United By Jazz: A Night at the Kensington Market Jazz Festival

Kensington Market’s streets bustled with activity on a beautiful summer weekend, filled by curious passersby, goers of the Kensington Market Jazz Festival (KMJF), and guerrilla jazz musicians seeking to claim their slice of the concrete. The competition can be fierce, boasting 170 performances, 400 jazz musicians, and 24 venues, all crammed into three days in September. The festival itself is simple; you pay what you want to see the set that that you want, though some tickets are available for $12 cash only.

One performance (suggested to me by a friend) took place late on September 17, 2017, featuring Selcuk Suna Trio with Dia as their vocalist. As I walk in, they’re casually setting up, sipping beer, and chatting with the audience as they trickle into a tight bar. The set begins unceremoniously with no tiresome banter. No “How are you folks doing tonight?” No introductions to each song. It’s a bumpin’ jam session of the non-stop variety, in which interruptions like nearby car alarms are folded into their compositions and become crucial parts of the night’s soundtrack. More notably, no song was in English, nor were any three even in the same language.

 

Selcuk Suna Trio and Dia clearly chose their set for a diverse Kensington crowd. Even if they were making it up as they went, they addressed the lack of English by choosing popular songs from a specific country and then creating their own jazz interpretation of that material. This allowed me to connect with other audience members on a deep cultural level, and hear new dimensions to songs that we already knew and loved. The set included Yuksek Yuksek Tepelere (Turkish), Uzun Ince (Turkish), Besame Mucho (Spanish), Manha De Carnaval (Brazilian Portuguese), La Vie En Rose (French), Quando Quando (Italian), and Masai (Greek).

The performers’ selling point was less their 18 years of professional experience and more their grand ability to hybridize Jazz and World Music. Dia is an ethnomusicologist demonstrably capable of singing in over 20 languages in her smooth-as-silk alto voice, Selcuk Suna incorporated his Turkish influences into his clarinet and saxophone musicianship, Max Sennitt anchored the set with his precision in percussion, and Eric St. Laurent filled the musical space with rock-like riffs on his electric guitar. There was no room for silence unless called for.

The performance was further elevated due to how intensely each band member listened to one another. The non-verbal communication was so subtle it almost seemed like the musicians shared one brain, or as if they had been together for a lifetime. If one person felt playful, they would throw a musical challenge to another member, and in turn, that musician would throw another challenge right back. But each song would always conclude with the collective synchronizing and eventually offering one among them to take the last note, which I think speaks a great deal to their craftsmanship and love for the music.


It takes years of dedication to get over yourself and feel comfortable enough to improvise in front of an audience. At the same time, you need to understand enough about the style of music itself to ensure a certain cohesiveness with artists you may never have rehearsed with before. These musicians all needed a strong foundation before they could come together and go beyond — a fine balance between knowledge and creativity.

What I mean by “go beyond” is the task of connecting cultures that you would never expect through music. The Selcuk Suna Trio and Dia brought together all kinds of people from all kinds of narratives. From broke university students (i.e. me) to recent immigrants, from businessmen to buskers, everyone was excited to hear music from their motherland. You could make educated guesses about who in the audience was from where based on the way their ears perked up when they heard familiar music or a familiar language. Being able to share in that joy of recognition was extremely powerful, especially because you could also see the homesickness underneath the nostalgia.

The musicality was as complex as it was delectable, a festive potluck of global sounds. The guests at the table were hospitable as they were all so eager to listen, enjoy, and share in the performance. The hosts themselves were skillful, warm, and inviting. I’m so thankful that I was invited to this performance, because the opportunity to feel a connection through shared difference, and to do so while listening to improvisational Jazz, was such a unique experience. Perhaps this is what it means to be Canadian. Perhaps this is what it means to be Torontonian.


What do you think about this fluidity of music? Would you like to see more of our intimate venues transformed into international hubs? Respond to the tweet below and join the conversation: