In it's 20th year, the jazz festival in Toronto shed the word "downtown and so gave itself a wider parameter, and deservingly so. To be sure, almost all of the action of the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz festival was confined to the downtown core, but that is where the festival finds its larger audience. The reach out went into the east and to the centre of the city, but most tellingly, the Harbourfront Centre was brought in once again. Nestling against Lake Ontario, it is a picturesque venue. But being open-air, it remains at the mercy of the elements. So it was when The Neville Brothers played. The thunder rolled and the skies opened to torrential rain. But that did not dampen either the band or the audience.
It would be so easy for the band to rest on their reputation, but neither time nor age has effaced the impact of the music. The band continues to be tight-knit with never a throw-away moment. Yes, they played it all, and even if one has to use that overdone phrase, it was a gumbo of sounds. And most certainly, a delectable feast. They took the audience for a "Fiyo on the Bayou , stoking an incendiary rhythm that they continued to forge with "Fever. Gone was the stop-time, accented beat of the Peggy Lee version, this one lit a molten path. They brought their own spin to "Stand by Me and to "Everybody Plays the Fool, showing that to cover is not to copy; imagination has its rewarding destination.
Roxanne Potvin opened that night. She sang tunes from her albums Careless Loving and The Way it Feels. Her repertoire rings around the blues, that goes from country to the gutbucket. She has a pretty firm grasp on the idiom and her set was pleasing enough with the highlight being the John Hiatt song "A Love That's Simple .
The main stage had its share of name acts. Some made return visits which is a feature of the Toronto festival. It was good to see Vijay Iyer get his due, opening for The McCoy Tyner Septet. Also in the spotlight was the Mingus Big Band conducted by Craig Handy. The line-up of the band shifts. Any combination would be at ease recreating the atmosphere of Mingus' music and so it was as the band took off on "Meditation . Having set the tone, in particular through the invention of Alex Sipiagin on trumpet, the band went into the blues of "Baby, Take a Chance On Me, a feature for Ku-umba Frank Lacy to show off his singing. Lacy gets into the métier of the song well enough to give it a palpitating soul. They stretched out on "Haitian Flight Song with Conrad Herwig turning the trombone into an intrepid traveller into absorbing terrain with George Colligan lighting up and lightening the tone with a scintillating, erudite turn on the piano.
Michael Bates' Outside Sources played two dates in Toronto as part of its trans-Canada tour. The second was at The Rex Jazz and Blues Bar, a venue with a character of its own. Bates was joined by Quinsin Nachoff on saxophones, Russ Johnson on trumpet and Mark Timmermans on drums. Bates is a strong composer who leaves the door wide open to interpretation and improvisation. He found the perfect mates in his band who took his music, much of which came from his latest album A Fine Balance and extended the horizon of the compositions with focus and vision. Nachoff and Johnson played off each other, blended in tandem and brought in some aggressive intonations that spurred the music on. Timmermans drove the rhythm into high gear, his drumming crisp and creating vivid textures. Bates was the centrifugal force taking the written and the spontaneous to spin enticing webs.
One has to be thankful for the vision of Eye Magazine and the Nordic Embassies for the Euro-Jazz series. The musicians came from Russia, Holland, Sweden and Norway. This was an opportunity to listen to and experience music that comes all too rarely, and as it turned out, absolutely top-notch!
Jeanette Lindström of Sweden has a remarkable singer. She soothes, she caresses, she implores and she scats fervently. From the gentle strains of "Always rose the purity of her voice, the words fed with a deep emotion. The powered "From This Tower was the vehicle on which she carried scat to delightful heights, the tempo driving, the intonation and the vocalisation of the instrumental sections potent. Her repertoire was picked from her current recording In the Middle of This Riddle.
Igor Butman builds several of his compositions over Russian folk tunes. He turns them into little vignettes that boast the musical melodies of his native land and the harmonization of jazz. He also takes bop into his own realm and comes up with compositions that are vibrant and earthy. Butman plays the tenor saxophone with a fiery spirit. He emblazons a trail that burns, pushes boundaries and moulds shape with each note. The soprano saxophone came out for "Callahan Tunnel the beginning of the journey calm and collected before impatience and angst pushed those elements out of the way. But obstacles have a way of clearing and the gentle strain of the melody came on again to close out the adventure. It was a story that drew the listener in. Butman showed his gentler side on "Prophecy. It is a beautifully structured tune, the melody capturing the soul and graced by the artistry of the musicians. In the midst of it all came a sizzling version of "Caravan. Butman's cut away from the melody and sent phrases soaring. He never let the pulse go for a moment and after he had navigated his world, he came back to fulfillment on the line that set him free.
Butman had a stellar band to help create a crackling atmosphere. Anton Baronin on piano stretches a tune with lyrical insight, Eduard Zizak is a sturdy drummer whose drive accents with a potent power and Vitaly Solomonov gives the bass a melodic edge and chord progressions creating patterns that lure the listener into its fold.
Joost Buis Astronotes boasts some of the most spellbinding musicians in the Netherlands. Besides Buis there were Wilbert de Joode, Michael Vatcher, Tobias Delius, Achim Kaufmann, Frans Vermeerssen, Alan Purves, Paul Pallesen and Jan Willem van der Ham with Bert Lochs standing in for Felicity Provan. The music was as delightful as it was unexpected. Ideas were formed on the go and given shape and dimension on the imaginative pulse of each player. The arc of surprise descended right from the start with the blues of "Clues. Ideas were fragments that were pulled from the baritone saxophone of Vermeerssen who soon found company in the bassoon of van der Ham. The twin twirls coalesced into one as Lochs came in with a muted trumpet that soon enough whipped up frenzied lines. The harmonic shifts, the sleight of tonality, the compactness of the ensemble lines found their heart in "Nantons. Buis led the way, bringing in subtle changes to the voicing of the trombone, an elegant outing that leapt into compelling improvisation from the group. There was nothing beyond their ken. They even took the lines from a Captain Beefheart tune and came up with a delicious "Beefsteak fed to the hilt by Delius on the tenor saxophone. They were, in a word, mesmerising.