Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Review: George Benson, June 26, Nathan Phillips

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George Benson is one smooth cat. This was apparent the moment he started playing his brand of soul jazz at Nathan Phillips. The venue was packed inside and out with die hard fans who have been listening to him for decades. It was funky all ages fun for the whole family.

His guitar work is legendary. He evokes guitarist Wes Montgomery with his brand of approachable smooth jazz. I hate using that term because smooth jazz conjures up ideas of flat and uninteresting elevator Muzak. Benson can make soulfully smooth sounds, but he can also play with a grit that feels at times like B.B. King.

The band was tight and confident. They played the love songs the fans wanted to hear and material from their latest album, Guitar Man. George’s instrumental of Norah Jones’ Don’t Know Why was particularly beautiful. Equal parts smooth love and jazz made for a great show and a satisfied crowd.

TO Jazz Review: Bill Frisell, June 26, Enwave Theatre

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The Enwave Theatre at the Harbourfront is one of my favourite venues in the city. It’s a 400-seater that offers great sight lines throughout, an intimate setting, and amazing acoustics. In truth, it doesn’t feel like the jazz festival until I’ve seen a show here. Thankfully I had the opportunity to catch master guitarist Bill Frisell and his band play music from their 2011 album All We Are Saying. In this latest effort, they re-interpret the music of John Lennon.

 [Listening to Bill Frisell play Beatles tunes] is like riding a cloud while playing a jovial game of chess with a unicorn.

Bill Frisell is a guitarist like no other. Calling what he does “jazz guitar” doesn’t really describe his music. True, it’s improvisation, but it doesn’t necessarily fall into the established guidelines of jazz improvisation. He also draws upon elements of rock, blues, and the American songbook, but fusion summons the wrong connotations. The music Bill creates is uniquely his own; ephemeral at times and substantially soulful at others.

In all cases, hearing him live is an adventure that takes you to interesting places. Listening to Bill Frisell play live is like taking a ride on a cloud; all airy and expansive. Listening to him play Beatles tunes is like riding a cloud while playing a jovial game of chess with a unicorn, and the unicorn is letting you win. Also, there’s cotton candy. Crowd favourites like Come Together would slowly surface from the mists of consciousness and then materialize in full force. The encore included a beautiful rendition of Strawberry Fields Forever with the entire band firing on all cylinders. This was not a hard day’s night.

TO Jazz Review: Peter Appleyard & The Sophisticated Ladies, June 26, Koerner Hall

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The Toronto Jazz Festival has no shortage of hip, young exciting acts playing around the city. While there’s a lot to be said for younger acts like Janelle Monae or Esperanza Spalding, it’s also a pleasure to see a veteran performer ply their craft onstage. And so it was that on this night (a night which also featured George Benson and Bill Frisell at other venues across the city) I found myself watching vibraphonist Peter Appleyard, certainly not young at 83, but still exciting in his own way, performing a special show along with his “sophisticated ladies” at Koerner Hall. How did this come to pass, you may ask? Well gather ’round, gentle readers, and I’ll tell you a tale.

I probably first became aware of Appleyard a few years ago when catching a late night rerun of his TV variety show that originally ran sometime in the early ’80s or so. This particular episode also featured Charlie Callas, Professor Futz and his Bag of Nuts, and Big “Tiny” Little, and was a classic example of how kind of weird all of those old variety shows were. You just won’t quite find anything like that on TV anymore. Sometime after that, I discovered one of Appleyard’s albums in a dollar bin somewhere and noticing it had “Mambo #5″ on it, was intrigued enough to pick it up. There may have been some level of irony involved in my enjoyment of his music, but there was also something about that type of music that I identified with times spent listening to old records with my grandfather, so when I had the chance to check him out, I felt that this was a show I needed to see.

Appleyard may be getting up there in years ,but once he starts playing he gets as animated as a kid up there. Watching him play the vibraphone is pretty impressive. When he wasn’t playing, he was often content to watch his collaborators for the night, AKA The Sophisticated Ladies, do their thing. Appleyard was joined by a series of vocalists including Jill Barber, Lily Frost, Emily Claire Barlow, and Jazz FM host Heather Bambrick, who also acted as the night’s MC. Having Bambrick introduce each singer as they took to the stage freed Appleyard up to focus on the music. While I was impressed with his vocal collaborators, the moments that really stood out the most for me were when Appleyard and band focused on the instrumental numbers. What can I say, I guess I’m a vibraphone fan.

TO Jazz Review: The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman, June 24, Nathan Phillips

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The Bad Plus played Nathan Phillips last Sunday as the second half of a double bill with Hiromi. The trio has been playing together for over a decade. They grew popular for their creative re-invention of rocks tunes; from Nirvana to David Bowie. Throughout it all they remain a high calibre jazz act. This time around, the band has shaken things up with the addition of fiery saxophonist Joshua Redman. It made for an intense pairing. Think jazz, with a bebop saxophone, fuelled by driving beats that were at times on the threshold of hard rock.

The last time I saw the Bad Plus, I was scared of drummer David King. He can go from demure to all out thrash metal in the blink of an eye. At first I thought he looked like the type of guy that would have beaten me up in High School. Then I realized he smiles too much and has so much fun playing. The assessment didn’t feel right. After the show, I got a chance to exchange a few words with pianist Ethan Iverson and realized he is a total mega-nerd. That’s when I realized that the Dave is more like the guy who would beat up the bullies who beat up the nerds in High School. Good for you Dave.

Tenor-man Joshus Redman is well schooled in the traditions of bop. He can play with intensity without losing his stride. Bassist Reid Anderson admitted that after playing so long as a trio, Redman’s addition was challenging them in new ways. In the latter half of the set, they decided to calm things down with a slower ballad. Bop saxophonists can be pretty intense, and that’s a lot of fun. The interesting thing is that they can play a ballad with an artisan’s touch if you ask them nicely. As intense as John Coltrane could be, he would also play beautiful ballads with great artistic integrity. Joshua Redman is no different.