Finding jazz in a jazz festival may be a tough slog these days since it’s now all about economic survival. You can’t have a festival based on six musicians interlocking in a mind contest of recycled riffs and self indulgence. Music these days is all about coming out of the background and moving up front and engaging an audience. That’s why the staging platforms this year spoke to both entertainment and artistic statement.
I took up residence ten days with my camera and ears at the big tent located in Nathan Phillips Square – the Toronto Star Stage.
I’ve had a reversal of allegiance the past few years since most of the jazz icons have joined each other in that big jazz community in some distant nebula and I have come around to enjoying the entertainers. Especially, the newcomers and traveling classic rhythm and funk road shows. People want bang for their dollar and can get the cerebral jolt anytime on Youtube, compact disc, Smartphone and catch the truly great, side by side. But live is where the big skilled names separate themselves from the stowaways and command attention.
I’m addicted to the originals. I love hearing those voices whether singing or playing; the grand sounds, and watching the pros as themselves, forever alive; whenever I choose. That appreciation never wanes only strengthens. What gets lost? The imitators and self-absorbed. I run on instinct and discovery and much of what I hear today is mostly repackaged and uninspiring. Enter the entertainers.
I was thinking about this the other night while photographing Big Sam and his Funky Nation at the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square. Big Sam Williams, formerly of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band is relentless. The man can blow some bone and incite a crowd. He doesn’t allow anyone kick back and observe. He demands interaction and loyalty to the groove. This is participatory – all calculated to leave you feeling good about yourself and physically drained. Big Sam and all of us had one hell of a night.
Sam does this from the bottom up. Rhythm churns and rumbles and tumbles while the man throws his big frame around like he was auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance. He shakes, he grinds, even bends down low without ripping cartilage and keeps the fist pumping and call and response at a peak level. This is what people with complicated days and short attention spans beg for.
New Orlean’s struck a second time with twenty-six year old Maggie Koerner and Galactic. Galactic on their own is a polished unit shaped by a decade of commitment and musicianship. This isn’t a jam band but one that combines the many off-rhythms and intricate turnarounds that validate the groove. And yes, it’s still all about the funk. Big Sam packed a Dizzy Gillespie bent trombone, a main course instrument in many of the crescent city bands. Think Trombone Shorty everywhere. Galactic has its own virtuosos. Adding trombone and tenor sax in the mix brought urgency to the performance.
The centerpiece, “Maggie Koerner.” Koerner is very much today. Not a preening teen parading around in fashionable clothing but a throwback to ‘60s chic. She also has one big soulful voice with plenty of range and character. The stage is about drawing attention and Koerner has that charismatic body rhythm that draws eyes upward and keeps the ears fixated on her glorious set of soulful pipes.
Organist Lou Pomanti’s Oakland Stroke gave the big tent a rousing welcome with their throwback celebration of Tower of Power. The horn’s popped as front man George St. Kitts did a reasonable impersonation of the original Power lead singer, Lenny Williams, elevating the set beyond bar band duty. The fact that so much effort was put into the arranging and the small but imperative musical details; made the experiment palatable. Obviously, rehearsals helped settle what could have been a walk through “Nostalgia Park,” without all the exotic scenery. Bravo!
Thirty seven years of club and road work gave the Dirty Dozen Brass Band the edge against a slightly diminished Lettuce who had border issues causing a band member or two be detained.
The Dozen run like an idling Ferrari. They know when to precisely floor the beast and accelerate into high gear. These guys can do this sleeping. It looks easy yet that’s the underlying beauty to their music. It’s pure New Orleans – smooth to the groove. The band cooks at a slow burn leaving the viewer asking, “How hard can this be?” But on closer inspection, this stuff is difficult to master. Don’t be fooled by the calm demeanor of the players – this is high-art made to look effortless. Every extended jam is punctuated with James Brown style horn riffs and followed by the unexpected. All this while the pristine motor keeps humming to a contagious rhythm.
Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland front a touring unit called Prism. This was a tough listen. First up, the sound was a muddled mess. Secondly, long extended vamps died out decades ago, unless you are a groove band. Thirdly, the crowd cheered every virtuosic hard-fought solo and didn’t care about the distractions.
I own several Eubanks sides from the early years before he led the Tonight Show band and played frequently on radio. Then I caught his rambling set in Bermuda Jazz Festival in the ‘90s and took a pass. I was hoping the return of melodic Eubanks was in play, but I guessed wrong. It was another long-winded evening of distortion and brawn. No dynamics or connection to heart. Holland, for the most part played a secondary roll governing the stage. Drummer Eric Harland was the night’s stand-out, contributing a running textbook of profound muscular drumming. At all times, complimentary, intuitive and divinely musical.
Vocalist Dianne Reeves continues her hold on the top jazz vocalist spot. Since the passing of Betty Carter and Carmen McCrae she occupies the haloed ground these iconic women cultivated. The voice is pure and effervescent and a map of the world. During one number, the long thoughtful phrases soared, paused and journeyed throughout the humid tent before settling on the song’s intended melody – “Stormy Weather.” Pianist Geoff Keezer’s intro was an abstract feast of color and invention. You could hear the form but not the melody. Reeves toyed with the shapes and weaved through the dense harmonics before expressing the theme - consistent with every composition in the set. A thing of real beauty.
The big surprise was the return of guitarist John Scofield. Scofield at one time was an annual staple of the event due to his frequent group reinventions and legion of adoring guitar fans. Every time he made a new recording it came with different personal and a delightful theme. Fortunately, he’s focused on his Uberjam Band. This may be his finest.
Scofield also builds up from the bottom. There’s always a bass-drum pattern of interest that hits from the down beat. From there, Scofield and sidemen apply the appropriate ingredients - a bit of programmed electronics, a memorable theme, and exquisite solo work. The clarity, space and urgency of the music are forceful. In a day of short attention spans this is the kind of music one purchases without hesitation and plays endlessly.
Bobby McFerrin was a solid draw. The first welcoming words from the crowd, “Sing, Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” McFerrin responded by signaling the band play a country and western vamp which allowed him the bring humor to a tedious moment and pronounce the band now a country and western traveling road show. The crowd got it.
McFerrin in a group setting is far different than solo. When solo, you marvel at the range, the improvisation and chest tapping. He’s a living band. In a group he tends to fall into the ordinary. Not a distinctive voice of mistakable quality or one that elevates the temperature of a song. There are limitations and he obviously understands and that’s why there were so many instruments processing the voice. Beyond that – the band was responsive to every hand gesture and notion that occurred between leader and side persons. This was a big catch for the festival and a first for many in attendance.
Pianist Brad Mehldau and drummer Mark Guiliana make for the perfect odd couple. The music under the banner Mehliana is listener challenging. The pieces are long pulsating affairs of stream of conscience improvisation based on short motifs. Each germinates from a basic pattern; repeated then restated with variations on the previous. Mehldau is a disciple of all there is in classical and jazz keyboard and applies his huge harmonic vocabulary to each extended piece.
The show stopper this evening was the Stanley Clarke trio. Bassist Clarke was surrounded by an eighteen year old pianist and nineteen year-old drummer. This was a show where jazz was of principle concern and played with unrelenting dazzling technique, power and smarts. This was the jazz people came to hear.
High praise sounded for Keith Jarrett’s solo performance at Roy Thomson Hall; the same for Roy Hargrove at Jane Mallett Theater. Snarky Puppy and Joey Defrancesco were hot tickets at the stifling near suffocating Horseshoe Tavern. The Toronto Mass Choir gave a glorious noon-day concert in the square and from Hiromi at Koerner Hall and Oliver Jones at the Jazz Bistro there was a wide breadth of music to be savored.
Perhaps the most anticipated? Earth Wind & Fire at the Sony Centre. This was the big ticket and most waited away from the jazz zone. The band didn’t disappoint. It’s still all about the hits, the spectacle and showmanship. The band has always been a cross between Las Vegas review and ultra hip. Those songs will play endlessly beyond our lifetimes. I expect holograms to accompany as generations continue to lose themselves in the distilled magic of “Boogie Wonderland.”
Festivals must start and end. For us Torontonians, TD Toronto Jazz Festival marks the beginning of summer. We shift from cool breezy nights to torrid humidity much like the landscape south of us. Congratulations to executive director Pat Taylor, artistic director Josh Grossman, Patti Marshall, Anna Thom – staff and volunteers for making Toronto extra-special for ten remarkable June days.
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