Nanaimo International Jazz Festival Association president Andrew Homzy said every time one listens to jazz, it’s a brand new experience.
“Jazz is always new because of improvisation,” he said. “So even if you were to hear the same group play the same pieces, it would always be different. The same with our festival.”
From Sept. 20 to 22, the NIJF returns to downtown Nanaimo for its third year with three days of concerts, a downtown parade and 10 of the festival’s 14 events are free of charge.
This year’s headliner is American saxophonist Ernie Watts, a two-time Grammy Award winner who toured with the Rolling Stones and played in the Tonight Show Band. Watts is also leading a workshop for jazz students hoping to pick up tips and learn from his experiences.
“I hesitate to use the word ‘elder statesman,’ but he certainly is a statesman and he has respect throughout the community in terms of his work as an improviser and as a saxophonist and just as a great person,” Homzy said.
Closing out this year’s festival is Vancouver-raised vocalist Laila Biali, whose seventh album, Laila Biali, beat out Nanaimo’s own Diana Krall for the 2019 Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.
Biali said she named the record after herself because “it really felt like it brought a lot of different, seemingly disparate threads of my musical persona and forms of expression together.” She’s already months into the making of her next album, Out of Dust, which she hopes to release early next year. She said there’s a little more scrutiny when it comes to a post-Juno CD.
“You get your first Juno and it’s kind of a blessing and curse,” she said. “Because on the one hand it’s an amazing nod from the industry, but on the other hand there’s a little bit of pressure for the release that follows that win.”
At her festival-closing performance at the Port Theatre on Sept. 22 Biali will be accompanied by mid-Island saxophonist Phil Dwyer, a past collaborator with a pair of Junos of his own. They recently played together when Dwyer “spontaneously” joined Biali onstage during Victoria JazzFest in June.
“That sort of whet my appetite and when we were invited to come perform in Nanaimo I thought I’d be a fool not to ask him to come join us officially,” Biali said.
She said the show will draw from her last album and feature tunes from the Great Canadian Songbook as well as “a couple of surprises.”
Biali last performed in Nanaimo late 2017 and this is her first time at the NIJF. She said it’s encouraging to see smaller cities hosting jazz festivals.
“I think it speaks to the fact that jazz is alive and thriving,” Biali said. “And while I do think that people assume that jazz audiences are traditionally a little bit older, I actually think we’re seeing a resurgence in young people supporting jazz.”
Homzy agrees that despite preconceptions, jazz is an inclusive genre of music.
“Jazz is not elitist music. It’s for everybody and it’s accessible, but jazz can also be challenging, too,” he said. “And it’s that balance between musically being something that’s comfortable and something that offers a bit of challenge and that’s what art is about.”
WHAT’S ON … The third annual Nanaimo International Jazz Festival takes place in downtown venues from Sept. 20 to 22. Click here for full a schedule and ticket information.