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Live Reviews

Toronto Jazz Festival 2006

By Published: July 27, 2006
Toronto just celebrated the 20th edition of its main jazz festival. Just a few months ago, this festival won the "Jazz Festival of the year award at Canada's National Jazz Awards. Part of the reason has to be the ability of organizers to attract key artists for a jazz festival as opposed to a music festival that might have a large number of acts more appropriately described as world beat. The Toronto Star indicated in its July 2nd edition that the festival has a $3.5 million dollar (Canadian) budget in comparison to Montreal's $20 million. It helps that Montreal gets funding from all levels of government for political reasons. Sponsorship is also a constant necessity to put up a major event. Gone were the traditional afternoon live performances in Toronto this year that were a bridge between lunchtime shows and the evening marquis headliners.
Outside of the context of the festival, many musicians agree that Toronto has more of a jazz scene all year long. Ironically, jazz establishments are in a state of flux locally. The Top O' The Senator closed last year and the Montreal Bistro (after a lease dispute) closed the week just after the festival. Toronto needs a new premiere location to maintain its reputation, as the talent and audience are both here.
The TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival reflected the multifaceted image of jazz and that is one of the hallmarks of organizers' philosophy. The headliners enjoying the mainstage in front of city hall included Marcus Miller, the Mingus Big Band, John Pizzarelli, Christian McBride, McCoy Tyner, Paquito D'Rivera, and Pharoah Sanders together with Kenny Garrett. Vocalist fans will had the choice of hearing Etta James, Molly Johnson, and Ann Hampton Callaway. Canada has developed a number of singers who have made their mark in the US such as Sarah McLachlan and Shania Twain. In that spirit, and for two years running, the festival played host to a show composed of "Real Divas where 16 female singers showcased their individual vocal talents followed by a series of varied duets.
It can be tricky to enjoy legendary performers who have their names written into the history books decades ago. Setting up the right ensemble can also be challenging. McCoy Tyner surrounded himself by top guns in the horn section where each individual could have led his own effort. The group included Steve Turre, Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, and Eric Alexander. For some reason, these cats were standing at the back when it would have been nice to see them right up front. One pianist in the crowd felt that Tyner was struggling a bit in his technique yet the majority of the audience were very happy to see this group perform such classics as "In A Mellow Tone and "Stolen Moments. "Passion Dance was enriched with the addition of more musicians in comparison to the original version in The Real McCoy (Blue Note, 1967). When it first came out, Tyner noted that musicians improvised on the key of F in order to make for "freer melodic invention. For the expected encore, McCoy Tyner selected "Happy Days played in ¾, which gave it a spiritual quality and the snap for enjoyable solos. Turre improvised with two seashells using his well-known self-taught technique to the delight of the audience.

A capacity crowd welcomed Pharoah Sanders (Ferrell Sanders) and Kenny Garrett enthusiastically but only after the latter hit the stage. An impressive rhythm section accompanied the duo with William Henderson on piano, Doug Derzon on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. This was to be a night of pure music featuring just three extended tunes that were sufficient to keep the attentive listeners focused into the late hours. "Doctor Pitt had Sanders demonstrate his free whaling technique before yielding to Garrett. The only issue was the mic system for the tenor saxophonist. With "Say It (Over and Over Again), Pharoah Sanders reminds us how John Coltrane was able to calm sensitivities, especially in the tumultuous sixties, with beautiful ballads. To cap off the homage to Coltrane, Sanders and Garrett both went all out with "Lazy Bird (featured on the famous Blue Train recording on Blue Note in 1957) to enthusiastic applause after the saxophonists' solos. The dynamic performance was very well supported by Henderson's melodic play that never tired of musical ideas. How did they keep playing in this workout? As Derzon put it after the concert with a beaming smile and exhibiting a great sense of accomplishment: "It's do or die! This was jazz at its best.

While the Neville Brothers brought some New Orleans funk to the Harbourfront Centre Concert State, festivalgoers had some James Brown type funk at the mainstage concert. When Maceo Parker comes to town, his band brings the spirit, the professionalism, and the music to get people movin'. Without a doubt this concert surpassed the one from the previous festival appearance and can only be described as funk overdrive. The band was so hot that even the downpour did not manage to cool anything off and somehow the electricity did not rip off the roof. After presenting the band for the beginning of a real "Fiesta, Maceo Parker moved into "Off The Hook from the cd Made by Maceo (What Are Records, 2003). "To Be or Not To Be, is just one of the tracks from his latest release "School's In (BHM, 2005) and included a light moment when his manager came on stage in Shakespearean garb and proceeded to recite the famous writer's lines to the expected consternation of the audience. Maceo gently moved her aside to give his funky interpretation of what the lines should really be. Rodney 'Skeet' Curtis was on bass, Bruno Speight on guitar, and Jamal Thomas on drums. The front horns accompanying Maceo were the fabulous Ron Tooley on trumpet and Greg Boyer on trombone. Will Boulware added a rich musical touch to the keyboards that is not usually the case with other bands. A careful ear (even under the high volume) could detect, for example, colorful musical elements such as latin backbeats on the last tune. Corey Parker, Maceo's son, and Martha High provided the central vocal component to the show.

Music selection came from older recordings as well such as the classic "Uptown Up from "Funk Overload and "Shake Everything You've Got from "Life on Planet Groove. Earlier in the show, Maceo stood alone on stage and paid homage to Ray Charles with his rendition of "You Don't Know Me.

The "French Connection series showcased a number of hidden gems both established (yet not universally known) and legendary. French people and those who have traveled to Europe and more specifically France would have truly appreciated the virtuosity of Richard Galliano. This great French accordionist plays with such emotion that nostalgic listeners will want to cross the Atlantic instantly. For years Galliano fought against the typical musette style from yesteryear and worked hard to expand his musicianship while still being true to the wonderful instrument. He was accompanied by the very talented George Mraz on bass and Al Foster on drums. You could tell that this trio had great chemistry and sure enough they have been playing for years. His "New Musette style emerged in the early 90s and he has played with a number of key musicians such as Chet Baker, Eddie Louiss, Daniel Goyone, Michel Portal, Ron Carter, Michel Petrucciani, Jan Garbarek, Toots Thielemans, Pierre Michelot, and Joe Zawinul. Tunes such as "Laurita exemplify that traditional 50s-60s jazz combo style that is especially enjoyable and will always have that innocent freshness. Galliano is a great admirer of Astor Piazzolla and also performed wonderful tangos before an appreciative audience.

The contemplative award of the evening has to go to Yusef Lateef and the Belmondo brothers. The fascination of the French for American jazz is legendary. In this case, the Belmondo brothers had their curiosity peaked by one of Yusef Lateef's first recordings, Jazz Moods (Savoy, 1957). This album succeeded in stimulating their imagination with its unique thematic structures. Fast forward a few years and here we have the Belmondo brothers performing and recording with their source of inspiration. Their music was very calm, deep and spiritual. In fact, the opening segment was a slow lament that worked in the first three notes of "Summertime, before hinting at other Porgy and Bess sounds. During the performance, both Lateef and Lionel Belmondo alternated between flute and saxophones. Perhaps Stéphane Belmondo, the trumpeter, used Wilbur Harden as inspiration since he was Lateef's legendary sideman in the 50s. It's almost as if this music is an antidote and a reaction against the stresses of modern life that forces you to turn off your cellphone and just calm down to music that will open up your imagination without falling into the trappings of minimalism. Audience members sitting quietly at the Harbourfront Centre Theater heard something special indeed.

For what appeared to be a night targeting esoteric tastes, audience members standing in an open area in front of the main stage welcomed the Charlie Hunter Trio with Hunter leading the way with his custom-made guitar and without any dry intro that would have broken the momentum of the music. Using a combination of jazz, rock, and fusion, the trio including Eric Deutsch on keyboards and Simon Lott on drums played an intense set featuring different motifs. One of those was a fiery blues that also had an updated and modern rhythmic feel of Avery Parrish's "After Hours on the classic recording Sonny Side Up (Verve, 1957) featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, and Sonny Stitt. Further down the segment, a funky piece emerges with the signature beginning of the often-played "Money Money Money Money by the O'Jays. As was often the case, the band would play to a loud crescendo before easing off a bit into the next motif. By the end, one could clearly sense a type of 60s groove.

DJ Logic controlled the turntables before the highly anticipated Christian McBride Band took to the stage just before 11pm. McBride has grown a lot as a musician since his debut CD "Getting' To It in '94. At that point he had already achieved a considerable level and played often with some of the top names in the business. The Jazz Journalists Association just recently named him "Best Electric Bassist for 2006. His devotion to jazz and its future is unquestioned. Joining McBride this evening were Ron Blake on saxophones, Geoff Keezer on piano, and Terreon Gully on drums. The lineup came from the Vertical Vision cd (Warner Brothers, 2003). It would have been wonderful to hear additional material from the recent release such as "Out Jam/Give It Up Or Turnit Loose by James Brown or even Miles Davis' classic "Bitches Brew. The first musical act, preceding Charlie Hunter, could have played perhaps at another venue. The high-powered jazz-rock tune "Technicolor Nightmare kicked things off with the distinct voice of Ron Blake on tenor sax leading the way. Keezer followed with his solo that at one point referenced Miles Davis' "So What. McBride provided a solo entrance into the next tune, "Sonic Boom. Blake, born in the Virgin Islands, wrote this piece that could be described as soul-jazz with an island feel to it. The fusion ballad "Tahitian Pearl, written by Keezer, eased things off a bit. The band added some modern bopish element with "The Wizard of Montara before ending things off with Joe Zawinul's "Boogie Woogie Waltz. McBride quipped at one point that both he and Blake were married to Canadian women. Let's hope that this brings them back here more often so that more people can hear these cats.

At the Gladstone Hotel, the Eurojazz series featured European artists such as Igor Butman, Joost Buis, Wibutee, and the Jeanette Lindstrom Quintet. The Young Centre for the Performing Arts featured a cabaret series for the first time with mainly local artists.

Key highlights from the club scene must include Cedar Walton performing with Dave Young as well as George Coleman. They all appeared at the now closed Montreal Bistro.

The Dave Brubeck Quartet ended the official musical celebration in style at Massey Hall. At 85, his piano voice is still his real communication instrument capable of enveloping classical finesse with the jazz idiom at a formidable level. After kicking things off with "Gone With the Wind, and progressing with such tunes as "London Flat, London Sharp, Brubeck still commands that youthful exuberance that we should all strive for when experiencing the joy of life and all it has to offer. Even at the very end of the two hour set, he toyed with the audience with a solo rendition of the bedtime song "Lullaby leading an audience member to shout out: "It's not gonna work! We are certainly fortunate to enjoy the music of icons who continue to record new music.

The harbor front area at one time used to be an area favored by the JVC Jazz Festival. With Lake Ontario touching the downtown core, it would be wonderful if city planners could designate and remodel an area that could host a number of locations supporting the Toronto Jazz festival. Music by the water is a much better environment than being surrounded by concrete in front of city hall. Alas, festival organizers have kept their tested formula and will continue to attract key artists while sponsors keep the show alive.

Photo Credit
Dougal Bichan
Dave Brubeck by George Lobb
Richard Galliano by Barry Thomson

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