Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Review: Waleed Kush & The African Jazz Ensemble, July 4, Trane Studio

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 1 Comment


Toronto – I really need to start bringing a notebook or something to shows I’m reviewing (I should get a better camera too, the photo above was the only one even close to usable and it’s not especially good, but I digress). I say that because I really liked Waleed Kush and the African Jazz Ensemble, but other than Kush, seen above playing the marimba, percussionist Derek Thorne, seen far right, and violinist Laurence Stevenson, who’s off-camera in this shot, I don’t remember and can’t find the names online of more than half the players in Kush’s ensemble: the saxaphonist, drummer, keyboardist, and bassist on songs when Kush was playing marimba.

This is a shame because, along with Kush and Thorne, the star of this show was the guy on saxaphone and clarinet, and I’d like to give him his due regard, but I don’t remember his name. I overheard him saying to someone at the bar he plays sax at Ryerson, but that’s all I know.

It’s interesting to see an ensemble group after spending the week seeing so many jazz quartets who’ve been together for a long time and read each other effortlessly. Here, it was very obvious just who the band leader was. Not only was Kush giving orders, telling guys when to jump in and even giving them a rhythm or melody to play, he looked to have a real mentor/student relationship with the younger guys on stage. It’s fascinating to watch, even if sometimes an ensemble doesn’t have quite as tight a sound as a veteran quartet, with this one no exception.

In addition to leading the band, Kush tends to draw the eye with his energetic playing. A multi-instrumentalist who can, according to his MySpace page, play a ridiculously long list of instruments, Kush limited himself this night merely to vocals, bass guitar, flute, marimba and hand drums. Kush moved to Toronto from Sudan in the early 90’s, and his African roots are very evident in his playing, singing and songwriting. His saxaphonist, whatever his name is, is definitely a talent, even if he could use a bit of seasoning and experience. Thorne’s hands were a blur during a couple of extended bongo/conga solos. Stevenson and the unnamed keyboardist, drummer, and second bassist were all good players, even if they didn’t shine quite as brightly as Kush, Thorne or the saxaphonist. All in all, a solid set, great music for a soundtrack if you’re, say, riding a caravan to Marrakesh or something, but thoroughly enjoyable in other situations as well. Unfortunately, my companion and I had to leave a bit early in order to make an appearance at “Panic at the Boat 2: Electric Boogaloo”, or whatever it was called, but at least we stayed long enough to see Kush play his marimba, which was a great deal of fun; Kush would beat out tunes with his mallets as he practically danced up and down the length of the instrument.

Kush is a Toronto local, so keep an eye out for his shows around town if you’re looking for a fun night of upbeat African-tinged tunes.

Also, this was the first time I’d ever been to Trane Studio, and it’s a great venue, just a little ways up Bathurst from Bloor. We didn’t partake in the food, but it looked good, and the room has a terrific sound and the staff were really nice; the jazz fest was nice enough to call ahead and put me on the guest list, and the Trane Studio people put me up front real close to the stage at the makeshift “media table.” They’ve got shows almost every night this month too. Next time I’ll try the food.

TO Jazz Review: Branford Marsalis, Nathan Phillips, July 3

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 1 Comment

Branford Marsalis

Toronto – The main tent at Nathan Phillips square was sold out last Friday night for one of the most anticipated shows of the Toronto jazz festival. Dave Holland opened (coverage here), followed by the Branford Marsalis Quartet who stole the festival on every conceivable metric. This band has the chops; and they have the rythm. But if there’s one word that comes to mind when trying to describe what they can do so effortlessly in a live setting, it’s musicality.

Branford Marsalis is the eldest of 6 sons of jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis. Three of his siblings are accomplished musicians in their own right: Wynton (trumpet) , Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums), making  this one musical family. From 1992-1995, Branford was the leader of The Tonight Show house band. Although commercially successful, Branford felt the need to explore his own music and stepped out of the limelight. This search for musical truth led him to form his own label, Marsalis Music, which gave him and the artists he nurtures the freedom  to pursue their craft without the restrictions imposed by mainstream record labels.

Filling in the huge shoes left by [Jeff “Tain” Watts] was sprightly teenaged Justin Faulkner … It took only the opening song for the crowd to be convinced: the kid is alllriiiiiight.

The Branford Marsalis Quartet has been playing together for almost 10 years now, with pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis, and until very recently, the drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts.  The recent departure of Watts has left the jazz community disconcerted. Jeff is an inspired drummer and has helped pioneer the driving rock beats in modern jazz that was mentioned in a previous article.  Jeff has left the band on amicable terms in order to pursue his own projects.

Filling in the huge shoes left by Watts is sprightly teenaged Justin Faulkner. This surprising lineup change has had more than a few jazz fanatics skittish. However, it took only the opening song for the crowd to be convinced: the kid is alllriiiiiight. The band played a fantastic and engaging set of jazz that simply had to be heard to be believed. It ranged from seat-of-your pants blistering solos to simmering, then suspense-building ballads that were frankly cathartic.

It’s hard to put a finger on exactly what makes Marsalis’ live act so engaging. Branford has put together a band of supremely talented musicians; but many jazz bands have that. The members of the band are all on the same wavelength and demonstrate a near-psychic ability to read each others mind; but many jazz bands have that. Theirs is  an undefinable sense of musicality and in-control spontaneity that shines brightest in a live setting. I can’t think of a better example of jazz that so deftly skirts the boundaries between what is familar and what is exploratory with more  intelligence, humanity, and passion.

Ours is a world of hip little three minute ditties and of internet technologies that favour mass-appeal over musical-appeal. It’s refreshing when musicians resist the temptations to compromise for the spotlight in the pursuit of something more genuine.

If there’s one thing about this show that prevents me from giving it a full 5 star rating, it’s the venue and the crowd. Although Nathan Phillips Square is an adequate venue for loud and lively bands, it is too brute a force for the quiet and introspective stuff. This was especially evident during Eric Revis’ bass solo, where you could hear the cash registers dutifully printing receipts as people bought their wine, and the very noticeable opening of beer cans, splsshhh, splsssshhh. The crowd chatter had me wishing for a more intimate or secluded venue.

As Blues Traveler frontman John Popper once said, “this MTV is not for free”. Ours is a world of hip little three minute ditties, of demographically-driven recording & production, and of internet technologies that favour mass-appeal over musical-appeal. It’s refreshing and inspiring when musicians resist the temptations to compromise for the spotlight in the pursuit of something more genuine.

TO Jazz Review: Dave Holland Quintet, July 3, Nathan Phillips Square

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 1 Comment


It’s pretty amazing how many jazz musicians who played with one Miles Davis-led group or another are still kicking around. Chick Corea’s still touring, Jimmy Cobb’s touring with his “So What” band right now (unfortunately not making a stop in Toronto, but hitting seemingly all the other jazz fests this summer), Herbie Hancock is going to be at Massey Hall in August, John McLaughlin is still around, Branford Marsalis and Sonny Rollins (both at this year’s Toronto Jazz Festival) both appeared with Davis a few times, it goes on and on.

Then there’s Dave Holland, who was the bassist in Davis’s band for several years during the late 60’s, when Davis was well into the jazz fusion stage of his career. Holland featured prominently on one of Davis’s most popular albums, Bitches Brew, and also one of my favourites, In a Silent Way.

I actually didn’t know any of this before Mark and I sat down to see Holland play ahead of Branford Marsalis’s set last Friday, but I thought it was kind of cool. Holland, who’s been a sideman in a lot of different bands since then, leads his own quintet now, featuring Chris Potter on sax, Robin Eubanks on trombone, Steve Nelson on vibraphone, and Nate Smith on drums.

You can definitely hear the influence of Davis’s avant-garde/jazz fusion stuff on Holland’s music. It’s a bit abstract at times, with very lengthy solos from Potter and Eubanks that deliberately shy away from much in the way of melody or rhythm. It’s the kind of music where you can appreciate just how good all the players are, and all five musicians are very, very good players, but if you like your jazz a little more melodic, it can seem a bit convoluted and be a bit hard to get into.

That’s pretty much how it felt to me, anyway. Whether it was because we were there mostly to see Branford Marsalis (who Mark will be reviewing shortly) or if it’s just because I’ve always preferred Kind of Blue era Miles Davis to Bitches Brew, Holland’s set just didn’t quite resonate. I knew it was all technically quite well done, and Potter in particular is quite a soloist and improviser (Mark reviewed Potter’s quartet, which also featured Smith on drums, here). But I couldn’t get into most of it the way I did Dave Brubeck a couple night’s earlier, or Marsalis, whose set I very much enjoyed. I honestly caught myself looking at my watch more than once during one of Potter and Eubank’s extended solos; some of them just seemed way too long.

I did, however, get into Nate Smith’s drumming. That guy can really play. An extra point for the set because of him.

TO Jazz Review: Dave Brubeck Quartet, July 1, Nathan Phillips Square

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


Once in a great while you may be watching a show of some sort, and at any given moment, maybe even after the show is over, it’ll hit you: you’re witness on this night to something that’s truly special.

On Canada Day in Nathan Phillips Square, there were many moments when I sat in slack-jawed amazement watching Dave Brubeck and his quartet – saxaphonist/flautist Bobby Militello, bassist Michael Moore, and drummer Randy Jones – and even more such moments when they were joined on stage by Brubeck’s son Matthew on cello. But my real “holy sh*t” moment came when I went home and looked up just how old Dave Brubeck is now. And I was struck by this question:

How can a man who’s pushing 90 years of age be that incredibly good, lead a quartet/quintet that incredibly tight, play for nearly two solid hours in the not inconsiderable humidity, and end with two of his most recognizable tunes that were recorded 50 years ago that still, incredibly, sound just as fresh and cool as they ever did?

Brubeck’s list of accolades is ridiculously long. Living Legend Award from the Library of Congress. Presidential Medal of the Arts. The Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. Named Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts. Induction to the California Hall of Fame. It goes on and on. Besides jazz suites, he’s written cantatas, ballet scores, a jazz opera, TV soundtracks and for orchestras and choirs. He’s one of the most influential jazz pianists ever for his improvisations and experiments with different time signatures.

And despite having done all this and being 88 years old, he’s still touring. And his show is, in a word, sensational.

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