Jazz in its varied permutations, the blues and world music all came together at the 15th du Maurier Downtown Jazz Festival in Toronto. This mix has been coming into the festival for some time now, for better or for worse. For better because it brings in an audience and for worse because some of that audience actually thinks it has heard "jazz" and because jazz should be just jazz.
Big names crowded the main tent. They served the dual purpose of entertaining and of selling out the venue.
Terence Blanchard had Cassandra Wilson as a special guest. He started well enough investing his music with heart ably assisted by pianist Ed Simon who extended the body with some empathic invention and saxophonist Brice Winston who brought in a hard edge with his blowing. Things changed when Wilson stepped in. She sang with a demure grace, softly shading her songs among them Softly As In A Morning Sunrise. Blanchard upped, and whopped out hard blasts that jangled and threw nicety right out. Quite the sour finish to a concert that was moving along nicely.
The Chick Corea New Trio was an absolute delight. Corea continues to be an illuminating player. He opens new vistas lending them an imagery that is a feast for the senses. What made this all the more pronounced was the chemistry he evoked with bassist Avishai Cohen and drummer Jeff Ballard. Cohen is a treat. He scoped the body of the bass as well as the strings, setting fire to the structure of the rhythm most delightfully. Ballard is propulsive flex, just the right shade to give the music an energy that played off perfectly against the more gentle permutations of Corea.
Long sets that threw in everything from funk to acoustic jazz came from Medeski, Martin and Wood. The absence of emotion and the lack of focus made listening akin to stuffing cotton in the ears.
The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra came in with a lot of hoopla behind it. Wynton Marsalis has trimmed the Orchestra of its bite, severely muzzling the players. The playing was pretty but there was no punch in the solos. Except for Marsalis that is. He made sure that he had the freedom to growl, use the plunger and the wah wah to give his outings intensity. Now, if he only trades that in for a wider perspective the Orchestra should actually have some charm.
While Nicholas Payton was essaying New Orleans and Louis Armstrong under the tent, veteran George Masso was parlaying a skillful set at Dewey's Lounge with the Ian Bargh Trio. Masso had a nice sense of swing, his ruminations were soft yet warm and he brought in subtle colors that meshed seamlessly with the lilt of Bargh and the steady pulse of Duncan Hopkins on bass and Don Vickery on drums. This was music that was well articulated and made for a wonderful evening of jazz.
Ray Anderson played with N.O.J.O. (Neufeld Occhipinti Jazz Orchestra) in an early evening concert. N.O.J.O. was adept, the compositions moving along nicely. It was Anderson who burnt a hole with the spirit that has long marked his playing. Yes, the smears, blurps and sidles were there but so was an intense passion for the music. And that is what made the real impact.
Making an impact of a different kind were Johannes Bauer and Hans Koch. Bauer turned the trombone into an extension of his free flowing ideas that were manifested in squalls of sound that rose and fell in atonal splendor. His circular breathing produced whorls of sound that catapulted over and through the lines set up by Koch on clarinet. The freedom of jazz was at once earthy and spatial.
With tobacco company sponsorship now seemingly at an end, it will be interesting to see what the festival unfurls next year. Until then one has to keep one's fingers crossed and hope for the best not only when it comes to sponsorship but to the music as well.