Friday, July 8, 2011

TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2011

by Alain Londes

For the 25th anniversary edition of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, key changes to previous years were evident. Most importantly, the big white tent hosting all the evening Mainstage shows shifted from Nathan Philips Square to Metro Square (aka: David Pecaut Square) behind Metro Hall and next to Roy Thomson Hall. The adjacent outdoor stage provided a lawn area which made the area more hospitable to audience members to sit on the ground or on their lawn chairs.

Most of the headliners were at key indoor locations such as Koerner Hall, Sony Centre, Enwave Theatre, and the Glenn Gould Studio. Judging by the attendance, some of those sold-out shows could have easily taken place on the Mainstage with additional ticket sales.

The opening night was a real street party with a free concert by Aretha Franklin backed up by a large band with her own American and a few local Canadian musicians. Those who had a good view were very pleased with the show as Franklin still had the pipes and made a strong impression. 18,000 attendees was clearly a festival record.

The following represent just a cornucopia of key performances during the rest of the 10 day festival.

Randy Weston

The Glenn Gould Studio hosted the Grandmasters Series with major solo piano performances. Each one resembled a classical recital with each evening bringing someone with a different musical journey. The most iconic performer was pianist Randy Weston who, at 85, continues to perform and educate about the origins of music and the history of jazz. The Glenn Gould Studio was a fitting venue for this intimate solo performance, with Weston discussing the experiences that he had with the late Ray Bryant (1931-2011).

Emphasizing his African heritage with the theme of movement to other lands, Weston selected Duke Ellington's "Caravan," a jazz standard composed by Puerto Rican-born trombonist Juan Tizol establishing, as Weston explained, a link to the Caribbean and, ultimately, to Africa. His Ellington theme continued with "Chromatic Love Affair" and "Perdido," and included his personal interpretive statement around the melody.

Moving through the historical journey, Weston also showcased Fats Waller and Thelonious Monk. Offering interesting tidbits of information, Weston talked about how African music is as old as Africa, how its definition of harmony emphasized the connection of souls with the universe, and how music stems from the Creator. He also referred to Thomas "Blind Tom" Wiggins (1849-1908), a visually impaired pianist who could play anything that he heard.

Weston also played some of his own compositions, including "Berkshire Blues" and a beautiful rendition of the lyrical "Little Niles." The performance ended on a distinctive contemplative tone, as attendees left inspired and relaxed after this unique opportunity to witness a jazz legend.

Kurt Elling

Kurt Elling took to the stage before an equally enthusiastic audience. The sold-out crowd gave a standing ovation when Elling walked on the stage. Laurence Hobgood, who has collaborated with the singer for 17 years, was on the piano together with Eric Privert on bass and Pete Van Nostrand on drums.

Kurt Elling selected pieces from his latest album The Gate (Concord Records, 2011) where he revisited some well-known tunes that might have been placed temporarily on the shelf. Naturally they would have a jazz spin to them with the meaning of the lyrics leading the way. Getting everyone in the mood, the swinging and groovy version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" also included a very brief scat singing moment.

The suave Elling, sporting a business casual suit, was genuinely comfortable on stage. He naturally moved the mic away or closer to his mouth to temper the volume just the way he wanted. Whether singing or speaking, the conversation was always with respect to the audience. His tasteful sense of humour was another bonus of a live show.

Elling then sang the title track of his Grammy-award winning album, Dedicated To You (Concord Records, 2009). Hobgood added a solo including a quick nod to the song "Cabaret." Proving that great singers understand all the rudiments of music including timing, Elling, on Marck Johnson's "Samurai Cowboy," doubled-up on vocal drum sounds in tandem with Van Nostrand for added entertaining effect.

Guitarist John McLean came on stage later to bring a rock element and a hard driving solo to the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." Elling quipped that songs can have the effect of "making the pain musical" when talking about life. Such was the case with a slow version of Earth Wind and Fire's "After The Love Is Gone." The only standard of the evening was Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." The audience without being prompted snapped their fingers for "Golden Lady" by Stevie Wonder. Elling concluded rightly so: "Hey, that's a nice night. What do you think?" For effect, the background spotlight on Elling slowly faded out signalling the end of the show with "Save Your Love For Me." Fortunately, the audience was treated to a second encore with Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luisa" after Elling translated the Portuguese lyrics.

Return To Forever IV

Return to Forever (photo: Kris King,

For something totally different, a large crowd converged on the Sony Centre. Return To Forever (RTF) IV was all the buzz leading up to the Tuesday night stop in Toronto and the jazz-fusion group did not disappoint. In fact the show was exhilarating. On some pieces you could feel your face vibrating.

Chick Corea recently turned 70 and has no reason to slow down. He seemed considerably slimmer since his last appearance in Toronto but his spark and enjoyment was in full force.

Frank Gambale is not at all a newbie for this band formation since he has worked with Corea on the Elektric Band. In his solo, Gambale's demonstrated a style that he has mastered over the years: The sweep picking technique. He sweeps the strings resulting in a precise sequence of desired notes.

Jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty has also collaborated with Corea a while back. With RTF, he provides a key ingredient that gives this edition of the band a distinct characteristic. He seemed to complement Corea while Gambale's guitar works with Stanley Clarke's bass.

The versatile and intense Lenny White was as strong as ever on the drums. Corea said during the show that White changed jazz drumming in the 70s. He too was a veteran to Miles Davis' electric period which was definitely present. During the show, he walked up to the mic and explained how the RTF was a "man's band" in comparison to other bands that lack the true musical abilities and depth that this group always had. Band members were really enjoying themselves from start to finish and at one point were high-fiving each other like guys in a sports team.

Corea and others toyed with the audience by saying that they were not going to introduce any of the selections yet long time fans were able to pick out the well-known classics from the band's history such as "After The Cosmic Rain, and "Hymn Of The 7th Galaxy."

A tune such as "Señor Mouse" represented the best at what these musicians as a group can do considering the high level of intensity, technical wizardry, and perfect timing under the jazz-rock umbrella. Corea, Gambale, Ponty and Clarke all through in their distinctive solo touch. A careful listener might have identified a very subtle touch of french folk melodies in Ponty's part.

Stanley Clarke led the way with a strong dose of funk on "Sorceress." With the intense bass playing, he was waving his hands at the end just like a student who had just written a 3-hour exam nonstop. Of course Clarke was no student and never ceased to impress at his mastery of the bass. He switched to upright bass for the rest of the show when Jean-Luc Ponty introduced his composition, "Renaissance." At one point in his solo, he turned to Ponty inviting him to join him while pushing him musically in the process.

Ponty opened Rodrigo's "Concierto De Aranjuez" before being joined by Corea and eventually the band settled on "Spain." The audience was right with him as they chanted any bar that he played on the keyboard.

Fans were yelling out requests for the encore and the RTF closed this great show with another favourite, "School Days."

This was definitely a highlight performance for the festival yet one had to have been in the auditorium to realize that.

The Count Basie Orchestra and Molly Johnson

The Count Basie Orchestra (photo: Bill King,

A large crowd later gathered at the Mainstage concert for an evening of singing and and big band swinging. Canadian singer and and songwriter, Molly Johnson led the way with Robi Botos (piano), Colleen Allen (saxes and flute), Mike Downes (bass), and Ben Riley (drums). From fan-favourite "My Oh My" recorded on her self-titled debut album, Johnson brought some of her compositions as well as other jazz and blues classics such as "Killer Joe," and "Lush Life" and even a bit of Charlie Pride in the mix. Wearing a bright red dress with a flower adorning her hair, she looked cheerful and relaxed with her musicians for whom she has great affection. Johnson also pretended that she was intimidated by the presence of the big band that was to follow. Her connection to this city was obvious when she talked about how lucky we are to live here. Performing across the street from the Royal Alexander Theatre was extra-special for her as it brought back lots of memories of her youth growing up to be the performer that she was today. She was, after all, the first Canadian female performer to sell-out a concert a few years ago for the festival.

When it comes to big bands today continuing the style and tradition of its founder, the Count Basie Orchestra will naturally be included in the list. The legendary band has been in existence for over 75 years and great musicians have assumed all of the key roles to this day. Dennis Mackrel, the orchestra's conductor, spoke highly of Toronto and of the calibre of the local musicians that he has met on previous visits. In fact, the Canadian connection was such that Derrick Gardner, on fourth trumpet, recently accepted a position at the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba.

Starting off with Ernie Wilkin's arrangement of "Sixteen Men Swinging," the band played a series of pieces representing that Kansas City sound that will always be associated with the "Chairman of the Board." Both baritone saxophonist John Williams and bassist James Leary were hired by Basie himself. Williams played beautiful low notes for a piece simply called "Carney" in tribute to Harry Carney who was part of Ellington's band. Moving towards higher notes, first trumpet Michael P. Williams and first alto saxophonist Marshall McDonald led the way on "Things ain't what they used to be." Molly Johnson came back to join the band for "Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You" popularized by Nat King Cole. Of course no Basie show would be complete without the all-time favourites such as "Lil' Darlin'," "Shiny Stockings," "One O'Clock Jump," and the finale, "April In Paris."

It was nice to see a packed tent to see this band that played to tight perfection. Mackrel demonstrated total control such as tempering or increasing the band's volume.

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

A large and predominantly young crowd gathered in and around the Mainstage to see 5 After 4 and later Béla Fleck and the Flecktones as Toronto shifted gears towards the end of the work week before a long weekend.

Béla Fleck gathered the original Flecktones for the first time in 18 years in the hope of reconnecting with what worked in the past and creating 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 accommodate more people comfortably.

In this band, each musician brings his unique style and sound to his instrument that helps define whole. They are all equals even if Béla Fleck happens to be the leader. Over the years, Fleck, the master of the 5-string banjo, has drawn on a rich variety of influences and styles including bluegrass, jazz, folk, African, Indian etc. He is also extremely busy when observing his list of activities that include creating new music for various band formations, writing commissioned pieces for a symphony orchestra and collaborating with other musicians. 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 the melodic sound that defines them. Roy Wooten, brother of bassist Victor Wooten and also known on stage as "Future Man," brings 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 just 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 the cd entitled Rocket Science (eOne Music, 2011) and threw in old signature pieces such as "Sex In A Pan." Even though the recording was relatively new for this particular concert date, the style and feel sounded similar to the band's previous collaborations. The flow of "Gravity Lane" sounded 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 in Casey Driessen, an American bluegrass fiddler for added country textures. One of the collaborative highlights was a series of solo duos on a hoedown tune, first between Levy and Wooten and then between Fleck and Driessen. Levy later contributed beautiful classically inspired melodic lines to "Sweet Pomegranates" thereby demonstrating his full musical talents on his chosen instruments.

The Flecktones came back on stage for the encore that fans were blurting out: "The Sinister Minister!" Wooten souped up a frantic play on bass right up front with the 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 in any direction.

If you asked fans, they clearly enjoyed the performance. However, there was an extra spark with Jeff Coffin participating in the Little Worlds (Sony, 2003) tour at the same festival a few years ago.

Other highlights included Branford Marsalis teaming up with Joey Calderazzo for the premiere of their cd Songs of Mirth and Melancholy (Marsalis Music, 2011), Dee Dee Bridgewater paying homage to Lady Day, opera diva Jessye Norman, and the legenday Dave Brubeck Quartet.

Robi Botos and Nikki Yanofsky each took to the stage on the final night to close this year's festival.

A jazz fan would understandably enjoy back to back music in the afternoon to bridge the gap between the lunchtime offerings and the late-afternoon shows. Nevertheless, the festival accomplished its goal of providing a rich musical experience catering to all jazz genres and more.



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