As any jazz musician will tell you, improvisation is a key element of the art form.
This skill also came in handy for organizers of the Townsite Jazz Festival after one of their headlining ensembles, Seattle-based vocal ensemble Last Call, was forced to pull out of the lineup with only two months’ notice. They were due to perform on April 4 and 5 at the Max Cameron Theatre.
“We did everything we could, from our side of the border and theirs, to try to get this huge 19-piece group up to our festival, and we thought we could make it work,” said artistic director Paul Cummings. “At the end of the day, Last Call ended up having too many unforeseeable obstacles to overcome in getting their entire roster here.”
Luckily, some old friends came to the rescue and a new lineup was announced earlier this week.
Legendary gospel-jazz vocalist Dee Daniels stepped in to take the April 4 spot, while Victoria-based a cappella quintet Fifth Street will make their Powell River debut on April 5. The latter were previously unknown to Cummings, but came at the recommendation of longtime friend Tobin Stokes.
“The timing couldn’t have been better,” said Cummings. “The day after I made the decision about Last Call, Toby sends me a message out of the blue telling me to check out this group of graduates from the University of Victoria jazz program who he had just seen the night before.”
Cummings did, and was immediately blown away. “All five of them write arrangements and they rehearse for six hours a week. They’re really going to go places,” he said. Their videos, posted regularly on Facebook and YouTube, show the group sinking their musical teeth into everything from jazz standards to Saturday morning cartoon themes.
“One of the goals of the festival is to really support vocal jazz, both for individual singers and in ensembles,” said Cummings. “It’s a very difficult art form. It’s hard to teach, it’s hard to learn, it’s hard to sing, and I think it’s having a bit of a tough time around the world because of all those reasons.”
He said he hopes that having vocal jazz represented in the festival’s lineup will help, in a small way, to ensure its future. Students from Brooks Secondary School, as well as those attending the event from other schools around the province, will have ample chances to experience the medium up close.
Cummings still recalls a trip to the BC Vocal Jazz Festival during his early days as a teacher that ultimately led him to start his own jazz choir. “At the time, it was Peter Taylor who ran that festival out of Carson Graham Secondary,” said Cummings. “The groups were just fantastic. And then, some years later it was also Peter who first introduced me to Dee Daniels at the Powell River Vocal Summit.”
Daniels last performed in Powell River in 2009 for that event, and has only recently returned to Vancouver after several years in New York.
“Dee is just an absolute world-class artist, blending blues, gospel and jazz,” said Cummings. “A phenomenal voice, a true four-octave range, and I think it’s safe to say that she doesn’t normally do smaller festivals like this. She has done us a huge favour.”
Three other players have pivoted in from elsewhere in the Townsite Jazz Festival’s 2019 lineup to support Daniels for her April 4 performance, including bassist Ken Lister, drummer Hans Verhoeven and Powell River’s own Walter Martella on piano.
“I just loved being able to sit back as artistic director and put together the pieces of this puzzle and see it all work out for the better,” said Cummings. “It’s been very, very gratifying.”
He added that any tickets already purchased for the Last Call shows will be honoured at the door, but that refunds can be requested by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org preferred.
Townsite Jazz Festival runs April 4 to 6. The Dee Daniels Quartet performs at 8 pm on April 4, Fifth Street performs at 8 pm on April 5, and both concerts will take place at Max Cameron Theatre. Tickets are available at Rockit Music, Townsite Brewing and online at townsitejazz.com.