NICK ALI & CRUZAO at the NOW Lounge (189 Church), Wednesday (July 25). $6. 416-364-1301.
more than the oversized novelty cheque, the $8,000 in prize money, the one-album recording deal with Justin Time records or the chance to honk his horn in front of 35,000 people, Nick Ali is most excited about winning the Montreal Jazz Festival's prestigious Prix De Jazz Award because it offers payback."I can't wait to talk to the motherfuckers from the jazz festivals who wouldn't return my calls this year," the outspoken Toronto trumpeter who calls himself the "Brownman" snorts from home, a week after his Cruzao quintet bagged the fest's prize for Best Canadian Group.
"I had these little festivals out west telling me that we weren't anything special, and then Montreal calls me and says they're nominating us for this huge award. That's just awesome."
Ali and Cruzao's win came as a massive shock, not just because of the immediate boost in profile it gives to the group, but because of what was being acknowledged with the win.
Cruzao, one of four different groups led by Ali, plays all original, deliriously funky Latin jazz, featuring members from across the globe, including Trinidad, Peru, Cuba and Mexico. All four groups and their different sounds are broken down on Ali's Brownzone Web site, www.brownman.com.
Ali admits that it's not the typically safe, beard-scratching trad jazz and standard rehashing that a festival of Montreal's stature might be expected to honour. This makes the win even sweeter.
"The winners of these things are usually real traditionalists, mainstream dudes," Ali insists. "I thought, "Give me a break. My Latin jazz-funk thing isn't going to have a shot,' but we won. It's an upset.
"The whole thing's a bit stupid. Art isn't a competition. Can you imagine, Coltrane comes in first and Sonny Rollins is a close second? That's not the gig. For me, it's recognition. These are my own tunes. I'm not one of those wankers who get up and play standard after standard, making a career out of other people's music.
"Because I've got a mouth like this, though, it's a good thing. If it means that people are going to look to me and ask questions, maybe I can turn some of them on to something new. You know, I think some old white dudes might actually dig what we do."
If anything, the win can only give a larger platform to Ali, an unapologetically straight-talking scenester who isn't afraid to take on prickly issues like race, creativity and the state of jazz itself.
Even Ali's reasoning about why he won includes a swipe at the jazz establishment that the trumpeter loves to wind up.
"One of the judges told me that over the years, he felt jazz's connection to its audience was lost. In the 50s and 60s, jazz was people's music. Whether it was Miles or Duke or Coltrane or Ella, when these musicians played, people in the audience would feel an attachment to the music.
"Somehow, jazz got elevated to this higher art thing, which I don't buy. Our band has that street funk thing, and apparently that's what hit the judges. I mean, we played in front of 35,000 people and they were freaking out. I didn't know where to look so I ended up talking to the lights.
"Then I came home and played the Rex to 14 people. Reality, man."