The stage at the Royal Albert is the last place you’d expect to find a grand piano.
The Exchange District’s famous punk-rock palace has hosted gigs by a green Green Day and Dave Grohl with his band Scream, long before he became a household name with Nirvana and then Foo Fighters, as well as thousands of other rock and metal acts from Winnipeg and around the world.
The 2012 documentary Call to Arms: The Story of the Royal Albert, shows headbangers and performers diving into a full mosh pit, but on Wednesday night, the pit was crowded with tables, chairs and relaxed folks from three generations digging Cuban jazz and Thelonious Monk covers while they sipped their cocktails.
The evening marked the opening night of Winnipeg International Jazz Festival’s club series, which has the Royal Albert and the King’s Head Pub, another Exchange District watering hole, hosting evening concerts and jam sessions into the wee hours until Sunday night.
The series began Wednesday night with Winnipeg vocalist and pianist Amber Epp leading a quartet of her own Latin-flavoured jazz as well as covers by Joni Mitchell, Jane Siberry and Havana’s Omara Portuondo of the Buena Vista Social Club.
Following Epp onstage was someone who has likely played every club in Winnipeg — and that includes the Royal Albert — pianist Ron Paley.
"It was years and years and years ago," Paley said after his quartet’s set. "I don’t remember who was singing, I don’t remember anything I played. It’s been years, so I’m glad to play here."
There are posters for punk legends such as the Ramones and Patti Smith adorning the walls at the Royal Albert, which Pyramid Cabaret’s Dave McKeigan took over in 2020 and refurbished.
Paley, along with vocalist and conga player Glen Matthews, strayed a step in their musical direction with a trio of pop and R&B covers during their hour-long set: Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World, the Temptations’ My Girl and James Brown’s classic I Got You (I Feel Good).
"It’s love all music, whether it’s jazz or pop or country or classical. Music is music and I love it," Paley says.
Playing before a live audience anytime, anywhere, has become a long-forgotten treat for any musician after two years in a musical desert caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Paley, whether it was a quartet or his big band, became one of the city’s busiest musicians prior to the pandemic but his two appearances at the jazz fest this week are among the few he’s had since March 2020.
For Epp, who aside from her solo career, is a singer and pianist with Winnipeg groups Papa Mambo and Trio Bembe, the pandemic’s effects on entertainment forced her start a new career teaching English to members of Winnipeg’s refugee community.
"The gigs all dried up during COVID, so this is something I’m doing in addition to music now," she says.
Her students’ interest in countless catchphrases, clichés and sayings that are taken for granted by native English speakers led her to write her newest song, Idiom Blues, which strings together a couple of dozen of those lines to create a love story. She performed it Wednesday night.
"Laying my eyes on you / Was a walk in the park / But trying to talk / Was a shot in the dark," Epp’s song starts.
"It’s something that people learning English like to think about. ‘What do you mean, he bit the dust?’ If you didn’t grow up speaking English, that doesn’t mean anything to you," she says.
Epp hadn’t played the Royal Albert before Wednesday night, but she wasn’t choosy when the jazz fest added her to the Royal Albert lineup.
It’s not like there have been plenty of fish in the sea for jazz performers for the past couple of years.
"This venue’s a great catch," Epp says with a laugh. "If there’s people that love music and want to come listen to it, just tell me where to show up. I’ll be there.’
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.