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

Alain Londes By

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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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