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Celebrating Jazz Icon, John Norris
Miles Davis once famously suggested that the term "legend" ought never be applied to those people still aliveartist or otherwise. But there are times when a personartist or otherwise achieves so much in his lifetime that one is forced to apply that very epithet to describe the person in question. Yesterday, Toronto honored one of them: a legend, who long ago became part of the folklore of jazz in this fine city.
John Norris moved to Toronto in May of 1956 from England and proceeded to give to jazz in this country over 50 years of his life. In 1958 he founded Coda,, one of the oldest and most respected jazz magazines in North America. Beginning as a mimeographed magazine, which he wrote and produced single- handedly until Bill Smithanother immigrant from Englandjoined him in 1963, Coda, as we know it today, is celebrated around the world.
Ten years later, Norris and Smith founded Sackville Records, a label that has been credited with bringing much great music to appreciative fans around the world as well. Sackville Records gave voice to many Canadian and American artists, from the traditional, mainstream and avant-garde. Musicians such as tenor saxophonists Fraser McPherson, guitarists Sonny Greenwich and Ed Bickert, pianist Wray Downes and clarinetist Phil Nimmons are just a few of those who have preserved some of their finest work on the label. From the US, Norris produced Sackville albums for trumpeter "Doc" Cheatham and pianists Jay McShann and Art Hodes. And because Norris was a fearless aficionado (and heeded his friend, Bill Smith) as well as a shrewd businessman, he boldly ventured to record saxophonists Julius Hemphill and Oliver Lake, reed- player Anthony Braxton, and trombonist George Lewis, all of whom proceeded to give their best to a label that believed in them without any preconceived notions or stipulations on their playing.
The jazz community in Canada has been letting John Norris know just how proud they are of him for a couple of months now, and on the evening of June 5, 2008, a generous gathering turned out to join the Art of Jazz at a very special concert to mark the organization's Annual Celebration at the Distillery Historic District, Toronto, Ontario. Norris received a Lifetime Achievement Award on this night during a special concert featuring a stellar cast of artists who have recorded with Sackville, and who just plain admired the man, the legend... John Norris.
L-R: Mark Miller, Bill Smith, John Norris
The concert kicked off at the Distillery's Fermenting Cellar with the sinewy Wray Downes Quartet, a group that drove the voltage up with a bluesy set that sparked life into the Cellar. Downes, known for his spectacular technique, driven by a mind that picks ideas from blues, jazz and classical soundscapes, set a furious pace with his two-handed domination of the ebony and ivory. Reg Schwager on guitar, Dave Young on bass and the sensational young Ethan Ardelli on drums jumped right in, following Downes on tantalizingly florid paths as he ran riot over the keys. The group's rendition of John Lewis' classic "Django" was breathtaking in its deconstruction of the solemn composition, densely colored with subtle tonal harmonic variations. But Downes' wry sense of humor also showed, as he quoted from "Lullaby of Birdland" to break up the elegiac mood of the requiem for the great Gipsy guitarist. He doffed his proverbial hat to the MJQ and Schonberg alike in a solo filled with dense chord clusters and thrilling runs as he traversed the song's landscape.
Both Dave Young and Reg Schwager soloed on every song. Schwager in his inimitable stylesurprising us with block chords every once in awhile as he broke up single note runsgave us a history lesson on the guitar. Young showed why he is considered one of the flag bearers on an instrument that was brought forth from its dark, subordinate role by the likes of Blanton, Pettiford, Brown and mostly Mingus as he mastered the strings with grace and articulation. Young plays with brilliant intonation. His harmonics are bright and very sophisticated, and you could tell that he and Downes enjoyed a very special relationship. The youngest member of the band, drummer Ethan Ardelli, has developed into a wonderful accompanist. He has a finely tuned sense of time and is a quiet listenersomething of a rarity in our music world today. His sense of history is also very highly developed: there were times when he played like he had paid his dues from bebop onwards, even rattling the snare, then dropping a perfectly-timed rhythmic bomb on the tom-tom, a la Klook himself, the seminal Kenny Clarke!