VIRTUOSITY – The Don Berner Sextet performs at The District Eatery and Lounge on Jan. 30.

Don Berner Sextet heading to City

Acclaimed jazz master features tunes from new CD

Hot on the heels of his latest sonic offering, Don Berner will be hitting a Red Deer stage late this month.

The Don Berner Sextet performs Jan. 30th at The District Eatery and Lounge.

Berner released his fourth CD Love Letters to a Rat Free Capital late last year and is following it up with live appearances around the country.

Inspired by the bands of Art Blakey, Dave Holland, and the Marsalis brothers, Berner’s sextet performs an eclectic mix of compositions. And the songs drawn from the new CD were composed by band members and were inspired by their love for their home city of Edmonton, capital of the ‘rat-free’ province of Alberta.

“I love my city and my province. Part of the initial concept of this album was to pay homage to that. I also thought it was kind of humorous and memorable in a day and age when jazz albums tend to have covers of someone brooding in a corner looking at their instrument,” he explains with a laugh.

There is sophistication and style galore on this project, from the smooth elegance of the opening track True North to the sleek, engaging tones of In the Shadows of Churchill.

Other gems run the gamut from the care-free sensibility of The House That Bop Built, Suite Things and the aptly-named Festival City. And things cool down to a dreamy, pleasant saunter with Long Green Valley.

Berner got off to an early introduction to music – his mom was a piano teacher so it wasn’t long before he was formally studying music. “My folks made us take lessons at an early age,” he recalls, adding that they had to at least give it a good honest try for a couple of years before opting out.

He ultimately found the saxophone, and laughs as he recalls the character of Richie Cunningham, played by Ron Howard, on the classic 70s sitcom Happy Days playing the sax. “He used to play the sax in Al’s Diner,” he chuckles. “Seeing it years later, I realized he was doing a very bad job of faking it.”

There was something about the cool sounds of the saxophone that struck him. But it would be a few years before Berner really caught the bug – when his high school band went to Music Fest in 1990. And it was about that time that Berner felt he had found his path in life.

“I love jazz because of its freedom of expression – it’s a very personal music form,” he explains. “You can improvise, so inherently there is a certain amount of reflection involved.

“There’s also a surprising history within Alberta of people performing this music at a very high level,” he explains. “I like that sense of lineage to it. I also like the conversational aspect of it. In an improvisational setting, there’s a certain amount of conversation that goes on.

“If it was just me playing a whole bunch of stuff it would be like one long run-on sentence. But with performing, you are influenced by what is going on around you in the moment. You play something, and somebody else plays something back. So it’s a very ‘democratic’ art form.”

Over the years, he has been featured on CBC recordings with the bands of Tommy Banks and Tilo Pailaz and has appeared at prominent jazz venues including the Yardbird Suite and Jazz City festival.

He has performed at the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C. and the Polish embassy in Ottawa.

Also, he has performed in Edmonton’s Winspear Centre and Jubilee Auditorium, and Calgary’s Jack Singer Hall. Berner has toured extensively all of Canada with various bands, and has appeared in Hong Kong and over 20 U.S. states (with Chicago label Blind Pig Records artist E.C. Scott).

Ultimately, Berner is a huge fan of music in general.

He loves all kinds of genres, from rock to hip hop to R&B. And it’s that overall appreciation for the various forms music takes that also enhances his own particular style and approach to serving up some of the finest, most acclaimed jazz around. But Berner refuses to take himself too seriously. “This isn’t brain surgery, it’s not air traffic control. The worst thing that is going to happen is that I might be terrible on any given night,” he laughs.

Not that that is likely. Berner is one of the most acclaimed musicians around – and his understanding and powerful interpretations of the magic of jazz is testament to his tremendous skills. Meanwhile, he considers it all a gift and is constantly thankful to be doing what he is. “The last time I considered another kind of career was probably in junior high school. It’s always been music.

“I love it. And there’s nothing else I want to do. If something happened tomorrow that I couldn’t play the saxophone anymore, I would still find a way to be involved in the music industry. I’m as big a fan of it as I am a part of it.”

editor@reddeerexpress.com

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