When jazz fans argue over which Canadian festival has the best music, they typically talk about Montreal, or Vancouver, or Toronto. Brampton is not a name that usually comes up.
Maybe it should. Granted, the Brampton Global Jazz and Blues Festival, which runs Aug. 9-12, is unlikely to draw hundreds of thousands of fans as Toronto and Vancouver regularly do, let alone two million as Montréal did this year. But neither does it flesh out its concert schedule with R&B singers and alt-rock acts the way the big festivals do.
Instead, it offers a small number of big-name jazz and blues performers. Most noteworthy is pianist Vijay Iyer, who recently swept the DownBeat jazz critics polls, but the schedule also includes saxophonist Branford Marsalis, organ virtuoso Joey DeFrancesco and blues-belter Shemekia Copeland.
Nor does Brampton host the only little Ontario festival making a big noise. A week later, the 12th Prince Edward County Jazz Festival will offer concerts in venues ranging from the Regent Theatre in Picton to the Huff Estates Winery. In addition to some of the best mainstream jazz musicians in Canada, the festival will feature drummer Louis Hayes' acclaimed Cannonball Legacy Band, as well as the first-ever reunion performance by the Boss Brass.
Then, in September, the Guelph Jazz Festival will offer five days of avant-garde jazz and improvisational music, with a lineup that includes three of the finest pianists in contemporary creative music – Matthew Shipp, Myra Melford and the South African giant, Abdullah Ibrahim.
Although each of these festivals offers a different flavour of jazz, the three have one major thing in common: A belief that their smaller scale is an advantage.
"If you've got a quartet on a stage in front of 6,000 or 7,000 people, it's sometimes hard to reach the audience right out to the back, especially if you're playing jazz," says Bonnie Lester, president of Art of Jazz and the artistic director of the Brampton festival. "It's different if it's a rock band."
That gives smaller festivals something that appeals to both musicians and audiences.
"Part of that is about creating an environment that's suitable for the music we're presenting," says Ajay Heble, the artistic director of the Guelph festival since its start 19 years ago. "We're a smallish festival with a modest budget, yet we're creating opportunities for artists where the audiences that are listening are hugely attentive and hugely appreciative of what's going on."
He adds that he often hears from musicians that "the audiences that they play for in Guelph are the best audiences they've played for anywhere in the world."
Making it fun for musicians is also a key factor in the Prince Edward County festival's success. Brian Barlow, a jazz drummer who is the festival's creative director, encourages the musicians to stay in the community for most of the six-day festival, often playing in several bands. Guitarist Reg Schwager, for instance, will be backing singer Emilie-Claire Barlow one night, playing in the George Shearing tribute another, and the Boss Brass the next.
"It's not uncommon for musicians to come out here and have five or six gigs," says Brian Barlow.
Unlike the big-city festivals, where tickets routinely top $65 or $70, the smaller festivals also have smaller prices. The priciest performance in Brampton is the Marsalis quartet, at $49; Ibrahim's concert in Guelph costs $40, while Hayes' PEC show is a mere $38. Many other performances are free.
Even better, as Brian Barlow points out, his festival manages this without government help. "We've been grant-free out here for many years," he says. "When I came on board, it was important to me that we not be a drain on the arts funding. I can also tell you that we pay the musicians better than almost any other festival."
No wonder jazz musicians, like festival organizers, think small is beautiful.
Brampton Global Jazz and Blues Festival
Rudresh Mahanthappa A fresh twist on jazz fusion, featuring Toronto bassist Rich Brown. Rose Garden Square Stage, Saturday, Aug. 11, 1:30 p.m. Free.
Vijay Iyer DownBeat's jazz artist of the year with his groundbreaking trio. Rose Theatre, Saturday, Aug. 11, 6:30 p.m. $25.
Branford Marsalis with the Art of Jazz Orchestra A rare big-band performance by the acclaimed saxophonist. Rose Garden Square Stage, Sunday, Aug. 12, 1:30 p.m. Free.
Prince Edward County Jazz Festival
Louis Hayes and the Cannonball Legacy Band A tribute to Cannonball Adderley by his former drummer, with saxophonist Vincent Herring. Regent Theatre, Friday Aug. 17, 8 p.m. $38.
Tribute to George Shearing The pianist who wrote Lullabye of Birdland is evoked in performances by Don Thompson, Reg Schwager, Terry Clarke and others. Regent Theatre, Saturday, Aug. 18, 8 p.m. $38.
Boss Brass Reunion As led by the late Rob McConnell, the Boss Brass was Canada's biggest jazz band. A performance of the original charts by former Boss Brass members. Regent Theatre, Sunday, Aug. 19, 8 p.m. $38.
Guelph Jazz Festival
Beautiful Tool: Mary Margaret O'Hara and Peggy Lee A unique collaboration between the Toronto singer and the Vancouver cellist. Macdonald Stewart Art Centre, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 8 p.m $15 and $20.
Colin Stetson / Ben Grossman A solo performance mostly on bass saxophone, preceded by a solo performance on hurdy-gurdy. Where else but Guelph? St. George Anglican Church, Thursday, Sept. 6, 8 p.m. $25 and $30.
Abdullah Ibrahim A rare Canadian appearance by the legendary South African pianist. River Run Centre, Saturday, Sept. 8, 8 p.m. $35 and $40.