TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Days 4-10: June 27-July 3, 2011
A large crowd later gathered at the Mainstage concert for an evening of singing and big band swinging. Canadian singer/songwriter Molly Johnson led the way with pianist Robi Botos), saxophonist/flautist Colleen Allen, bassist Mike Downes and drummer Ben Riley. With the fan-favorite "My Oh My," from her self-titled 2000 debut on EMI, Johnson brought some of her own compositions, as well as other jazz and blues classics like "Killer Joe," and "Lush Life"---even bringing a bit of Charlie Pride country into the mix. Wearing a bright red dress, with a flower adorning her hair, she looked cheerful and relaxed with her musicians, for whom she clearly had great affection. Johnson also pretended that she was intimidated by the presence of the big band that was to follow. Her connection to this city was obvious when she talked about how lucky we are to live here. Performing across the street from the Royal Alexander Theatre was extra-special for her as it brought back lots of memories of her youth growing up to be the performer that she was today. She was, after all, the first Canadian female performer to sell out a concert, a few years ago, for the festival.
When it comes to big bands today, continuing the style and tradition of its founder, the Count Basie Orchestra is a natural choice. The legendary ensemble has existed for over 75 years, and many great musicians have sat on the piano chair to this day. Dennis Mackrel, the orchestra's conductor, spoke highly of Toronto and of the caliber of the local musicians that he has met on previous visits. In fact, the Canadian connection was such that Derrick Gardner, on fourth trumpet, recently accepted a position at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba.
Starting off with Ernie Wilkins's arrangement of "Sixteen Men Swinging," the band played a series of pieces representing that Kansas City sound that will always be associated with the "Chairman of the Board." Both baritone saxophonist John Williams and bassist James Leary were hired by Basie himself. Williams played beautiful low notes for a piece simply called "Carney," in tribute to Harry Carney, who was a member of Duke Ellington's band. Moving towards higher notes, first trumpet Michael P. Williams and first alto saxophonist Marshall McDonald led the way on "Things Ain't What They Used to Be." Johnson came back to join the band for "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You," popularized by Nat "King" Cole. Of course no Basie show would be complete without the all-time favorites such as "Lil' Darlin,'" "Shiny Stockings," "One O'Clock Jump," and the finale, "April In Paris."
It was nice to see a packed tent for a band that played to tight perfection. This was also a night when Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo teamed up for the premiere of Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music, 2011).
Thursday, June 30, 2011
A large and predominantly young crowd gathered in and around the Mainstage to see opening act 5 After 4, followed by headliners Bela Fleck, as Toronto shifted gears towards the end of the work week before a long weekend.
Banjoist Béla Fleck has gathered the original Flecktones together for the first time in 18 years, in the hopes of reconnecting with what worked in the past and forged new ground. A few years ago, the group played a memorable concert to a capacity crowd when the exceptional saxophonist Jeff Coffin was touring with them. In anticipation of a sizable audience, the chairs inside the tent were removed to more comfortably accommodate a larger crowd.
In this band, each musician brought his own unique style and sound to his instrument, helping define the whole. Everyone is on equal footing, despite Fleck being the leader. Over the years, the master of the 5-string banjo has drawn on a rich variety of influences and styles including bluegrass, jazz, folk, African, Indian and more.
A harmonica can be a harmonica, yet when Howard Levy plays it in conjunction with the other instruments on a tune such as "Gravity Lane," the result is a melodic sound that defines this group. Roy "Future Man" Wootenbrother of bassist Victor Wooten and also known on stage as "Futureman" rings his drumitar, a unique drum instrument that he invented and looks like a guitar. He is also the only one who adds limited vocals on some of the Flecktones' compositions.