TO Jazz Review: Herbie Hancock, June 26, Toronto Star Stage

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

Toronto – The great things about the world of jazz is that it’s pretty darn close to being a meritocracy. The cats with the talent and the x-factor are the ones that everyone else in the community looks up to. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, the colour of your skin, or how old you are. If you can dig in and keep up, you’re in. Big names in jazz will not hesitate to cross generational boundaries in search for the right person to complete their sound. Last year Branford Marsalis played the jazz festival and brought in a young, but very talented Justin Falkner. Miles Davis’ second great quintet consisted of a young Herbie Hancock; a jazz legend in his own right now.

Herbie played the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square last Saturday. Keeping with this jazz tradition, he introduced us to Tal Wilkenfeld, a 24-year old bassist who has been chosen to accompany Herbie touring his latest album The Imagine Project. Although she may look a little green, her playing is anything but. Anyone who gets asked by Herbie to come play with them is going to have both serious chops and be covered in a sprinkling of magical fairy dust. Tal has both. I wonder if Tal was having a serious “pinch me is this for real” moment. Her excitement and energy playing on stage and grooving with such a legend seemed palpable.

Herbie Hancock is probably the only musician I can think of that can effortlessly switch from the elegance of a grand piano, to the modern sounds of a synthesizer, and finally to the awesome sounds of a tacky keytar and still not lose an ounce of legitimacy. When the keytar comes out, it’s as if the crowd just nods their collective heads, shrugs, and says “Yep. Ok. Do what you gotta do.” Herbie is the only person in the world that can make playing the keytar cool. If you need proof, then here is some internet proof to prove it.

I mentioned in the jazz festival preview that “grandmasters can turn it on like a switch”. Herbie is one of those cats. As he approaches his 70th birthday, we’re glad he could make it down to share some of his funky and inspired music with us.

TO Jazz Review: Esthero, June 27, Lee’s Palace

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

Toronto – Thanks to yesterday’s thunderstorms and me being dumb enough to leave the house without an umbrella, I spent most of Sunday night standing on the floor at Lee’s Palace soaked to the skin, feeling sorry for unsuspecting bystanders who accidentally bumped into me only to find their own clothes or arms suddenly damp. I got soaked on my way from picking up my media pass from Nathan Phillips Square yesterday, then again on the way from Bathurst station to George’s Deli to Lee’s.

After uncomfortably dripping away through most of opener Maylee Todd’s set, though, Esthero took all discomfort away upon taking the stage. It hasn’t been a long time since Esthero played a show in Toronto, but the crowd reacted like they hadn’t seen her in a decade. Esthero playing here just feels so right. Despite moving to California several years ago, there’s a comfort level between the Stratford native and a Toronto crowd that’s unlike virtually any concert I’ve seen. Not only were her parents on hand, but she brought her father on stage late in the show (“she’s my jelly bean!” he exclaimed) to tell the crowd of how he’s fought through prostate cancer and strokes, to tell him he’s her hero and to sing “It’s a Small World.” Her brother, J. Englishman, joined her for a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” the song she says got her noticed back when she used to sing it at Free Times Cafe. She said she hadn’t played with her massive 8-piece backing band – plus backup singers Kim Davis and Toya Alexis – in a year, and that this was her first show with the guitarist, but you’d never have guessed it from the sound. That’s the comfort level of an Esthero show in Toronto: she’s smoking on stage and is fairly drunk for the encore, the guitarist is brand new, the band and singer have been apart for a year, her dad’s wandering on stage, half the crowd is soaked, and half the show is off-the-cuff, but everything just feels right.

Much to the chagrin of a few fans in the audience, though, Esthero chose this show to premiere a lot of rarely- or never-before heard tunes from an album to be released later in the year. After starting off with the crowd favourite “O.G. Bitch”, Esthero delved deep into yet-to-be released material like “Black Mermaid”, “If I Didn’t Have Faith”, “You Don’t Get a Song” and more. By her own admission, her newer material is a lot less beat-driven than her 1998 trip-hop classic Breathe From Another or 2005’s rhythmic Wikked Lil’ Grrrls and has more in common with, say, the music of a singer-songwriter like Ron Sexsmith. Speaking of Ron Sexsmith, he appeared on stage at one point to sing a duet. Sexsmith is ok in my books, but it’s weird that he looks like he could burst into tears at any given moment. I guess that’s just his usual facial expression.

Anyway, Esthero’s new material is likable enough; her voice is certainly very strong and interesting enough to pull off a singer-songwriter album. The material’s a bit raw, however, and loading up the setlist with so many new tunes that could still use some polish might not have been the best choice with a crowd of fans who would’ve loved to sing along. Esthero did try to make up for it by getting the crowd to sing to a friend in California through her cell phone at the start of the encore, then by soliciting requests. After the shouting died down, this resulted in a rendition of “We R in Need of a Musical Revolution” and an impromptu version of “Gone” done a capella because the new guitarist didn’t know it. Meanwhile, old favourites “Bad Boy Clyde” and “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” brought the house down. Considering how well those two songs went, you can’t blame the people behind me who were yelling for her to do “That Girl” all night if they went home a little disappointed.

Still, it was a solid night of music, and nice to see the Jazz Festival branch out a little into something a little less jazz and very local. Esthero’s on-stage charm and disarming openness made everything feel right, even being totally soaked with rain. Hopefully she comes back soon.

Toronto Fringe Preview: The Carnegie Hall Show!

Posted on by Brian in Fringe, Reviews, Theatre | 2 Comments

Last summer I wrote a review for a SummerWorks improv show called Impromptu Splendour. This review basically became a vehicle for me to express my man-crush on cast member Ron Pederson, and to pine for the days back when I used to live in Edmonton and he was one of my favourite local performers. The nostalgia!

This summer, Ron and his two co-stars from Impromptu Splendour, Naomi Snieckus and Matt Baram, along with Chris Gibbs and Waylen Miki, are bringing their (apparently) regular improv show “The Carnegie Hall Show!” to the Fringe. I say apparently because I know little about it, but according to their website it’s every Wednesday in Kensington Market.

I think most people know what the schtick is with an improv show: you go there, the performers get some suggestions for what to do, usually revolving around setting and style and sometimes character, and they’ll make up a show on the spot. So without a script or director or those kind of things that normal actors rely on but improvisers scoff at, improv shows are always hit or miss. However, with a cast of talented performers, there’s a lot more hits than misses, and these guys are as talented as they come. From their press release:

“Matt Baram – ‘Second City’, ‘Impromptu Splendor’, ‘Monkey Toast’, ‘Ghost Jail Theatre’, and so many more! Throw a stone at any of Toronto’s best improv shows and you’ll probably hit Matt Baram. But why would you do that? What’s wrong with you?

“Ron Pederson – Ron Pederson has appeared across Canada with the country’s most distinguished theatres. He spent 8 seasons as a core member of the Improvisational troupe Die-Nasty, the improvised soap opera and 3 seasons in the cast of Fox’s MADTV. But don’t let his baby-face fool you, he’s a menace!

“Naomi Snieckus – Naomi Snieckus is one of the most accomplished comedy actors in Canada. From Second City to Canstage to the big silver screen she’s done it all. Even her TV commercials have a devoted cult following. But don’t let her talent distract you from the fact that she’s a real knockout!!

“Chris Gibbs – Perpetual Special Guest – Street-acrobat turned overweight comedian Chris Gibbs is British! His one-man shows are mainstays on Canada’s fringe festival circuit, where he’s well known for his improvisational approach, turning poorly-written pap into comedy gold!

“Waylen Miki – Musical accompaniment – Two-time Dora Award winner Waylen Miki has won two Doras and communicates almost entirely through music. You should hear him order a sandwich! But the point is… TWO DORAS!”

See? They even write funny press releases. Also, they have credentials. Their show will be good. You could even go to all their shows and they’d be different every night. You would miss a lot of other stuff at the Fringe if you did that, though. I’m not saying it’s a bad idea, I just think that you might want to consider it a little longer before you commit to it.

Want passes or advance tix? Check the Fringe website. The Carnegie Hall Show! is at the Factory Theatre Mainspace, on or about Bathurst and Adelaide. Tix are $10 at the door, $11 in advance. Their schedule looks like this:

Fri, July 2 – 7:00

Sat, July 3 – Noon

Mon, July 5 – 6:45

Wed, July 7 – 11pm

Thu, July 8 – 9:15

Sat, July 10 – 5:45

Sun, July 11 – 1:45pm

TO Jazz Review: Brandi Disterheft, June 26, Toronto Star Stage

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

Toronto – I’m going to start this review not with a review, but with a story. Gather ‘round friends. Don’t worry, there is a point to all of this. The year was two thousand and spluh, and I was studying for exams. There I was, at my favourite coffee shop where I had befriended one of the employees and was downing free caramel macchiatos for my troubles. Just beside the shop was a bar and a I could see a jazz trio setting up. I looked at my textbooks and thought “Screw this! If have to study for exams, I might as well do it to the sound of live jazz.” So I packed up my stuff and hopped over.

Being one of the few attentive listeners in the audience, the performers came up to talk to me after their set. There was a piano player, a drummer, and a bassist. All nice people, and all happy to talk jazz. I offered them a hand with their take down because it seemed like a nice thing to do. Also, I am an expert procrastinator and this is exam time folks. This is when things got interesting.

I had no idea how dicey it can be to transport a double bass around the city. This young bassist had her system and it was the most ridiculous thing I could imagine. She got me to help hide her bass in the building entrance, well away from the street, and would flag down a cab. Then, when the cabbie stopped, she’d quickly grab her hidden bass and try to manoeuvre it into the taxi before the driver could object. Inevitably, as soon as the cabbie was wise to the trick, he would drive off; most wanting nothing to do with transporting such a big and expensive instrument. At first this was pretty entertaining, but it took about 5 times before a driver looking at the bass half sticking out of his cab let out a sigh and gave in.

So what’s my point? The point is that it’s tough to be a young double bassist in the city without a car. The good news is that with the right mix of talent and drive, it can get easier. That bassist was a young Brandi Disterheft. The pianist was Laila Biali, both of whom have blossomed into fine jazz musicians in their own right. It was rewarding to see Brandi open for Herbie Hancock last weekend. Her music walks the line between the traditional jazz of yesterday and the more progressive sounds of today, all the time remaining accessible. She has successfully surrounded herself with musicians that compliment that style.

Thankfully Brandi doesn’t have to trick cabbies into helping move her bass around anymore. She can focus on thumping that bass and we can focus on appreciating it.