Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Toronto Jazz Festival 2009

By Alain Londes

The TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival enjoyed its 23rd edition this year with a similar structure to recent years. The Mainstage concerts in front of City Hall were nightly focal point as well as key locations such as the Grandmasters series at the Four Seasons Center for the Performing Arts for Sonny Rollins and Gary Burton Quartet, the Canon Theater for Tony Bennett, and two theater locations at Harbourfront. Toronto might not benefit from the same financial support as exists for Montreal but it attracts a solid programme of international musicians to complement the vibrant local jazz scene that operates throughout the year.

June 26: Sonny Rollins

On opening night, Mr. Tenor Madness himself, Sonny Rollins, kicked off the festival with an extended outpouring solo on Sonny, Please that probably lasted about 15 minutes. Sporting a white jacket and cool shades, some members of the audience stood up as soon as he appeared on
stage. Approaching the age of 79, he still exhibits an inspiring vitality.

He was joined by Clifton Anderson (his nephew) on trombone, Bob Cranshaw on bass, Kobie Watkins on drums, Victor Y. See Yuen with his Trinidadian influence on percussion and Bobby Broom on the far right side to provide a certain balance on guitar. He plays with sustained creativity and aesthetic balance. Being in his late seventies, Sonny is still a working musician, practicing every day, looking for that new feeling and inspiration, as well as capable of playing for hours.

On Irving Berlin's They Say It's Wonderful, Clifton Anderson and Bobby Broom were featured soloists followed by Rollins trading with the percussionist while Watkins and Cranshaw quietly sustained the foundation over the swinging rhythm. The audience enjoyed a quieter moment with the emotional In A Sentimental Mood with Anderson contributing the appropriate tone in his solo with references to melodies such as That's All by Brandt and Haymes. The ninety-minute show closed with a very short rendition of the calypso tune, Nice Lady and Global Warming.

June 27: Charlie Hunter

In addition to headliner concerts, one can easily identify certain gems at a number of venues. One such place is The Pilot Tavern which hosted Charlie Hunter on Saturday night. He was joined by Brooklyn based versatile drummer, Eric Kalb. Hunter already appeared at the festival
on the Mainstage yet the quieter and more intimate settings of The Pilot offers a closer taste of his talent in this duo setting. What made the evening fresh and relaxing was that the musicians did not have a set list of tunes that were pre-selected. Charlie Hunter started off by digging right into a blues that he felt like playing at that moment and even jocularly said to Kalb: "I don't know if I remember this one; we'll find out soon enough!" Of course he did and that was the pattern for the evening without ever being lost as these two musicians are talented professionals who have known each other for years. Charlie would set the foundation and Eric would join in. The evening was filled with rich bluesy grooves, sometimes heavy but never long and repetitive. Other pieces included some R&B as well as some funky head boppin' fast play with Kalb discreetly throwing his personal improvised part. His 8-string guitar, which is acts as a bass and as a guitar on the same instrument, is a very expressive instrument. Charlie Hunter is able to play both parts clearly that you stop to see where are they hiding the actual bass player. The duo closed the first set with a Michael Jackson tune, I can't help it as well as the humorously titled Every morning you wake up, New York says no.

June 28: Maria Schneider Orchestra

While BeauSoleil and Buckwheat Zydeco brought a bit of Louisiana up to a brisk Summer evening, Maria Schneider and her 18-piece orchestra enveloped the lucky audience to true musical poetry on Sunday night at the Fleck Dance Theatre, Harbourfront. In the Grammy award winning opening track, Concert in The Garden, you get the full flavor of the orchestra with a cinematic crescendo build followed by a relaxing guitar solo. The piece features a musical conversation between the piano and the accordion before the rest of the group slowly eases in. Some parts of the piece almost remind us of Wayne Shorter's approach to some of his compositions and orchestrations on certain projects. The versatile Scott Robinson moved to a beautiful soft solo on Evanescence. Many if not most of Schneider's compositions are very personal. In The Pretty Road, she described it as driving to a spot overlooking Windom, Minnesota, where she was born and to recreate memory glimpses when she reaches that observation post. The images included church hymns, Chopin, and her parents' favourite song As Time Goes By. Canadian born Ingrid Jensen highlighted the dream sequences by combining the trumpet, fluegelhorn, and a few discreet electronic sound effects such as birds and echoes. Tenor saxophonist Richard Perry soared in Rich's Piece, where he played with plenty of space for an unconstrained yet balanced sound. Final selections included Journey Home, Coming About, and Sky Blue featuring Steve Wilson on soprano sax for the welcomed encore. The band is like a family off stage and that cohesion was in full display adding to the sincerity behind the sound.

June 29: Gary Burton Quartet Revisited

The Botos brothers kicked of the opening of Monday night's Grandmasters evening before a packed and enthusiastic house. Louie Botos came all the way from Hungary to play bass with Frank Botos sitting on drums. Robi Botos was clearly thrilled to be part of the evening and called it "a special night, a special place, and a special audience." He selected a few melodic pieces including Gershwin's Someone To Watch Over Me. Later Attila came on stage on electric guitar and we even got to see Louie sing Reveries of Love even though he apparently speaks little to no English.

The main part of the highly anticipated evening was devoted to the recreation of Gary Burton's Quartet, a band he formed in the 60s. Pat Metheny joined that group in the 70s and then, as Burton pointed out, Antonio Sanchez was born. The first part of the program featured selections written by other composers. Chick Corea's Sea Journey was the perfect lyrical and flowing tune that showed the whole band as a unit. Burton led the way with his famous 4 mallets playing the vibes with deliberate precision and purpose. Steve Swallow provided the solid ground base throughout the show while standing and facing mainly Metheny and Sanchez. The drummer, who is also a member of the Pat Metheny Group, showed some of his dexterity during a solo without the need to go over the top. Following Carla Bley's Olhos de Gato, Swallow kicked off quickly into soloing at the beginning of his own composition, a tribute to Bill Evans, Falling Grace before being joined by Burton and the rest of the band in the groove. The performance took on a second level of energy as soon as the group dove into Metheny's Question and Answer with the growing intensity amplified by the guitarist's electric guitar. Such a rush naturally led to a rousing standing ovation by some fired up audience members.

Metheny used his custom made 42-string Pikasso guitar (created by Torontonian Linda Manzer) on The Sound of Water starting unaccompanied as the mystical notes enveloped the hall with Burton eventually completing the duo. We would also be treated to Summertime and the easy brazilian tune O Grande Amor before the band would come out for 2 encores. The overall sound of the evening was fresh and contemporary. Toronto was the final stop of the "Quartet Live" tour with many selections of she show available on the recent cd by that name (Concord Jazz, 2009). The Pat Metheny Group will hopefully be recording during the second part of next year.

June 30: Chris Potter Underground

Chris Potter's Underground finished off the second night at the Pilot Tavern to another sellout and enthusiastic crowd. A large number of music students were on hand to experience the talent up close of Chris Potter. The great saxophonist was surrounded by Craig Taborn on Fender Rhodes, Adam Rogers on guitar, and Nate Smith on drums. Potter kicked things off with an easy and short melody borrowing similar notes to the start of Coltrane's Love Supreme with a funky African beat supplied by the rhythm section. Rogers continued into an extended solo with heavy drum work by Smith before Potter would take charge with his improvisational ideas. This tune was called Facing East from Chris Potter's new CD Ultrahang (Artistshare, 2009) that came out on July 1st . During an interview earlier in the day conducted by Ted O'Reilly at the Ken Page Memorial Trust workshop, Potter talked about the rich polyphony that his Underground group provides. With fewer people you have more freedom and responsibility at the same time and it feels like jumping off a cliff. He clearly landed on this particular night as he
showcased his great talent and versatility by conducting improvisational investigations to his written pieces using a variety of idioms from his textural capabilities. To the listener, all of these musical ideas seem to flow seamlessly from one to the other under various rhythmic styles. The Underground band chose older selections as well such as Viva Las Vilnius. On Lotus Blossom by Billy Strayhorn, we heard the lighter side of Potter as he brought out the beautiful sounding bass clarinet with the Fender Rhodes adding to the mood of the quiet tune. The vibe that night was such that most attendees chose to stay for the second set and were even treated to an encore. Dave Holland will be bringing Chris Potter back again for his quintet on Friday night together with Robin Eubanks, Steve Nelson, and Nate Smith.

July 1: Chucho Valdés and Dave Brubeck

On Canada Day, music revelers were treated to different styles throughout the day. Rob McConnell led for the last time as a leader his famed Boss Brass at lunchtime on the square. Later in the afternoon, a large number of saxophonists filled the spaces in an attempt to break the world record of having the largest number of players performing a tune. Though the effort came short, it was a rare but invigorating experience for all attendees.

Cuba's greatest jazz pianist, Chucho Valdés, played 2 shows at Harbourfront in the evening. He was joined by Yaroldi Abreu on percussion, Lazaro Alarcon on bass, and Juan Rojas on drums. The opening Ellington medley including such pieces as In a Sentimental Mood, and Caravan, indicated the theme of the evening where Valdés and his musicians would approach a piece by eventually blending in a Latin touch. It is a beauty to watch our pianist play a fluttering of notes with his right hand while using his left for melodic ideas. One of the highlights during the first show was the group's rendition of Birdland with afro-cuban elements providing a rich appeal. Valdés played the melody with a deliberate sound with the other band members amplifying the intensity of the piece. At one point, an energetic exchange took place between Abreu and Rojas as the percussionist would be hitting the sides of his congas while the drummer went into his fast solo. Mayra Caridad Valdés, who fans will remember from her appearances in her brother's band Irakere, emerged for a couple of spirited songs. Her onstage presence and soulful voice offered a sincere dose of positive energy as audience members joined in to clap when prompted. In fact, the audience was very knowledgeable judging by their ability to quickly jump into the right rhythmic clapping pattern of the Clave. For the anticipated encore, they even yelled out requests such as Besame Mucho.

In the marquis tent at Nathan Phillips Square, the audience welcomed back the famed Dave Brubeck Quartet. The living legend kicked things off with a medley starting off with C-jam blues and including other Ellington pieces such as Take the A-train. This was a night of pure musical enjoyment on a national holiday and to watch true professionals at work. Bobby Militello demonstrated his full panoply of abilities on alto sax and flute as well as Michael Moore on bass. Brubeck's son, Matthew Brubeck, came as a special guest on cello by first playing Sermon on the Mountain and staying on until the end of the concert. The final part of the evening was devoted to commemorate a "little" recording called Time Out that emerged 50 years ago this year. From the ¾ waltz, Three To Get Ready, the night closed with the famous Take Five that to this day still sounds fresh and fun to play and hear.

July 2: Al Di Meola World Sinfonia

Al Di Meola showcased his World Sinfonia after previous appearances in the Trio formation. Enthusiastic fans were on hand to absorb every note from the international musicians representing Italy, Cuba, and Hungary. Arranged in a tight formation on stage, Di Meola sat right next to guitarist Peo Alfonsi. Fausto Beccalossi drew a lot of attention on the accordion and vocals, playing at different tempos and at times going head to head with Di Meola while complementing the same fast notes. The rhythm section included Victor Miranda on electric bass as well as the youngest member of the formation, Peter Kaszas on drums and longtime associate "Gumbi" Ortiz on percussion. The band showed much cohesion with perfect timing and musical balance when shifting between urgent lines and more relaxed rhythms. No evening would be complete without reference to a great inspiration in Di Meola's musical career, Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinian tango and bandoneon master. Double Concerto was the chosen piece on this night with the spirit of Piazzolla echoing throughout and ending on a spirited finish. Ortiz and Di Meola showed their personal connection during a fun trade in the middle of Bugliero. The international appeal of the World Sinfonia could be found in Siberiana, a piece inspired while touring around Siberia. Latin rhythms, jazz, and rock elements are all fused together. The double encore closed the show with the anticipated classic Land of the Midnight Sun.

July 3: Dave Holland Quintet and the Branford Marsalis Quartet

Jazz fans were in for an exciting double-bill on Friday night for the Mainstage concert. Chris Potter who enjoyed 2 sold out performances earlier in the week flew back to Toronto in order to join the Dave Holland Quintet together with Robin Eubanks on trombone, Nate Smith on drums, and Steve Nelson on vibes and marimba. These musicians have played together for such a long time that Dave Holland didn't need to direct anyone and therefore he could focus on his musical contribution. He presented a combination of past and current tunes. Step To It was a
new piece and really captures the style of this band today. Following the melody, Potter's energetic development on his solo seemed effortless even with a couple of feverish arpeggios. Holland followed with the perfect counterpoint with a careful hint of Miles Davis during the
bassist's tenure with the legend. On Last Minute Man, Steve Nelson starts off with careful marimba notes before switching to the vibes for the better part of the piece. Eubanks' solo included what sounds like an added voice to the natural trombone sound. The quintet played two tracks from the Critical Mass cd (Sunny Side, 2006) with Lucky Seven and Full Circle with Potter even outdoing himself.

The Marsalis name conjures up immediately a contemporary jazz brand. What is remarkable is how each musician of the well known family has developed into a musician in his own right. Luckily for us, Branford Marsalis, who at one point in his career was the leader of the first
Tonight Show band when Jay Leno took over, came back to jazz. The BMQ has just celebrated its 10 years as a solid unit and came to Toronto with Joey Calderazzo on piano and Eric Revis on bass. The only missing member of the band was Jeff "Tain" Watts who was currently working on
other projects. Justin Faulkner took his spot and made quite a splash. The Return of the Jitney Man kicked things off with Marsalis leading the tune off the downbeat and later featuring a feverish buildup between Calderazzo and Faulkner. This was just one of the tracks played from the group's recent CD, Metamorphosen (Marsalis Music, 2009). The bluesy Teo by Thelonious Monk kept the pianist involved with his melodic lyricism while the band leader observed with enjoyment. Branford Marsalis revealed his quieter side while playing soprano on The Blossom of Parting. Another soft tune, this time on the tenor, was You Don't Know What Love Is. At the end of the lovely evening, Chris Potter and Robin Eubanks surprised everyone when they returned to the stage to join Marsalis with Jumpin' At The Woodside as the encore. That's what a
festival should be beyond the scripted programming.

July 4: Kenny Werner Quintet and Eliane Elias

Two distinct styles were on full display this Saturday evening at the jazz fest. Over at Harbourfront, Kenny Werner brought with him major players to represent his quintet. Accompanying him on piano were his "band of brothers", none other than Randy Brecker on trumpet, David Sanchez on tenor sax, Antonio Sanchez on drums, and Scott Colley on bass. The quintet played mainly pieces from the CD released two years ago called Lawn Chair Society (Blue Note, 2007) that included Dave Douglas, Chris Potter, and Brian Blade. Blending straight-ahead jazz, R&B and funk under an accessible avant-gardist cloak, each musician showing his chops without the need to go over the top. For example, during the opening track, the tempo picked up during Werner's solo with Colley supplying a heavy bass hand with one brief insert of rumbling sounds before returning to the melody. Uncovered Heart is a tune that originally appeared on an album by the same title (Sunny Side, 1990) with Randy Brecker playing on that recording. Starting off with a melancholic piano solo, David Sanchez and Randy Brecker using a mute, join in this quiet musical interlude before being joined by Colley. A fun highlight was the satirical Inaugural Balls written following the 2004 US presidential election. Werner quipped about being inspired to "do something" and write a piece that would be played at the inaugural ball with all the tuxedos present. Harry Potter's fans will instantly recognize the main Hedwig's Theme, performed here in a jazz setting with David Sanchez playing deep tones in his solo and later Antonio Sanchez showcasing his tenacious drum play.

"From the groovin' to the groovacious," as Werner put it, the welcomed encore was a lovely reworked Work Song by Nat Adderley that had the same swing as the piece made popular by Cannonball Adderley but with a couple of flattened notes in the melody.

A bit of Brazil landed in the Mainstage concert following the swinging Curtis Stigers. Just like a few days ago Dave Brubeck noted the 50 year anniversary of the classic Time Out release, Eliane Elias was on hand to commemorate the new wave, the Bossa Nova, with Chega De Saudade. Written by none other than Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius De Moraes, this '58 tune put the brazilian style on the map and would inspire a great many artists such as Stan Getz who put out classic recordings such as Getz/Gilberto (Verve/MGM Records, 1963). A very talented piano player who was greatly inspired by Bill Evans, Sao Paolo-born Eliane Elias brought a genuine and sophisticated voice to the lyrics heard this night. She would do the same on The Way You Look Tonight by Cole Porter, someone who influenced the new wave. Besides her long time bassist Marc Johnson, Rubens de la Corte played guitar with Rafael Barate on drums. Elias later introduced us to João Donato from the pre-Bossa phase and described his piano style in which his left hand would play latin/caribean while his right hand would handle the samba style. Donato co-wrote A Rã (The Frog) with Caetano Veloso who wrote the lyrics. Following a lovely ballad under the blue lights, Elias continued with other selections such as So Danço Samba and False Baiana. The concert drew to a close with the classics Desafinado and The Girl From Ipanema. One of her recent albums Bossa Nova Stories (Blue Note, 2009) is a rich homage to the genre with a fuller orchestra. Jazz fans should not miss her other successful album Something for You: Eliane Elias Sings & Plays Bill Evans (Blue Note, 2008).

July 5: Alain Caron Band, Kenny Garrett Quartet, and Sadao Watanabe

On this final day of the festival, the Mainstage concerts shifted towards fusion sounds with a smaller crowd that made the end almost anti-climatic despite the inviting sounds. Alain Caron and Le Band returned to Toronto to kick off the triple-bill. He opened up with P.A.C. Man and the jazzier Pole Position from Play (Norac Records, 1997). John Roney who moved to Montreal from Toronto was on the piano together with David Bellemare on tenor and soprano saxes. Philippe Melanson, a very young drummer would would probably be asked for ID everywhere in Toronto, played with youthful enthusiasm. The funky Freedom Jazz Dance let Caron really get heavy on the slap bass.

Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett, who brought the house down a few years ago when opening up for Joshua Redman, was next on tap kicking things up with the catchy beat of Wayne's Thang. Garrett would show his command by pointing to the next person to offer a short solo. He showed his Miles Davis allegiance by throwing in a quick reference to Jean-Pierre. African rhythms were amplified by Justin Brown on drums and Kona Khasu on bass on Charlie Brown Goes To South Africa. Following a slow blues introduced by Corey Henry on the Fender Rhodes and another piece with a subtle Latin flavour featuring Garrett playing a few notes on the keyboard, the audience needed a pick-me-up of the musical kind. It came under the guise of a lengthy rendition of Happy People, where everyone would be invited to sing along and clap. It would restart as soon as the audience expected the end with Garrett urging on more cheers.

The evening ended with Sadao Watanabe and his 6-piece band who showcased various styles from funk to Latin together with his talented band of musicians from Japan. N'diasse Niang, originally from Senegal but now a Japanese citizen, showcased his decorated percussion instrument to provide the appropriate rhythmic touch on pieces such as Alalake-Lopin'. Following a light bossa, Watanabe introduced a tune that he tried to build as a samba but it didn't meet his own expectations, hence the name Not Quiet Samba. It had more of a smooth jazz feel to it. Watanabe eventually closed the show after midnight on an intimate note accompanied only by Akira Onozuka on acoustic piano with a fitting Jobim ballad.



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