Toronto just celebrated the 20th edition of its main jazz festival. Just a few months ago, this festival won the "Jazz Festival of the year award at Canada's National Jazz Awards. Part of the reason has to be the ability of organizers to attract key artists for a jazz festival as opposed to a music festival that might have a large number of acts more appropriately described as world beat. The Toronto Star indicated in its July 2nd edition that the festival has a $3.5 million dollar (Canadian) budget in comparison to Montreal's $20 million. It helps that Montreal gets funding from all levels of government for political reasons. Sponsorship is also a constant necessity to put up a major event. Gone were the traditional afternoon live performances in Toronto this year that were a bridge between lunchtime shows and the evening marquis headliners.
Outside of the context of the festival, many musicians agree that Toronto has more of a jazz scene all year long. Ironically, jazz establishments are in a state of flux locally. The Top O' The Senator closed last year and the Montreal Bistro (after a lease dispute) closed the week just after the festival. Toronto needs a new premiere location to maintain its reputation, as the talent and audience are both here.
The TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival reflected the multifaceted image of jazz and that is one of the hallmarks of organizers' philosophy. The headliners enjoying the mainstage in front of city hall included Marcus Miller, the Mingus Big Band, John Pizzarelli, Christian McBride, McCoy Tyner, Paquito D'Rivera, and Pharoah Sanders together with Kenny Garrett. Vocalist fans will had the choice of hearing Etta James, Molly Johnson, and Ann Hampton Callaway. Canada has developed a number of singers who have made their mark in the US such as Sarah McLachlan and Shania Twain. In that spirit, and for two years running, the festival played host to a show composed of "Real Divas where 16 female singers showcased their individual vocal talents followed by a series of varied duets.
It can be tricky to enjoy legendary performers who have their names written into the history books decades ago. Setting up the right ensemble can also be challenging. McCoy Tyner surrounded himself by top guns in the horn section where each individual could have led his own effort. The group included Steve Turre, Wallace Roney, Donald Harrison, and Eric Alexander. For some reason, these cats were standing at the back when it would have been nice to see them right up front. One pianist in the crowd felt that Tyner was struggling a bit in his technique yet the majority of the audience were very happy to see this group perform such classics as "In A Mellow Tone and "Stolen Moments. "Passion Dance was enriched with the addition of more musicians in comparison to the original version in The Real McCoy
(Blue Note, 1967). When it first came out, Tyner noted that musicians improvised on the key of F in order to make for "freer melodic invention. For the expected encore, McCoy Tyner selected "Happy Days played in ¾, which gave it a spiritual quality and the snap for enjoyable solos. Turre improvised with two seashells using his well-known self-taught technique to the delight of the audience.
A capacity crowd welcomed Pharoah Sanders (Ferrell Sanders) and Kenny Garrett enthusiastically but only after the latter hit the stage. An impressive rhythm section accompanied the duo with William Henderson on piano, Doug Derzon on bass, and Joe Farnsworth on drums. This was to be a night of pure music featuring just three extended tunes that were sufficient to keep the attentive listeners focused into the late hours. "Doctor Pitt had Sanders demonstrate his free whaling technique before yielding to Garrett. The only issue was the mic system for the tenor saxophonist. With "Say It (Over and Over Again), Pharoah Sanders reminds us how John Coltrane was able to calm sensitivities, especially in the tumultuous sixties, with beautiful ballads. To cap off the homage to Coltrane, Sanders and Garrett both went all out with "Lazy Bird (featured on the famous Blue Train
recording on Blue Note in 1957) to enthusiastic applause after the saxophonists' solos. The dynamic performance was very well supported by Henderson's melodic play that never tired of musical ideas. How did they keep playing in this workout? As Derzon put it after the concert with a beaming smile and exhibiting a great sense of accomplishment: "It's do or die! This was jazz at its best.