked Ladies, Rheostatics and Big Sugar.
He even served as the musical director for Michael Bublé at Caroline Mulroney’s wedding, the event at which an unknown Bublé was discovered. At the same wedding, Hardy jammed with David Foster and Kathy Lee Gifford, further adding to his starry resumé. He has since performed on several Bublé recordings, and keeps in occasional contact with the Vancouver superstar.
“Michael has remained in touch with everybody,” Hardy said of the singer. “There’s a deep affection for that guy. He’s the real deal.”
The upper echelon keeps on calling. Hardy has been drafted into singer Johnny Reid’s backing band, and recently wrapped recording sessions for Buffy Sainte-Marie’s new album. He has also put his stamp on solo recordings by various members of Broken Social Scene.
Though he often finds himself in high-profile positions, Hardy reserves some of his fondest praise for those he has known since the beginning, be it Eric Emde of the Vic High R&B program (to whose students Hardy serves as a mentor) or Paul Wainwright, Al Pease and Karel Roessingh, among dozens of others.
Hardy still has a residence here, and when he’s in town, he’s easy to spot at his favourite haunts, Pagliacci’s restaurant and Swans Brew Pub. It was at Pagliacci’s that a 14-year old Hardy (and his 13-year-old friend, pianist Miles Black) were given their first professional opportunities.
The two friends visited talent night at Pagliacci’s. The most impressed audience member was Howie Siegel, the restaurant’s co-owner, who hired the band on the spot to appear each week.
“That was my trial by fire,” Hardy said. “I got tossed into the deep end thanks to Howie.”
The more he plays, the more he understands how lucky Vancouver Island has it when it comes to top-tier musicians in our midst.
He favourably compares the Garden City to Crescent City: “There is a vibe, there is a way that people play and there’s a connection that happens here that I haven’t experienced anywhere else but in New Orleans.”