Toronto Jazz '09 Festival Journal: 'Round About Midday to 'Round About Midnight

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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T.D. Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival

Toronto, Ontario, Canada

June 26-July 5, 2009

To begin at the beginning: close encounters in a war against the abolition of free will by methodical conditioning and the servitude made acceptable by regular doses of chemically-induced progress and happiness from:

  1. canned food,

  2. vitamins, and

  3. the business side of music and writing (including appropriate shelving and categorization such as: "File under jazz").

Jazz media is dying—who's next? (June 22)

I await my media accreditation for the 2009 Toronto Jazz Festival. I was late this year. Probably ruminating about the lack of appreciation of a sensational, not-so-new tenor saxophonist, JD Allen. His record, Shine (Sunnyside Records) should put paid to any and all notions that this music came from Mozart and not Buddy Bolden, 'Trane, Ornette, Ellington, Mingus, Powell, Herbie Nichols et al. But in my existential angst, I digress...

The mail arrives. I have a note to come pick up my pass at the Toronto Jazz Festival 2009 Media Centre. I also have mail from John Norris—his latest broadcast—Sackville Recordings Newsletter, June 2009 Edition. The news is grimmer than I thought. Norris postulates as he informs us of the virtual demise of the "jazz magazine" in North America. Metronome, Jazz Monthly, The Jazz Review (USA), Matrix and Storyville are no longer in publication. Leslie Johnson is dead and, as a result, Mississippi Rag is dead too. Across the pond, in the United Kingdom, Jazz Journal is dead and buried too. Worse still, Toronto's Coda has suspended publication. (Now I know why Andrew Scott, its Editor, and Mark Barnes, the magazine's publisher, have stopped answering my emails or calls. Gone also is the frequency of Cadence, down from "sure thing" to "whenever." Italy's Musica Jazz—gone too! (It appears that since this was first written, Jazz Journal and Jazz Review have since merged and will resume publication).

But Northern Europe seems to be a different story. (Could it be the consumption of vast amounts "strudel," or maybe just the mark that Bechet, "Klook" and Dexter left behind... I wonder?) No. In Germany and Sweden, Jazz Podium and Orkester Journalen have survived. So did Big Willie Smith and I Am Legend have something to do with it?

Stuff and nonsense, says Norris. He puts the demise of the print magazines down to

  1. the digital revolution and the fact that there is

  2. no longer one kind of music known as "jazz!"

Good ole John Norris, the Model T of our brave new Jazz Age. Now listen here, John, whether you like it or not, this year, too, Toronto is going to feast on this idiom of jazz among other musical metaphors and idiomatic phrases—for almost two straight weeks, whether it is played stride or swinging, bopping or with a walking bass. Jazz. But maybe not—"jass" is an experience through music played in the key of life (borrowed that from Steveland Morris, just in case there are raised eyebrows out there). So Strike One for the Heart of Freedom... From 'round about midday to 'round about midnight!

In praise of a Famous Ghost (June 23)

Media Accreditation arrives. Elated, but much reading matter sometimes finds me choking on a poor diet of Stan Kenton, Pops Whiteman... too many "Viva Salazar's" in my past. Not enough Zutty, until I quit Trinity... Balls to anyone who utters the word "genre" going forward.

So Anna Tom approves me to cover the Festival. I have a question almost immediately: "Where is Eliane Elias?" No confirmation yet from her publicist, I am told by the delightful, yet unsmiling Amber... She appears concerned for me.

Ghost images... To begin with a singular meditation... afterwards, like 'Trane, I Wait and Pray... most importantly—even though he would scoff at this—for my dear friend and one of my mentors—no not Francois Villon this time, but Boris Vian. It is the 50th Anniversary of his death today. Boris the Terrible, who destroyed most rational thought as he sailed on an ocean of sound through the '30s and '40s. Boris the Magnificent... So perhaps something in his honor, though it be in English, and what better to do than whirl around a jazz festival with the likes of Sonny Rollins, Dave Holland, Branford Marsalis, Charlie Hunter, Roberto Occhipinti, et al...

A Brasilian Fairytale (June 24)

I have had this recurring dream for several days now. I am sure that it has to do with the 2009 Toronto Jazz Festival. Here's how it goes: I am lying on Ipanema beach. My throat is parched from the deeply gratifying summer sun. I drift in and out of consciousness...

Some hours must have passed. I now hear a weak voice... It is mine. I am calling out to someone. Suddenly my eyes are open. I see Eliane Elias walking as if on air. Actually she is strutting down the beach with Marc Johnson and...could it be? ...Yes it is Amanda Brecker. Eliane Elias is singing wordlessly, and a piano is going off in mine/her head... I call out her name. She turns around and waves. Then she is gone...seemingly vaporized in the heat coming off the sandy beach.

Some slightly sarcastic questions for Eliane (June 25)

I hear that Eliane Elias is coming to Toronto on the day of her performance. I remind Amber about the interview, but "we still have not heard from her publicist..." I am afraid I may have flubbed my lines when I first approached her for an interview.

Or did she somehow find out about my recurring dream and, somehow, word got out to Marc Johnson who suggested that he also be interviewed or else? At any rate, I had just five questions to ask Eliane Elias:

  1. What next, after this exhaustive, real Brasilian record again? (Whatever the word "real" would come to mean at the time of our interview. Her latest record, Bossa Nova Stories revisited my Latin side... I have never been less excited at the result and now wanted a jazz record again.

  2. Who is your favorite Brasilian composer? (Or which Brasilian composer were you most influenced by?)

  3. Will you be doing a vocal tribute to Elis anytime soon? (Especially after the only awesome vocals, on Bossa Nova, were in Portuguese you know...)

  4. Will you and Amanda ever do a full length album together?

  5. Have you ever considered making a record with Milton Nascimento?

This interview may never materialize, so my questions will probably be left unanswered. As I prefer to hear a live voice or even—preferably—interview eye-to-eye, I may not do the email thing, unless forced to do so. I am going to try and see Elaine Elias in the Green Room before/during/after her set...Oh I don't know... This is all beginning to sound like a case of the Brasilian OCD.

Supping on a Soul Stew... dining out on Newk (June 26)

Man, these guys made me forget all about hunger. There is a certain sense that they are like James Brown with Maceo, Fred and Pee Wee in fine form, but they have a certain je n'ai c'est quoi... And that is a voice that is all their own. Michael Dunstan, the vocalist deserves much more attention by this Canadian audience. Canadians always claim they are bashful about achievements...don't like praising their artistry. But personally I think they care too much about the puck—at least here in this ice hockey loving town, if you know what I mean.

Dunstan and Soul Stew actually conjured up echoes of Sly and the Family Stone as well. Saxophonist John Johnson was raw and gutsy. Pianist and Hammond organist, Matt Horner, and had his chops in order (ghost of Jimmy Smith in attendance...and shades (sometimes) of Dr. Lonnie Liston Smith. Roberto Occhipinti on electric bass? This was my first time and I wonder why I did not get to this groove sooner. Very exciting...

The Sheer Madness of Newk

What is the difference between the Sonny Rollins of The Bridge (RCA, 1962) and almost anything he played and/or recorded years later? Practically none... If anything, Newk became more erudite and had a sharper edge in tone and manner. I last heard him at a full concert, live Bombay, India at a Jazz Yatra in 1982. (I cannot count the gig I attended in Georgetown, outside Washington D.C. in 1985 that I was at with his protege and fellow band mate of Milt Jackson on Reverence and Compassion, Ronald Brown.) Ron introduced us and I was speechless then. And now again today— and that is almost twenty-seven or more years ago—as I catch another full concert.

I stand in awe... Nothing's changed about His Grey Eminence, and I speak not of him with any sense of catholicity, ironic or otherwise.

I remember a twenty-minute solo Newk once played on a live version of "St. Thomas" and now again tonight—this time a little more than fifteen minutes—it was "Sonny Please." So...nothing has changed here too. This is a grandmaster with much to say, and he continues to do so with elegance, grace and impeccable taste. Trombonist and nephew, Clifton Anderson, was superbly votive on "'S'Wonderful" as was the guitarist, Bobby Broom. Anderson returned to solo on "That's All," which, was one of the best-balanced solos Toronto jazz-lovers may have heard on a slide t' bone in a long, long time. The great bassist, Bob Cranshaw, like Newk, is ageless. And I hope not to wait too long to hear him live again.

I cannot shake Boris Vian's opinion of Jimmy Dorsey out of my mind... He once called him "fossilized...insincere," when compared to Wardell Grey. And I don't know where that came from, actually, except that any concert with Newk, and I just cannot help but feel like the best days are past us. Of course, I hope that I am wrong...

Missed Freddie Cole again...damn! I never got to see Nat "King" Cole either, except on video... Missed Russ Little too... Double damn!!

Square-eyed and open-eared (July 27)

Abandoned plans for everything else in favor of John Stetch and his own personal sound of surprise, his TV Trio, with whom he attempted to recreate a 21st Century American Songbook. So together with bassist, Doug Weiss and drummer, Rodney Green, this virtuoso pianist—in the purest sense of the word—recreated a songbook born of classic television themes. How appropriate to pay homage to the most important and hypnotic element of the New Civilization: The Almighty Television.

The TV Trio and Stetch have the audacity to challenge comfortable ideas about conformity. This is delightful tongue-in-cheek music, especially the trio's versions of "The Love Boat," "Dallas" and my absolute favorite stiff finger at the music establishment, "The Price Is Right." Stetch proved also that he is no slouch as a pianist, with deft touch and wonderful dynamics as he sought to extract the subtly soft shades from the music.

Medeski, Martin and Wood... I wonder what Boris might have said after the first set then? Jazzistically bizzariod! Perhaps...

There are over 300 music events during this jazz festival. Max Roach and Larry Coryell once joked with me about this kind of scheduling, not without cynicism, at another festival where the program was similarly choc-a-bloc... "Shades of George Wein...Newport, man," the Professor said with a somewhat bitter laugh. The musicians in Toronto cherish the opportunity to play their music, but Imagine how stretched we all are, running around, trying to get our heads even fuller with sound than is possible.

A taste of the Garden of Eden (June 28)

I have to admit, when I knew that the Maria Schneider Orchestra was coming to Toronto, I was excited not just to hear this extraordinarily innovative large ensemble, but I also wanted to hear and meet her truly gifted pianist and my friend, Frank Kimbrough. Alas, I could not meet Frank Kimbrough, and while I may regret this, the real gift was the music of the Orchestra.

Schneider's music has a panoramic visual feel to it. Her ability to sense harmonic colors and textures is almost magical, as is her great gift for writing to extract this from various instruments in her 18-piece orchestra.

In "Concert in the Garden" (also a Grammy-nominated record of the same name) the superb Maria Schneider Orchestra was the highlight of the set that the group played. Pianist Kimbrough's exquisite interplay with accordionist, Gary Versace, is the centerpiece of this work. Schneider appears to incorporate a vision of the great American soundscape that descends from Aaron Copland and some of the later melodically-inclined romanticists. "Concert..." is fluid and full of surprising twists and turns between piano and accordion. Ben Monder's solo at the end of the piece brings it to a wonderful resolution. "Evanescence" was a fine vehicle for Scott Robinson.

To quote the words of Pliny—completely out of context, I might add—the Maria Schneider Orchestra quite literally "choked (us) with gold." Her musical expeditions are almost epic in structure and memorable despite their complexity and extent. "Journey Home" and "Sky Blue" were exquisite examples during the set. Clearly, Maria Schneider writes music from the heart and is unafraid to go where it takes her, geographically as well as emotionally. Maybe this is why her music pierces audiences in body and in soul. But much needs to be said of the musicians in her ensemble as well. There are few who play with such finesse and spontaneous elegance, and who can navigate such richly textured oceans of sound as those in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Except perhaps Rob McConnell's Boss Brass... And a recent Bog Band put together by the Cuban pianist, Hilario Duran, in the iconic record From The Heart (Alma Records, 2008).

Two steps forward... one step back (June 29)

Miles Davis said most things better than other musicians—except Mingus and Monk, on their day, of course. When I heard the word "revisited" I recalled something he said to Hollie I. West in "Black Tune," published in the Washington Post on March 13, 1969: "I have to change. It's like a curse."

Perhaps this is a harsh thing to remember around the time I am going to hear the Gary Burton Quartet Revisited, but then I cannot help thinking of what Miles meant. He was, I believe, recording/had recorded Miles in the Sky. He was changing...evolving... And also changing the ever-changing music that he had come to practically own after 'Trane died. Characteristically he also turned his back on nostalgia.

So, I am wondering what I am going to discover or rediscover at the "Revisited" concert... The record got considerable airplay and the music is fine indeed...a truly studiously elegant production. Tracks like "Sea Journey" and "Falling Grace" are graceful compositions, and you cannot stop yourself from swaying and being mesmerized by the leaping and galloping improvisations that Burton, Steve Swallow, Pat Metheny and Antonio Sanchez perform on these tracks and throughout the repertoire as well. Things were no different on this night, and it was a thrill to be in a hushed audience and open-mouthed as Swallow and Metheny often chased each other into unexpected territory. And thank heavens there were tracks like Gershwin's "Summertime" and Chico Buarque's "O Grande Amor" because the Toronto radio stations most of the music on the record through overplay. But then this is live jazz and there is little better and in fact the music was often oh so different from the record... blah...blah...blah...

Okay, I have the record. I bought it as I did Miles' last Montreux concert, which Quincy Jones produced, and I bought both CD and DVD there, and that was a "retro" tribute to Miles' Gil Evans repertoire, and he did say he would "never" perform it again... And he did and it was great. So there... I am an idiot. I did enjoy the Quarter Revisited. I wish there was more new music on the record though...

Is it really possible to go Ga Ga over radio? (June 30)

First of all, too ill to travel to the downtown core, no matter who's or what's on the bill, so I've chosen to stay by the dial. And the only spot really is 91 FM, the jazz radio of Toronto. Bless, 'em... These guys think of everything. Of course they have to. They are the only ones broadcasting jazz music on the radio all day. So there is the standard jazz fayre (note the archaic spelling of the word—emphasis all mine- -mea culpa, fellas, but none of you chaps really "pushes the envelope.") But there is a caveat here: It is indeed a joy to tune in "Drive Anywhere with Larry Green," or should I call him Lorenzo Verdi... ?

Mr. Green brings a fine sense of style to broadcasting as well as an extensive working knowledge of music in and around Toronto. And he has charm and finesse. But that was from 3:00 P.M. to 6:00 P.M. What happens in between? Some music—a fair amount actually—and a great deal of Canadian artists, which is great. Then there is Ross Porter, head honcho, high pockets, etc... The Voice..seductive, sarcastic AND a storehouse of knowledge as well... He writes books and quotes form them, pokes his broadcasters gently in the eye, especially (Director of Operations) Bradley Barker... Makes it fun to listen to those fundraisers of his. Porter is one of Canada's finest radio and television documentarians and interviewers and a genuine fan, and jazz radio is in good hands, but he has to find Reiner Schwarz again...

Crepuscular with Reiner

Reiner Schwarz reappeared as if from thin air a couple of years ago to host a late night show and what a program it was... Reiner has a spiritual connection with music...the arts...life. So he appears to breathe a rarified air. His broadcasts were like jazz itself, dynamic, fluid, suspenseful and surprising... His broadcasts were seamless... and only once in a while he cut in with a voice that was haunting and unscripted—words that just seemed to connect with the music. He dared listeners to open their minds, and these were hours of passion, grace and fire that burned all night with the finest musicians and their art on the air seemingly, thanks to Reiner Schwarz's style, in suspended animation. But now he's disappeared again...

So I decide to go anyway. If it's too much I shall make the return journey, all 40 miles of it in a public transit bus anyway...

Nice of them backchatterers

At the festival, however, things are quite different. Jazz FM broadcasts live from their prominently placed Broadcast Centre, and one of the highlights is the "Talkback Series" that features interviews with musicians who simply cannot resist dropping by. Today he interviews Jack Chambers, who also writes for www.allaboutjazz.com, and I am riveted to radio again. Chambers, like Toronto's own John Norris, is a veritable store of jazz history—there are few around these days—and he talks his new book Bouncing With Bartok, a book about Richard Twardzik, the Boston-born pianist who performed in the New England area in the 30s, was denigrated, later after being celebrated by Serge Chaloff, accepted in the inner circle of jazz. Twardzik also played with Charlie Parker and Chet Baker, and died of a heroin overdose, all too young at 24. Fascinating...

Well Monsieur Chambers: The dead all have the same skin...as my friend Vernon Sullivan—alias Boris Vian, once said.

Other artists featured in the unique setting of the Talkback series were Vito Rezza, who is a first rate drummer and has played with the likes of the late Michael Brecker and also Matthew Brubeck, and who is— fascinatingly—a wonderful comedian as well. And then there was Canada's celebrated guitar maker, Linda Manzer, and, of course, pianist and vocalist, Laila Biali, who has a near-perfect technique and a touch not unlike Herbie Hancock and an ethereal voice.

A long goodbye, we hope (July 01)

This is it. Rob McConnell says that he and the Boss Brass will play for the last time at the Toronto Jazz Festival. It is sad, because McConnell is a giant and straddled the music world like the true Colossus of Rhodes. If you think that's a bit "over the top," then hear this: the 74-year-old valve trombonist, composer, arranger and bandleader has led one of the most celebrated big bands in jazz history—The Boss Brass— for 40 years and has won 3 Grammys, a clutch of Canadian National Jazz Awards, Junos, an Order of Canada and was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

July 1, 2009 was the last date for the 22-piece Boss Brass. McConnell was at the helm of this legendary large ensemble for 40 years and now he said that he had "done it long enough." "I still love the music," McConnell continued, "and I'll continue to play, but it is too many people to organize and not too many places left to play," which is a pity.

The Boss Brass ended its reign as one of the premier bog bands with a typically exciting set. The warmth, skill and love for the music were almost palpable, and the renditions of "Embraceable You," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "All the Things You Are" and, fittingly, "O Canada" put a tight grip on the emotions of even the sternest of folks in the audience. It is a pathetic testament to Canada and its lack of love for music that this last concert should have been a free one. This will be a "long goodbye," we hope, Mr. McConnell...?

And then there was Brandi Disterheft, a young Canadian bassist, who caught the eyes of both Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown, and justifiably so. She is, like Esperanza Spaulding, a fine composer and bassist and a very accomplished bandleader as well... Of course who could resist visiting the "octojazzinarian," the true grandmaster, Dave Brubeck? Pity I could only catch his tribute to Duke Ellington, but that alone was enough to bring a sudden rush of blood to the head and the heart.

Politics in art will endure... But do not say that to Chucho Valdes, who has never left Cuba... Perhaps he survives on versatility and the spiritual fuel provided by those around him.

Shut up and play your guitar some more (July 02)

Al di Meola can only be at his best as he and his band World Sinfonia '09 proved to be. "Double Concerto" was the sensational centerpiece of the evening, "Bugliero," was fun and technically sublime and the rapport with percussionist "Gumbi" Ortiz was just as exciting as Di Meola has ever had with a member of the stellar musicians that joined him to bring down the house. And yes, you cannot and should not separate politics and art, but Al, that was a tasteless comment you made when you ranted about recent experiences about Return to Forever. No matter what your beef is with Chick Corea... Life's too short and you are a fine guitarist... So you know what to do, Al...

Thanks for the ride, Dave (July 03)

Perhaps it is time to admit (rather sheepishly for some) that the highlight of the festival was a collision of monsters in Dave Holland's Quintet. That's what you get when you put the prodigiously-talented tenor and alto saxophonist, Chris Potter, the smoothie Robin Eubanks on trombone, drummer Nate Smith and vibraharpist and marimba-player, Steve Nelson in a band with the quietly brilliant Dave Holland.

For some reason, no engineer has been able to capture Dave Holland's truly rare and woody sound on record. And I mean nobody... Perhaps this should have been a challenge for Ken Christianson of Chicago and the late Julian Vereker of Salisbury, England, who together revolutionized the sound of the bass with the extraordinary attention they paid to Charlie Haden for Private Collection, Volume 1 (Naim Audio, 1987) and Private Collection, Volume 2 (Naim Audio, 1988). And so I have no hesitation in saying that Holland sounds so much more exquisite live. And of course this was in evidence especially with the renditions of "Step to It" and "Last Minute Man," which highlighted the skills of Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba. Eubanks played majestically with several overtones, as the legendary Albert Mangelsdorf once pioneered when he played concerts produced by Dr. Joachim Berendt. D**n... Missed Branford Marsalis again.

It should have stayed a fairytale (July 04)

Elaine Elias never disappointed musically as much as she did with her record, Bossa Nova Stories. The record simply went on for much too long a time, or there were too many songs on it and the English vocals lacked the spark and swerve of the vocals in Portuguese. Hence wanted to talk tongue-in-cheek sort of, about doing a jazz record...an American jazz record, actually. So I am sorry we could not speak...

Elias is an accomplished pianist but lately feels a calling to sing, which is a pity because Laila Biali does it better and so does Patricia Barber—sing and play piano, I mean... Diana Krall (as of her latest offering) is vastly over-rated, and now Elaine Elias. Oh well... I'm afraid that just as Dave Holland and Maria Schneider were festival highlights, Elias was a lowlight. Perhaps, like the Bossa Nova Stories there was too much music... Or perhaps it is just a temporary thing with Elias... Still mediocrity is terrorism in music— the enemy of creativity. Fortunately despite some 300 concerts at Toronto Jazz 2009, there was not much of either.

Boris Vian—born March 10, 1920, Died July 23, 1959...

But Boris lives! I spoke with him just the other day, and he was with Bird and Bud and Don Pullen and Charles Mingus... Wish you lovers of this music could speak with him too...

Photo Credit

Maria Schneider - Marek Lazarski/www.cooljazzphotos.com

Elaine Elias - Peter Figura

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