Upsteam Music’s annual Open Waters Festival is like a musical Polar Bear Dip, beginning the year with a communal plunge into bracing new depths of sound, forcing your ears and eyes open with exciting possibilities of rhythm and melody, perhaps even eliciting a few joyful yelps in the process.
The great thing about it is that instead of a few fleeting moments in Halifax Harbour (or any beach/lake/river you choose), Open Waters continues for six days, from Friday to Wednesday, with a full slate of concerts and workshops at the Dalhousie Arts Centre, University of King’s College Alumni Hall and the Marquee Ballroom.
The events are many and varied, starting with Mouvance, a collaboration between Moncton soprano Suzie LeBlanc and a number of Acadian artists that combines music, film, movement and prose at Dal’s Dunn Theatre at 7:30 p.m.
From there, Open Waters flows through one-of-a-kind performances like Sarah Albu’s Noise Knitting combining textile tools (knitting needles, spinning wheel) with electronics and vocal loops at Dal’s MacAloney Room on Saturday at 3 p.m., Current Visions’ program of new and recent works by local composers performed by Upstream Ensemble and Symphony Nova Scotia on Tuesday at the Dunn Theatre at 7:30 p.m., and Harold Lloyd’s death-defying silent comedy Safety Last accompanied by world music group Open Borders on Wednesday at King’s at 7 p.m.
On Sunday night at the Dunn Theatre at 8:30 p.m., Open Waters welcomes Toronto/Brooklyn quartet Way North to Halifax for the first time, although co-founder and trumpeter Rebecca Hennessy will be familiar to local jazz lovers. Her group the FOG Brass Band was nominated for the Stingray Rising Star Award at the 2016 Halifax Jazz Festival and she also performed at Open Waters with Nova Scotia bassist Pete Johnston’s See Through 4 in 2017.
Also known for collaborating with Canadian artists like Ron Sexsmith, Feist and Broken Social Scene, and her new project Makeshift Island with guitarist Kevin Breit in which she also sings, the Nanaimo-raised musician looks forward to bringing her current group to Halifax. She considers the festival unique as an event that attracts a crowd open to discovering something new, instead of seeing acts whose music they already know by heart.
“It was a great experience, we were received really warmly, and there were people there listening to this music that was really beautiful and intricate” says Hennessy of her initial Open Waters experience two years ago. “Pete’s music is really wonderful to play, and challenging, and it felt like a different sort of crowd than a normal jazz audience.
“It seemed the audience was really responsive to the sounds that we were making, which were accessible but still really different. We had trumpet, synth, bass and drums, which made for an interesting project.”
Way North has the makeup of a traditional jazz quartet, formed in Brooklyn when Hennessy and her husband (and bassist) Michael Herring were living there from 2013 to 2015. They started jamming with American drummer Richie Barshay and tenor sax player Petr Cancura, and the chemistry clicked, with each member bringing new material to the group.
Their repertoire developed quickly, evolving out of a broad love of jazz, folk and blues, and a shared mission of making music that is fresh, exciting and upbeat.
“We jammed and played together, and it was awesome and super-fun, and then I realized that Richie has done some really major things that I feel a lot of people I’ve played with haven’t done, like touring with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea,” says Hennessy.
“It was a cool experience to realize that, but also to know that he’s just very friendly and wants to play with people he likes to hang out with. And the same goes for Petr, who comes from Ottawa and was living in Brooklyn at the time.”
Eventually, the foursome travelled to Tedesco Studios across the Hudson River in Paramus, New Jersey for a six-hour session that wound up becoming its first album King’s County in 2015. “We did one or two takes of each tune, and suddenly we had a record, which was pretty incredible,” she recalls.
“We just had this instant connection between the four of us, which made it pretty special. When there’s an energy that you can feel, it feels really good and really easy. Who knows what this might sound like when we listen back to it, and then a week later we realized this might actually be a record. We weren’t looking for our debut record, we were just documenting something.”
Way North’s second album Fearless and Kind arrived last November, displaying a sound that’s bright and joyful, showcasing the members’ different compositional and performance backgrounds, but with a unity of sound that brings all those disparate elements together. Influences can be felt from New Orleans pioneer Jelly Roll Morton to free jazz iconoclast Ornette Coleman, and songs range from Cancura’s effervescent opening tune Boll Weevil to Hennessy’s dancable blend of calypso and bird song, Birds for Free.
“As a group, we all enjoy melody,” she says. “Beautiful melodies that connect with what we’re doing, and we’re also really interested in form. It doesn’t matter where a piece comes from; we don’t do many cover songs, but we will mess with something so it makes sense in our group.
“When we toured in November, our first dates with the Fearless and Kind record, we started playing the Miles Davis/Jackie McLean tune Dig. It’s based on the changes for Sweet Georgia Brown, and we messed it up when Richie suggested it and added some new twists, which was really exciting. It’s not a tune from the current era, but we reinvented the feeling for it.”
For a complete rundown of Open Waters’ many shows, workshops and social events, click here.
To hear Way North’s recordings, go to waynorth.bandcamp.com and check out Hennessy’s other projects at rebeccahennessy.com.