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Highly Opinionated

Toronto Jazz '09 Festival Journal: 'Round About Midday to 'Round About Midnight

By Published: August 4, 2009
Missed Freddie Cole again...damn! I never got to see Nat "King" Cole either, except on video... Missed Russ Little too... Double damn!!

Square-eyed and open-eared (July 27)

Abandoned plans for everything else in favor of John Stetch and his own personal sound of surprise, his TV Trio, with whom he attempted to recreate a 21st Century American Songbook. So together with bassist, Doug Weiss and drummer, Rodney Green, this virtuoso pianist—in the purest sense of the word—recreated a songbook born of classic television themes. How appropriate to pay homage to the most important and hypnotic element of the New Civilization: The Almighty Television.

The TV Trio and Stetch have the audacity to challenge comfortable ideas about conformity. This is delightful tongue-in-cheek music, especially the trio's versions of "The Love Boat," "Dallas" and my absolute favorite stiff finger at the music establishment, "The Price Is Right." Stetch proved also that he is no slouch as a pianist, with deft touch and wonderful dynamics as he sought to extract the subtly soft shades from the music.

Medeski, Martin and Wood... I wonder what Boris might have said after the first set then? Jazzistically bizzariod! Perhaps...

There are over 300 music events during this jazz festival. Max Roach and Larry Coryell once joked with me about this kind of scheduling, not without cynicism, at another festival where the program was similarly choc-a-bloc... "Shades of George Wein...Newport, man," the Professor said with a somewhat bitter laugh. The musicians in Toronto cherish the opportunity to play their music, but Imagine how stretched we all are, running around, trying to get our heads even fuller with sound than is possible.

A taste of the Garden of Eden (June 28)

I have to admit, when I knew that the Maria Schneider Orchestra was coming to Toronto, I was excited not just to hear this extraordinarily innovative large ensemble, but I also wanted to hear and meet her truly gifted pianist and my friend, Frank Kimbrough. Alas, I could not meet Frank Kimbrough, and while I may regret this, the real gift was the music of the Orchestra.

Schneider's music has a panoramic visual feel to it. Her ability to sense harmonic colors and textures is almost magical, as is her great gift for writing to extract this from various instruments in her 18-piece orchestra.

In "Concert in the Garden" (also a Grammy-nominated record of the same name) the superb Maria Schneider Orchestra was the highlight of the set that the group played. Pianist Kimbrough's exquisite interplay with accordionist, Gary Versace, is the centerpiece of this work. Schneider appears to incorporate a vision of the great American soundscape that descends from Aaron Copland and some of the later melodically-inclined romanticists. "Concert..." is fluid and full of surprising twists and turns between piano and accordion. Ben Monder's solo at the end of the piece brings it to a wonderful resolution. "Evanescence" was a fine vehicle for Scott Robinson.

To quote the words of Pliny—completely out of context, I might add—the Maria Schneider Orchestra quite literally "choked (us) with gold." Her musical expeditions are almost epic in structure and memorable despite their complexity and extent. "Journey Home" and "Sky Blue" were exquisite examples during the set. Clearly, Maria Schneider writes music from the heart and is unafraid to go where it takes her, geographically as well as emotionally. Maybe this is why her music pierces audiences in body and in soul. But much needs to be said of the musicians in her ensemble as well. There are few who play with such finesse and spontaneous elegance, and who can navigate such richly textured oceans of sound as those in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Except perhaps Rob McConnell's Boss Brass... And a recent Bog Band put together by the Cuban pianist, Hilario Duran, in the iconic record From The Heart (Alma Records, 2008).

Two steps forward... one step back (June 29)

Miles Davis said most things better than other musicians—except Mingus and Monk, on their day, of course. When I heard the word "revisited" I recalled something he said to Hollie I. West in "Black Tune," published in the Washington Post on March 13, 1969: "I have to change. It's like a curse."

Perhaps this is a harsh thing to remember around the time I am going to hear the Gary Burton Quartet Revisited, but then I cannot help thinking of what Miles meant. He was, I believe, recording/had recorded Miles in the Sky. He was changing...evolving... And also changing the ever-changing music that he had come to practically own after 'Trane died. Characteristically he also turned his back on nostalgia.

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