TO Jazz Review: Sonny Rollins, Four Seasons Centre, June 26

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Toronto – The Downtown Toronto Jazz festival kicked off yesterday and will be running throughout the city from now until July 5th. It’s a fantastic opportunity to check out some great live music. The shows that occur during the day at Nathan Phillips Square are free. You can get the details here.

Now, before I go describing last night’s show, I’d like to take this opportunity to talk jazz. To the layperson, there’s a huge swathe of music that we describe as “jazz”, but it can be helpful to understand the progression of the different styles. Jazz has had a profound and co-mingling impact on all sorts of music; from soul, afrobeat, calypso, latin music to electronica, hip-hop and beyond.

When you think hard bop, think cats, literally cats. If a bunch of cartoon cats were to get together and play some jazz music in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or that Disney movie the Aristocats, that’s hard bop.

Bebop – a.ka. “Bop” (Late 40’s – early 50’s)
This is where it all begins. Before this time jazz was popular dance music and musicians were seen as entertainers. Then cats like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie started to explore the idea that jazz musicians were artists first and entertainers second. Bebop is often seen as the roots of jazz. The music is angular and fast, the melodies are intricate, and it relies heavily on the musicians “chops” (virtuosity) and their ability to say a lot of things very quickly. While not as easy to digest as the later styles, bebop lays the foundations for the House That Jazz Built.

Bebop musicians: Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk

Hard bop (50’s – 60’s)
Hard bop is a bit of misnomer. Despite the name, it’s bebop infused with elements of R&B and gospel, paving the way for funk and soul music. When you think hard bop, think cats, literally cats. If a bunch of cartoon cats were to get together and play some jazz music in a Bugs Bunny cartoon or that Disney movie the Aristocats, that’s hard bop.

Hard bop is the jazz music that you can tap your foot to. It’s a lot more accessible and rhythmical than bebop, and has been incredibly influential on improvisational music of all sorts.

Hard bop musicians: Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus

OK so let’s say you’re aiming to steal the Hope Diamond, so you put your sneakers on, you know, for sneaking. [What do you listen to?] cool jazz.

Cool jazz – a.k.a. West Coast Jazz (50’s – 60’s)
OK so let’s say you’re aiming to steal the Hope Diamond, so you put your sneakers on, you know, for sneaking. Like all successful diamond thieves, you need to get into the right frame of mind before you pull off your caper, so what music do you put on? For the high-minded antiquity thief, there’s really only option: cool jazz. Think drums that are being played with metal brushes. In cool jazz, musicians drift just behind the beat to give the music a laidback, cool feeling.

Cool jazz musicians: Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Dave Brubeck

So now that we’ve covered some basic terminology, it’s important to establish that these styles mingle with each other. Musicians don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about classifications. They think about music and ideas and how to incorporate the two. We just invent these terms to help us talk about their music. So Miles Davis and his seminal album Kind of Blue is the perennial example of cool jazz, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t find earlier works of his that are bebop, or later works that are closer to hard bop or rock fusion.

Sonny is a grandmaster that has earned the respect of top jazz musicians and critics 50 years ago … he continues to practice his craft in the most dilligent and humble of ways; this man is a class act.

OK, so now we’ve got all the tools we need to talk about Sonny Rollins. Born in 1930 in Harlem, NYC, Sonny started on alto sax, but moved to the tenor at 16 . By the time he hit his late teens, he was playing with the pre-eminent artists of the bebop movement: Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and a young Miles Davis. Simply put, Sonny is a grandmaster that has earned the respect of top jazz musicians and critics 50 years ago. At 78, he continues to practice his craft in the most dilligent and humble of ways; this man is a class act.

Sonny’s set practically started with a standing ovation just after 8 pm at the Four Seasons Centre. The first half of his set could best be described as a traditional bebop. It was driving and his 20-minute opening song was inspired. Sonny has a lot to say musically and is still firmly in command of his horn. After the first song though, Sonny and his band kept progressing in the bebop direction. The crowd was happy to be seeing Sonny Rollins live, but most seemed to be yearning for more foot-tapping music.

As is often the case in the jazz world, the second half of the set is where things really picked up. Sonny started moving towards hard bop fare, and it is here where he shines and the crowd starts to groove. Sonny’s sense of phrasing and his ability to play with your rythmic expections is without par. This is especially evident when he re-interprets old calypso tunes.

One highlight for me was his song Cutie, which is a fantastic example of the softer and more introspective version of Sonny.

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Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival

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