The 18th edition of the jazz festival rolled into Toronto on June 25 and stayed until July 4. It was as big as it ever was with over 1500 musicians and over 30 venues. There was one difference. Federal legislation smoked out du Maurier with a ban on sponsorship by tobacco companies. TD Canada Trust stepped in and lo, the festival came to be called the TD Canada Trust Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival!
If there was anyone looking for the familiar, there was enough. Among them were Chris Potter, John Scofield, Wynton Marsalis and Bela Fleck. At a tangent were performances by Oscar Peterson and George Benson who had Randy Bachman on the bill. Jazz it is, jazz it is not.
In the current clime, a jazz festival is not entirely a jazz festival. Musicians of various calling added colour and there was enough to satiate diverse appetites. The main stage at Nathan Phillips Square was the harbour for mainstream acts at night and for performers of varying calibre during the day. Just outside was the Youth Stage which reverberated to different sounds including that of the irresistible Carlo Actis Dato Quartet. And tucked away at the National Film Board were out acts that satisfied a small number of enthusiasts save for the Ken Vandermark 5 who drew a bring-in-your-chair-from-the-lobby audience.
Opening night and D.D. Jackson takes the stage. He just gets better balancing his hard hitting propulsions with sedate moments that flow becomingly, building anticipation and wrapping it in a swirl of animation. His solos were well constructed, the evolution logical. It all came to a head in "Hopes and Dreams" from his album Suite For New York deftly pared down for a trio and turned into a warm experience with Duncan Hopkins on bass and Anthony Michelli on drums cleaving adroitly to the sentiment.
Bud Shank and Phil Woods are in their seventies but time has not effaced their appeal. Both have different styles but when it cam to ensemble playing, their lines were smooth and symmetrical. Adding to the impress of their set were Bill Mays on piano, Bob Magnusson on bass and Joe LaBarbera on drums. On a night when bop ruled with eloquence, two tunes testified to the magnificence of the band. "Nature Boy' was given over to Shank who was angular and rough hewn on the alto sax. He brought a different point of view to the song and it was a remarkably intuitive one. Helping him was Mays whose hands unlocked a shimmering brook that flowed resplendently. As for Woods he delved into "We Could Make Such Beautiful Music Together" with a sublime passion giving the ballad a riveting structure.
Michel Camilo has remarkable technique and he made it known in no uncertain terms. Sure he balanced his stentorian runs with soft shaded notes, but there was not much that latched on. His was a show for the moment when he churned the heat and let it dip into a glow before the moment eclipsed.
The Latin Jazz All-Stars turned in a stellar performance. On hand to serve up a dollop of goodies were Hilton Ruiz on piano, Steve Turre on trombone and shells, Ray Vega on trumpet, Steve Barrios on drums, Giovanni Hidalgo on percussion and Yunior Cabrerra on bass. They electrified from the first moment and carried it through an array of music that fed on their artistry and energy. The beat was effervescent, the beat was torrid and the beat swayed to the sensuality of a lovely Cuban lady called "Claudia". If there was a defining moment in the set it was this for it showed that they could fill a ballad with their souls and give it a palpitating body. The up-tempo sway came in "Sweet Cherry Pie" and in "Michael's Mambo" with Vega burning the lines and Ruiz raining down a torrent. But they did not fall over the precipice of excess. Turre matures like fine wine, there is always something to savour. His is an articulate trombone and if the shells bring a gasp of awe by their presence, they also bring to attention an exponent who gives music an extraordinary perspective as he fashions ideas from the bed of composition. And it would be amiss not to give the others their due as they lit a crackling fire of rhythm.
From Sweden came the Mattias Ståhl Quartet. Ståhl who plays vibraphone had Joakim Milder on tenor & soprano sax, Filip Augustson on bass and Thomas Strønen on drums (he is from Norway). The band was sparse and quiet at the outset, improvising on the spur of the moment, with Ståhl adding little splashes of colour. They soon got into harder territory and the interplay between them took on a greater degree of urgency. It was here that Milder got into his own as an articulate thinker and turned in several commendable phrases.