07/03/07

TD Toronto Jazz Festival

Toronto 2007 was the most civilized, organized, user-friendly jazz festival I have ever attended. The challenges and surprises were where they belonged: in the music.

There are dispersed festivals and there are festivals with central hubs. Both can work, but the latter is more likely to provide a communal experience. The Toronto event was headquartered in Nathan Phillips Square, in the heart of downtown, a few blocks from Lake Ontario. Like all major jazz festivals, Toronto claims large numbers: 350 concerts, 1,500 musicians, 40 venues “all across the city.” But Nathan Phillips Square, with its flower gardens and fountains and reflecting pond and sculpture (Henry Moore’s The Archer), was the festival’s nerve center. The mainstage tent, where the featured acts played every night, was there, with seating for 1,200. So was the Primus Stage, with its daily free 4 p.m. concerts. There was an outdoor market, an “artisan village” and facilities for workshops, broadcasts and live interviews. Nathan Phillips Square, teeming with the jazz faithful, was a really good hang.

Three pianists in the festival’s Grand Masters Series—Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock and Keith Jarrett, in that order—played right across the street in the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Until their three concerts, only opera and ballet had been performed in this new venue, which opened in September 2006. Jarrett’s evening felt rarefied even before the music started. The Four Seasons Centre conveys a sense of moment. It is an 18th-century neoclassical opera house in a glittering natural wood-and-metal 21st-century iteration, with computer-designed acoustics and sight lines. The shape is the traditional horseshoe, with four tiers of opera boxes.

Of the great piano trios in jazz history, Jarrett’s has been intact the longest (24 years and counting) and is the most thoroughly documented (in its vast ECM discography). Perhaps this unique degree of exposure has caused Jarrett’s trio to be somewhat taken for granted. Perhaps we expect them, on up-tempo pieces, to hit that zone where there is a sudden strong wind at their backs and they revel together in the pure exhilaration of the ride. In Toronto, they found that place on “What Is This Thing Called Love” and a wicked, wheeling blues that closed the first set.

Jarrett has been praised for many things—his erudition, his voluminous encounter with the Great American Songbook, his fearless willingness to trust his imaginative impulses, his epic chops—but he has been insufficiently acknowledged as an interpreter of ballads. His trio’s performance in Toronto was mostly one of measured contemplation. Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette all seemed turned inward, rarely looking up from their instruments. (This mood of quietude came partly from the sound in the hall, which made every detail within the trio available—DeJohnette’s lightest cymbal touch, Peacock’s faintest vibrato—but with a sense of almost clinical detachment from the audience.)

Jarrett plays ballads at more than one tempo. “Yesterdays” and “Tonight” sometimes sped up under the press of his ideas. He can render sadness deep enough to make you sit very still, but he also likes songs of joy and celebration, like “Tonight.” “Someday My Prince Will Come” stayed slow but also assertive, tumbling out entire new musical entities that originated in pieces of the song.

The most memorable moment of the evening came when Jarrett followed “Tonight” with another song from West Side Story, “Somewhere.” In his slowest ballad tempo, it did not so much move forward as hover. Jarrett can play a melody seemingly unaltered and lay you to waste with it by the drama of his phrasing and his touch. “Somewhere” was a single rapt atmosphere, never broken.

For his second encore, Jarrett played a strikingly free version of “When I Fall in Love,” shading around the song, searching for it, missing “when I fall in love” but finding “it will be forever.” It was like a séance for 2,000 people.

After the concert I rushed across the street to the Square in time to catch two complex expositions by Joshua Redman’s trio with Rueben Rogers and Antonio Sánchez, plus an encore in which Redman ironically assembled “Mack the Knife,” then blew it up.

The bands of Roy Hargrove (pictured) and Derek Trucks also gave hot shows in the mainstage tent. The format of the Hargrove quintet (new generation bop) never changes, nor does its ferocity or its technical prowess. “Camaraderie,” from Hargrove’s Verve album Nothing Serious, was representative. Drummer Montez Coleman bashed and cracked thunder and Hargrove shot long runs of lethal flame, then ripped his trumpet from his lips and marched to the rear of the stage to let alto saxophonist Justin Robinson fight on, in fusillades of notes so fast they blurred. Pianist Gerald Clayton, with his falling-upstairs progressions and jagged edges and flashes of lyricism, is the most unpredictable soloist. When this band plays a ballad, it feels obligatory. Hargrove, on flugelhorn, did gracefully trace “My Foolish Heart” (“heart” became a 19-syllable word), but then got back to kicking ass.

The Derek Trucks Band was brought in as this year’s big-name blues act, but it is a most uncommon blues ensemble. Its infusion of jazz, mow-’em-down rock and roll, Indian classical music and Southern Sacred-Steel music creates one heady rush after another. Most tunes begin quite conventionally, with the strong, expressive blues voice of lead singer Mike Mattison and nice but unexceptional original tunes and covers. Trucks played in Eric Clapton’s band in 2006, and his group is like Clapton’s in that the show truly begins when the guitar solo starts.

Rolling Stone magazine included Trucks in its “100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time” in 2003, when he was 24. The only thing they got wrong was the placement: no. 81. Trucks belongs higher on the list. His guitar lines cut like razor wire; they sting like an asp; they whine and explode in shuddering crises and climax in vicious hooks. It is guitar music to unleash the beasts of the night, and Trucks plays it with his fingers, without a pick, standing motionless, and a look of sublime passivity on his face.

It was a shocking moment when the band launched its only instrumental and it turned out to be “My Favorite Things.” It was a wild, careening wail and eruption that went on for 10 minutes, always returning to “raindrops on roses and…” but transforming the sentiments of Rodgers and Hammerstein into an orgiastic ritual. Only John Coltrane has ever played a more cathartic “My Favorite Things.” Trucks should do more instrumentals. (Ed. Note: Though Trucks achieves greater artistic success with each new release, jazz fans would do well to pick up his 1997 Landslide label debut, The Derek Trucks Band, where the guitarist interprets standards including “Mr. P.C.,” “So What,” “Naima” and “Footprints.”)

One reason to go to jazz festivals is to make discoveries. The Jens Winther European Quartet made poetic, subtle, sophisticated music. They played at noon on the mainstage in the Lunchtime Concert Series, which meant that the festival’s hard partiers, who were still sleeping it off, all missed it. But the big tent was still half-full of clean livers and families attracted by the free admission. In his free, floating lines that settle like sighs, in his subliminal logic, Winther sounds a little like Tomasz Stanko without the spit and rasp. His tone on trumpet and flugelhorn is clean and pure. One song was called “Crystal Sphere,” a title that could fit any of Winther’s tunes. They were all transparent, all light and air. Winther received sensitive support from pianist Ben Besiakov. His comping was spare yet provocative, and his solos, from bare beginnings, always built something unexpected. Drummer Dejan Terzic provided interesting details around the edges, leaving open spaces through which Winther’s trumpet veered.

Another surprising concert in the Lunchtime Series featured the No Name Jazz Sextet, from Montreal. Co-leader Alexandre Côté did bilingual introductions to all the tunes. “Hard bop” sounds cuter and boppier in French. This band (Côté, sax alto; Roberto Murray, sax tenor; Aron Doyle, trompette and bugle; Vincent Réhel, orgue Hammond; Frédéric Grenier, contrebasse; co-leader Ugo Di Vito, batterie) has been together for eight years, but had never before performed outside Quebec. They played tunes with titles like “Blakey’s Memory” and “Little Booker Blues,” and their tributes were both articulate and passionate.

While their roaring hard-bop anthems had roots half-a-century deep, their solos (especially those of Côté and Doyle) were fresh and current. Their arrangements also gave their music a distinctive flavor. Sections were set aside for varying duos and trios within the ensemble. There were horn backgrounds for soloists and unison theme connections and hammering riffs. The No Name Jazz Sextet brought the audience to a state of full wakeful alertness and gave everyone’s jazz day an adrenaline kick-start.

The worst thing about a good jazz festival is that it must end. From my window on the 28th floor of the Sheraton, I looked directly down on Nathan Phillips Square. Before I checked out the day after the festival, I looked out and saw that the white tent had already been removed from the mainstage. The 1,200 chairs were gone too. Only the skeleton of the frame remained. It was a forlorn sight.

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