Frisson is slated to perform on June 17 at the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival

Jazz is the Sound of Summer in Southern Alberta

By Roger Levesque

Jazz has been dubbed “the sound of surprise” for its improvised aspect, but in southern Alberta there’s another jazz surprise. Did you know that Medicine Hat and Lethbridge have for years hosted their own acclaimed summer jazz festivals? There’s inspired programming behind the range of entertaining, artful sounds each event offers to fans and visitors alike.

Both the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival (June 17 to 24, 2018) and the Lethbridge Jazz & Blues Festival (June 8 to 16, 2018) were founded in part by musicians or music educators. This spirit of curatorial expertise still shapes the festivals today. Whether you’re a returning fan or curious newcomer, you’re guaranteed a certain standard of musical excellence.

And while the two events import talent from across the country and beyond, they also feature top players from right here in Alberta. This year they’re paying particular tribute to the late jazz statesman Tommy Banks. The Calgary-born pianist, composer and former Senator (from 2000 to 2011) helped jumpstart events years ago; his granddaughter, singer Mallory Chipman, is slated to perform at both festivals.

Medicine Hat’s festival has grown organically over its two decades in existence, and organizers have used real ingenuity to get the music out to the masses.

“There’s no question when it’s jazz fest week,” says festival producer Lyle Rebbeck. “It takes over the whole city and you can’t walk outside downtown without hearing music.”

The 2018 fest packs recognized artists and rising stars—150 musicians will perform 62 shows at 23 different venues—in a program celebrating the varied styles of jazz.

“Over the years visiting artists have told us overwhelmingly that we’re one of the few festivals in Canada that still feels like it’s still primarily about jazz,” Rebbeck says. “We’re a smaller festival in a smaller city—and we’ve embraced that.”

Heritage attractions, great coffee and more in Medicine Hat

As such, Rebbeck notes that while some musicians are scheduled to appear at other western Canadian festivals this year, in Medicine Hat, you can see them in a much more intimate setting.

“We realize that festivals are about more than the music; they’re about people coming together. We still have dance parties and it’s also exciting to see jazz expand in intelligent, tasteful, musical ways that connect to a new generation.”

The genre-crossing multinational octet Frisson provides one exciting variation on contemporary jazz at this year’s event. Likewise for Dutch saxophonist Yuri Honing and his quartet. They’ll play as part of the popular late-night series of concerts starting at 10:30 p.m.

Other unique events include the Parkade Show; literally held on top of an outdoor parkade, it has previously brought out upwards of 2,000 revelers. (This year’s show features the rockabilly swing of Edmonton-based Punch Drunk Cabaret.) And a dance party with singer Lynn Okagundoye and her pan-Afro-Caribbean funk and soul band will be held in Hanger 7 of the Medicine Hat Airport. A range of downtown clubs and cafés offer more intimate experiences, while the The Esplanade arts complex hosts performances in venues including its 700-seat theatre.

medicine hat jazz festival lethbridge jazz festival nobuki takamen
Nobuki Takamen is set to play Lethbridge’s Nika Yukko Japanese Gardens

A two-hour drive west, the Lethbridge Jazz & Blues Festival has operated in its current form since 2011. (For two years prior, it piggybacked on the more established Medicine Hat fest.) This year, having found its niche, it’s hosting more than 100 musicians at 20-plus wide-ranging performances.

“The umbrella of jazz is vast,” notes trumpeter and festival president Don Robb. “We want to bring jazz- and blues-related events but we’ve had horn bands doing soul and funk and even a jazz vespers,” he says, referring to variation on the evening prayer service.

Enjoy a weekend (or more) of warm welcomes in Lethbridge

The 2018 edition starts with an afternoon of student big bands and finishes with Juno-winning jazz-pop singer Holly Cole in concert at the Enmax Centre.

In between you’ll find several special events tailored to unique venues. Renowned Japanese guitarist Nobuki Takamen and his trio, for example, will play the Nika Yukko Japanese Garden; guests are invited to meet the artist and enjoy a glass of sake, too. Elsewhere, Southminster United Church hosts a “Sweet Inspiration” show, which finds singer Marcus Mosely (of Vancouver’s Sojourners) leading a gospel choir of over 50 voices, while Galt Gardens’ “Jazz at the Park” series features a market, beer garden, guitar show ‘n’ shine, and five different acts for an afternoon of diverse tunes.

AMA is a proud sponsor of the Medicine Hat Jazz Festival and the Lethbridge Jazz & Blues Festival

Road tripping to the festivals? Consider upgrading to a Plus or higher membership, which allows for extended towing distances, free passport photos, free fuel and delivery, and enhanced trip collision reimbursement.

AMA members can save 10% or more at Best Western properties in Alberta and throughout North America.