The TD Niagara Jazz Festival is presenting six events at six different locations over five days, starting Wednesday, July 20. It’s an ambitious program, but that’s no surprise, coming as it does from executive director and co-founder Juliet Dunn.
“We’re so excited to launch the festival,” Dunn tells The Local. “Before the pandemic, we did it over two weekends. This time, we’re starting on the Wednesday and going straight through for five days.”
Niagara-on-the-Lake plays host to the first three performances, kicking off with Dizzy and Fay for a Late Night in the Vineyard at Stratus. Then the venue shifts to Hare Wine Co. for Soul Jazz in the Vineyard Thursday, July 21, featuring Jillian Mendez and Natural Elements, and Friday with drummer Terry Clarke (formerly of the Fifth Dimension, Rob McConnell and The Boss Brass and Oscar Peterson’s band), bassist Clark Johnston and St. Catharines-born pianist John Sherwood.
Dizzy and Fay are the aliases of Mark Lalama and Amanda Walther. On the phone from Toronto’s Rex Hotel, where he’s playing a four-night set with guitarist Kevin Breit’s band Sisters Euclid, Lalama explains the genesis of the duo.
“Amanda is half of the folk group Dala,” says the Welland native. “We were on the same tour, and Dala’s other half Sheila (Carabine) came up and told me Amanda wanted me to produce her jazz record. She wanted to record the songs she’d been singing all her life: Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London.”
He continues, “She had one original started, and I helped her finish it. When I heard her sing it, I thought it was pretty cool. Then she asked me if the album should instead be a duo record. We wrote some more songs, and it became so obvious that it should actually be a duo.”
Lalama, the former pianist, arranger and performer in the Canadian Idol band, is more well-known for his pop projects. He’s worked with the likes of Chrissie Hynde, Martina McBride, Paul Anka, Anne Murray, Tom Jones and Jon Bon Jovi. It had been awhile since he had seriously worked on his jazz chops.
“It made me get back to really studying jazz piano,” Lalama admits. “I’ve been listening to a lot of Bill Evans, and all kinds of my favourite players. I just love the American songbook. Basically, the songs of Dizzy and Fay are very reminiscent of the American songbook tradition.”
Coincidentally, or maybe not, their 2021 debut album is called Songbook. Numbers such as Walk Me Home, Maybe Someday, One Day Soon and Paris Rain sound like they could be long-lost compositions from the likes of Richard Rogers, Jerome Kern or Harry Warren.
None other than the incomparable gospel, blues and jazz singer Jackie Richardson has been fooled. She’s been a fan of the pair’s Dizzy and Fay Dates YouTube series since it began during the pandemic.
“Jackie told me ‘every time I hear a new song, I say to myself I have to hear the original version,’” he laughs. “She didn’t know every one of those 28 songs is a Dizzy and Fay original. I told her that’s the biggest compliment I could ever ask for.”
Arranged by Lalama and produced at his Old Sumbler House Studio in Fonthill, the 12 songs on the album feature Walther’s breathy vocals accompanied only by Lalama’s soft touch at the piano. Walther evokes the aforementioned London, while Lalama’s playing is remarkable in the way he leaves wide open spaces for the singer to fill.
“When I play live (with Sisters Euclid or the Mark Lalama Trio) you usually see me with a keyboard as opposed to a piano,” says Lalama. “I produced a record with my drummer Davide DiRenzo for Calgary singer Ellen Doty, just piano, drums and voice. I learned just how big notes sound when you touch the piano softly. I brought what I learned from that record to this one.”
“Amanda and I thought about how we could pull the listener in,” the son of a classically trained clarinettist and saxophone player adds. “We decided it would be the opposite of screaming at them. Every musician will tell you, when they’re playing at a party and no one seems to be listening, they’ll start playing very, very quietly. When people hear their own voices, they get self-conscious and turn their attention to the music.”
Referring to his partner as her alter ego, Lalama says Fay can get totally lost in the song.
“That’s what impressed me when I first heard her sing,” he adds. “She gets totally immersed in the song, and it seems completely effortless.”
Lalama is looking forward to the intimate outdoor setting at Stratus.
“Once the music starts, I have to have a relationship with the music under my fingers,” says the York University graduate. “The setting and atmosphere serves to enhance that. I love to get totally lost in the moment, and the setting can bring me to that point more quickly.”
Following the three NOTL dates, the TD Niagara Jazz Festival moves to St. Catharines for the weekend. The historic Brown Homestead is the location for a Saturday afternoon Jazz Pic Nic with singer Tia Brazda. Her 2015 album Bandshell debuted at number one on the iTunes Jazz Chart and was also ranked amongst the five best Canadian jazz releases of 2015 by Jazz-FM 91 in Toronto.
Later Saturday the festival moves down the road to Henry of Pelham Family Estate for Sax in the Vineyard featuring the Lance Anderson Band.
The festival wraps up with a free World Music on the Beach show, starting at Club LaSalle on Arthur Street, then moving down the road to Sunset Beach. The full day even starts at 10:30 a.m. and features the Balkan music of Pulkes Band, the Spanish and Afro-Cuban guitar styling of Johannes Linstead and Canadian reggae band Shine Roc & The Rebels Vibration, among others. Though it is a free event, pre-registration is required.
Dunn reminds The Local that musicians, arts workers and students can access discounted tickets for the other events. Visit niagarajazzfestival.com for information.