Juno Award winning Canadian guitarist Jesse Cook kicks off the 2021 Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts Amplified Membership series this Friday, April 23. It’s the first in a series of six world class musical evenings presented virtually by the local non-profit organization.
For a $100 fee, members will get exclusive access to virtual concerts, meet-and-greets, interviews and more featuring some of the best jazz, classical and even folk/pop artists in the world, from April to July.
Cook, who won the 2001 Juno for best instrumental album for his Free Fall release, is one of the most recognized purveyors of flamenco guitar, though, as he himself admits, he weaves in elements of world music, jazz, pop, Brazilian samba and more into his music. He burst onto the scene in 1995 with the independently-released Tempest, which he had recently been revisiting during his Tempest 25 tour before the pandemic hit.
Amplified members will experience Cook’s talent in a pre-recorded concert and will also have the chance to meet the artist live in a post-show event hosted by Mark Wigmore of 96.3 The New Classical FM.
Bravo Niagara! co-founder and executive director Alexis Spieldenner is excited to be able to give fans a chance to meet Cook, and other artists, this summer through these virtual events. The exclusive content of the membership series, combined with the intimate and interactive sessions after, are an effort to recreate some of the connection that audiences often feel with the musicians at live shows. Spieldenner says this is a step up from last year’s Amplified series, which consisted of premieres of concerts, recordings and new compositions via the Bravo Niagara! website.
Following Cook’s show, Bravo Niagara! celebrates International Jazz Day a week later with a program curated by Céline Peterson, the daughter of the late pianist Oscar Peterson. Titled Sing About Freedom, Peterson says the show looks at the relationship of jazz and social justice, and visits topics such as civil rights, women in jazz music, and social change in general.
“Music is one of the main things that always brings people together when we’re in the midst of a significant movement, as we’re in right now,” says Peterson. “Jazz has always been a catalyst for change, and for social justice and peace. This is the perfect opportunity and the perfect time to present something along those lines.”
With the likes of John Clayton, Robi Botos, Laila Biali, Monty Alexander, Molly Johnson and more, Peterson refers to the performers for the April 30 show as a “dream roster of artists.”
It’s also a dream roster of influences that will be honoured during the program. The centennial of the birth of influential jazz pianist Billy Taylor will be celebrated, while the music of Chick Corea, who lost a battle with cancer in February, will also take a prominent role. A new version of jazz legend Max Roach’s Freedom Day will debut as well.
“Dr. Billy Taylor wrote one of the most important songs of the civil rights movement,” says Peterson. “Paying tribute to Dr. Taylor was very important not just to me, but also to Chris (Mori, Bravo Niagara! co-founder and artistic director) and Alexis.”
That important song is I Wish That I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free. Originally an instrumental recorded by Taylor and a 19-piece orchestra, lyrics were added after the shooting of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Nina Simone’s 1967 recording of the song is probably the most well-known version, though it has also been recorded by dozens of jazz, rock and pop artists through the years.
Peterson says that the shock of Chick Corea’s death made it important for her to include his music in the program.
“For our Chick tribute, Robi Botos (Bravo Niagara! 2021 artist in residence and NOTL resident) has done a beautiful solo piano medley of some of Chick’s songs,” she says. “And Chick has done a lot of notable solo piano work throughout his career.”
Peterson notes that Corea’s forays into the jazz fusion and avant-garde genres, as well as his work with Miles Davis and others, made it difficult to choose exactly which aspect of his career to focus on. She admits it would take a few dedicated shows to do a full tribute to the composer, keyboardist and bandleader. But she promises the performance from Botos will stop viewers in their tracks.
Toronto-based jazz drummer Larnell Lewis, no stranger to Bravo Niagara!, has put together an amazing band for his new arrangement of the Max Roach classic Freedom Day. Dione Taylor sings the lyrics originally done by Abbey Lincoln on Roach’s 1960 recording. Botos plays piano on the track, another civil rights staple that was part of Roach’s Freedom Now Suite from his album We Insist!.
Peterson refers to Johnson as one of Canada’s national treasures, an important voice of social change. She returns with a performance recorded during pre-COVID times. And Laila Biali, whose eponymous 2018 album won the Juno Award for Vocal Jazz Album of the Year, does a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem. Singer Paul Marinaro and pianist Laura Driscoll, both from Chicago, round out the show.
“It’s a really, really heavy day, and a really diverse list of artists,” says Peterson. “Different voices, different styles of music. There’s something for everybody.”
In keeping with Bravo Niagara!’s desire to add a little extra to each of the six events, the show includes a conversation between recently retired Chicago Tribune jazz critic Howard Reich and composer, arranger, conductor, producer, educator and bassist John Clayton.
“I’m so excited for people to see this,” enthuses Peterson. “John is one of the most important voices in jazz. Everything he does comes with a sense of peace, honesty and personality. The two of them together talk about jazz and social justice, and artists as catalysts for change. I was sitting in on their conversation, and I felt like I was a little kid listening in on an important conversation.”
Peterson is appreciative of the opportunity to curate the April 30 show for Bravo Niagara!
“Chris and Alexis have not stopped since day one of the lockdown,” she says. “Their goal has always been first to showcase musical excellence, and also to support artists and keep them working. This is why they are so respected by artists internationally. They are two very special women, and their hearts are always in the right place with every single thing they do.”
She continues, “the membership series is a fantastic opportunity for people to see exceptional works, support the artists and to support the organization. When you break it down, you get six fantastic concerts, for about $17 a pop. That’s exceptional, and I hope that a lot of people will choose to support it.”
For the full slate of concerts, and to purchase a membership, to the 2021 Amplified Series, visit bravoniagara.org/amplified-virtual-series. Readers of this newspaper can take advantage of a 10 per cent discount by entering the code NOTLLOCAL.
Line-up for the
2021 Arts Amplified
April 23 — Jesse Cook
April 30 — International Jazz Day’s Sing About Freedom
May 21 — Emily Bear
May 28 — Chooi Brothers
June 11 — Royal Wood
July 9 — Stéphane Tétreault