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Air of Jazz: The Beaches International Jazz Festival

The Beaches International Jazz Festival (416-410-8809, www.beachesjazz.com) isn’t just for those with an appetite for jazz and blues—there’s a host of related styles, from funk to samba, and plenty who come are simply seeking one of the best ways to spend a sultry evening outdoors.

The festival takes place in The Beach neighbourhood, which stretches along the shore of Lake Ontario in the city’s east end. The area has always had a distinct, laidback flavour, almost a small-town feel, with plenty of independent shops and inviting restaurants along the main artery, Queen Street East, parklands drifting down to the water, and a boardwalk that follows the shoreline. It’s no surprise then that the festival emphasizes casual, accessible music and a spirit of celebration. In fact, since the first festival in 1989, it’s become a model for other community festivals.

The Beaches International Jazz Festival has two essential dimensions: StreetFest (July 27 to 29) which opens a full two kilometres of Queen Street to performers and pedestrians, and MainStage shows at the Kew Gardens’ bandshell over the weekend of July 29 and 30. So stroll along Queen and enjoy stops at unexpected stages, or plan ahead to just sprawl on the Gardens’ grass, but definitely take in the some of these summery strains while you’re here.DANCIN’ IN THE STREETS
During StreetFest, on July 27 to 29 from 7 to 11 p.m., Queen Street East is closed to vehicle traffic between Coxwell and Victoria Park avenues. Nearly 50 bands appear along the street, on crowded corners, restaurant patios and balconies in a joyous outpouring of sounds, all competing for listeners’ attention.

Along the way, there are big bands (Swing Shift, the Mississauga Big Band and the Toronto All Star Big Band), hard bop (Kollage—one of the best jazz bands in Canada), Dixieland (Downtown Jazz Band) and Latin jazz (Samba Squad), along with reggae (Jason Wilson & Tabarruk) and plenty of blues (including Diana Braithwaite, Mike McKenna and the Paul James Band). While the quality varies, there’s a consistent vitality.

MainStage concerts are definitely the place for more concentrated listening. These free concerts take place on July 29 and 30 between 11:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. at the Alex Christie Bandshell at Kew Gardens, a large park on the south side of Queen Street, three blocks east of Woodbine Avenue. Some audience members bring lawn chairs, but most sit on the grass for a percolating mix of jazz, blues and Latin.

Saturday provides a chance to hear two of the most distinct talents to emerge in Canadian jazz circles in recent years. Pianist David Virelles combines stunning keyboard virtuosity with the vital rhythmic energy of Cuban music; guitarist Jake Langley plays classic soul jazz in the style of Wes Montgomery. While the 23-year-old Virelles is clearly destined for international recognition, Langley is already achieving it, touring regularly with organist Joey DeFrancesco. Also appearing on the Saturday show is Los Angeles-based blues singer Janiva Magness, whose impassioned performances of R & B songs just won her the 2006 Blue Music Award for Contemporary Female Artist of the Year.On Sunday, festival artistic director and pianist Bill King presents his Real Divas, a diverse and entertaining collection of singers like established artists Heather Bambrick, Shakura S’Aida, Liberty Silver and June Garber, and newcomers Sophie Berkal Sarbit and Janelle Hedley—the group ranging through all the degrees of jazz, soul and cabaret. Texan Darrell Nulisch and Chicagoan Lou Pride (the Severn Records Soul and Blues Revue) team up in a program of roots music. The afternoon wraps up with the Hilario Duran Latin Jazz Orchestra, a percussion-rich synthesis of Afro-Cuban rhythms and the wailing massed brass of the traditional big band, all of it surmounted by the leader’s sparkling piano. Toronto’s strong connection to Cuban music can be counted on to provide some of the summer’s most exciting musical moments.

The festival also hosts workshops ranging from traditional Cuban rhythms to breaking into the music business. They’re held at Kew Beach United Church (140 Wineva Ave.) on evenings from July 24 to 26. Find information on how to register at www.beachesjazz.com/workshop.html.
PartiGras! is a distinct event from July 21 to 23 under the umbrella of the Beaches festival, even though it’s at the Distillery Historic District (page 108). The 13-acre area was once the largest distillery in the British Empire. Today, the restored Victorian site houses a theatre, restaurants and art and craft galleries, all connected by cobblestone streets.

The bars and dance areas make for a more concentrated party atmosphere here than at the Beaches, true to the PartiGras! name. You can wander around the site, sampling the music from three stages.

The Trinity Main Stage presentations include the a capella group Cadence and the R & B of Fathead (July 21); the subtle jazz of Roberto Occhipinti’s Orchestra (July 22); and a rousing tribute to Ray Charles (July 22). The Tank House Diva Patio Stage presents a steady stream of singers covering the jazz-pop spectrum, while the Fallsview Casino Stage emphasizes roots music and soul from New Orleans jazz to country blues.

Performances are scheduled from 5 to 11 p.m. on July 21, noon to 11 p.m. on July 22 and noon to 6 p.m. on July 23. For more information about the event, visit www.torontopartigras.com.—Stuart Broomer

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