07/08/11

TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2011: To Jazz or Not to Jazz?

Christopher Loudon reports on performances from the recent jazz festival in Toronto, which featured plenty of jazz artists, along with a smattering of high-profile non-jazz performers

The puzzle may be as indecipherable as the one about angels and pinheads, but how many non-jazz performers does it take to officially blur a festival’s jazz status? The Toronto fest, admirably a longtime holdout, chose a rather auspicious occasion – its 25th anniversary – to venture farther than ever down that path.

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Bill King

Aretha Franklin in performance at TD Toronto Jazz Festival 2011

True, of the more than 1,500 artists who descended on Toronto between June 24 and July 3, the vast majority were bona fide jazz players. But on the festival’s mainstage, this year moved to freshly minted David Pecaut Square (named for a former Ohioan whose immense affection for his adopted hometown resulted in widespread civic betterment), nearly half of the 10-night schedule was filled with such names as Aretha Franklin, the Average White Band, Bootsy Collins, Los Lonely Boys and The Roots. As with any major festival, the mainstage acts are the principal calling cards, the headliners meant to shape its programming nexus and frontload the advance publicity. Of course, such programming egalitarianism has influenced the concurrent Montreal fest for years and is also creeping in everywhere from Rochester to Monterey and Cape Town to Curacao.

Bean counters will tell you that performers with a fan base extending beyond the hardcore jazz crowd are essential to festival survival. Fair enough, though those same accountant types should have checked out Kurt Elling’s SRO appearance at the waterfront’s comparatively compact (approximately 300 seats) Enwave Theatre, a space Elling could easily have filled two or three times over.

There’s also the valid counterargument that major pop and rock acts help draw those who might never otherwise attend a jazz fest, and that once you’ve nabbed those new ears, there’s a chance they’ll be opened to jazz in one form or another. Prior to Franklin’s concert, neighboring Quotes Bar & Grill, where The Canadian Jazz Quartet with guest Harry Allen was holding forth, was packed. So, somewhere in there, at least few neophytes were getting a solid jazz intro.

Quibbles about the eclecticism of the mainstage schedule aside, the 25th incarnation of what is now officially known as the TD Toronto Jazz Festival must be judged a major success, both in terms of the acts and audiences it drew. (Also in terms of its seamless management. Many other jazz fests could, and should, take lessons from the Toronto team and its smooth efficiency.) On opening night, Franklin set a new festival attendance record of 18,000. Granted, the concert was free. Though hobbled by a broken foot (courtesy, she explained, of a Dallas hotel room mishap involving a misstep and a pile of Jimmy Choos), Franklin sounded remarkably robust and remained in fine, almost giddy, spirits throughout her two sets. The focus was squarely on her massive Atlantic hits — “A Natural Woman,” “Think,” “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Baby, I Love You,” (but, much to the crowd’s consternation, no “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”) — and selections from her rather flaccid new, Walmart-only album, A Woman In Love. Franklin, whose jazz cred is currently at an all-time high thanks to the critical acclaim heaped on Take A Look, the lavish, 12-disc re-release of her early career Columbia sides, nodded twice to jazz fans, with an opening “Cherokee” that never quite gelled and a much better crafted “Moody’s Mood for Love.”

Opening for as seismic a performer as Franklin can be a thankless task. But local lad Jordan John, an ex-drummer turned vocalist and guitarist who is precisely the same age as the festival, proved an unexpected delight. Again, not so much jazz as electrified rock-soul, but dynamite nonetheless. Performing alongside the Blues Angels (actually Jordan’s dad Prakash on bass guitar, plus drummer Al Cross), the lanky, handsome lad vocally suggests Al Green via Smokey Robinson. His vibrant set (elongated, thanks to Franklin’s prolonged preparations) included a blistering blending of the Isleys’ “Work to Do” and Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing,” muscular renderings of Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” a bluesy (and gutsy, given the artist he was ushering in) “Do Right Woman” and a genuinely affecting “I Fall to Pieces.” Among impressive up-and-comers, John is definitely one to watch.

While Franklin was wowing the masses at David Pecaut Square, further uptown at the acoustically blessed Koerner Hall Dave Brubeck was making his sixth consecutive festival appearance. The nonagenarian pianist, playing as always to an appreciative, sold-out house, seemed mighty frail as he was assisted to center stage. Once seated, however, Brubeck was his usual ebullient self, bursting with energy and bonhomie. Highlights beyond the compulsory, closing “Take Five,” included both the expected — a gorgeous rendering of “Someday My Prince Will Come” — and the unexpected —the new, richly multi-hued “Unisphere,” complete with a playful shout out to “O Canada,” featuring Brubeck’s son Matthew, whose brief appearance elevated the quartet to quintet, on cello.

Another elder statesmen, Mose Allison – filling the June 26 slot in the stellar lineup shaped by JazzFM91 for its Jazz By the Lake series at the Harbourfront Centre’s modernist Enwave Theatre — proved slightly less compelling. Though supported by two top-drawer players – bassist Neil Swainson and drummer John Tomlinson – the gentlemanly Mississippian seemed somewhat hesitant. Never an ardent chatterer, Allison kept his comments to a bare minimum as he dug into his copious songbook, unearthing such gems as “What’s Your Movie?,” “”City Home,” “My Backyard,” “Ever Since the World Ended” and the masterfully sardonic “Your Mind Is On Vacation.” But a sense of detachment prevailed. Toward the end of the his 85-minute set, however, every hint of reserve disappeared as he traveled from the comic brilliance of “Gettin’ There” to the bayou fever of Muddy Waters’ “Catfish Blues,” concluding with a rousing rendition of “My Brain.”

In the same space on the following evening, Kurt Elling was in exceptional form. The recent Grammy-winner, flanked by pianist Laurence Hobgood, the longtime Boswell to Elling’s Johnson, drummer Pete Van Nostrand, bassist Erik Privert and guitarist John McLean, served up a sensational smorgasbord, extending from a dark velvet “Dedicated to You” enriched with a scintillating vocal-drums scat dialogue to a seismic “Golden Lady” featuring an equally incendiary voice-guitar faceoff. Elling, as superb a showman as he is a singer, has learned well how to keep the customers satisfied, keeping the capacity crowd enthralled for 95 nonstop minutes. Especially brilliant were his breathtaking union with McLean on “Skylark” and his encore selection, Jobim’s “Louisa,” performed solely with Hobgood. Rather like the union of body and soul.

One of the festival’s greatest triumphs was the Grandmasters Series at the elegant Glenn Gould Studio inside CBC headquarters, with four of jazz’s finest practitioners — Randy Weston, Jacky Terrasson, Vijay Iyer and Kenny Barron — showcased in solo piano concerts. The early start time (6pm) and close proximity to the mainstage events, made it easy to include this series alongside other nighttime programming. Yet, remarkably, given the caliber of the players, far too many empty seats peppered these performances.

Far fewer, if any, empty seats could be found at the significantly larger Koerner Hall on the evening of June 29 as Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo presented their recent collaboration, Songs of Mirth & Melancholy, in concert for the first time. More than a dozen years have passed since Calderazzo replaced Kenny Kirkland in Marsalis’ quartet, and they have since become one of the most simpatico duos in jazz. Indeed, Marsalis has only played duo performances with three pianists: his dad Ellis, Harry Connick Jr. and Calderazzo. The focus was squarely on Calderazzo for the opening, mirthful “One Way,” though Marsalis was immediately given his chance to shine with a long and leisurely “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Their “The Bard Lachrymose,” with its Chamber Music sensibility, was offset by a jaunty “Cheek to Cheek” and the gorgeously lithe “Le Valse Kendall,” written by Calderazzo for his wife. But the biggest crowd pleaser was the uplifting “Hope,” written for Michael Brecker shortly after 2005 cancer diagnosis. In terms of the festival’s most triumphant performance, it would have to be considered a photo finish between Marsalis-Calderazzo and Elling.

Back at the David Pecaut Square on July 30, it was understandably SRO for the Toronto leg of Béla Fleck’s massive reunion tour with the original Flecktones, Victor Wooten, Roy “Futureman” Wooten and Howard Levy. If it weren’t for the depth of his jazz roots, Fleck and his revitalized Tones might easily have qualified as another outré mainstage attraction, especially since their playlist drew heavily upon the dazzling new Rocket Science, with its dizzying blend of classical, blues, bluegrass, African and Eastern European influences. But superb jazz it was, as collaboratively crafted by four masterful artists who made it seem as if it were yesterday, not 19 years ago, that Levy departed.

*****

One of the great pleasures of the Toronto fest, and one its finest attributes, is the chance to see myriad local players in smaller venues across town. Tucked away in the city’s east end was, by way of one excellent example, was emerging vocalist Ori Dagan, holding forth at a great little spot called Ten Feet Tall, where the atmosphere is so relaxed, and the square footage so limited, it is impossible to calculate where the dining room ends and the stage begins. Scheduled to begin the first of his three sets with guitarist Eric St. Laurent and celebrated bassist Jordan O’Connor at 8pm, a remarkably relaxed Dagan informed assembled fans at 8:05 that O’Connor was running late (he’d thought the start time was 9) then, alone with St. Laurent, proceeded to impress with a loose “You Made Me Love You,” a swaggering “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You” and, echoing the great Joe Williams, a dazzling “Summertime” (with O’Connor seamlessly sliding in midway through the latter). Dagan’s status as a budding Elling is undeniable, and his showmanship is Elling-smooth. It takes guts and sass to effectively blend the theme from The Flintstones with the Gershwins’ “I Got Rhythm.” Dagan’s got plenty of both.

Another, much more firmly established, local (by way of Hungary) sensation, pianist Robi Botos, was on hand to usher in the mainstage closer, Montreal teen sensation Nikki Yanofsky. As TD and other sponsors were, quite literally, folding their tents, Botos took to the stage alongside his trio mates, brother Frank on drums and Attila Darvas on bass. Like the majority of festival artists, Botos had a new CD, the splendid Place to Place, to promote. The muscular title track, easy-flowing “Long Time No See” and delightfully galumphing “Smedley’s Attack” (created in honor of Oscar Peterson’s massive pet boxer) ably demonstrated that Botos is a impressive a writer as he is a player. But it was the trio’s dense, rich rendering of “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” that confirmed Botos’ rightful place as heir to the Peterson throne.

As for Yanofsky, it wasn’t quite the grand affair from the previous night, when she had, for the fifth year in a row, headlined the fest in her native Montreal backed by a 50-piece orchestra. Still, Yanofsky, now age 17, continues to exhibit exceptional poise and professionalism. She also seemed to be carefully hedging her bets, splitting her playlist between jazz and pop standards and ensuring the crowd didn’t depart without hearing what many came for – the towering winter Olympics anthem “I Believe” that first earned her a global audience. Yanofsky has also recently remarked that she’s a work on both jazz and pop albums. In a festival world where jazz and non-jazz acts comingle, she may be the perfect compromise. But for those who prefer their jazz fests straight up with no pop (or rock or soul) chaser, here’s hoping that next year Elling (and maybe Iyer, and Weston) are elevated to mainstage status.

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