Aqua Books has hosted many cultural events over the years at its 274 Garry Street location in downtown Winnipeg. Recently, they announced that they would be moving less than a kilometer away to 123 Princess Street, in the Exchange district, very close to their original location of 89 Princess Street. They left that location for Garry Street in 2008.
To commemorate the closing of the current location, which has also hosted many jazz shows and is a very fine sounding venue due to the wood and carpet interior and a lack of windows, a special recording session was organized by drummer Curtis Nowosad and sound engineer Paul Yee. Several of Winnipeg’s rising jazz performers, along with a few veterans, were invited to perform their original compositions. Audience members would be able to purchase tickets that would get them an MP3 download of the album or a CD, which is due out in December, 2012.
This was my first time to Aqua Books, but not to the building. Years ago, it was a Chinese restaurant. The main floor hosts the book store and also the recently closed EAT! Bistro. Upstairs features rooms for writers-in-residence as well as a hall for events that looked as if it would seat about 90 people. While waiting to enter the hall, I met Kelly Hughes, the creator of Aqua Book. He actually called me yesterday to say that he managed to track down a new copy of an out of print book that I wanted. I also found his staff to be friendly and interested in me as a customer. After ditching my jacket, I made a bee line for the back of the room for popcorn and drinks.
The event began with singer Amber Epp and her composition “Inside Out,” accompanied by bass player Luke Sellick. Epp’s soulful and downright beautiful vocals set the stage for the other singers, who were just as excellent but also unique in their own ways. Epp is a member of Trio Bembe, who are well-known as top exponents of Latin music and who have two CDs out, 2009′s Trio Bembe and 2011′s Oh My Soul. She graduated with the gold medal from the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Music in the Jazz Studies Program in 2009. Sellick is currently finishing up his degree in Jazz Studies at the University.
Saxophonist Neil Watson performed his composition “Occam’s Razor” next with guitarist Keith Price, Sellick, and drummer Quincy Davis, collectively known as the Neil Watson Quartet. For those not in the know about the curious title, he explained that it was about the concept that the simplest explanation for something is usually the best choice. This was one of my highlights of the evening, with the outstanding, nimble soloing and rich tones from all the players, which earned them much applause. Watson earned his Master’s Degree in jazz performance almost six year ago and is an essential part of the local jazz scene. Davis is a distinctive and dynamic drummer of international renown and is also an associate professor in the Faculty of Music at the University of Manitoba.
Price performed with this group and then fronted the Keith Price Quintet for the next performance. He has two CDs out, 2011’s Gaia/Goya and 2009’s Breakfast of Champions, the latter of which furnished the composition that was played, “Pablo’s Trio.” Subtle and deliciously engaging at the same time, this Price original was performed with Watson, Sellick, pianist and local recording artist Will Bonness and omnipresent drummer on the local jazz scene, Curtis Nowosad. Bonness is another graduate from the University of Manitoba and is a well-respected educator there and at the Canadian Mennonite University, in addition to being another cream-of-the-crop musician. He has international touring experience as well as recording credits as a sideman. He released his debut CD, Subtle Fire, in 2009. There wasn’t room for a full-sized piano this evening, but when Will takes flight on a keyboard, it’s an experience not soon forgotten.
Completing the first set were a couple of musicians who I had not heard of before fronting the Littleford/Carter Quintet. Brandon, Manitoba-born trumpeter Andrew Littleford, earned his Master’s Degree with distinction in Jazz Performance, from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA. Littleford was joined by another person I hadn’t heard of before, tenor saxophonist Mike Carter. Rounding out the group were Price, Sellick and Nowosad, performing “Flying With The Flock.” Based on their performance, I’ll definitely be checking out this quintet at their future gigs.
The second set opened with two more unfamiliar performers to me, singer Rayannah Kroeker and bassist Karl Kohut, with the composition “The Floods Don’t Wait.” Both are graduates from the University of Manitoba. Kohut graduated in 2010 with his Master’s degree in music (performance) and has established himself as an in demand player. I’ll give Kroeker credit for taking on the challenging task of scatting during the song. It’s harder than it looks but it a real crowd pleaser when it’s done well, as Kroeker demonstrated after receiving ample applause from the audience.
I’ve seen singer Heitha Forsyth before, the first time being in the lobby at the Berney Theatre at the Rady Jewish Community Centre a few years ago. Her enthusiasm continues to be infectious as she performed “What You’re Gonna Do.” She teased that it was an original song and that her originals sound like country music. On the contrary, this was soulfully sung, with nary a twang. Backing her were Bonness, Kohut, Nowosad, and veteran guitarist and educator, Larry Roy, my favorite local jazz guitarist for well over 20 years now. I did check out some of her performances on YouTube, and she really wasn’t kidding about having a country sound on occasion.
Sheena Rattai was up next with guitarist Aaron Shorr, Nowosad, Bonness and Kohut, performing “Yet To Be.” I’m certain I’ve seen Rattai before. She’s dynamic, charismatic and displays an obvious love for singing. This was my first time seeing electric guitarist Shorr, but it certainly won’t be the last. He was sensational. Shorr attended Toronto’s Humber College as well as the University of Manitoba, and among other things, he’s part of the Artists in Healthcare Manitoba program, along with around 15 other musicians, including Keith Price.
Shorr closed off the set with the composition “Living In The Sims,” in which he joked that Nowosad hated the title so he kept it. Backing him in the Aaron Shorr Quartet was another new face to me, tenor saxophonist Niall Bakkestad-Legare, along with Sellick and Nowosad. Bakkestad-Legare and several of the evening’s performers can be heard on Soundcloud.
The evening’s third and final set opened with Quincy Davis & Promise performing “Oasis.” Joining Davis were Sellick, Bakkestad-Legare, Paul De Gurse, Shannon Kristjanson, Landen Seesahai, and Kris Ulrich. Pianist De Gurse, saxophonist Kristjanson, trumpeter Seesahai and guitarist Ulrich are all University of Manitoba students or alumni. I hadn’t heard of any of them but I look forward to catching some of their future gigs. Davis demonstrated his mastery of employing subtleties along with powerful dynamics in his drumming. Ulrich also stood out to me, as he soloed brilliantly near the end of “Oasis.”
Karl Kohut appeared next on vocoder, along with Will Bonness, Luke Sellick and Curtis Nowosad, performing “Listen To Your Love.” Years ago, vocoder would have been considered a highly unusual choice of instrument but in the constant evolution of jazz and in its broadest definition, it provided to me a street smart effect that is hip without trying too hard to be so. Vocoder was also employed by one of the players in the recent Robert Glasper Experiment show. Glasper’s cutting edge group is in contrast to his more straight-ahead ensembles and Kohut tapped into the experimental vibe.
Steve Kirby was up next on bass with Kaleb Kirby on drums, along with Roy and Bonness, performing “Question of Lift.” There’s no doubt that the local jazz scene has coalesced into a fine collection of young players through the University of Manitoba’s Jazz Studies program that Kirby heads up with a selected group of educators, all of whom are distinguished players. Educators, students, alumni and others have performed at the weekly “hang” events that Kirby established in 2004, which have given the players, especially the younger ones, an opportunity to hone their skills in a live setting. I can recall hearing someone give Kaleb Kirby, Steve’s son, advice about how to approach drummer extraordinaire Herlin Riley to have Riley listen to his drumming, in 2009, at a Monty Alexander show in the Izzy Asper Jazz Performance series. Riley is one of the world’s greatest jazz drummers and Kaleb Kirby, a student at the Berklee College of Music, is developing into a fine player in his own right.
The final performance of the evening featured an original by Nowosad, entitled “Blues of a Material Sort,” and featured Steve Kirby, Bonness, Bakkestad-Legare, Watson, Littleford and Roy. The tune provided plenty of opportunity to hear each performer solo. You can hear a version of it on Soundcloud, which was also recorded at Aqua Books. The beautiful sound of the room was one of the reasons why the Farewell 274 recording project was created.
Larry Roy has been a fixture in the Canadian jazz scene for a few decades now and the virtuoso player and educator has been my favorite local guitarist for over 20 years. The Roy/Lerner CD that he recorded with pianist Marilyn Lerner, Quarter To Three, remains a stunning example of straight-ahead jazz and is a world-class recording.
Without a doubt the busiest person during the gig, Curtis Nowosad, was not only serving as the master of ceremonies by introducing every performer, promoting the CD recording project, and ensuring the evening ran as smoothly as possible behind the scenes, but he also drummed on seven of the evening’s 12 songs, all the while managing to keep his wits about himself. Nowosad also studied at the University of Manitoba, learning from among others professors and notable performers in their own right, Terreon Gully, Qunicy Davis and Steve Kirby, Nowosad’s mentor.
If there was a commonality to the shows, it was how the audience had the chance to often see performers back other performers and later on, see some of these players lead other ensembles.
All of the performers were of professional caliber and I can definitely see all of them on future CD recordings, many as group leaders. They all donated their time for free to help make the recording, and Curtis Nowosad and Aqua Books’ Kelly Hughes are still accepting donations from the public to help offset the costs of the project, which is a fundraiser for Winnipeg’s Cultural City Hall, Inc., the new non-profit that Aqua Books is morphing into this spring. Needless to say, I can’t wait to hear the CD!