At a time when sponsorship dollars are getting squeezed, fans are becoming increasingly cautious about spending and jazz venues continue to shutter at an alarming rate, it’s tough enough for a festival, even one as well established as the 24-year-old, 10-day Toronto event, to remain solvent. But when politics, counter-programming and even the weather all seem to be working double-time against you, the challenge becomes exponentially greater. Over the years, the Toronto fest has learned to live in the shadow of its more renowned Montreal sibling. More recently, though, Toronto has not only had to accept Montreal’s significantly larger footprint and heightened international profile, but also deal with overlapping dates and, in terms of the higher-profile names, overlapping artists. This year, the Toronto fest was also forced to contend with the arrival of the G8 summit during opening weekend, resulting in cordoned-off highways and blockaded downtown thoroughfares, mobs of angry protesters, delayed or cancelled bus and subway service to the city’s core and an army of police, all within blocks of the main stage at Nathan Phillips Square. As an added bonus, storm clouds gathered for each of the fest’s first three days, delivering such torrential rain that by Sunday evening the city’s main arteries seemed more rivers than streets.
And yet, through it all, the festival not only survived but thrived. Even outdoor venues were packed, as fans braved the wind, rain and Obama and Sarkozy’s security forces to fill clubs and concert spaces.
Canadian wunderkind Nikki Yanofsky, riding high with her debut studio release Nikki, not only opened the proceedings but also inaugurated a venue new to the festival. Literally carved into the side of the University of Toronto’s venerable Conservatory of Music, Koerner Hall is not just architecturally stunning but rivals the acoustic brilliance of the city’s much larger Roy Thomson Hall.
In a 90-minute set shaped largely from album tracks, the pert 16-year-old proved an absolute charmer, peppering her performance with giggly, age-appropriate tales of dating, friendships, high school and the excitement of working with such idols as Feist and Jesse Harris. “I have a boyfriend,” shared the garrulous teenager at the show’s midpoint, “and his name is jazz.” Cute as the statement was, Yanofsky caught considerable critical heat for leaning more toward pop than jazz. Not that the SRO crowd seemed to care, as two standing ovations attested. Yanofsky responded with an impressively scorching “I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.”
The following night, with G8 and weather mayhem at its peak, festival organizers fretted that Herbie Hancock’s main stage performance could end up spottily attended. But fans persevered. Every seat was filled and an overflow audience of more than 200, required to watch from outside the tent, happily endured the constant downpour. Nor did Hancock, displaying the energy of a 30-year-old even though he’d celebrated his 70th birthday two months prior, disappoint. Warming up the crowd with dazzling renditions of “Watermelon Man” and “Round Midnight” and alternating between acoustic and electric keyboards, Hancock acknowledged the nearby political powwow as he shifted to selections from his chart-topping Imagine Project. “This CD is about peace,” he told the assembled acolytes, “and that’s what the G8 and G20 are all about. I’m not waiting form them to show me, to show us; we have to do that in our hearts.”
Harry Connick Jr., expected by festival programmers to easily fill the 2,200-seat Canon Theatre on Sunday night, managed to reach only about 75 percent capacity, the shortfall likely due to the significant number of cross-border ticket buyers who stayed away, fearful of the anticipated G8 disorder. Judging from the crowd, most had come to see Connick the easygoing crooner, not the hardcore jazzman. Cleverly, he wooed the audience with a handful of easygoing selections from Your Songs, his recent collection of pop covers then, once he’d gotten them settled in, let loose with a full-fledged, pull-no-punches jazz concert. Highlights, all featuring special guest trombonist Lucien Barbarin, included a blistering “St. James Infirmary” plus dynamically inventive treatments of “How Come You Do Me Like You Do,” “Didn’t He Ramble,” “Take Her to the Mardi Gras,” and what Connick claimed was his first-ever public performance of Ray Charles’ “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” Acknowledging his debt to Oscar Peterson, Connick opined that the three pianists most imitated by fledgling jazz players are Peterson, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. Noting that Hancock was also scheduled to headline the festival, Connick encouraged everyone to try and see the septuagenarian genius, and paused for a moment of comic embarrassment when told that Hancock had actually appeared the previous night.
Monday night, back at the main stage tent, Dave Young elegantly rose to an unenviable challenge. Young, arguably the equal of Neil Swainson among Canadian bassists, was selected to open for bass giant Stanley Clarke. Wisely anticipating the grandiosity that would follow, he kept things low-key and elegant, wowing the crowd with several brilliant improvisations.
Sharing the stage with piano virtuoso Hiromi, Clarke started off strong, but was thrown off his game when technical problems resulted in a 25-minute, mid-set delay. He recovered quickly, though demonstrated surprising restraint, allowing Hiromi the longer, more adventurous solos, seemingly happy to temper his usual fury in response to her astonishing playing.
Though repeat gigs by headliners is hardly unusual for any major festival, Dave Brubeck seems determined to become a Toronto fixture. This year marked his fifth consecutive appearance and, at age 89, he showed no signs of slowing down. Kibbitzing with the capacity crowd at Koerner Hall, Brubeck joked about how harrowing his one-block walk from hotel to Hall proved to be, thanks to 50-mile-an-hour gusts. So, he added, “I figured we should start off with “Gone With the Wind”!” Sharing the stage with his regular bandmates – bassist Michael Moore, drummer Randy Jones and saxophonist Bobby Militello – Brubeck’s playing seemed surprisingly tentative at first, often overpowered by Militello. But his third selection, a vibrant “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” Brubeck had fully hit his stride and stayed at the top of his game for the rest of the evening.
As is inevitable at events as well programmed as this, conflicts arise. Such was the case Wednesday night, with Keith Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette going head-to-head with Roberta Gambarini. I’ll confess that the possibility of seeing Gambarini in an intimate club setting proved too hard to resist. While Jarrett and company were booked into the grandly luxurious Four Seasons Centre (home to the National Ballet of Canada and the Canadian Opera Company), Gambarini was playing way across town, in the borderline suburban Hugh’s Room. For the uninitiated, Hugh’s Room is precisely the sort of spot – cozy and unpretentious – that is ideal for an up-close-and-personal jazz experience. The pre-show buzz among the audience, which at capacity totals no more than 100, focused on surprise delight that as big a name as Gambarini would play so small a club. The Torino-born vocalist, who easily rivals Dianne Reeves, Diana Krall and Tierney Sutton in skill and stature, started a wee bit late, explaining that she’d been unexpectedly caught in heavy traffic. With neither rehearsal nor warm-up, Gambarini – working with a freshly-formed trio comprised of 23-year-old New Orleans-based pianist Jonathan Batiste, New York drummer Montez Coleman and Canadian bass genius Neil Swainson – delivered flawless, back-to-back, hour-long sets. (The follow night, ticketholders for the Roy Hargrove Big Band got an unexpected treat when Gambarini made an unannounced guest appearance).
Reports from the Four Seasons Centre sug
gest that, while Gambarini was captivating the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, Jarrett was proving his typically cantankerous self. Fortunately, Jarrett’s wrath wasn’t directed at audience members, but at the Centre’s piano. Noting that the hammers weren’t properly hitting the strings, he joked that it was the instruments cry for “Help!,” adding that the folks at Steinway could expect a call from him. According to several attendees, Jarrett, Peacock and DeJohnette were in superlative form on a wide-ranging playlist that extended from “Tennessee Waltz” to God Bless the Child” and, Jarrett’s mood steadily brightening, delivered not one but three encores.
Rounding out the main stage schedule, on July 2 was John Scofield for an off-the-charts evening of blues-tinged testifying with the Piety Street Band, as fine an assemblage of New Orleans musicians, led by ace keyboardist Jon Cleary (of Bonnie Raitt fame), as you’ll ever likely encounter. Scofield, whose breakneck Canadian schedule had already included dates at the Ottawa and Vancouver festivals, with Montreal to immediately follow Toronto, made his presence stunningly known, most notably with a kickass solo on “Good Times,” but left plenty of room for his compatriots to stretch out. Most unexpected was bassist George Porter Jr.’s smoldering vocal on “Never Turn Back.” Opening for Scofield was Toronto-based vocalist Shakura Saida, with a blazing, hour-long set. The sassy Saida, a staple of the local scene for a quarter-century, wowed with a rollicking blues-rock style that might teach even Tina Turner a thing or two.
Though actual pyrotechnics filled the sky on Canada Day (July 1), the onstage fireworks were equally explosive two nights later at the closing night street party, with Chaka Khan and Macy Gray going stiletto-to-stiletto at the city’s hub, Yonge-Dundas Square, for a free concert that pushed audience boundaries to embrace thousands of fans who care little for jazz but know two astounding soul sisters when they hear them.
The trouble, of course, with a festival that presents several hundred performers across more than 40 venues in just ten days, is that it is impossible to see even a fraction of the performances. Tough choices have to be made. When, for instance, Nikki Yanofsky was wowing the house at Koerner Hall, Martha Wainwright was proving just as enchanting way across town with her salute to Edith Piaf. Seeing Dave Brubeck meant missing Betty LaVette. Opting for Harry Connick required opting out of James Hunter and Taj Mahal. This list, extending from Angelique Kidjo to Zach Brock, goes on and on. Plus, there were outstanding, festival-long schedules at further afield venues, including the historic, west-end Old Mill Inn, which welcomed such exceptional players as Hilario Duran, Mike Murley and Denzel Sinclaire. Also, new this year, were free concerts at the Shops at Don Mills (don’t let the pedestrian name fool you; it’s a great music space), where the headliners included Jane Bunnett, Robi Botos and Elizabeth Shepherd.
The Toronto festival may not be as big, as musically inclusive, or as heavily publicized as its Montreal counterpart, but it is, to twist a Brubeck line, consistently exciting in its own sweet way. In addition to the small, constantly overworked cadre of festival staffers and a platoon of volunteers, credit for the festival’s continued brilliance, diversity and admirable dedication to showcasing homegrown and student talent must sit squarely with Pat Taylor. The tirelessly imaginative Taylor co-founded the festival in 1987 with Jim Galloway, and had served as Executive Producer and CEO ever since. For 23 of those 24 years, Galloway worked hand-in-hand with Taylor as Artistic Director. Earlier this year, Galloway announced his retirement from festival duties, handing the AD mantle to33-year-old educator, producer and performer Josh Grossman. As the 24th annual festival so clearly demonstrated, Grossman is an inspired choice, and it will be great to see what he and Taylor have up their sleeves to mark the festival’s silver anniversary next summer. Originally Published