Dr. Jennifer Russell showcases her musical roots

·4 min read
It's been over a year since Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health, has been able to indulge in her passion for performing.  (Thomas Leonard/Facebook - image credit)
It's been over a year since Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health, has been able to indulge in her passion for performing. (Thomas Leonard/Facebook - image credit)

Come September, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Jennifer Russell will swap her briefing podium in a near-empty room in Fredericton's Chancery Place for a stage with a live audience.

The Jenn Russell Big Band will perform at the Harvest Music Festival this year.

After a gruelling 16 months keeping New Brunswickers informed about the COVID-19 pandemic, Russell says being able to perform again is surreal.

"I haven't actually played in front of an audience since probably January of 2020," she told Shift on Wednesday.

"I'm looking forward to the musicians being able to play and the audiences being able to participate in this way, so it's really exciting."

Musical roots

For Russell, music has always been a part of her life.

"I started taking piano lessons when I was little. And then that morphed into saxophone when I was a teenager and I started playing in many bands: concert band, stage bands, jazz bands and cover bands," she said.

"I did that my whole life really. When I was studying music at Dal[housie] it was my primary focus, but then after that, it was always a hobby and I've always enjoyed it."

Some New Brunswickers might recognize Russell musically as a member of the Fredericton blues/funk band The Tortoise, The Hair, and the Millionaire, where she plays the saxophone.

The Tortoise, The Hare & The Millionaire/Facebook
The Tortoise, The Hare & The Millionaire/Facebook

But the Jenn Russell Big Band is a whole different style of upbeat swing and jazz.

"This was something that morphed out of playing in a cover band that was doing a lot of swing music way back in 2009," she said.

In 2010, Russell started writing her own original jazz tunes, and has since released two CDs: 'Double Kiss' in 2014 and 'Triple Step' in 2019.

"A lot of my songs are based on clichés, and they usually revolve around telling a story, usually involving a love or romance."

As for why she gravitated toward the '40s style swing and jazz genre, Russell says it all goes back to the saxophone she first picked up when she was a teenager.

Ryan Barton/Submitted
Ryan Barton/Submitted

"One of the concert bands that I played in was playing Glenn Miller. So once I started listening to that big band era music, I was hooked."

And once she started making her own music, she just couldn't stop.

"Fredericton is rich, rich, rich with talent, and they were so enthusiastic and motivated. I got so much positive feedback and encouragement to just keep going," she said.

"The musicians were what fuelled me. And then, the live performances with lots of dancing and that energy just, you know, it's a great vibe."

Festival safety

Formerly called Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival, the new Harvest Music Festival will run from Sept. 14 to 19 in Fredericton.

An in-person festival was put off last fall due to the pandemic, but organizers have put in the work to make sure the event can go ahead this year.

Shane Fowler/CBC
Shane Fowler/CBC

Performances will be held at venues throughout the city's downtown core, and a free stage will also be running in Officers' Square throughout the afternoons and evenings.

The festival also launched a survey last month asking people how they would feel about going to a concert at this stage of the pandemic.

"We wanted to be able to present something where people were going to get together like they have in the past," organizer Brent Staeben said.

Of the more than 3,100 people who responded to the survey, 92 per cent said they would consider attending.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Dr. Russell says she's cautiously optimistic that this year's Harvest Fest will go on without a hitch.

"We're going to keep watching how things evolve with our vaccine rollout, with case numbers, et cetera," she said.

"[The pandemic] is not going away. It's not that it's not there. We'll still be thinking about it and taking whatever necessary precautions we need to. But at this time, we're in a good place."

The Jenn Russell Big Band will be performing at the Fredericton Playhouse on Saturday September 18 with Samantha Martin and Delta Sugar.

Other performances coming to Harvest include Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, the Revivalists, Serena Ryder, and David Myles.

Tickets go on sale July 16.

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