Tommy Banks: All jazzed up at Sylvan Lake

Tommy Banks is always happy to return to Sylvan Lake, where he will play at a Jazz on the Lake event on Saturday, Aug. 20.

Tommy Banks is always happy to return to Sylvan Lake, where he will play at a Jazz on the Lake event on Saturday, Aug. 20.

Canada’s award-winning pianist (and former senator) remembers the bustling lakeside community when it was one of Alberta’s musical hot spots.

“I played Varsity Hall in 1952 with a touring show,” Banks recalled. There were singers, dancing showgirls, comics and Don Thompson’s Big Band, in which Banks was the 15-year-old piano-playing prodigy.

While that exciting dance-hall era wrapped at the end of the 1960s, Banks believes music never really left Sylvan Lake — it just went lower key until Eric Allison and Cheryl Fisher formed the Jazz at the Lake festival.

While the full-fledged festival is in hiatus until next year, Banks will perform at one of several special concerts planned in 2016.

The third part Sounds of Summer concert series involves the Juno Award-winning Banks playing with his jazz trio at the Alliance Church in Sylvan Lake. (The next day, on Aug. 21, jazz fans can enjoy the return of the pub crawl at five local venues.)

This is Banks’ third appearance at Jazz at the Lake. The Edmontonian said he keeps coming back because the organizers keep asking him. “There’s so much to admire in what Cheryl and Eric have done with the festival that’s bringing wonderful music to the space between Edmonton and Calgary.”

Jazz standards, as well as more recent selections, will be performed with his trio — including drummer Bobby Cairns and bassist Cliff Minchau. Banks said Sting’s tune Fragile is on the program, as is an instrumental version of the popular 1970s song Ode to Billy Joe.

The Tommy Banks trio will also perform a couple of selections with jazz singer Fisher from her just-released album, Quietly There. It’s made up of lesser-known jazz tunes from the Great American Songbook. Allison will accompany Fisher and the trio with his flute.

“It’s such good music,” said Banks. “With any good tune, you can play it in any style — fast or slow or in the middle, any tempo, in any era, and it will stand up.”

That’s why he believes jazz has lasted into the 21st Century. While it’s never had a mainstream audience, it maintains a strong niche appeal because its improvisational aspects give it a fresh sound to listeners.

Banks notes elements of improvisation began with classical composers, who made up ornamental cadenzas as they played, and have now trickled down into more modern musical genres, including hip-hop.

“People find it interesting, as we all do.”

These days, he’s continuing to perform at festivals across the continent.

As a recipient of a Juno Award, Gemini Award, ARIA Awards, the 79-year-old has toured the globe and conducted orchestras in North America and Europe. Banks has also recorded multiple albums and directed music got the Commonwealth Games, Expo ’86, the Calgary Olympics, and for TV shows.

He holds an honorary degree from the University of Alberta, the Alberta Order of Excellence, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.

Banks, also finished his term as Canadian senator in 2011, and admitted he misses occasionally politics — although not having to live in Ottawa. “I don’t miss leaving my house on a Monday and not getting back until Friday… but I miss the activity.”

There’s an unpredictability to politics, as exemplified by the U.S. election, where egotistical entrepreneur Donald Trump has a real chance of winning the presidency. Banks hopes for a Hillary Clinton victory, but said “you never can tell with elections … the people are never wrong. They get the government that they deserve.”

Even if Trump prevails, Banks isn’t panicking. He believes his most contentious ideas won’t get past Congress. “As president, you can’t go off doing all these crazy things…”

While Canada is also beset by electoral dissatisfaction and economic woes, Banks believes our voters are more moderate and practical. “They are not so stuck on ideology.”

Tickets to Banks’ concert, and more information about the pub crawl, is available at

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