Cool Jazz in a Cool City: IAJE in Toronto 2003

Ken Dryden By

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But it was ?Slick Rock? that captivated the audience. The avant garde introduction with the leader plucking the piano strings and later banging out chords inside the piano... bringing the house down some twenty minutes later.
Although a fellow jazz journalist expressed his sentiment about the first scheduling of IAJE outside of the U.S. by sarcastically stating "Toronto in January, ...wonderful," I was very much looking forward to my first trip to Canada. Since it sometimes is hard to sneak away very far from the conference for very long without missing too many memorable performances or sessions, I decided to get to Toronto two days early to give me a full day to check out some of the city.

What can I say about my first visit to Toronto? Though it was pretty cold, I've experienced worse winter days (even in Chattanooga, believe it or not) and I walked around the city a good bit. The Fairmont Royal York , one of three official hotels hosting the conference, was first class all the way, with a top-notch staff that went the extra mile. The subway and trolley provided a great way to get around, particularly to hear Don Thompson's Nine Piece Band at the Montreal Jazz Bistro (great food and two terrific sets) and to shop for LPs and CDs at Backbeat.

As usual, the first day is kind of slow for writers until the evening performances. In the large yet intimate John Bassett Theatre, David Young's set was dominated by potent interpretations of the works by another fine bassist, Charles Mingus. In addition to Young's "The Bass Clef," he made the most of four gems by Mingus, "Nostalgia in Times Square," "Self-Portrait in Three Colors," "Tonight at Noon," and finally, "Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma'am!" (Mingus' reworking of the chord changes to Cole Porter's "What is This Thing Called Love?"). Since I didn't have a tux and failed to buy a ticket to the gala dinner honoring Dr. Oscar Peterson, I grabbed a quick meal and returned for the set by Benny Green and Russell Malone, whose new duo CD for Telarc was due for release a short time after IAJE. With Peterson sitting front and center in the audience, the two young men dazzled the SRO convention hall with a stunning set that included "Falling in Love with Love" (a Peterson favorite), Wes Montgomery's "Jingles," and Dr. Billy Taylor's "A Bientot." Drummer Ed Thigpen, who worked with Oscar Peterson from 1959 to 1965), was introduced prior to a tasty rendition of the old chestnut "I Know That You Know." I bypassed the remainder of the evening, though I wish I'd had the stamina to return for Jane Bunnett and the Spirit of Havana in their midnight set.

My second day at IAJE began with the discussion of the Musical Legacy of Wynton Kelly. Presented by Kelly's cousin, Grace Metivier, the panel included drummer Jimmy Cobb, multi-reed man and composer/arranger Jimmy Heath, drummer Albert Tootie Heath, and bassists Jamil Nasser and Larry Ridley, all of whom knew Kelly well enough to share personal memories Also on the panel were pianist James Williams and Australian pianist Monique di Mattina, a teacher who did a thesis on Kelly's career. Cobb described Kelly at age 19 as someone who could sound good with anybody, especially with his light and humorous touch. Cobb was also surprised to see Kelly point at Mr. Spock in a Star Trek episode, saying "There's my buddy!" It turned out that they served together in the Army's Special Services, and actor Leonard Nimoy would serve as emcee for the band's performances.

Jimmy Heath worked with Kelly after the pianist left Miles Davis. Heath described how Kelly helped to teach him modal playing, also stating that "he had the fire of no other pianist I had played with." He added that a friend described Kelly's use of triplets as "putting teardrops in his solo," something which Miles claimed (as he often did with any musician who had worked with him) "I showed him that!" Heath appeared on eight different releases with Kelly, though 'A Thumper,' which was Heath's debut, sticks out in his mind.

Tootie Heath met Wynton Kelly in 1955 while both men were in the army. The drummer described having a horrible headache before he was scheduled to play at the legendary Atlanta nightclub the WaLaHaGe; he was actually looking for a replacement until he heard Kelly play, then he suddenly forgot about the pain.

Larry Ridley was enthusiastic in describing his memories of working with Wynton Kelly. Kelly's perfect pitch and "West Indian Lope," as well as the pianist's leaving plenty of space for the bassist to walk his lines made it a treat to play with him.

One problem with this discussion is there were too many panelists for an hour-long session, though it's doubtful anyone in the packed room was disappointed.


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