The stage at the Royal Albert is the last place you would expect to find a grand piano.
The famed punk-rock palace in the Exchange District hosted concerts by a green Day Green and Dave Grohl with his band Scream, long before he became a household name with Nirvana and then Foo Fighters, as well as thousands other rock and metal bands from Winnipeg and around the world.
The 2012 documentary Call to arms: the story of the Royal Albertshows headbangers and artists diving into a full mosh pit, but Wednesday night the pit was crowded with tables, chairs and relaxed people from three generations digging into Cuban jazz and Thelonious Monk covers while sipping their cocktails.
The evening marked the opening night of the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival series of clubs, which includes the Royal Albert and the King’s Head Pub, another watering hole in the Exchange District, hosting evening concerts and jam sessions until early morning until Sunday evening.
The series kicked off Wednesday night with Winnipeg singer and pianist Amber Epp leading a quartet of her own Latin-flavored jazz as well as covers by Havana’s Joni Mitchell, Jane Siberry and Omara Portuondo of Havana from the Buena Vista Social Club. .
After Epp onstage was someone who has probably played every club in Winnipeg – and that includes the Royal Albert – pianist Ron Paley.
“That was years and years ago,” Paley said after his foursome set. “I don’t remember who was singing, I don’t remember anything I played. It’s been years, so I’m happy to play here.
Posters of punk legends such as the Ramones and Patti Smith adorn the walls of the Royal Albert, which Dave McKeigan of the Pyramid Cabaret took over in 2020 and renovated.
Paley, along with singer and conga player Glen Matthews, took a step in their musical direction with a trio of pop and R&B covers during their hour-long set: Louis Armstrong’s what a wonderful Worldtemptations My daughter and James Brown’s classic I got you (I feel good).
“It’s the love of all music, whether jazz, pop, country or classical. Music is music and I love it,” Paley says.
Performing in front of a live audience anytime, anywhere has become a long-forgotten pleasure for any musician after two years in a musical desert caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paley, whether it’s a quartet or his big band, became one of the busiest musicians in town before the pandemic, but his two jazz festival appearances this week are among the few that he has had since March 2020.
For Epp, who in addition to her solo career is a singer and pianist with Winnipeg bands Papa Mambo and Trio Bembe, the effects of the pandemic on entertainment have forced her to start a new career teaching members English. of the Winnipeg refugee community.
“Gigs all dried up during COVID, so that’s something I do besides music now,” she says.
Her students’ interest in countless slogans, cliches and sayings taken for granted by English speakers led her to write her new song, Blues idiom, which strings together a few dozen of these lines to create a love story. She played it on Wednesday night.
“Laying my eyes on you / It was a walk in the park / But trying to speak / It was a shot in the dark,” Epp’s song begins.
“It’s something people learning English like to think about. “What do you mean, he bit the dust? If you didn’t grow up speaking English, it doesn’t mean anything to you,” she says.
Epp hadn’t played the Royal Albert until Wednesday night, but she wasn’t demanding when the jazz festival added her to the Royal Albert lineup.
It’s not like there have been many fish in the sea for jazz artists over the past couple of years.
“This place is a good catch,” Epp laughs. ‘If there’s people who like the music and want to come and listen to it, just tell me where to turn up. I’ll be there.’
Alan Small has been a Free Press reporter for over 22 years in a variety of roles, most recently as a reporter in the Arts and Life section.
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