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Live Reviews

Art of Jazz Celebration in Toronto

By Published: June 18, 2007
Calle 54. The Kansas City-born vocalist Kevin Mahogany's towering tenor voice was a little weary from his long layover on the tarmac in the States, but that didn't stop him from delivering a no- nonsense lesson in bluesology with his trio, which included a Charlie Parker tune and Nat King Cole's "Route 66.



The next night featured Footprints: A Journey in Dance and Drums; a three-part show narrated by former National Ballet of Canada star Veronica Tennant and highlighting the relationship between jazz and dances from Africa, Cuba, and Harlem. Representing the Motherland was the bubbly vocalist/dancer Muna Mingole, the "Blue Flame of Cameroon. Her infectious call-and-response vocals, along with a spirited, booty shaking, dance-off with several members of the audience, compensated for what she may have lacked in specific references to any authentically indigenous tribal style.

Authenticity reigned supreme when the dreadlocked, muscular, Afro-Cuban dancer Insua delivered a powerful praise-performance offering to Oshun, Shango, Obaltala and other gods of the Santeria religion. Backed by four percussionists of the hourglass-shaped bata drums and led by Bata master Roman Oqduardo, the gold-and-red-clad Insua realized the Yoruba-born, Caribbean-bred choreography. He traversed the area extending from the audience to the stage, then expertly navigated through infinite variations of the rumba, complete with an intoxicating duet with his turbaned female partner. But it was irrepressible Jimmy Slyde who brought down the house with his decades-honed tap dances, augmented and mirrored by his protégé Rocky Mendez, and supported by Detroit drummer Leroy Williams. With his plaid hat, yellow blazer and brown slacks, the eighty-year-old Slyde, truly one of the "last of the hoofers, wowed the crowd with his so-advanced-it's-simple steps, mellowed and perfected by age to minimal elegance. He and Williams engaged in a "percussion discussion that took on bebop repercussions, extended and amplified when bebop pianist Barry Harris—arguably the greatest jazz teacher alive—sat in and delivered sweet and succulent renditions of the Duke Ellington and Juan Tizol hits "Come Sunday and "Caravan.



Trumpeter/flugelhornist and Toronto homeboy Kenny Wheeler's tribute at the Cellar was supported by bassist Dave Holland's rock-steady basslines, with multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson on piano and vibes and former Bill Evans percussionist, Joe La Barbera, supplying in-the-pocket drumming. And that was merely the support for the frontline activity of alto saxophonist and Birth of the Cool alumnus Lee Konitz's angular saxlines and the amazing and underrated British vocalist Norma Winstone's agile and quasi-operatic vocals. Marred only by trombonist Bob Brookmeyer's no-show, due to chronic fatigue syndrome, Wheeler's buttery flugelhorn forays fronted a pleasing program of mostly his compositions, including the waltzy rendition of "Smiles Remembered and the Latinesque "Foxy Trot, laced with Winstone's sinewy wordless vocal, though Konitz's performance on the 2.0 upgrade of the standard "Invitation and a tune based on "What is This Thing Called Love were equally satisfying. But it was Wheeler's night, as he skillfully took his avant-oriented music from the sixties and seventies all the way to the change of the twenty-first century.



Another superstar from Wheeler's era, the prolific composer/arranger Carla Bley—along with her partner, bassist Steve Swallow—conducted a spirited AOJ Big Band at the outdoor Pure Spirits Stage—which featured tuba virtuoso and baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson along with Bunnett on flute supplemented by a percussionist and Gary Valiente's muscular trombone—through a mostly Latin set which featured some favorites from her book, from the peppery "Los Concineros to the mariachi-mooded "Tijuana Chapter, capped by a slow-funked encore of Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat.



Bley's Latin tunes were the perfect appetizer for the Havana-born drummer Francisco Mela's incredible set at the same stage. With Nuyorican bassist John Benitez, Toronto-based pianist David Virelles and tenor sax colossus George Garzone, Mela's folkloric chants along with his channeling of Elvin Jones, Art Blakey, and Tony Williams, not to mention his incorporation of the African-American drum set into the inventions and dimensions of Afro-Cuban rhythms, was simply astonishing. Laced with his former Berklee teacher Garzone's Coltranish tones, Mela and company played some of the most intricate and invigorating Antillean jazz of this young century—from the beautiful brush strokes on Horace Silver's "Peace and the anthemic "Sorpresa and "Arere, to a Cubanized reading of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps. Simply put, the performance might have been titled: Mela's syncopated sounds of surprise dance, as well as trance.



For the closing concert back at the Cellar, the surprise was not vocalese master Jon Hendricks' re-formation of his celebrated Lamberts, Hendricks and Ross trio, with his daughter Aria, and Kevin Fitzgerald Burke, nor the nearly perfect, scat-happy renditions of their hits, including "Cloudburst, "Moanin, or "Come on Home. It was the unannounced addition of the trumpet-king Clark Terry, whose ebullient spirit allowed him to burst from the confines of his wheelchair, as assistants helped him to the stage to a standing ovation before he played one note. With his muted horn, and his funny, scatological-if-they-were-intelligible, utterings, he and the Hendrickses did their own "rapping, riffing on Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-a-Ning and, of course, the blues, before Barry Harris (the unofficial patron saint of the festival), Jimmy Slyde, and Kevin Mahogany sat in.



Throughout all of the gigs, jams, master classes, clinics and concerts, Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer, and the rest of the intrepid AOJ team presented a vivid and varied sonic microcosmos of jazz, determined by the downbeat, not the dollar.



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