Selecting acts for Victoria Jazz Festival a fine art; plus five top picks

What: TD Victoria International Jazz Festival
When: June 22 through June 30
Where: Various venues, including the Royal Theatre, McPherson Playhouse and Centennial Square
Tickets: Available at the Victoria Jazz Society (977 Alston St.) or the Royal McPherson box office (rmts.bc.ca)

The continued success of the annual TD Victoria International Jazz Festival would not be possible without founder and festival producer Darryl Mar.

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Back for his 36th year as artistic director, Mar is the one who carries the burden if the festival doesn’t make money. He’s also the one who has to endure complaints when supporters turn into detractors. A festival is only as good as its last edition, which is why Mar takes steps to ensure each edition counts — to be proactive rather than reactive.

“You’ve got to know when to adjust. At times, I think: ‘Ten days is a long time,’ but then again, I don’t know why we’d change that this many years in.”

He has help, of course — and not only from his trusted team at the Victoria Jazz Society. The genre of jazz is “ever-evolving,” according to Mar, and its continued shapeshifting means there’s always a next big thing.

His job is predicting when an artist is suitable for booking, and when the asking price is too rich for JazzFest’s bottom line. “It keeps me interested and always looking for new things. The festival will continue to be that. Next year, we’ll look at what went wrong this year and make it better.”

The roster of artists for this year’s festival includes more than 300 musicians. Several upstarts are on the list, including Grammy nominee Joey Alexander, who turns 16 during his June 25 performance at the Royal Theatre, and 24-year-old British phenom Jacob Collier, who is making waves as a composer — two of many left-field choices Mar made for this year’s edition.

He contemplated following the lead of his Vancouver colleagues, who booked hip-hop acts The Roots and Wu-Tang Clan for the TD Vancouver International Jazz. It was an expensive fit. “If you can land a group like Wu-Tang, you’re going to cash in on it. But the economic reality is that we’ve reached a point where we can’t put them in the Royal Theatre at a reasonable ticket price.”

JazzFest has its own acts worth celebrating, from an upper-tier bill boasting Grammy nominee Raul Midón, Herbie Hancock bandmate Lionel Loueke and Juno Award winner Laila Biali to the under-the radar funk of New Orleans collective Naughty Professor. In the end, Mar’s job is to offer something to a wide audience at a reasonable price, no matter the genre.

“Whatever is hot in New York doesn’t necessarily translate to being hot in Victoria. It may take four of five years to catch up. So as far as I’m concerned, our jazz festival is a music-first festival, and that’s the way I’ve always looked at it.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

Five top JazzFest picks

When more than 300 musicians are giving 85 performances during a 10-day period, it’s virtually impossible to see everything.

Don’t let the overwhelming number of concerts steer you sideways, however. Here’s a quick cheat sheet of five artists that even the busiest JazzFest bee should not miss.

1. Donny McCaslin, June 22 at the Victoria Event Centre. Acclaimed saxophonist Donny McCaslin emerged from the shadows alongside David Bowie, who hired the California native and his bandmates for support on the final studio album before his death. Two of those players (keyboardist Jason Lindner and bassist Tim Lefebvre) will join McCaslin for this acoustic-electric performance, along with Vancouver singer-guitarist Ryan Dahle of Mounties and Limblifter fame. The latter might wind up being their ace in the hole.

2. The Suffers, June 23 at the McPherson Playhouse. Last year’s under-the-radar act that blew everyone away was Alabama soul shouters St. Paul and The Broken Bones. This year’s version is expected to be Texas eight-piece The Suffers, led by their dynamo of a frontwoman, Kam Franklin. Expect to be impressed when she opens the throttle on her weapon of mass destruction. She has been a Houston hero for years, and for good reason.

3. Eric Alexander with Eric Reed, June 27 at Hermann’s Jazz Club. This tale of two Erics will be a page turner for pure jazz fans, as Alexander comes from the Thelonious Monk school of saxophone and Reed has played extensively with Wynton Marsalis. Both have years of experience as sidemen and bandleaders, so this will be a push-and-pull night of the highest musical order in the city’s most revered jazz music venue.

4. Makaya McCraven, June 27 at Hermann’s Upstairs. Chicago drummer Makaya McCraven is rumoured to be the next big thing out of the Windy City, which should ensure those with an ear toward the future will be in attendance for his JazzFest debut. His unique mix of jazz, hip-hop and electronic music is on the cutting edge, with collaborations with Kamasi Washington adding to the impact of McCraven’s self-styled “organic beat music.”

5. Jacob Collier, June 28 at the Royal Theatre. JazzFest has caught many stars as they pass through on their rise to the top, but the size of our city means we often get snubbed once they have ascended. Production wunderkind Collier returns to the festival after making waves at the 2017 edition — as a 22-year-old upstart — and his performance at the Royal Theatre is one to catch. The British composer and recording prodigy was on stage alone for his previous JazzFest appearance, but he’ll be joined by three bandmates who share his same sense of exploration this time.

 

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