Revered 96-year-old band leader Dal Richards kicks off first day of Jazz Fest

Shaky but strong, Richards has the kind of voice that commands attention. Even though it was crowded, hot, and downtown, the whole audience hushed to hear him speak as he kicked off the first of several fantastic concerts at the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival.  

1) Dal Richards photo by Chris Cameron, from TD Jazz Fest blog 2) Photo of crowd by Liam Scanlon

TD Vancouver Jazz Festival kicked off in swinging-style this weekend for a Saturday filled with sun, good vibes and great music.

Legendary band leader Dal Richards, 96, started the day. Shaky but strong, Richards has the kind of voice that demands attention. Even though it was crowded, hot, and the middle of downtown, everyone went silent to hear him speak:

"I can see the Hotel Vancouver reflected across from me. I spent 20 years on the roof of that hotel, where each week CBC would announce, 'it's Saturday night and CBC is pleased to present Dal Richards and his orchestra from the panorama roof, high atop the Hotel Vancouver, where west meets east," he said.

"You'd have to have a long memory to know that."

Richards--holding both the Order of Canada and the keys to the city-- could be seen as much a part of Vancouver's heritage as the hotel itself. But it was that radio-persona humility which shone through. He allowed his band members to become the stars, such as Julia Nolan and her mastery of the alto sax as she ripped through "Oodles of Noodles". It soon became less about himself-- "the Dal Richards show"-- and more about the larger band.  But Richards sang too, and as he did so for "As Time Goes By,"  his voice seemed to melt those years away. He allowed everyone to share his memories of that rooftop concert hall.

Memory was a common theme at Saturday's festival. Many of the musicians drew from old styles and older songs for their repertoire, as Colin Nairne of the bluegrass group the High Bar Gang professed:

"These are songs that are part of our memories, but some of these songs are older than any of us," before beginning 'Old Maggie,' just one of the many songs they played from the Dust-Bowl era of travelling country musicians.

Old and new styles

The old styles weren't linked to the age of the performer, either, as Florence K drew from French, English and Portuguese pop songs from the 40s, 50s and 60s. The Montreal-based musician mixed piano-based alternative pop with blues and Latin influences. The soul went into her fingertips, arching into every chord and every complicated riff.

"With my first few albums I told other people's stories. Now I'm comfortable with telling my own," she said.

Much of that was clear in the performance, as she sang classics, like a Portuguese rendition of Edith Piaf's classic "La Foule", with the same grace that she sang her own, such as the gorgeous "Vol de Nuit." The result was a concert that sounded fresh at the same time that gave a new spin on classics.

Photo by Liam Scanlon

One of the standouts of the afternoon was the Alexis Baro Quintet, whose mixture of Latin Jazz, R and B, and Cuban styles created something truly engaging. Channeling Dizzy Gillespie and his insane stylings, Alexis Baro would lead his band with his expert trumpet playing through escalating tempos and keys. As he straddled the variations of the sustained tunes, he took the listeners through a journey of Cuban jazz.

Photo by Liam Scanlon

High Society was as flamboyantly modern as other bands were classic. Featuring an eclectic mix of tap dancing, saloon pianos, boogie beats and even some slam poetry, the band was unmistakably Vancouver, having started their touring by backing burlesque shows and busking on Commercial street corners. They even had a song about the teacher's strike: how's that for modern? The band truly knew their crowd, and singer Chelsea Johnson was able to get the people moving the way no one else could. When she asked the front row to get up and dance, suddenly there wasn't a single person sitting.

Just jazz, or just music?  

So what was the connection between the seven bands on the two stages? "Jazz" would be a pretty massive genre if it encompassed all of the music being played Saturday. After 29 years, the festival now accepts a whole gambit of music that only needs to be labelled as 'not mainstream,' from indie to alternative pop to bluegrass. Is it a sign of change that straight jazz can't attract crowds of thousands anymore?

Well, not everyone can be Dal Richards. Perhaps 'pure jazz' is less centre stage, but what's most important was the fact that people came together in downtown Vancouver for what became—whatever the genre—for five solid hours of really good music. And the varied styles, from big band to indie rock, was as much a reflection of the variety of that community as anything else.

Maybe the Montrealer Florence K understood the importance of that neighbourhood better than anyone else. In one of the most powerful moments of the show, she got the girls and the guys to compete with each other by singing out her song.

"All the women of Vancouver have perfect pitch," she exclaimed.

The guys? Maybe not so much, but hey, we tried. And for once in Vancouver, everyone was singing along.  

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