This past Sunday I attended my first live performance of Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards and I was a little surprised at how much I enjoyed it.Yet I feel I should start with something of a disclaimer.
I am a huge fan of Jeff Healey. There. That said, I would admittedly be at a loss to have anything negative to say about the man. I mean, really who could. Jeff Healey is the celebrated blues guitarist renown for his unique style of playing (guitar flat across his lap) and spectacular talent, in spite having been rendered blind by the age of one due to a rare from of cancer. You’d have to be an outright cad to say anything bad about the guy, even if he wasn’t also one of the nicest, most genuine persons on the planet. If you ever have the opportunity to catch one of his shows at his club, Jeff Healey’s Roadhouse in Toronto, you’ll see what I mean. Jeff Healey is just a really, really nice guy.
My appreciation for Jeff Healey however stems not from his jazz band, but from his blues guitar music of the late 80s early 90s with the Jeff Healey Band, when he was climbing the charts with hits like “Angel Eyes” and his version of the Beatles’ classic “While my guitar gently weeps.” (Beatles fans don’t kill me here, but come on… you’ve got to admit Healey’s version is better.)
Being a teenage girl in the infant days of Much Music and MTV, I also freely admit that my early infatuation with Healey had more than a little to do with his looks. Damn was he cute! The big bouffant hairdo was a bit much, but he was tall, blond, had a gorgeous smile and, ironically enough, the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen up to that point… a small aside here to Jeff, (sorry Jeff, but I subsequently grew up and married a tall blond Dutchman with even more spectacular blue eyes, so you are now 2nd on my list of most beautiful blue eyes ever, hope that’s ok? OK…back to business.)
Raging teenage hormones aside, it was his phenomenal skill with a guitar that really got my attention and has kept me a Healey fan for more years than I care to admit. I was, and still am, more of a rock and roll kind of girl though, so I wasn’t sure I’d take to this jazz band thing he suddenly decided to do. Don’t get me wrong, I like jazz well enough, but I’m more of a new age, easily accessible, Diana Krall, Holy Cole Trio sort of jazz enthusiast. I’ll give pretty much any kind of music a listen, but my knowledge of early standard jazz is all but non-existent.
Were it not for Jeff Healey, I doubt I would have ever picked up his last CD It’s Tight Like That. It took only one run through on my car stereo to discover a whole new appreciation for that jazz sounds of the 20s and 30s and I now understand the CD jacket description of joyful jazz. You’d have to be comatose or wearing industrial strength ear plugs to not find yourself bouncing to the beat with a great silly grin plastered on your face, all cares and distractions just disappearing from your conscious mind (mental note to self…I must not listen to Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards while driving anymore!) It’s happy music that is not so saccharine as to send you into sugar shock.
Until Sunday though, I’d only seen Jeff Healey play the blues, so it was with a certain amount of curiosity that I attended a free concert of Jeff Healey and the Jazz Wizards at the Fieldcote Museum in Ancaster Ontario. As part of the Music at Fielcote 2007 Summer Concert Series presented by the Ancaster Society for the Performing Arts, the Jazz Wizards rounded out a summer of free Sunday concerts and drew by far the biggest crowd. There wasn’t a bare blade of very dry grass left in the small park by the time Jeff and the Jazz Wizards took to the small outdoor stage. They did not disappoint the eager crowd.
It has been a difficult couple of years for Jeff Healey and his recurring battle with the cancer. He’s been operated on to remove sarcomas from his left leg, and this past January also underwent surgery for lung cancer. I saw him perform with his blues band at a benefit concert at the Corktown tavern in Hamilton shortly after recovering from his last surgery. It was an all around great show with Jeff performing all of his favorite hits for the fans. And while his performance on his guitar was perfect, he did seem somewhat tired and his vocals were at the time, understandably, not up to the high standards that I had come to expect.
That was not the case with this performance though! Clearly back to full health, for which I am grateful and happy, Jeff was jubilant, energetic, and his vocals were as clear and powerful as they’ve ever been. Aside from the great Jeff Healey himself, the Jazz Wizards are Christopher Plock, Terra Hazelton, Drew Jurecka, Jesse Barksdale, Brian Graville, Coling Bray, and Gary Scriven.
Watching these amazingly talented musicians perform live, I got the feeling this was a group of childhood friends who’ve been playing together for decades. They are so comfortable and in tune to each other’s groove and rhythm that every song they dazzled the audience with, including “Bugle Call Rag”, “Sheik of Araby”, “Rain” and “Ain’t Misbehavin” (that one I actually knew) flowed effortlessly from the stage with the flawless quality of a studio recording. There was the always impressive vocal styling of Terra Hazelton on “Sunday” (man does that girl have pipes) and Christopher Plock’s rendition of “Darktown Strutters Ball” was infectious, funny and seeing him play two saxophones at once was impressive to say the least.
A very short 90 minutes later the concert was over and I left the park in a great mood feeling like I’d just spent a fun, relaxing Sunday evening with a fun-loving group of friends enjoying the dying days of summer together. I’ll always be more of a rock and roll girl, and I’m still partial to Jeff Healey, the great blues guitarist. However, I think I’ll keep listening to the Jazz Wizards (except in the car) and I might even start tuning into Jeff’s radio program on Jazz FM in Toronto, or everywhere on www.jazz.fm to learn more about Jeff Healey’s kind of jazz.