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John Hollenbeck’s Claudia Quintet at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Wynton Marsalis

Toronto is home to a jazz scene that rivals, and in most cases exceeds that of most other cities. One reason may be the sheer number of excellent musicians that reside there, but the city also has a cultural infrastructure that supports the music, including three major jazz clubs, a number of vital smaller venues, a full-time jazz radio station along with several college stations, and regular, astute coverage by local print dailies and weeklies.

For the past 18 years the city has presented the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival offering a cross-section of the city’s talents with name artists brought in from other parts of Canada, the U.S. and around the world. There was trepidation this time around though, because Canada recently enacted laws that resulted in a major tobacco firm withdrawing sponsorship from a number of Canadian festivals. Fortunately, TD Canada Trust and other corporate sponsors stepped up this year enabling the Festival to present more than 150 shows over 10 days on the two festival stages and in concert halls, clubs, museums and theaters all over town. In addition, without tobacco sponsorship the festival is now able to have a youth stage with free performances, which makes the festival family friendly.

I arrived on Friday, the first day of the festival, dumped my bags at the hotel and walked over to the main stage to hear saxophonists Bud Shank and Phil Woods doing a sound-check for their show that night. I was struck by how loose the musicians were with each other, yet how much attention they paid to detail, as they worked out arrangements, solo order on songs, and endings. It may have been mundane for the hangers-on milling about, but I found the behind-the-scenes process fascinating and revealing. At one point in the middle of a solo, Woods started wailing the theme from “Harlem Nocturne,” which cracked up the band.

After sound-check I strolled over for a 5:00 performance by the University of Toronto jazz faculty, which ironically took place on the Youth Stage. There, I caught a set by a number of musicians who would keep cropping up in various configurations throughout the festival: Kirk MacDonald and Paul Reid, saxophones; Phil Nimmons, clarinet; Chase Sanborn, trumpet; Terry Promane, trombone; David Braid, piano; Dave Young, bass and Terry Clarke, drums. Best moments included Nimmons’ inside-out clarinet solo on his in-the-pocket blues “Swingin’ the Jugs,” Braid’s biting soul-jazz vamp “Marmalade Margaret,” and a fun, swinging, meter-shifting “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

The evening’s festivities began at the Royal Ontario Museum for a show by the forward-thinking NOJO, an orchestra co-led by pianist Paul Neufeld and guitarist Michael Occhipinti. The 16-piece NOJO, which recorded recently with both Sam Rivers and Don Byron, has now downsized to a tentet. I thought I’d stay for just a few tunes but this band drew me in with their imaginative compositions, arrangements, and solos, which combined 60’s go-go beats, rippling West African dance patterns, surrealist swinging carnival music, and hypnotic middle eastern trance songs. I picked up a couple of their CD’s on the way out so that I won’t forget Paul Neufeld’s rocking “The Human Blockhead” or Michael Occhipinti’s shimmering high-wire tribute to “The Great Farini.”

Jumped on the subway back to the main stage for what turned out to be a disappointing set by the D.D. Jackson Trio. I’ve always admired Jackson’s energy, not to mention his two CDs of duets with various creative improvisers. The 37-year-old Ottawa-born New York-based pianist can definitely play, but his performance with John Geggie, bass and Jim Hillman, drums was loud, heavy handed, and sacrificed musicality for mere technical prowess. Jackson was followed by the Bud Shank Quartet featuring special guest Phil Woods. They may be, as Woods told me backstage, “the two dinosaurs: one East Coast, the other West Coast,” but they played with clarity, passion and hardly a wasted note on bop standards, ballads and obscure gems. Pianist Bill Mays worked hand-in-glove with his rhythm section mates, drummer Joe LaBarbera and bassist Bob Magnusson, especially on the beautiful three-part suite of songs in tribute to Bill Evans. Former Evans drummer LaBarbera played some skin on skin, using his hands and elbows on the sunny samba “Tomorrow’s Rainbow.” As good as the rhythm section was, the night belonged to the two alto men, whose unaccompanied counterpoint on “Bouncin’ With Bud” was not only the highlight of the night, but one of the best moments of the entire festival. Hopefully, someone will record these guys together soon.

From the main stage I walked three blocks down Queen Street West to the fabled Rex Jazz Bar, which manages to present several jazz groups a night, seven nights a week. I got there in time for the second set by the first-rate jazz composer Rob McConnell, who called his tentet to the stand by saying, “Get up here when you can, you bums.” The brilliant, curmudgeonly bandleader has a book of creative arrangements and compositions and he assembled an all-star group to play them including Guido Basso, flugelhorn; P.J. Perry and Mike Murley, saxophones; Steve Wallace bass and Terry Clarke, drums. McConnell played some fine valve trombone throughout and kept the audience laughing with his acerbic remarks. There was some hip, ensemble writing on “Thou Swell,” and the horns all soloed simultaneously on “Lover Come Back to Me,” prompting the crowd to erupt. Murley was featured on Percy Faith’s pretty melody “Maybe September” and Wallace did some heavy walking on the Rick Wilkins arrangement of “Remember.” The band then started to play “Everything Happens to Me” when McConnell stopped them, put down his horn, took beer from a waitress and started drinking right from the pitcher, causing raucous laughter from the band. When they resumed, McConnell played a tender solo that quieted everyone. The climax came on the flag waver “Two Bass Hit” during which the saxes traded eights, then fours, then soloed by themselves when the rhythm section dropped out. Very strong playing, very impressive band. For an encore they played a soft, beautiful version of Gerry Mulligan’s “Theme for Jobim.”

The next day began with a free afternoon concert by Krakatau, a sextet from western Java that plays a kind of Indonesian jazz-rock fusion. It was interesting to hear the rhythm section kick out the jams, playing funky backbeats with gamelan, wordless vocals, micro-tuned keyboard, kendang (barrel drum), and rebab (2-string bowed fiddle) on top. I especially liked when they started a piece playing a kind of spacey Javanese free jazz, so it was no surprise when the bassist told me the group loves Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. On the way out of the concert square, I was caught up in the energy and joyful noise of Samba Squad, a 20-piece predominantly female percussion group that circled around the concert grounds playing hip-shaking samba enredo.

Saturday night featured two Latin groups on the main stage. First up was the Latin Jazz All-Stars with trumpeter Ray Vega, trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Hilton Ruiz, bassist Yunior Cabrera, drummer Steve Berrios, and percussionist Richie Flores. Ruiz got freaky and free pounding the keyboard with hands, fists and forearms on his own “New Arrival,” while Vega and Turre ate up the tasty, Latin-soul-jazz “Sweet Cherry Pie.” Berrios took a rhythmic motive and worked it into extraordinary variations on an arrangement of Wayne Shorter’s “El Gaucho,” and the horns sat out on the Sam Jones classic “Unit 7,” leaving room for Ruiz to alternate single-note runs, block chords and octaves while sprinkling quotes from “Billy Boy,” “Jumpin’ With Symphony Sid” and “Sister Sadie.” Turre brought out his conch shells on “Michael’s Mambo” and Vega’s fiery solo burned bright before bringing it home. The group went over their allotted time but no one in their right mind complained. Considering the way Ruiz worked over the piano, it’s a good thing they had a piano tuner at work between sets.

Next up was Michel Camilo’s trio, with bassist Charles Flores and drummer Dafnis Prieto, who has replaced Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. Camilo has his own style and sound, but he was not afraid to tip his hand to McCoy Tyner on “Two of a Kind” or Oscar Peterson on “The Magic in You.” Prieto and Flores are both from Cuba and they were most impressive on the super charged “Dichotomy” and the blues “This Way Out.” Flores gets a deep, woody sound from his bass and fast tempos don’t seem to bother him even when soloing. Prieto demonstrated throughout the set why so many think he’s one of the great new drummers. You’d hate to be a pianist and have to follow this group. “Vaya!”

Letting my pulse settle a bit on the walk back to the Rex to see saxophonists Pat LaBarbara and Kirk MacDonald do their tribute to Coltrane, I arrived midway into the second set, which found Bud Shank and Joe LaBarbara sitting in on “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise” and “Bye Bye Blackbird.” At the break, Pat LaBarbara talked with me about the late Elvin Jones, with whom he worked steadily from 1975-85. “He was my musical father,” said LaBarbera. “He let me blossom as a soloist.

I had just come out of Buddy Rich’s band and [Elvin] forced me to stretch out. He changed the way drummers conceived time.” With Brian Dickenson, piano, Neil Swainson, bass and Bob McLaren, drums, the two saxophonists returned to play “Impressions,” “Like Sonny,” “26-2” and the highlight of the night: an unaccompanied conversational tenor sax duet on Tadd Dameron’s “Soul Trane.” I had been hearing good things about a young pianist, composer named Laila Biali, who leads several bands in Toronto and teaches at the Stanford Jazz Workshop in Palo Alto, Calif. For the Sunday afternoon free show she led an octet in a program of her originals, including a loping “The Wheels on the Bus,” a pastoral wedding piece, a vocal feature (nice voice) in 5/4 called “The Wind,” and “Light Another Candle,” which started as an arrangement of “Happy Birthday” before segueing into a nutty jig. Bassist Jim Vivian helped anchor the rhythm section and tenor saxophonist Kelly Jefferson played hard-swinging Mobley-esque tenor solos. The band sounded good and very together, so it was surprising that during the introductions she didn’t know the names of everyone in her band. While the festival mostly books mainstream jazz, it was reassuring to note the Next Wave series at the National Film Board that presented more adventurous creative improvised music groups, including Sunday night’s performance with drummer Thom Gossage and his Montreal-based quintet Other Voices. The quintet, with saxophonists Remi Bolduc and Frank Lozano, bassist Miles Perkin and guitarist Gary Schwartz, played an avant-tribal “Bend In The River,” a more conventionally swinging “Water Under the Bridge,” a fractured free-form guitar/drum duet on “Maze,” and the sing-songy “Ya-Ya in Ha-Ha.” The processed digital images projected onto the screen behind them were interesting for about 10 minutes, then became boring, and finally distracting. You can’t blame the musicians, though, since they couldn’t even see the images that others imposed on their performances. This interactive video “happening” is the kind of idea that almost always looks better on paper than in reality, though admittedly it could have been much worse.

I raced back to the festival main stage in time for the headliner John Scofield and his new trio with bass guitarist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart. Scofield has moved away from recent funk projects and assembled a relatively straightahead trio that hits hard, like a fist full of quarters. They came out swinging with “It Is Written,” alternated between 4/4 and a fast 3/4 on “Hammock’s Soliloquy,” and stoked by Stewart’s fire nearly burned down the tent on Swallow’s “Name That Tune.” Swallow played an exceptionally beautiful and melodic solo on “Alfie” and Scofield upped the nastiness quotient with his long, across the bar lines phrasing and use of pedals on “Over Big Top.” Some unexpected comic relief came in the form of some jam-band hippies who pogo’ed in front of the stage during an encore of the Denzil Best bop anthem “Wee.”

The night was still young so I high-tailed it over to Top O’ the Senator to catch the last few tunes of Chris Potter and his new group with guitarist Adam Rogers, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Nate Smith. Their sticky, steamy piece “Wheel” bubbled up out of a Meters swamp groove, and gathered momentum even as Taborn took it out. Smith then played it half as fast and twice as funky and the crowd shouted approval. Potter began playing snaky lines, quoting from the Miles Davis tune “Jean Pierre” and channeling the spirits of both King Curtis and Albert Ayler. For an encore they came back for a heart-achingly beautiful version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” which resonated with me all the way back to my hotel. After a few minutes in my room watching Rear Window dubbed in French, I fell by the hotel lounge for the late night jam session where I heard pianist Adrean Farrugia and his trio with bassist Artie Roth and drummer Sly Juhas. Farrugia played his own “Life Tide” with a nice touch and a sophisticated harmonic approach, and his trio sounded particularly good together on the elastic “High Five,” trading eights with abandon and humor.

Monday evening found me back at the Film Board for the second night of Next Wave featuring Michael Bates, the former Toronto bassist now living in Brooklyn. His quartet Outside Sources, including Kevin Turrcott, trumpet; Quinsin Nachoff, reeds and Mark Timmermans, drums ripped it open right from the start with his original “On Equilibrium.” There was nothing tentative about the collective improvisation that hung on an ascending-descending phrase. “Prodigal” made use of legato passages punctuated w/short staccato bursts, and “The Well,” inspired by the Tunisian oud player Anouar Brahem, featured the percolating rhythm section. Bates wrote an intriguing arrangement of Prokofiev’s Cello Sonata in C Major for the quartet that was both engaging and somewhat unsettling, and the final piece featured an unaccompanied arco bass solo that morphed into a frenetic bass/drum duet.

A quick streetcar ride took me to the posh Montreal Bistro for a series of elegant duets between pianists Don Thompson and Fred Hersch. As I entered they began Thompson’s beautifully mysterious “Egberto,” written for the Brazilian pianist-composer Egberto Gismonte. I was immediately struck by the clarity of ideas, their clean articulation and the total absence of cliches. When Thompson played a gorgeous unaccompanied “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Hersch bowed his head over his keyboard in deep concentration. Hersch then returned the favor by playing a romantic (but not the least bit sentimental) rendition of “The Nearness of You.” The four hands came together on Hersch’s “Endless Stars,” and closed the set with Thompson’s humorous “Ask Me Later,” based loosely on Monk’s “Ask Me Now.” At the break, Hersch told me he’s played with Thompson before, but this was the first time they’ve played piano duets together and they enjoy trying to surprise each other. Theirs was, indeed, the sound of surprise.

It was only midnight and I took a chance that trumpeter, composer, arranger and Boss Brass veteran John McLeod’s 21-piece orchestra would still be playing over at the Rex. They were and I arrived just in time to hear vocalist Bonnie Brett sing “Isn’t It a Pity,” backed by full jazz orchestra with French horns. Brett sang the Gershwin brothers tune with taste, great feeling and sly wit, even keeping a straight face for the line “my nights were sour, spent with Schopenhauer.” Brett was then joined by another vocalist Melissa Stylianou (together they’re billed as the Bosom Buddies) for a finger-popping arrangement of Elvis Costello’s “Watching the Detectives,” with fine plunger work from the orchestra leader. Stylianou sang another Gershwin tune “But Not for Me,” notable not just for including the verse, but for Stylianou’s distinctive phrasing, vibrato and perfect intonation. The orchestra finished the set with a roaring blues “Sometimes You Feel Like That” complete with exhilarating stop-time breaks, hip, seriously swinging ensemble writing, and a slightly out of it skateboarder sitting near me playing air-drums. The band may not work that often but it features some of the best players in the city, among them Kelly Jefferson, Rick Wilkins, Terry Promane and Neil Swainson, and though the budget for such a large band is steep and the pay may be small, the kicks must be enormous.

Tuesday was the occasion for another free afternoon show, this time by the Effendi Jazz Lab band, an octet of leaders who all record for the Montreal-based Effendi Jazz label. Backstage, a P.R. flack suggested that Effendi was the Blue Note of Canada, a comparison that’s neither fair nor accurate but it comes close to describing the straightahead aesthetic of these players. Label co-founder Alain Bedard held down the bass chair with strong contributions from saxophonists François Théberge, Alexandre Côté, and Christine Jensen; trumpeter Aron Doyle, trombonist Kelsey Grant; pianist Steve Amirault and drummer Martin August. The tonality is a bit hard-bop conventional but the group offers imaginative writing with occasionally interesting harmonic choices. Highlights included Jensen and Therberge paying homage to Steve Lacy on “To Steve,” August’s hard-charging “Roll,” written to honor Elvin Jones, and the swirling patterns of “Look Left,” which Jensen humorously dedicated to George Bush.

On the way to dinner I popped into the Rex and heard pianist Ron Davis and trio up the temperature with a set-ending, barn-burning version of “Sweet Georgia Brown.” I wanted to hear more but unfortunately my ears lost out to my stomach so I ventured up the block to Tiger Lilly’s and attacked some noodles and veggies before heading over to the Film Board to see drummer Karl Jannuska’s quartet. Jannuska, with Frasier Hollins, bass; Brodie West, alto; and Kelly Jefferson, tenor sax, records for Effendi and recently relocated from Montreal to Paris. He unleashed the title track from his new CD, Liberating Vines, with it’s thumping, boom-laka-laka-laka groove. It was the hippest thing of a set that also included the noir-ish “Half the Fun,” a skittering fast “Cluster Phobia,” a drum solo over a bass pedal point, and “House of 100 Faces,” which set the two saxophonists free.

Though I’d seen him many times before, I hadn’t heard Wynton Marsalis since he signed with Blue Note records. Leading a quintet with saxophonist Walter Blanding Jr., pianist Eric Lewis (“the professor”), bassist Carlos Henriquez and drummer Ali Jackson, Marsalis received a standing ovation from the overflow house before playing a single note. The opening “Free To Be” had a contagious bounce with Marsalis exploring the upper register and Lewis playing some avant-barrelhouse. Henriquez bowed and hummed a la Slam Stewart on the light-hearted “You and Me,” and the two horns chased each other around the theme of “Skipping.” Marsalis generously invited Toronto pianist, producer and theater composer Andrew Craig out of the audience to sit in on a blues, and Craig pulled it off, though just barely. The highest points of the concert came during the joyous, soulful “Big Fat Hen” and the second encore, a blistering fast variation on “Cherokee,” with Lewis playing some heavy stride and Marsalis engaging Jackson in a spirited duet. Later that night, Marsalis reportedly played for two hours from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m. in the hotel lounge. A colleague who attended the Montreal festival a few days later said Marsalis cancelled his Montreal concert because he blew out his lip.

Since arriving in Toronto, musicians and broadcasters had been telling me about a pianist and organist named Doug Riley, widely considered among the most accomplished and respected Canadian musicians. Saxophonist Phil Dwyer (no slouch himself) praised Riley’s “depth of musical skill, his broad range and relentlessly positive attitude,” and suggested Riley is “the synthesis of Jimmy Smith and Bill Evans.” With such heavy praise, I had to go hear for myself. Riley was playing at a club called The Orbit Room in Little Italy, and you could hear and feel the vibe halfway up the street. I climbed the stairs and heard Riley on the Hammond B-3 rocking through “Good Bait,” crying on the blue-light ballad “Late at Night,” and burning on a riff-based George Benson cooker with Phil Dwyer laying down some heavy R&B/hard-bop baritone, Ted Quinlan peeling off stinging guitar licks and Bob McLaren keeping the pots on. The groove and energy level in the room was incredible, the crowd was going nuts and the band was all smiles.

With only one night left in Toronto, I returned to the Film Board to hear the Henneman String Quartet, an improvising chamber ensemble led by the Dutch violist Ig Henneman, with Oene Van Geel, violin and viola; Alex Waterman, cello; and, playing with the Quartet for the first time, the remarkable bassist Mark Helias. The quartet evoked exquisite tension on the eerie “Bugigattolo,” and the violin and viola went on to play a totally free improv that made creative use of pitch and the space between notes. “Marranzanata,” a lament inspired by Sicilian folk music, featured Van Geel using a mind-bending sliding vibrato reminiscent of Indian string players, and an edgy, angular arrangement of Monteverdi’s madrigal “Non Oso (I Don’t Dare)” was simultaneously innovative and lovingly respectful. Perhaps best of all was “Stills,” which found Helias playing a dark, earthy plucked and bowed bass solo and Van Geel swinging over sighing strings.

I have to admit I only made it through two tunes by banjo man Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Don’t get me wrong, they’re all great players and they’ve got a telepathic group dynamic, but cigarette smoke kept wafting in from those standing just outside the open back of the tent, and the smoke, combined with the loud thud thumping and endless rock audience whooping forced me to throw in the towel. I eagerly moved on to the Montreal Bistro to hear Joanne Brackeen play piano duets with George Cables. From the opening tune of the second set, “On Green Dolphin Street,” they played with a special spark that I hadn’t heard enough of at the festival. The interplay was deep, the textures of their harmonies and countermelodies dense, and they generated tremendous heat, occasionally evoking knowing smiles from each other. The momentum kept building in Cables’ “Looking for the Light,” and their interwoven lines on “Alone Together” showed that even at bright tempos they were listening very carefully to one another. They played an intense Brackeen original, not yet recorded, called “Chatterbox,” brought out their heavy left hands for the 5/4 “Cuban Exchange,” and improvised a very modern introduction to “Solar.” Best of all was their spare, blues-drenched variations and rumbling tremolos on “Blue Monk.” It was a special night for anyone who loves jazz piano.

Originally Published