TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Days 4-10: June 27-July 3, 2011

Alain Londes BY

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TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2011
Toronto, Canada
June 24-July 3, 2011

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Monday evening, fans had a few hard choices to make among the headliners. At Koerner Hall, award-winning Dee Dee Bridgewater paid tribute to Lady Day, Billie Holiday.

Meanwhile at the Enwave Theatre, Kurt Elling took to the stage before an equally enthusiastic audience. The sold-out crowd gave a standing ovation when Elling walked on the stage. Laurence Hobgood, who has collaborated with the singer for 17 years, was on the piano together with Eric Privert on bass and Pete Van Nostrand on drums.

Elling selected pieces from The Gate (Concord Records, 2011) where he revisits some well-known tunes that might otherwise have been placed temporarily on the shelf. Naturally they would have a jazz spin to them with the meaning of the lyrics leading the way. Getting everyone in the mood, Elling's swinging and groovy version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" also included a very brief scat solo.

The suave Elling, sporting a business casual suit, was genuinely comfortable on stage. He naturally moved the mic away or closer to his mouth to temper the volume just the way he wanted. Whether singing or speaking, the conversation was always with respect to the audience. His tasteful sense of humor was another bonus of a live show.

Elling sang the title track of his Grammy Award-winning Dedicated To You (Concord Records, 2009). Hobgood added a solo including a quick nod to the song "Cabaret." Proving that great singers understand all the rudiments of music including time, Elling, on "Samurai Cowboy"—where he added lyrics to bassist Marc Johnson's "Samurai Hee Haw"—doubled-up on vocal percussion sounds in tandem with Van Nostrand.

Guitarist John McLean came onstage later, to bring a rock element and a hard driving solo to The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood,." Elling quipped that songs can have the effect of "making the pain musical," when talking about life. Such was the case with a slow version of Earth, Wind & Fire's "After The Love Is Gone." The only standard of the evening was Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." Without being prompted, the audience snapped its fingers for Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady," with Elling rightly concluding, "Hey, that's a nice night. What do you think?" For effect, the background spotlight on Elling slowly faded out, signaling the end of the show with "Save Your Love For Me." Fortunately, the audience was treated to a second encore with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luisa," after Elling translated the Portuguese lyrics.

Over at the Mainstage Concert, a night of blues was dominated by the Robert Cray. Playing selections from Cookin' In Mobile (Vanguard, 2010) such as "Sitting On Top Of The World," Jim Pugh drew particular attention after Cray introduced him numerous times over the evening.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

For the evening portion of the programming, Vijay Iyer walked onstage at the Glenn Gould Studio for a solo piano performance as part of the Grandmasters Series. The young, highly acclaimed pianist was the center of attention with interpretations of well-known tunes and his own compositions. He immediately put the audience into a quiet contemplative mood with the meditative "Heart Piece," that continued into "Epistrophy" in honor of one of Iyer's icons, Thelonious Monk. One moment he made use of Monk's slow percussive style, the next moment he got right into a hurried style, demonstrating his fast and technically adept hands. "Autoscopy," was one of the deepest and somewhat somber pieces of the evening, representing the definition of its title: an out of body experience where you leave your body and watch it from above. Iyer switched gears with his take on another modern idol, Michael Jackson, with "Human Nature. On Duke Ellington's classic "Black and Tan Fantasy," Iyer maintained the marching beat of this funeral procession while adding a measured degree of freedom. Vijay Iyer also brought in pieces by Andrew Hill, John Coltrane, and Sun Ra.

For something totally different, a large crowd converged on the Sony Centre for Return to Forever (RTF) IV, which was creating all the buzz leading up to its Tuesday night stop in Toronto. The jazz-fusion group did not disappoint; the show was exhilarating, with the whole auditorium vibrating, at times.

Keyboardist Chick Corea turned 70 about two weeks before this performance, and clearly is showing no signs of slowing down. Guitarist Frank Gambale was not at all a newbie, working in the keyboardist's 1980s Elektric Band. During his solo, Gambale's demonstrated his innovative sweep picking technique, where he swept the strings resulting in a precise sequence of desired notes.

Violinist Jean-Luc Ponty also collaborated with Corea, back in the '70s. With RTF, he provided a key ingredient that gave this edition a distinct characteristic. He seemed to complement, Corea while Gambale's guitar worked with bassist Stanley Clarke. The versatile and intense Lenny White was as strong as ever on the drums. Corea said, during the show, that White changed jazz drumming in the '70s. He, too, was a veteran to the electric period of Miles Davis, which could definitely be felt. During the show, he walked up to the microphone and explained how RTF was a "man's band," in comparison to other bands that lack the true musical abilities and depth that this group has always possessed. Everyone was clearly enjoying themselves, from start to finish, and at one point were high-fiving each other like guys in a sports team.

The members of RTF IV toyed with the audience by saying that they were not going to introduce any of the selections, yet longtime fans were able to pick out well-known classics from the band's history, such as "After the Cosmic Rain, and "Hymn of the 7th Galaxy."

A tune such as "Señor Mouse" represented the best at what these musicians as a group could do, considering the high level of intensity, technical wizardry, and perfect timing under the jazz-rock umbrella. Corea, Gambale, Ponty and Clarke all shone with their distinctive solos; careful listeners might have identified a very subtle touch of French folk melody on Ponty's part.

Clarke led the way with a strong dose of funk on "Sorceress." With his intense bass playing, he was waving his hands at the end, like a student who had just written a three-hour exam nonstop. Of course Clarke is no student ,and never ceased to impress at his mastery of the bass. He switched to upright bass for the rest of the show when Ponty introduced his own "Renaissance." At one point during Clarke's solo, the bassist turned to Ponty inviting him to join in, while pushing him musically in the process.

Ponty opened Rodrigo's classic "Concierto De Aranjuez," before being joined by Corea, as the band settled into "Spain," the audience singing along with every bar he played on the piano. With fans yelling out requests for an encore, RTF closed this great show with another favorite, Clarke's "School Days."

On this busy night, fans also had a chance to see The Bad Plus over at the Enwave Theatre, opera diva Jessye Norman at Koerner Hall and Los Lobos, for the Mainstage Concert.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Philadelphia-born Kenny Barron has a rich history, spanning over 50 years to showcase his influences, exceptional musical understanding and technical ability for the close to 90-minute solo performance that he presented for the Grandmasters Series concert at the Glenn Gould Studio. Barron has played and recorded with the who's who of the jazz icons.

He opened the solo set this evening with Gershwin's "Love Walked In," before bringing on selections by Thelonious Monk, Billy Strayhorn and Eubie Blake. His move to New York in 1961 brought him to Brooklyn where his first gigs at a West Indian night club led him to compose "Calypso," which has the same feel as Sonny Rollins' "St Thomas." Barron's very melodic style of playing added a wonderful touch to Freddie Hubbard's waltz "Up Jumped Spring." For fast hands from start to finish, Barron switched to Monk's "Well, You Needn't," before slowing it down considerably with his original, "Song for Abdullah," dedicated to Abdullah Ibrahim—who used to play at New York's well-known Sweet Basil club. Barron described the music "like being in a cathedral," coming back at the end of the show with "Body And Soul" as a well-deserved encore.

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" Wooten—brother 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.

Apart from the initial introductions, the Flecktones moved from one piece to the next as if it was a continuous suite, with short breaks in between. They were at the beginning of a north American tour, promoting Rocket Science (E1, 2011), but threw in old signature pieces such as "Sex In A Pan." Even though Rocket Science is relatively new, the style and feel sounded similar to the band's previous collaborations, the flow of "Gravity Lane" sounding like a comfortable countryside train ride, with all the turns and scenic changes making it particularly enjoyable. Victor Wooten threw in a reference to "Jean-Pierre," when the tempo slowed down for his solo. For a couple of tunes, Fleck brought American bluegrass fiddler Casey Driessen onstage for added country textures. One of the collaborative highlights was a series of solo duos on "New Country," first between Levy and Wooten and then between Fleck and Driessen. Levy later contributed beautiful, classical-inspired melodic lines to "Sweet Pomegranates," demonstrating his full musical talents.

The Flecktones came back onstage for the encore that fans were blurting out: "The Sinister Minister!" Wooten souped up a frantic bass solo, Futureman's drumitar keeping time in the background with deep grooves. Reaching climatic levels, he literally threw the bass around his body, with the strap preventing the instrument from flying off.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Canada Day was a delay of relaxation (relatively speaking) with a shorter list of performances on tap since it was a national holiday. Most of the key jazz performers had already appeared at the festival.

At lunchtime under a cloudless sky, the young Toronto group, Heavyweights Brass Band, entertained a gathering at the Outdoor Stage. With Christopher Butcher on trombone, Jon Challoner on trumpet, Paul Metcalfe on saxophones, Rob Teehan on sousaphone and Lowell Whitty on drums, these guys had a sound that could easily blend in a New Orleans jazz gig.

The quiet day changed in the evening when a large audience came to witness the legendary The Roots, and "make some noise!" The hip hop/neo soul band was formed back in '87 by Tariq "Black Thought" Trotter and Ahmir "?uestlove" Thompson, in Philadelphia. They later became the house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, gaining a huge following over the years.

On this occasion, the group drew from a variety of sources, with some heavy acid jazz grooves to icons such as Bob Marley and Fela Kuti. There were also pop elements thrown into the mix.

Gil Scott-Heron was an American soul and jazz poet and musician who was in his prime during the '70s and '80s, influencing the hip hop and neo soul movement. He passed away less than two months ago and The Roots paid tribute to him with the classic "The Bottle," a danceable tune with a somber message on alcoholism. The fans were buzzing in the standing room only tent as well as the surroundings. During a call and response moment the questions with the expected answers were "What do you want?" "Roots! Roots!" "When do you want it?" " Right now!" The 90 minutes went by in a flash.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

On this final weekend, jazz festival attendees were in for another lineup of contrasting musical styles that was able to attract crossover listeners.

The Alexander Brown Quintet played early in the day, while Jayme Stone took to the same outdoor stage on Metro Square for the late afternoon show. Stone and his band played pieces from the Juno-nominated Room of Wonders (CDBY, 2010), which brings in polyrhythmic sounds based on folks dances from around the world, and worked out very well for a relaxing Saturday afternoon.

At the same time, over at Quotes across the street, Canadian pianist, composer, and educator Gord Sheard concluded his third day this week for the festival. Each gig featured a specific artist such as singer Luanda Jones and guitarist Reg Schwager. On this particular day, jazz and Latin flutist Bill McBirnie was the guest before a packed house. Sheard demonstrated his great knowledge of the Brazilian people and the rich musical variety that defines its wonderful culture. Sheard's group included George Koller on bass, Maninho Costa on percussion, and Mark Kelso on drums. They played a variety of sambas and bossa novas, with Jobim's "Chega De Saudade" a good example of the bossa's relaxed appeal. McBirnie provided the perfect accompaniment to bring out the tune's textures. Sheard also used the opportunity to talk about some other styles in Brazillian music. He introduced frevo, one of the rhythms coming from the north eastern part of Brazil and associated with carnival music. As a dedication to Hermeto Pascoal, a composer and instrumentalist, Sheard showcased an original composition performed live for the first time. He described "The Hermetic Arts" as a "syncopated march and samba."

Back on Metro Square, fans were already lined up for the evening Mainstage show. Due to the volume of equipment and for logistical reasons, the opening act was moved to the outdoor stage which worked out quiet well, as Saidah Baba Talibah brought her self-described "raunch soul" style of music to open the evening's entertainment.

The Mainstage was ready for some heavy and groovy bass action once Bootsy Collins and his 14-piece band started the big show. From working in James Brown's band to collaborations with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic (P-Funk), Collins has been bringing the funk to audiences all over the world. This was a show where earplugs were a good thing while still having fun in the standing-room only section of the tent. The loud opening bass lines paved the way to a funky journey that had most people on their feet all night, even those who had secured a seat.

To keep the enthusiastic crowd going, and while Collins was changing into another crazy outfit, the vocalists kept the momentum alive and led the crowd into an organized dance routine. They also were urged to raise their cellphones in the air to mimic torch lights. Yes, cellphones were ubiquitous. The band did quiet things down, for just a brief moment, with "Yummy, I Got The Munchies" featuring duets between vocalists. The act had the structure of a revival gathering, as Collins talked to the crowd with the music in the background. At one point, he asked that the crowd divide itself into two sections, like the opening of the sea. This was just preparation for the bassist to walk into the crowd and connect with everyone in his path before returning back on stage.

The evening ended anticlimactically, as people were expecting an encore. Nevertheless Collins and his crew delivered a fun show for fans. Even a JazzFM (local jazz radio station) volunteer, who attended a quieter show earlier in the day was genuinely pleased by what she just witnessed.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Canadian artists headlined the last day of the festival. Hungarian-born Robi Botos has really established himself in Toronto, and was proud to finally showcase pieces from his just-released debut, Place To Be (A440, 2011).

Since her appearance onto the scene when she was 12, Nikki Yanofsky drew great attention with her ability to imitate Ella Fitzgerald at such a tender age. She closed the festival with a collection of songs ranging from jazz to R&B. It will be interesting to see how her career evolves, as this was but a snapshot of a youngster pursuing her dreams

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