Bravo Niagara! Festival of the Arts has announced a return to live venues for their 2021-2022 season, and co-founders Christine Mori and Alexis Spieldenner couldn’t be more elated.
“There is nothing like the feeling and energy of a live music experience,” Mori tells The Local. “We could not be more excited to return to the stage with five live in-person concerts this fall and holiday season. Canada is home to incredible talent, and we are thrilled to showcase these Canadian treasures.”
Indeed, the fall lineup is all-Canadian, with Vancouver-born Juno Award winner Laila Biali kicking things off on Oct. 16 at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre in downtown St. Catharines.
Biali is looking forward to her return to Niagara, one of her favourite places, she says over the phone from her temporary Toronto home. She and her husband, drummer Ben Wittman, along with their 11-year-old son Josh, are currently renting while awaiting renovations on their newly acquired home in the Eglinton Avenue area.
“It’s awesome,” she says about getting back on stage in front of audiences. “I know there’s a lot of trepidation on the part of the public, the presenters and the artists, and rightfully so. But everyone wants to keep safety front and centre, and it’s been good to see so far that presenters have been doing just that.”
She calls live performance the lifeblood of what she and other artists do.
“It’s wonderful to be able to create the work in an enclosed space, but even that is driven and motivated by the fact that one day we’re going to be sharing this music with the public in living colour, in a way that is going to give those songs life.”
Many of the songs the jazz pianist and singer and her band will be playing in October first came to life back in 2020, when her latest album, Out of Dust, was released just as the pandemic took root.
“I finished writing the songs at the Banff Centre, which is my happy writing place, in January, 2019,” she explains. “Then we went into the studio for five months to record the album. Our release date was supposed to be March 27, but of course, everything got cancelled. So it ended up as an online release.”
Like many other musicians, Biali spent much of the past year and a half performing online, which she said at times could be exhausting, but also came with a certain kind of sweetness due to its imperfections and flaws. She recalls always being nervous that her Wi-Fi would fail at the most inopportune moments.
Out of Dust, Biali explains, “encapsulates a season in my life that was a movement from darkness into the light. A lot of the songs represent that transition. In that sense it felt like a really appropriate album to release in the middle of a pandemic.”
Co-produced by Wittman, the collection sees Biali taking a journey toward pop styles while maintaining the sophistication of her jazz background. Her voice is clearer and stronger than ever on the 11 tracks, all but one of them original compositions. She calls it an album about hope, and it does indeed have a hopeful sound.
And she raves about Take the Day Off, a song inspired by and co-written with the couple’s son.
“There’s a possibility Josh may actually come and make a little cameo on stage,” she says. “One morning he picked up a mallet and started playing one of Ben’s African tongue drums. That became the seed for a new song. He’s performed it with us virtually a few times and he’s just gathering his confidence to do it live.”
She promises a mix of songs from Out of Dust as well as her eponymous 2019 Juno Award winning album. She’ll take a dive into the Canadian songbook, and play the Request-A-Matic game, which has become a staple of her live shows since 2013.
“We’ve had requests for everything from Beyonce to Prince, and a song from the musical Rent,” she laughs. “We come up with personalized arrangements, and put our own jazz spin on it. These always go really well in live performance. It’s something fresh but familiar.”
The Bravo Niagara! season continues Nov. 13 with the Sultans of String in their first ever performance for the festival. It’s a special event, a double CD release show for their upcoming albums Refuge and Sanctuary.
“It’s their seventh and eighth albums,” explains Spieldenner. “They’re pretty remarkable albums. And there will be some special guests, some performing live and some virtually.”
Six days later the Robi Botos Trio, featuring Mike Downes and Larnell Lewis, plays the PAC. Though he’s appeared with Bravo Niagara! many times, Nov. 19 will be the first headline spot for Botos and his trio.
That concert also features vocalist and composer Joanna Majoko. She recently won the 2021 Emerging Jazz Artist Award presented by the Toronto Arts Foundation, and she has recently released her debut EP, No Bounds.
December will see two holiday-themed concerts for Bravo Niagara!. Pavlo brings his Mediterranean mix of Greek, Latin and Spanish music to Niagara for Home for the Holidays on Dec. 16.
And Molly Johnson, a member of the Order of Canada and one of the country’s most treasured artists, continues the holiday theme on Dec. 20.
“Molly is one of our favourites,” Mori says. “She was just working on this Christmas album (This Holiday Season) last Christmas. We recorded and filmed her in Partridge Hall, but without an audience. So we’re going to bring her back to play that album.”
As the organization finally gets back to in-person shows, Spieldenner is thankful for the support they received during some challenging times.
“These past 18 months have demonstrated the power of the arts to unify and uplift,” Spieldenner says. “We are grateful for our incredible sponsors, partners, and patrons who have stood by our side and enabled us to continue supporting artists, commissioning new works, and producing exclusive digital content through our new Bravo Niagara! Amplified series.”
All five concerts will take place at the PAC’s Partridge Hall. Current plans limit the tickets to 50 per cent capacity. There will be no intermission for any of the shows, and all venue COVID protocols will be in effect.
Tickets are $50 for each show, though flex packs for multiple concerts offer discounts to purchasers. Information is available at bravoniagara.org.