TO Jazz Review: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones + 5 After 4, June 30, Metro Square

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | Leave a comment

Toronto – Here’s the thing about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ (or, the ORIGINAL Flecktones, if you’re a stickler) Jazz Festival set. It was excellent, bordering on utterly brilliant, except for one thing: it would’ve been better if it had been shorter by three songs.

This isn’t about the set going too late (again), and I wasn’t the only one who noticed it, as my compatriot Mark said the same thing. Bela Fleck, along with bandmates Victor Wooten, Howard Levy and Futureman played brilliantly all night. Their solos were breathtaking, their call-and-response playing was mesmerizing, and the band built to an incredible climax with “Big Country” alongside fiddler Casey Driessen…then lost all momentum with a rather indulgent, noodly tune of loosely connected solos called “Rocket Science,” a lengthy introduction of each band member, then two more songs not half as good as “Big Country” before leaving the stage. Granted, they did impress with an utterly insane encore, featuring a long solo by Wooten, who’s bass playing is unlike any I’ve ever seen before. But still, the set sort of resembled a roller coaster where the excitement climbed to a thrilling, dizzying height, then flatlined before climbing again all-too-briefly and ending.

Opening act 5 After 4 were good, but not real memorable after Fleck and his crew ripped up the stage. Drummer Vito Rezza and his band, who are apparently all career session musicians, play 80’s-reminiscent smooth jazz. To my ear, they sound like they could’ve been doing the soundtrack to an 80’s cop movie, actually. A good 80’s cop movie soundtrack, though. You could sort of picture Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte going through a montage where they’re mad at each other to the music, right before they get back together and catch the bad guys. I’m not being as flattering to 5 After 4 as I meant to be here. They were not bad.

I don’t mean to be hard on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones either. The only reason I point out the uneven set and the loss of momentum is because minus the three songs before the encore, this show was probably a five out of five. Fleck’s five-string banjo playing has to be seen to be believed. Levy alternated between harmonica and piano and was excellent on both. Wooten, once again, is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen on the bass with his virtuoso slap technique that demands to be noticed. And I don’t even understand how Futureman’s, aka Roy Wooten’s, drums work. My first reaction to seeing him onstage was “what the hell is that guy playing?” (also, “why the hell is that guy wearing a pirate hat?”) and it took me at least three songs to realize that the thing he had in his hands, apparently invented by him and called a Drumitar, was what he was using to play the drums.

The crowd hung on their every move. Fleck got the biggest cheers for his solos, but Wooten was a close second, and his encore solo, which he capped off by flinging his bass around his body by the strap several times, was epic and got the loudest reaction of the night.

It was a great show. I only knew the band by reputation going in, but came away thoroughly impressed. Still, I can’t help but think that minus a few songs, this could’ve been a set of the year candidate, or at least best of the festival, instead of a very good show.

TO Jazz Review: Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo, June 29, Koerner Hall

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | Leave a comment

Toronto – As this year’s festival heads into its final weekend, it’s high time we talk about artistic director Josh Grossman. Josh was brought onboard last year and has been doing some great work for the festival. He’s been a force of nature when it comes to promoting jazz in the city, and his own blog offers up great insights into this world. He’s demonstrated an ability to be both progressive and expansive by including bands like the Roots and Aretha Franklin in the line-up.

I had the pleasure of meeting Josh last year and had but one request: “please please please bring back Branford!” In 2009 the festival featured the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing the main square at Nathan Phillips. While a great show in its own right, I was hoping beyond hope that we could get to see Branford in a more intimate venue. I can only assume that my conversation with Josh left such an indelible impression on him that he immediately pick up the phone and booked Branford to play a duet at Koerner Hall with Joey Calderazzo. So thanks Josh, it was totally worth it!

“Piano is hard…” – Toronto-based jazz pianist Matt Newton commenting on Joey Calderazzo’s playing

This was my most anticipated show of the festival; superlatives can’t begin to express how special it was. With talent and work, some musicians get to the point where they can describe the beauty, complexity, and perplexity of this world using only the sounds that emanate from their instrument. Others can do so while levitating on a magical flying carpet and looking out over the earth. That’s what Branford & Joey sounded like for the world premiere of their latest album Songs of Mirth & Melancholy.

“[We’d always ask our dad to play with us, and I’d ask him what key he was playing in] he’d say, son, there are no keys, only sounds.” – Branford Marsalis quoting his father Ellis Marsalis

As much as I love the energy of the quartet, it was positively sublime to hear what these artists could accomplish as a duo in the intimate and fabulous sounding Koerner Hall. That these two are good friends in addition to fellow jedi masters is evident. As Joey would solo, Branford would silently groove out and tap his foot. He’d open his eyes and look over as if to enquire “you done?” With Joey’s own eyes closed and lost in his world, Branford would chuckle to himself and let the man come back down to earth on his own time. With songs like Cheek to Cheek, these two were able to skirt the line between the familiar and the foreign with effortless skill.

There are many genres of music that have a special and indescribably sublime quality. To be able to experience such masterful music that transcends such boundaries in a live setting is both a rarity and a treat.

TO Jazz Review: Return to Forever, June 28, Sony Centre

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 3 Comments

Toronto – Last Tuesday jazz super-group Return to Forever played two intense sets at the Sony Centre. In the 1970’s jazz started to fuse with the rock & roll. Bands like Weather Report and some of Miles Davis’ projects from that era started to blend ideas of improvisation with gut-punching rock beats. Return to Forever is the last band standing from those days, and they continue to play at the top of their game.

Return to Forever is badass. Watching them live is like getting kicked in the nuts. It hurts, but it’s a good kind of hurt.

Now not everyone could get behind this jazz rock fusion. To be sure, there were people on both sides of the camp that felt downright alienated with the idea that jazz and rock should slowly run towards each other with arms outspread. At the same time, it was clear that this fusion was attracting the top musicians of the day. Pioneers like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, and Stanley Clarke flocked to the cause. You had only to stop and listen to the musicianship that these artists brought to the table to understand that theirs was a music that was coming from a different musical plane altogether. These guys could rock, and they could do it from a place of such absolute musical mastery that ordinary rockers could not touch.

Untouchable: that’s basically how this band sounds. Simply put, Return to Forever is badass. Watching them live is like getting kicked in the nuts. It hurts, but it’s a good kind of hurt. This latest tour includes the addition of Jean-Luc Pointy, who Chick Corea described as “the best jazz violinist on the planet.” Since there aren’t a lot of jazz violinists out there, this kind of sounds like giving someone the prize for being “the best jazz bagpiper on the planet”. This accolade doesn’t do Jean-Luc credit; he blended with the rest of the group seamlessly, is a musical tour-de-force in his own right, and added a refreshing variant to the RTF sound.

TO Jazz Review: Paco de Lucia, June 27, Sony Centre

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 2 Comments

Toronto – Guitar legend Paco de Lucia played the Sony Centre last Monday. It was an evening of flamenco music, crazy flamenco dancing, and perplexing reversals of gender stereotypes. It was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the festival, and while there was certainly some amazing music to be heard, it did leave many feeling a little underwhelmed.

When I think of harp music, it brings to mind thoughts of light classical music gently strummed by slightly creepy baby angels.

Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda opened the evening with a very strong, if short, set. When I think of harp music, it brings to mind thoughts of light classical music gently strummed by slightly creepy baby angels. For me the harp is a gentle and fair instrument. It evokes sleepy times. Edmar’s treatment of the instrument was distinctly different from the status quo. His was the most assertive approach to the instrument I’ve seen. He muted strings with his elbows and plucked like a madman; it was a rhythmic and percussive treatment of latin music.

Before long, el hombre himself took to the stage to lay down some sweet flamenco. Don’t get me wrong, Paco is one talented guitarist. He plays guitar the way Superman would play guitar if he were so inclined. The only difference being that Superman would probably need a specially constructed guitar made of carbon fibre or some shit to withstand his super grip. If I had to describe Paco’s backing band, I would use the words tasteful,  judicious, and a little crazy. Spanish flamenco singing is kind of like yelling in key and the trio of male singers were pretty intense.

Halfway through the set, one of male singers hopped on the wooden dance floor for some traditional flamenco dancing. Although technically this type of dancing  is a unisex sport, I always associate it with beautiful and voluptuous Spanish women; what with their crazy innate understanding of confusingly sensual rhythm and their crazy little tiny finger cymbals. This male singer/dancer strutted around with all the feminine bravado, or feminado, of a Spanish Michael Flatley. The fact that just an hour earlier I was listening to a masculine harpist only helped to further confuse my gender stereotypes. Needless to say, I left the Sony Centre much more distraught about who I am.

Paco is one talented guitarist. He plays guitar the way Superman would play guitar if he were so inclined.

Easily the most disappointing part of the show was the encore, or rather lack thereof. To be fair, I don’t think encores should be automatically granted. However, with great fame comes great responsibility. When an entire auditorium is clamouring for a little more from a musical legend, the encore becomes a key gesture of goodwill. I was more than little surprised to see the lights go on after a few minutes of intense clapping. The crowd was not ready to give up. Eventually someone came out and announced that due to “hall regulations”, there was a “curfew” and they could not “play anymore”.

That was weak. I’ve been to many a concert at the Sony Centre and am not aware of any curfews for 10:36 pm, including the following night when badass band Return to Forever played till 10:46. The crazy thing about this is how easily it could have been avoided. Just take the existing playlist and end it one song early. People would applaud, the band would leave the stage. Paco would come back. The crowd would go wild. He’d play one more song. The lights would go on, and people would leave with a smile on their face. Instead, many of the crowd left the Sony Centre feeling disappointed that their encore request was so flatly denied. It felt like a rookie mistake from a seasoned veteran.

Edmar Castaneda:

Paco de Lucia: