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Highly Opinionated

Toronto Jazz Festival 2008

By Published: July 29, 2008
The "French Connection"—another series—probably did not come off as expected after Michel Legrand had to pull out due to poor health, but there was a lot more to choose from. The "Supermarket Jazz Series," probably not the best name for jazz to go by, was, nevertheless, quite well attended. The Jake Langley and the Tony Monaco trios were probably why. Langley, once a well-kept Canadian secret is now one of the busiest and most exciting guitarists in North America. His records with Joey DeFrancesco have won much critical acclaim and even a quick listen will tell you why. The "Cabaret" series at the Old Mill presented some intimate moments with pianist Bill Charlap and Sandy Stewart, Marcus Nance and Louise Petrie and John Alcorn, who on a day when his pipes are on song, can sing as well as anyone in jazz today. The "Lunchtime" and "Afterwork" concert series at Nathan Philips Square brought some music that may have been a better fit for a venue that was more intimate. For instance pianist Bernie Senensky with bassist Neil Swainson and drummer Terry Clarke and trumpeter Alexis Baro deserved to be primetime performances. Senensky in particular is one of the finest Canadian pianists who has written and played for such legendary musicians as the late Moe Koffman, is a bigger draw in the US than he appears to be in Canada.

The headline acts for each day of the festival brought a wide variety of music to the 2008 roster. These primetime concerts were all held in the evening and meant that audiences always had something memorable to take home with them. Day 1 featured Dr. John presenting his now-renowned mix of rhythm and blues mixed in with Southern fried funk and delivered in his raspy nonchalant style that has made him an artistic Ambassador of New Orleans together with the Neville Brothers as well. Day 2 would not be complete without the John Hammond Quartet featuring the soulful voice of Susan Tedeschi. Nor would Day 3 been the same without listening to the Geri Allen Quartet that opened for the Alto Summit featuring alto saxophonists Red Holloway, Greg Osby and Bobby Watson together with tenor saxophonist Donald Harrison. Though not quite the World Saxophone Quartet, this sax summit did reach pinnacles of sound nevertheless, giving Toronto an object lesson in saxophone history from swing to bop and the free idiom as well. Geri Allen could have headlined here as well.

Day 4 was all about the piano. Part of the Grandmasters' series, the twin headlines were the Ahmad Jamal and the Oliver Jones trios. Jamal, is probably one of the most influential pianists together with Hank Jones. Jamal is a prodigious talent, whose pianism is deeply rooted in the two-handed stride milieu. His playing often recalls the work of Willie 'The Lion' Smith, but he has a voice that is all his own. In many ways he predated pianists such as Herbie Hancock, with his grand, classical touch and phrasing. He understood the beauty of "space" and this became a conceptual hallmark of his playing, influencing such masters as Miles Davis. James Cammack joined Jamal on bass and a long-time rhythm partner, Idris Muhammed on drums.

Oliver Jones continues to thrill serious fans of the music across the world and appears to have become one of the most stylish exponents of the almost baroque style of jazz piano. His complex harmonies and spectacular darting runs always thrill and hark back to the piano of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, who served as an early influence and mentor for Jones.

Day 5 was all about the bluesy vocalastics of James Hunter, who has become one of the brightest, swinging vocalists and a fine raconteur as well—all of which has been extraordinarily good for his music. Day 6 was brought a buzz like there was not during the festival—especially at the Main Stage. The Blind Boys of Alabama took center stage with the magnificent Cyrus Chestnut on piano. There are few vocal groups that can stir the soul like the Blind Boys can. Their uniquely fervent gospel music also towers across the bridges that lead to jazz. And their gospel repertoire celebrates the joy of living something that has brought broader appeal to the idiom. Chestnut is one of the most sensitive accompanists in the art of jazz. Day 7 took it up several notches, with a rousing tribute to Norman Granz' Jazz at the Philharmonic—the original concert made famous by Charlie Parker, Lester and Lee Young and a host of musicians from the era when bebop was spoken and sung. This concert featured Roy Hargrove and his Quintet, with stars such as Frank Wess, Paquito D'Rivera, Russell Malone and Roberta Gambarini.

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