FINIS TASBY performing as part of PartiGras on the Distillery District's Trinity Street Stage (55 Mill), Saturday (July 22), 3:15 pm. Free. 416-410-8809, www.beachesjazz.com. Rating: NNNNN
Given that the Beaches Jazz Festival's warm-up weekend at the Distillery District is called PartiGras, you'd think the music being featured would somehow reflect the sound of New Orleans - perhaps some zesty zydeco, Cajun, bumpin' brass band stuff or even a little swampy second-line R&B, right?
Wrong. Headlining the Trinity Street mainstage this weekend is Dallas-born, Los Angeles-based bluesman Finis Tasby, who's a fabulously soulful song stylist in the ZZ Hill mould, but what he does has no obvious connection to the New Orleans tradition.
"I'm playing PartiGras? OK, if you say so," chuckles Tasby from his Toronto hotel room. "To be honest, I haven't really looked that closely at the tour itinerary, but we had a great time at the show in Ottawa last night."
Just as the Beaches Jazz Festival tends to feature more blues than jazz, the PartiGras connection to New Orleans is in name only. You should count on hearing more electric guitars than accordions in the Distillery District this weekend.
"I'd love to have the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, some zydeco acts and more music of that nature, but we're really limited by budget constraints," explains fest artistic director Bill King. "When you've only got $250,000 for both the Beaches Jazz Festival and PartiGras, you have to use your imagination to come up with cohesive events.
"If the city of Toronto came to us with another $250,000, we could bring in acts from across Canada and Louisiana to give PartiGras a New Orleans flavour. That was the original plan.
"It's still going to be a great celebratory weekend, where you can hear upbeat good-time music as opposed to the 'sit back and listen to some serious jazz' experience."
According to King, budget limitations are also a key reason for the prominence of blues at the festival each year.
"Summer is the big outdoor festival season in Europe for jazz artists, so the Beaches Fest has to deal with agents who want big bucks for their acts. We do the best we can with what we have.
"It's also tough to get some jazz artists to play on a sidewalk in the Beaches. But whereas many jazz players see that as an inconvenience, the blues guys look at it as an opportunity."
King notes that the Beaches Jazz Fest has been fortunate enough to recruit a good mid-level blues artist to headline the event every year.
"It fits in really well with the jazz and Latin music we program," he explains. "This year we lucked out with two for the Jazz Fest - Lou Pride and Darrell Nulisch, because they happened to be touring together - as well as Finis Tasby for PartiGras."
As for Tasby himself, the Mannish Boys frontman is just thrilled to be playing in Toronto again, whatever the festival theme might be.
Although Tasby will be focusing on songs from his great What My Blues Are All About (Electro-Fi), recorded at Toronto's Liquid Studios with guitarist Mel Brown supplying tasteful support, don't be surprised if he goes into a Percy Mayfield tune.
He became a good friend of the erudite blues philosopher (who penned the Ray Charles smash Hit The Road Jack among numerous other blues standards) while gigging with Mayfield in the early 70s.
"I'd love to do River's Invitation if the band can play it. Those changes aren't as easy as they sound. He was an incredible songwriter. I was talking with Percy's widow, Tina, who said she has some songs for me that Percy wrote but never got to record before he passed away. Nobody else has even seen them before.
"You know, I think that might make for a really good album. I'll have to give her a call when I get home."