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New Century, Same Genius: Ornette Coleman at JVC

The creative arts scene of Toronto just added a new color to its vibrant pallet with the May inauguration of the Art of Jazz Celebration. Solidly based in jazz education, Art of Jazz was founded by Toronto’s jazz emissaries, saxophonist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer, along with Bonnie Lester and Howard Rees. Part of the event’s charm-not a festival, a celebration-was its historic venue. The Distillery is a lakefront complex dating back to 1832 which ceased alcohol production in 1990. The Distillery Historic District opened in May 2003 as a pedestrian-only village dedicated to arts and culture-the largest restoration project in Canada. The vast, gentrified warren of brick buildings hosted the Art of Jazz Celebration in the district’s newest jewel, the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, and the cavernous old Fermenting Room.

The festivities, with clinics by masters Hank Jones, Barry Harris, Sheila Jordan and others at its educational center, included a stellar matinee duo series spanning its four days, an Afro-Cuban Jazz and Dance Party, and the debut of the multi-composer/omnidirectional Art of Jazz Orchestra. At its core were tribute evenings, this time to Barry Harris and one of Canada’s heavyweight jazz champs, multi-instrumentalist Don Thompson (pictured).

Barry Harris’ evening opened with a gorgeous solo piano invocation masterfully massaged by his Detroit pal Hank Jones, after which bassist Earl May and drummer Leroy Williams joined the courtly octogenarian for “Green Dolphin Street.” Honored maestro Harris proved once again that he’s mastered the beautiful notes throughout a pearly, understated ballad medley. Tap dance great Jimmy Slyde entered mysteriously from the front of the house, heels and toes building merry rhythms down the concrete surface leading to the stage, paradiddles accenting Harris’ azure touch. Slyde’s vocabulary was particularly potent on “Blue Monk,” eliciting some of Barry’s most pugnacious chords.

After a brief intermission, Charles McPherson’s Bird-calling alto nimbly jump-started “All the Things You Are.” Later, Jones opened the second show with “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” delivering on that lyrical promise for an adoring audience of Harris’ fans and friends. The elfin, white afro-ed honoree had them chuckling with his wry lyric vocalese on “Embraceable You” in the spirit of “Moody’s Mood.”

Don Thompson has so seamlessly mastered the vibes, bass and piano that one wonders which came first (piano did). A dry-witted storyteller, he recounted his initial encounters with the evening’s guest altoist John Handy, with whom Thompson and drummer Terry Clarke wove remarkable music preserved on Handy’s classic Live at the Monterey Jazz Festival record (Columbia, 1966). At points they reprised old trio exploits, the honoree splitting time between piano and bass. The prodigious Dave Holland, who Thompson became acquainted with through their faculty summers at Banff, guested on bass, contributing a brilliant solo piece. The remaining cast members were saxophonist Phil Dwyer-who began the evening on piano-and guitar master Jim Hall.

With such a versatile cast mixing and matching in various combinations, this was an evening full of the warmth of familiarity and good grooves. Playing solos, duos, trios, quartets and sextets, Thompson became so caught up in their lovely musical camaraderie that he completely lost track of time-and the fact that there were two shows on tap that evening! The plucky Hall tripped up the ears with his chord shifting on “Skylark.” Dwyer excelled on tenor, recalling Sonny Rollins’ “Bridge” with Hall, Thompson and Clarke. Canadian readers can catch both tribute concerts later this year on CBC Radio.

Sonny Fortune and Rashied Ali essayed a torrential marathon on “Impressions” that was the totality of their 100-minute duo performance. The notes cascaded out of Fortune’s alto in such roiling waves that he was completely entranced by the momentum and went on for an amazing over 85-minute solo that left the audience wrung out like a wet dishrag. With Ali thrusting away, Fortune was like a boxer, advancing and retreating from the superfluous microphone, all with a remarkably relaxed countenance.

Later that afternoon, the temperature downshifted a bit but the musical camaraderie was no less engaging as Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown did their hand-in-glove bit. The irrepressible Jordan improvised her lyric intro-bridging it neatly into Oscar Brown Jr.’s “Hum Drum Blues.” Ever the engaging storyteller, the singer tailored a sweetly sentimental, humor-tinged medley of dance-themed chestnuts in tribute to her pre-Bird hero, Fred Astaire.

That Saturday evening, in a SRO Fermenting Room, Bunnett, Cramer and a cast of clave-indoctrinated revelers including special guest Howard Johnson on tuba and the kinetic young keyboardist David Virelles delivered on their Afro-Cuban promise. Though a bit wobbly at times, the set-which also engaged some hip-hop flava-caught fire at several points, including their convincing illustration of the clave’s New Orleans entrenchment with guests the Soul Rebels Brass Band. The Ricky Franco Salsa Orchestra skillfully lifted the dancers, proving that Afro-Cubana is deep in the Toronto community. As if they hadn’t already goosed the thermostat, guest trumpeter Ray Vega, on hand for the Art of Jazz Orchestra debut (as were HoJo and Sheila Jordan), raised the roof higher alongside young Cuban émigrés Alexander Brown on trumpet and Luis Denis on alto.

Originally Published