Sunday, July 18, 2010

TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2010

Alain Londes

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival enjoyed its 24th edition this year with a city dominated by the focus on the G8 and G20 Summit meetings for the first few days. Despite very minor delays for a couple of shows and some instances of nearby protester clashes with law enforcement, the festival successfully managed to “go on with the show” without a hitch in the true spirit of jazz. It was also a fresh start for the new Artistic Director, Josh Grossman, who assumed his responsibilities in January of this year.

The festival continued its tradition of presenting a balanced program of major headliners such as Harry Connick Jr, Herbie Hancock, Taj Mahal, and Stanley Clarke, as well as other key performers of different styles.

June 25: Maceo Parker

On opening night, the youthful divas delivered great shows before their respective crowds: Nikki Yanofsky performed over at Koerner Hall and Martha Wainwright with her rendition of Edith Piaf's classics sang at the Great Hall.

For James Brown style funk, the Mainstage Concert was the place to be. When Maceo Parker comes to town, his band brings the spirit, the professionalism, and the music to get people movin’. Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis was on bass, Bruno Speight on guitar, and Jamal Thomas on drums. The front horns accompanying Maceo were the fabulous Ron Tooley on trumpet and Dennis Rollins on trombone. Diehard jazz enthusiasts will have remembered Rollins perform at the now defunct IAJE jazz convention as he attracted a lot of attention with his versatility on the instrument with additional sound effects.

Will Boulware added a rich musical touch to the keyboards that is not usually the case with other bands. Corey Parker, Maceo’s son, and Neta Hall provided the central vocal component to the show. The Maceo Parker band went right into the spirit of things with “Off The Hook.”

Music selections came from older recordings such as “Make It Funky,” "What You Know about Funk?," and “Shake Everything You’ve Got” from Life on Planet Groove (Polygram Records , 1992). The classic “Uptown Up” from Funk Overload (What Are Records, 1998) always gets people energized thanks to the wonderful sound of the horns playing in unison with some cool accentuation from the trombonist. Later on in the show, Maceo stood alone on stage and paid homage to Ray Charles with his rendition of “You Don’t Know Me.”

Near the end of the show, everyone was on their feet (mostly dancing) without needing any prodding from the band and they yelled out “Maceo! Maceo!” for an encore with the classic James Brown favorite, “Pass the Peas.”

The band members were clearly enjoying themselves. The syncopation and the timing were right on the mark. Each musician had an opportunity to shine. Before you knew it, the concert was over in the late hours of kickoff night!

Maceo Parker. Photo: Marek Lazarski.

June 27: David Sanborn with Joey DeFrancesco

The highly anticipated performance by David Sanborn finally made it to the TD Toronto Jazz Festival at the beautiful Koerner Hall together with Joey DeFrancesco whom Sanborn calls the monarch of the B3 and Gene Lake. How fitting to have these musicians playing selections from both the Only Everything (Decca, 2010) and Here And Gone (Decca, 2008) which are tributes to Ray Charles. It was after hearing the latter that Sanborn decided to pick up the saxophone. Charles happened to also have been a great alto player in addition to being a master of the B3 Hammond. This was essentially a true Chicago trio on display with blues being the name of the game.

After kicking things off with the fast “Coming Home Early“ featuring the signature sound of the alto saxophone, the trio brought things down a bit with “Brother Ray.” Sanborn then jokingly asked the audience: “How's the weekend going?”

To Sanborn, the saxophone is very close to the human voice and the alto saxophonist credits both Hank Crawford and David “Fathead” Newman as major influences. In recognition, we got to hear “The Peeper” which is a Crawford arrangement that always stuck with Sanborn. The fun blues included energetic vibrato snippets that welcome song references nicely. The trio continued with the popular “Let The Good Times Roll” with DeFrancesco providing the vocal touch and inviting the crowd to clap with the beat. Meanwhile Gene Lake set up the musical sandbox making Dave and Joey sound their best.

Only Everything” had the feel of a timeless soul ballad written for his granddaughter Genevieve. DeFrancesco emphasized the organ's warm and earthy sounds that had a hint of strings. At one point he picked up a muted trumpet on his right hand for a solo in the Miles Davis style while playing chords with his left hand on the organ.

For the encore, Sanborn talked about someone he knows who always makes bad choices when it came to relationships. He looked towards Joey but eventually claimed that he didn't mean to refer to anyone in the band to the organist's relief. “I got news for you” was that final song with Joey providing again his vocal talents even after missing the first queue.

June 29: Grace Kelly Quintet

On Tuesday evening, festival visitors had an eclectic choice of musical possibilities. At Koerner Hall, Dave Brubeck returned for his current touch on some of his all-time classics. American hip hop band and the house band for the Jim Fallon Show, The Roots, presented an energetic show on the Mainstage. Over at The Trane Studio, Grace Kelly took the spotlight and amazed those who saw her perform for the first time. She already played last year at The Rex as well as the Orangeville Blues and Jazz Festival, north of Toronto. Labeled a child prodigy by jazz greats, this alto saxophonist, singer, composer, and arranger still maintains her youthful zest at 18. Having picked up the sax at 10, she has already mastered techniques that can take years to do.

On the opening “Ain't No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, Kelly brought a certain gentleness to her sound and phrasing in what she called a slightly twisted version of the well known song. Her vocal abilities were also on full display with “Straighten Up and Fly Right” by Nat King Cole. During that song she managed to weave in truly improvised lyrics by, for example, talking about which city she was in and where she was going next. “Happy Theme Song” is an original composition that is a true representation of Grace Kelly and some of her musical influences. It's bubbly and bright with a distinct Charlie Parker sound. The piece also featured trumpeter Jason Palmeri who came on stage to complete the quintet. The set ended with an extended rendition of “Caravan” combining tempo changes, top of the horn harmonics, and culminating with an imaginative solo by Palmeri that included a brief “Raiders of the Lost Ark” reference.

Grace Kelly is comfortable both onstage as well as with the audience. She, after all, has had the opportunity to play in the company of major musicians and bands like the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis. Her traveling band as a whole is very organic. Kelly is more than happy to share the stage with them and to let them shine.

June 30: Keith Jarrett Trio

Tuesday before a long weekend for some had a whole variety of performances for your enjoyment. Mavis Staples and the Allen Toussaint Band occupied the Toronto Star stage while Charlie Hunter played just a few blocks away at the Hard Rock Café. Vocal fans could choose either the Russ Little Quintet & Heather Bambrick featuring Carol Welsman, or the Roberta Gambarini Quartet. James Farm featuring Joshua Redman and others performed at the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront.

The Keith Jarrett Trio returned to the festival 3 years after inaugurating the Grandmasters Series at the Four Seasons Centre. The location was ideal for a group of this caliber free from distractions of an open-air context. The packed auditorium was ready to enjoy two sets of pure music. In a past interview, Jarrett admitted that a jazz musician should perform as if it might be the last time. You should not play as if you have all the time in the world. You should be faster than your insecurity when facing audience expectations as an “audience may have the wrong impression of what you are about to play.” This philosophy was very evident from the evening’s performance and demonstrated the joys of a musical relationship that is fresher as ever. A Keith Jarrett Trio performance is always a special event especially if it's in a pin-drop sensitive hall with the audience hanging on every note.

The whole trio plays softly in a tight unit that you would expect after playing together for over 25 years. Gary Peacock showcased varied bass riffs appropriately with Jack DeJohnette using just the right touch to balance his drums and cymbals as well as just the right delicate touch with the brushes. Both provided the ideal counterpoint to Jarrett’s harmonic permutations and phrasings. The sound is well balanced whether the trio plays an easy-tempo rendition of “Yesterdays” by Jerome Kern to a light swinging blues. The trio's interpretation of Ornette Coleman's “When Will The Blues Leave?” is just such an example from the blues side.

At times hunching over the piano keys or standing, Keith Jarrett takes great care at playing and savoring every note to perfection. Right before intermission, he was short of satisfied with the sound of a particular note and even asked the audience: “Does this sound okay?” Predictably the crowd said yes. Nevertheless, Jarrett switched gears to play the sentimental "Blame It On My Youth," a jazz standard written by Oscar Levant and Edward Heyman. During the intermission, a second piano was hauled in discreetly. Nothing affected the positive mood of the musical evening. The meticulous notes during quieter moments felt like delicate leaves or light raindrops reaching the ground with the audience quietly savoring every one. Jarrett nodded after each tune in appreciation to the receptive audience members and in the acknowledgment that the trio was in top form. The smiles among the musicians showed how much they enjoyed their improvisational journey over melodies that they know very well. The audience gave them a well-deserved standing ovation and were rewarded with 3 encores starting off with “God Bless The Child,” “Answer Me My Love,” popularized by Nat King Cole in the 50s, and ending with “Bye Bye Blackbird.” A truly special evening.

July 1: Roy Hargrove Big Band

It is not always easy to get a big band together yet alone to go on a tour with it. True to the jazz idiom, Roy Hargrove embarked on a straight ahead project entitled Emergence (Emarcy / Pgd , 2009) and the band has the opportunity to tour which is a challenge in the best of times. Toronto jazz fans have had the chance to see him over the years in different contexts ranging from the Crisol band to his RH Factor to a member of the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star band. In fact it's almost as if Hargrove is continuing the Gillespie band tradition. You get that sense also from his on stage persona. For example, during the song “September In The Rain,” he showcased his own vocal talents as well as drawing on the familiar call and response routine with the band repeating his scats. You also get a dose of Gerald Wilson who also commands major bands with a full sound. It was nice to see this 19-piece band following these traditions at Koerner Hall including Roberta Gambarini who also sang on the album. She had performed earlier in the week in Hugh's Room. Gerald Clayton who was on the original recording was replaced by the very talented Jonathan Baptiste. The show tonight lasted 2 full hours without an intermission as the band had to hit the road early.

Roy Hargrove came on stage sporting a white shirt, pants, hat, with a red tie and cool shades as the energy kicked off with “Tschpiso” followed quickly by “Depth” and “After The Morning” by John Hicks, one of Hargrove's mentors. Our band leader was very generous with the stage and most musicians were featured during their respective solos. Bruce Williams on alto and Vincent Chandler on trombone both had very expressive solos on the feature "Requiem." Roberta Gambarini provided a vocal change of pace with such songs as “La Puerta,” “Everytime We Say Goodbye” and “Something Happens” with her voice her supportive voice between choruses at times muffled by the sheer power of the band. What better choice to end the show than with the catchy “Mambo For Roy,” a dedication from the Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, showcasing various Latin twists and powerful horn runs. The show's encore ended with “Brian's Bounce” accompanied by Gambarini. All in all the audience came away with a good dose of big band swing, Latin expressiveness, energy, as well as romantic tranquility during key ballads.

July 2: John Scofield and The Piety Street Band

On a beautiful day in July, festival visitors were enjoying the final stretch for this year's edition. During lunchtime at Nathan Phillips Square, the Monterey Jazz Festival showcased its Next Generation Orchestra with wonderful young talents while the afternoon drew to a close with Yvette Tollar and her quintet.

The final Mainstage concert placed the focus on gospel, blues, jazz and r&b. Toronto-based singer Shakura S'Aida opened up the evening with a charismatic performance that warmed up the audience. A frequent visitor to the festival over the years, jazz guitarist John Scofield returned for the main event of the double-bill with his most recent project, Piety Street (Emarcy / Pgd, 2009), connoting the gospel nature and context of this band. Pianist Jon Cleary and bassist George Porter Jr. both live in New Orleans. Drummer Terrence Higgins, allows for the personality of the other musicians to shine. When originally coming out with the idea for this album, Scofield started off wanting to do a blues album but opted to have some fun with a few old gospel tunes with his own spin. Many would see this as a natural progression for him. Opening the show with “That's Enough,” all the elements were in place. Cleary provided the main vocal portion of the songs yet the main focus would always be the music. With this tune, Scofield at various times played fast blues riffs while standing to the right and facing the rest of the band. Some pieces such as “Let The Good Times Roll” were easily recognizable. “Walk With Me” was a slower gospel piece that, though old, made its way to other songs, according to Scofield, as they were written with the associated chord progressions. Scofield started improvising discreetly around the melody alone on the stage before being joined by the rest of the crew. George Porter Jr. showcased some head boppin' deep grooves as he opened “Never Turn Back.

The climactic piece was the upbeat 12-bar blues gospel song “It's a Big Army” with Cleary playing the organ with his right hand while saving his left for the piano. Despite the engaging rhythm no dancing took place that would have been reminiscent of the character played by James Brown in the classic movie The Blues Brothers (Universal Pictures, 1980) but the drummer got the audience to participate in clapping. Terrence Higgins continued by shifting towards a tambourine/bass drum solo dominated by African beats that were quintessentially New Orleans in style. The band managed a subtle “When the Saints Go Marchin' In” nod in the final chorus. The encore was no less eventful with “I Don't Need No Doctor” with Scofield and Cleary (who had switched to guitar for this one) at one point playing off and challenging each other musically. John Scofield displayed different elements from gospel, blues, funk, jazz, and r&b in a show that demonstrated the importance of experiencing such performances live.

July 3: Doran – Stucky – Studer & Tacuma Play Music of Jimi Hendrix

On the festival's final day, jazz enthusiasts still had a few shows to choose from in and around town. A large gathering formed early on Dundas Square to see Chaka Khan and Macy Gray. Just around the corner, Christian Scott was the star at the Hard Rock Café. Andy Milne & Dapp Theory had two sets at the Trane Studio.

Over at the Music Gallery in the quaint St. George The Martyr Church, the Next Wave Series concluded its short ecclectic week of avant-garde artists. It was an opportunity to get a different taste of the festival away from the masses standing at Dundas Square for the headlining pop show. Intensity and loudness would be two key words setting off the opening salvos for Doran – Stucky – Studer & Tacuma. The group revisited the art of the legendary Jimi Hendrix after the NKLS Quartet opened up the show for the evening. Improvisation and lyrics are part of the Hendrix universe that these musicians showcased without trying to mimic him. Ericka Stucky interpreted some of his songs while setting the mood as the de facto leader in front of the band. She made use of simple sound making objects ranging from garden tools to voice altering gadgets to handheld audio recordings. Christy Doran focused only on his guitar playing including intense guitar wizardry with the aid of echoing sound effects. Such was a glimpse into the frame of mind existing in the 60s. Miles Davis was actually fascinated by Jimi Hendrix after witnessing one of his performances (as documented in the Ken Burns PBS series on Jazz) and the audience response. When Davis shifted towards his “electric” phase many critics raised their eyebrows. The classic Bitches Brew (Sony, 1969),” produced during that period, remains a popular album with a reissue coming out in two months. Music fans lend an ear to avant-garde styles and will hopefully connect with a particular style or interpretation of a musical piece. People naturally form their own mental musical structures. Stucky urged the audience to just open up to the music and “just let go,” even warning them that since the music is loud, the ears might be ringing. Thank goodness for earplugs.

On “Isabella,” Doran admits that he and others discovered interesting polyrhythmic structures leading to the thought of playing three grooves on top of each other. Audience members were literally calling out requests for the encores. Stucky first led a duet with Doran alone and the whole band came together for their rendition of “Castles Made Of Sand.” After just a short hour set, there was still more time to hear some other music around town.

Geoff Keezer played on two separate evenings at the Rex, a key Toronto jazz hangout, once with a trio and the final night with the Toronto Jazz Orchestra led by the festival's Artistic Director himself.

Next year will be the festival's 25th edition. With the anticipated renovation work planned for Nathan Philipps Square, festival organizers will be evaluating various location options following the post-mortem on this year's event. Milestone years always bring a certain level of anticipation and buzz and 2011 should not be the exception.



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