Women Rock the Jazz Fest: Jann Arden, Martha Wainwright, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Davina and the Vagabonds

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The opening weekend of the 39th edition of the FIJM featured some of the most inspiring women in the music world, including a new fun find.

 

Friday night Jann Arden played to a wildly enthusiastic crowd at Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. The queen of Canadian pop, with eight Juno Awards, 10 SOCAN Awards, four Western Canadian Music Awards, and many other accolades under her belt to date, Arden thrilled the audience with some of her biggest hits, including Insensitive and I Would Die For You, as well as a nice cover of Janis Ian’s 1975 At Seventeen. Her sound is a little smooth and poppy for my taste (I was obviously in the minority), but her anthem Not Your Little Girl, written just pre-#metoo, was powerfully resonant, and her ode to her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, Leave the Light On, was very moving. A shout-out also to the crazily talented keyboardist/violist/back-up singer, Alison Cornell, who apparently took the night off from touring with Shania Twain to play with Arden.

If Arden’s adult contemporary sound might not be what all jazz fans are after, her authenticity and self-deprecating stage banter win you over. From making fun of her wardrobe malfunctions early in the show—her shirt came undone and she had to ask a stagehand for a clip; she also felt the need to explain her outfit, saying “I made a shitty choice”—to saying, “You’re only as good as the worst person in your band, and I’m the worst person in the band,” and, “I’ve made 15 albums, and some of them are shit,” Arden’s humility and humanity have obviously not been diminished by her fame and international recognition.

 

Arden paid tribute to the great Martha Wainwright who opened the evening, admitting to being wildly jealous of her artistry and the way she moves. Indeed, Wainwright is a star in her own right, if not as mainstream as Arden in her sound. She never ceases to amaze with her wild vocal range and the multitude of colours in her voice. The first couple of songs she performed alone with her acoustic guitar, and then her long-time collaborator Thomas Bartlett joined her on piano. In addition to some of her original work she played Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel, Edith Piaf’s L’Accordeoniste, which drove the audience wild, her brother Rufus’s Going to a Town (featuring the topical recurring line, “I’m so tired of you America”) and the McGarrigle Sisters song Cheminant à la ville. Like Arden, Wainwright isn’t afraid to share herself with the audience, telling personal stories along the way and just being herself.

It was after the show that I happened upon Davina and the Vagabonds on the Rio Tinto stage; they also opened for the sublime Dee Dee Bridgewater Saturday night at Théâtre Maisonneuve. Davina Lozier and her band are a force to be reckoned with. Rooted in New Orleans Dixieland, nourished by the blues, and brought up to date with the sheer power of Lozier’s personality and story-telling, this is the find of the festival so far. Energetic fun infused with soul-stirring sounds, DATV are irresistible. And, like Arden and Wainwright, Lozier isn’t afraid to reveal herself onstage: towards the end of the outdoor show she confessed to a recent struggle in her life, and had to stop playing to wipe away tears.

Arden, Wainwright, and Lozier share the courage to reveal themselves to audiences through their music and onstage personas. But they’ve all torn a page from the great Dee Dee Bridgewater, who came back to Théâtre Maisonneuve Saturday night, the stage on which she first appeared many years ago. This woman fucking rocks. At 68 years old, she holds her musicians and her audience in the palm of her hand and takes them all for a wild, vibrant, joyful, soulful ride.

 

With her eight-piece band The Memphis Soulphony, Bridgewater played songs from her latest album, re-workings of old Memphis soul songs that she used to pick up on her transistor radio as a little girl living in Flint, Michigan. She confessed her worry that her jazz fans wouldn’t appreciate this new venture, but explained that it’s something she needed to do to raise her spirits after her mother passed away last year. And holy crap did she ever succeed. Tracks include Gladys Knight’s Giving Up, BB King’s The Thrill is Gone, Al Green’s Can’t Get Next To You, The Staple Singers Don’t Be Cruel, Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness, and Carla Thomas’s B.A.B.Y. Of this last, she said that Thomas showing up at the studio by chance right after they had mixed her song, sharing stories of both women’s fathers, who played music together, was all the confirmation she needed that she was on the right path with this album.

In addition to the insane musicality, showmanship, friendship, and camaraderie of Bridgewater and her musicians, her rallying cry to women to not let anyone else define you or limit who you can be at any age, and the fine example she sets of a woman, or really any human, living life to its absolute fullest, and sharing this wild journey with the world through music, was inspiration enough to last a lifetime.

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