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Duos at Vancouver International Jazz Festival

As mainstream jazz steadily streamlines some of its improvisational and conceptual risk-taking in an effort to regain its long-lost pop appeal, many underground dance-music artists who perform deep house, drum ‘n’ bass and broken beats are trying to elevate their music above the disposable club grind by goosing up their material with jazz aesthetics. Sometimes the jazz influences are so abstractly implied that the nu-jazz moniker, used by many dance-music retailers, becomes nothing more than a new marketing catchphrase for well-worn ideas. Then, there are other times when legitimate jazz artists like Uri Caine, Marc Cary, Roy Hargrove, and George Benson mix it up with the likes of Masters at Work, Joe Claussell or I.G. Culture-explorative DJs and producers who have a deep knowledge and respect for both jazz and dance music-and the results are quite rewarding.

This negotiation between jazz and DJ culture proved to be one of the highlights at the 16th Annual du Maurier Downtown Jazz Toronto festival. “The festival attracts some 400,000 people and all styles of music are presented,” says Patrick Taylor, the festival’s executive director. “Jazz is a huge umbrella of music, and dance-jazz is style of music that we embrace. We used it really for audience development. This is our new audience and they are being exposed to jazz.”

“I’ve worked with a lot of DJs for the past five years,” says Shane Gerard of Rhythmethod Productions, who produced both of the festival’s jazz-dance series. “A lot of them have talked to me about doing some sets and putting something together where they can experiment with some tracks and some jazz music that they’ve never been able to play in a club before. I saw all these great DJs with all these jazz albums in their crates, so I said, ‘Let’s see if we could put something together that’ll allow them to use them in a way that works on a musical level and also audience interactions, with the point of seeing who’s feeling what tracks.’ A lot of DJs are constrained into playing a certain style of music because of the demands of club life. DJ Jazz Series grew out of an idea of getting together this community of jazz DJs in Toronto, and surprisingly there are quite a few of them. Toronto is a very healthy city that way.”

The Absolut DJ Jazz Series, hosted at Alto Basso, was strictly DJ oriented, culling together top-notch vinyl spinners of deep house, broken beats, funk and Latin jazz. Nightlife, the other series, at Revival was more adventuresome as it highlighted live ensembles that prominently featured DJs. They ran concurrently during the 10-day festival in Toronto’s Little Italy district, with Alto Basso and Revival located a mere two blocks from one another. For those who wanted to bounce back and forth between the two clubs, cover fees at Alto Basso afforded free entry into Nightlife.

Both the Nightlife and Absolut DJ Jazz series featured homegrown bands, too, in addition to a few international acts. But local talent doesn’t have to equate with sub-par performance: Revival’s VIP Jam Band and the Mambo Urbano Orchestra rocked the party harder than any Jamiroquai concert I’ve attended, while multi-kulti Pan-Tiki Soundsystem interlocked various Afro-Caribbean rhythms with the craftsmanship of Weather Report. “There’s a lot of talent in this city,” says Amadeo Ventura, keyboardist and timbalero for the Mambo Urbano Orchestra. “The underground live music dance scene here has grown quickly in the last three years. The problem is that a lot of the local record labels are still not aware of that. Their ears are more opened to something that’s already been tested and bought by an international market. Hopefully, they’ll catch on soon.”

Toronto record labels may be in the dark about the Mambo Urbano Orchestra, but judging from the full house at Revival on Friday the 28st, the locals are definitely in the know. The group’s been together for four years and is one of Revival’s monthly resident bands. With the captivating Divine Earth Essence lending her soulful voice to the proceedings, the Mambo Urbano Orchestra, led by bassist Alvaro Castellanos, lit the joint on fire as the band’s three percussionists ignited funk with blistering mambo rhythms that were feet-friendly without requiring the crowd to actually know how to salsa dance. They band’s Afro-Latin percussion is rounded out with subtle turntablism, electric bass and a three horn players. Overall the Mambo Urbano Orchestra displayed a seasoned sense of interplay, and its no surprise that the band is often considered by Torontoites in the know as one of Canada’s best-kept secrets.

Another group destined to become a best-kept secret, if longevity and the continued lack of major label support set in, is the Pan-Tiki Soundsystem, a nine-piece multinational ensemble led by sound sculptor Christian Newhook. Pan-Tiki Soundsystem’s Thursday the 27th set at Revival was a bit loftier than the populist Mambo Urbano Orchestra. They created hypnotic polyrhythms that united different strains of Afro-Caribbean influences over grooves directed by Newhook. When the pulsating cross-patterns of Mark Mosca’s steel drums, Ruben Esguerra’s percussion and Pedro Ojeda’s trap drums coalesced it gave off an intriguing sense of, What is this? Reggae? No. Calypso? Hardly. Salsa? Not a chance. It was all of those styles at once. The repetitive beats gave way to tasty percussion solos, while keyboardists Luis Guerra and Glenn Underground lubricated the percussive friction with creamy Fender Rhodes melodies. Considering the band’s only been together for two months, and this was its first gig, the group’s cohesiveness and inventiveness were all the more impressive.

For a more intimate, blue-lights-in-the-basement house party, club-goers opted for the Absolut DJ Jazz series at Alto Basso. Even though, there weren’t any live musicians feeding the fire at Alto Basso, the series was just as well attended. To measure the greatness of the DJs playing at Alto Basso, you had to zero in on how effectively they worked the crowd: play the experimental broken beat record at the wrong time, and you’ll lose the velocity of the party; bang out the hard, sturdy stuff at the beginning, and you’ll burn you audience out too early. A seasoned DJ paces his set like a veteran saxophonist will develop a solo, creating adrenaline-building tension that will burst into ecstatic release. Whether it was Soul Sustenance and DJ Oddjob throwing down feisty Afro-Cuban jazz and Nuyorican salsa or Andrew Allsgood and Roland Deschamps mixing Detroit’s soulful techno with broken beats, each DJ was at the top of his game. And when spinners deftly dropped vintage Prestige soul-jazz sides, rare grooves from Terry Callier and Jon Hendricks and ’70s salsa from Fania Allstars, alongside Koop, Joe Claussell and Masters at Work without losing momentum or throwing off the crow, they provided further evidence that jazz and DJ culture can indeed come together as one.

Originally Published