February 2009

Karl Jannuska Sextet
February 25, 2009 Trane Studio Toronto
Report and photo by Zoë Guigueno
“Karl Jannuska? Yeah, he’s a drummer from Paris. He was in Montréal last weekend. He’s heavy, definitely go check him out.”

Following my jazzer friend's advice, I bundled up and headed to Bathurst Street. When I ducked into the Trane Studio and out of the snow, nearly every table was empty but set with a welcoming candle. A woman who for some reason I assumed was a staff member approached me; we stood talking beside the table until I realized she was one of the musicians. Over fennel tea I learned her name is Sienna Dahlen and she knows Karl Jannuska from McGill. Jannuska (who is actually originally from the Prairies) was here with his family supposedly for a two-week holiday, but ended up swamped with rehearsals, recording dates and performances — a “jazz vacation”, as one of his tunes is called.

The jazz musicians playing with him that night are amongst this city’s finest: Marc Rogers on bass (a gorgeous chocolate upright), Reg Schwager on guitar (one of those headstock-less ones where you fear his hand will slip off the end of the neck), Kelly Jefferson on tenor, Brodie West on alto, and of course Sienna Dahlen, singing her own lyrics to Jannuska’s tunes. Although they didn’t work together very much in Montréal, Dahlen and Jannuska connected later on in Paris and have been collaborating ever since.
The first set started out with “K Day”, an upbeat, glorious-sounding tune that set a positive, relaxed mood. “Pajama Party” (possibly inspired by Jannuska’s young daughter?) had the band all laughing and joking. Every few songs, Jannuska would stand up and address the audience loudly and clearly, without a microphone, introducing the songs and the musicians and holding his arms out to be as open as possible. His compositions were beautifully crafted, featuring masterful use of counterpart and harmony. Everything was very pleasing to hear, especially the lovely crunches between horns and voice. I remember Jodi Proznick telling me once that the most important thing to remember when playing music is to always make a beautiful sound. When you have that, it doesn’t matter as much what notes you play.

By the end of the first set the restaurant had filled up, and the steady chatter of friends and fans kept the room warm when the music was resting.

Despite the good nature of the show, it was pretty obvious that they didn’t have much time to rehearse. Before many of the tunes, Jannuska would remind the musicians who was soloing when, who would cue the coda, who would take the head out. Yet apart from a few shaky starts and some abruptly ended solos, the musicianship onstage was enough to bring life to the accessible yet very creative music. A light-hearted, playful romp of a tune called “Greased Pig Scramble” recalled Jannuska’s childhood in Brandon, Manitoba, where an event by that name would occur every year at the town fair. “A Whiter Christmas” referred to his child’s cast when one year she almost spent that day in the hospital — he admitted it was a bit of a joke for a sad story. Dahlen came up and sang this one — her clean, warm voice sounding out strong in close harmony with the saxophones. The tune “Karlston” — hah — rolled along with the rhythm section alternating between a 16th note rhythmic motif and a few bars of fast swing. The horns and Schwager soloed playfully over this tune, taking the figure out into chromatic melodies.

Dahlen remarked to me that when you talk to Jannuska, you see that his music is really him. Sure enough, when I met him after the show, I could immediately tell his music is an extension of his warm, cheerful personality. The closest he got to a drum solo the whole night was some stretching out over a vamp in one of the last songs. His command of time, sensitive way of playing, and strength as a composer show why Karl Jannuska is such an in demand musician wherever he travels.

We welcome your comments and feedback
Zoë Guigueno
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