Over its 29-year history, the Halifax Jazz Festival has channelled the spirit of jazz to be a little free-form and improvisational about what, exactly, precisely, qualifies to be on the fest’s stage. Beret-wearing purists might scoff, but the rest of us will simply enjoy as the festival turns the city into a musical paradise.


tUnE-yArDs w/Moon Hooch
Thursday, July 9, 8:30pm, Main Stage

As someone who’s built a pop career based on experimentation, tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus knows a thing or two about improvising. Currently based in Oakland, California, Garbus started tUnE-yArDs as a solo project when she was living in Montreal, drawing in audiences with bizarre rhythms, weird costumes and animated vocals.


Though she isn’t formally trained in jazz, Garbus tries to bring in many of the principles of jazz in her music as tUnE-yArDs, as well as tapping into a network of musicians playing in jazz and avant-garde scenes via her bandmate, Nate Brenner, and other collaborators. She says improvisation “is always part of what I love to bring into a show and rely on. Part of our show is a real reverance for improvisation and that quality of listening to yourself as you’re playing, listening to where the song can go, to where the melody can go.”


Garbus has become known for pushing the boundaries of the standard live pop gig, experimenting with looping, vocals, costumes and exaggerated theatrics on stage. She draws on a range of influences, from pop to folk to afrobeat, to Haitian music on her last album to atmospheric field recordings. And while jazz has traditionally revelled in experimentation, the structures of pop music don’t bend easily to deviations.


“Any elements that are improvisable—we really try to push those as much as we can. In a pop context it can be kind of tricky to figure out where those places are, partially because it’s so prescribed—the song forms, and even the set times,” Garbus says. “But we’ve been trying to put more improvisation into this particular set.”


Garbus and Brenner are interested in playing with bass lines and the “wrong chord”—out of key. “So a song like ‘Water Fountain,’ even though it’s kind of deceptively simple from the outset, there’s a lot going on in the bassline that kind of turns the harmonic structure of the song upside down,” she says.


“Water Fountain,” off the band’s latest album, Nikki Nack, has a deeper mission too: it kick-started a fund that Garbus began last year, supporting charities dealing with water. Currently, it supports a charity aiding Haiti, one working with cleanup of the Gulf Coast and a community organization in California, where Garbus was inspired to start the fund in the first place, recording the second tUnE-yArDs album during a drought.


“People talk about the California drought a lot, but people don’t talk about the fact that there are already a million people who don’t have tap water.” Garbus wants to work against misinformation and help charities develop long-term solutions. To that end, $1 from every ticket sold is now donated to the fund. —Laura Kenins


The Prohibition

Free Concert: Karen Robertson Trio, Ced Marty & Dave, Khari McClelland and The Prohibition
Sunday, July 12, 1pm, Hydrostone Park

The Prohibition may be over, but its songs live on—with a little twist—in this four-piece Halifax group. They recreate the music of the era—Hoagy Carmichael, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and more—in instrumental form—with the horn and piano parts played on lap steel. “That era of songs, the craftsmanship, the structure, the harmonic content, is just so interesting to explore,” says guitarist Phil Sedore, who finds it especially interesting after a career playing rock and roll.


The band formed two years ago, although the members have been playing together since the mid-’90s. Their speciality is “things that at one time sounded so hokey that people wouldn’t listen to them,” says bassist Lukas Pearse. The band tries to stick to music from before 1933, “occasionally 1938,” hot jazz, ragtime and other songs of “pre bop” jazz.


Jazz of this era has similarities to the singer-songwriter structures of pop music, the band (which also includes drummer Crad Price and guitarist Lou Duggan) notes. “This early jazz has more in common with playing songs, as opposed to later jazz, which is more like playing classical music in a way,” says Pearse. “This era has this interesting thing where the people who wrote the songs were probably not ever the people who made them famous, aside from Duke


“We thought about it as background music, but it turns out it’s actually a little more raucous than that,” says Price.


“It’s pretty universal—five-year-olds to grandmothers can enjoy it,” Sedore says. —LK


Deva Mahal

Late Night Jazz: Deva Mahal
Saturday, July 11, 11:30pm,
The Company House

If the raging antics of Budos Band are too much for your Saturday night, you might prefer heading to The Company House, where Deva Mahal is inviting Halifax for an intimate session of stripped-down soul and blues music as part of Jazz Fest’s late-night series. Mahal describes it as a “singer-songwriter soul vibe, with a bit of blues and R&B.”


Mahal’s voice is rich with nuance, at times revealing a stark vulnerability, at others a confident swagger. The sparse arrangements on Saturday night—it’s just her and guitarist Yasser Tejada—will leave plenty of room for the songs to breathe.


“It’s going to be really vibey, really intimate, really exposed emotionally,” says Mahal. “I want to focus on creating an intimate space and sharing that with the audience.”


Mahal is the daughter of blues legend Taj Mahal, and her music reflects those roots. “I come from a house of rhythm and blues,” she says, “so that is innately ingrained in my fibers.”


But Mahal is not simply the product of a famous father. “I’m actually more influenced by women than men,” she says, citing powerhouses from Annie Lennox to Mary J. Blige as influences. “But the jazz and blues singers of the mid-late 20th century are probably the biggest influences over my passion and desire to sing.”


Mahal has been performing as a solo act since she was 17, but more recently she’s been part of the pop/soul duo Fredericks Brown. She’ll be performing a mix of her solo work, Fredericks Brown songs and covers on Saturday night. —Will Pearson


Mdou Moctar

JazzLab: Akounak Teggdalit Taha Tazoughai (Rain the Colour of Blue with a Little Red in it)
Thursday, July 9, noon, Halifax Central Library

Rising to fame from music traded via cellphone SIM cards—a common form of music sharing in west Africa—Nigerien musician Mdou Moctar’s smooth sounds are gradually making their way across the globe. Playing Tuareg guitar, the traditional music of his North African ethnic group, Moctar has fused traditional styles with psychedelic and electronic influences, using Auto-Tune to give his songs an unearthly sound. A self-taught musician, Moctar left his hometown in Niger as a young adult to work in Libya, putting his music aside for three years until another Tuareg guitarist inspired him to pick up the guitar again.


At that point, Moctar returned to music with a renewed energy, devoting himself to writing songs, resulting in his first album Anar, released in 2008 and recorded in neighbouring Nigeria, where Auto-Tune is also favoured by musicians. Moctar’s love of the electronic Nigerian sound influenced his music. Moctar’s name became known through playing wedding gigs and through the cellphone music trading network, prominent in regions where high-speed internet and home computers are limited, and cellphones serve as multifunctional media devices.


Now Moctar is bringing Tuareg music and culture to international audiences through teaching and as the star of the first feature film in the Tuareg language, Tamasheq. Rain the Colour of Blue with a Little Red in it is based on Purple Rain (Tamasheq has no word for purple), and stars Moctar as a fictional guitarist struggling to make it in Agadez, Niger. With a soundtrack of original compositions, the story is not so far from fiction. —LK


Moon Hooch

tUnE-yArDs w/Moon Hooch
Thursday, July 9, 8:30pm, Main Stage

Brooklyn three-piece jazz renegades Moon Hooch got their start playing in New York subway stations, some of which they’re now banned from by the NYPD. The band’s style fuses improvisational jazz with elements of electronica, or “cave music” as they call it.


“A few years ago our good friend left me a voice message: ‘Hey James, I just thought of new style of music. It’s like house, but more natural, wild and free,’” says drummer James Muschler. The band latched onto the term.


“You can’t really get the same kind of live intensity and chemistry,” with recorded electronic music, Muschler explains.


The band is currently mixing its third album, to be released this fall. Outside of the music, Muschler maintains a vegan cooking blog, Cooking in the Cave, trying to provide healthy vegan recipes for eating on the road. What does he suggest as a starting point?


“We were asked to come up with a recipe to emulate our second album,” Muschler says, and a recipe for roasted Brussels sprouts with pomegranate seeds and toasted hazelnuts was created to work with the album artwork, a “a celebration of the cabbage and the pomegranate.” We recommend a serving before the show. —LK




Vox Sambou

JazzLab: Vox Sambou
Friday, July 10, noon, Halifax Central Library

Vox Sambou is a man with a conscience. As a founding member of Montreal-based hip-hop group Nomadic Massive, and more recently as a solo artist, he has been using music to name injustice and resist oppression for over a decade.

“The role of the artist is to be the eyes and ears of the people,” says Sambou. A Haitian by birth living in Montreal, he is committed to raising awareness of Haiti’s social and political challenges. “As artists we are fortunate to have the microphone, and I use that opportunity to express what’s going on in Haiti right now.”
Sambou delivers politically charged lyrics (both rap and song) in Creole, English, French and Spanish, and fuses the traditional rhythms of Haiti with hip-hop and reggae to create a highly danceable offering built from both samples and live instruments. The catchy, mellow reggae influences at times belie the seriousness of his lyrics, but when he’s closer to hip-hop the frustration and anger in his rapping are palpable.
Vox Sambou is bringing a full live band to the tent Saturday night, including keyboards and saxophone. He’ll be playing songs from his first two albums, as well as unreleased tracks from his upcoming record. On Friday at noon, he’ll play a free Jazz Lab at the Central Library, which is open to the public.
“The last time I was in Halifax, with Nomadic Massive, we had a great, great time,” Vox says. “We’re going to have another amazing set this time. We’re going to jump around a lot and I want people to bring their sneakers because we’re all going to be moving!” —WP


Creative Music Workshop

Students of the Creative Music Workshop
Thursday, July 9 and Saturday, July 11, 7pm, 1313 Hollis. July 12, 1:30pm, Alderney Landing Theatre

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Creative Music Workshop, a unique program that has become an integral part of the Halifax Jazz Festival. The eight-day workshop brings students from all over Nova Scotia and the world together with renowned musicians and clinicians to jam, practice, discuss artistic process and develop their creativity.


Students and faculty will share their work at a series of shows during the festival, leading up to a free concert Sunday at Alderney Landing Theatre at 1:30pm. This finale is your chance to hear legends like Julian Priester and Jane Ira Bloom jam with talented students of the form.
The workshop is an intense week. Mornings begin with mindfulness and meditation sessions, and other process work that gets participants in touch with their creativity. The afternoons are devoted to ensemble work, masterclasses and lots of improvisation.


The focus is on developing well-rounded artists, not just technically proficient ones, says CMW co-founder and core faculty member Jerry Granelli. “It’s about creating healthy individuals. We need artists who are healthy people who want to bring something to their community. It’s an opportunity to provide young people and old people with a musical community through improvisation. The workshop has been a real community service. It’s changed hundreds of people’s lives.”


The workshop’s unique holistic approach attracts big-name artists as teachers. “They come here because it’s a chance to teach in a way they normally wouldn’t get to,” says Granelli.


Alex Pangman

Gordon Webster Sextet with Brianna Thomas w/Alex Pangman
Sunday, July 12, 8:30pm, Main Stage

Dubbed Canada’s “sweetheart of swing” by American trombonist Dan Barrett, Alex Pangman is on a short break from the jazz festival circuit when we catch her in Toronto—a time of year the singer always relishes. “Ninety-five percent” of Pangman’s material is historical, mostly from the 1930s, with a handful of original songs. Her third album came out last fall.


“I was not very content listening to the songs of my generation—the Backstreet Boys and Milli Vanilli,” she says. She brought her guitar to the farm where she rode horses and a man picked it up to play the jazz classic “Rosetta.” “I knew the melody and depth of the chords was something I was attracted to,” she says.


Life on the jazz-fest circuit isn’t always easy for Pangman. A recipient of two lung transplants, last summer she received her second transplant and was back on stage just a few weeks later. “I couldn’t find a sub, and I was determined I would do this show,” she says. “I was feeling great—I had all sorts of steroids telling me I was Wonder Woman.”


Pangman urges all her listeners to register as organ donors now, pointing them to liveon.ca, and especially wants to encourage people in the Maritimes to register after meeting other recipients. “It seems like lots of people in the Maritimes need transplants and there aren’t enough people registered,” she says. “It’s a real pleasure just to breathe again and to sing again, so I’d like to pay that forward.” —LK


Budos Band

The Budos Band w/Vox Sambou
Saturday, July 11, 8:30pm, Main Stage

If you’re looking to lose your shit this Jazz Fest, the Budos Band’s main stage gig on Saturday night is your best bet. They’ve never been to Halifax, and they’re bringing their signature blend of instrumental afro-funk, Ethiopian jazz and ’70s hard rock to town with the intention of getting rowdy.


“Our live show is as much of a party as we can make it,” says baritone saxophone player Jared Tankel. “We like to make it raucous. We like to make it loud. We like to ride the fine line between chaos and art on stage, and we encourage people to share the rowdiness and share the energy.”


So it’s going to be raucous, but this isn’t just a bunch of partiers. A meticulous rhythm section (drums, congas, cowbells and more) delivers a steady beat with funky syncopations. Simple guitar and bass licks establish the groove. An organist provides atmosphere and ornament. And a muscular brass section (sax and trumpet) goes in for the kill with bold lines that get into your bones.


And now is the time to see Budos Band—they’re in something of a renaissance. After recording a string of successful Afro-funk albums, they decided to finally let their love of hard rock influence their latest record, Burnt Offering.


“As a band we’ve always loved listening to ’70s hard rock, psychedelic rock, early heavy metal,” says Tankel. “It was a personal challenge to try and figure out how to incorporate those influences into our sound, which is actually kind of tricky given our instrumentation and lineup.”


Kind of tricky, maybe. But Budos Band nails it, and we’re expecting a riot. —WP

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