TO Jazz Review: Gary Burton & Pat Metheny, Four Seasons, June 29

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

Gary Burton & Pat Metheny

Toronto – Last night the Four Seasons centre hosted some veritable jazz legends in Gary Burton & Pat Metheny. On their very last engagement of their third tour as a group, this quartet did not disappoint. Opening the night was Robi Botos, a Toronto-based pianist that was ecstatic to be playing the Four Seasons with his brothers. The Botos brothers played a great opening set of straight-ahead jazz that whet the appetite for what was to come.

If there was one thing that was unfortunate about the Botos brothers set, it was some technical difficulties that led to a noticable feedback hum that was especially evident during the introspective solo piano parts. This of course isn’t the fault of the band, but it is unfortunate to run into these kind sound issues in a place as stellar and classy as the Four Seasons. Thankfully the technical issues did not persist into the main act. The Botos brothers played an admirable set of very listenable, oft-times swinging, and above all crowd-pleasing jazz.

This band is a super-group of jedi musicians: 3/4 of them have been honing their force powers since the 70’s. The result was a lush and textured sound that drifted around and then enveloped you.

But we all know why the crowd was drawn to the Four Seasons. It was to see the stellar vibraphone work of Gary Burton, and the jazz-fusion guitar legend that is Pat Metheny. Rounding out the rythm section was Steve Swallows, a bassist extra-ordinaire in his own right, and the young drummer Antonio Sanchez. This band is a super-group of jedi musicians: 3/4 of them have been honing their force powers since the 70’s. The result was a lush and textured sound that drifted around and then enveloped you.

Now, Pat Metheny hasn’t changed his hairdo in decades. Nor has he really changed his sound. He’s a master guitarist that can stand in the spotlight and belt out a blistering and intense solo. Thankfully, he’s also just as capable of sitting back with the rythm section and adding to the atmosphere with a padding that is both subtle and elegant. One thing that he still does rely upon is some guitar effects pedals that he found in the 80’s. As nifty as these echo and reverb effects can be, it does make for a dated sound reminiscent of the 80’s synth.

But we’ll forgive Pat his eccentricities because he his a fantastic wicked-ass guitarist. The quartet was in fine form, playing some of Gary Burton’s material, some of Pat’s songs, and even a Keith Jarrett tune. However, for me the highlight of the night was when Gary & Pat pared down to duet format and played two well-known  jazz standards. I had never heard a duet of vibraphone and guitar interpret these standards. In the hands of these two, it was an absolute treat. But why are jazz standards so, well standard in the jazz world?

In jazz, it’s more about the singer than the song.  [If we are familar with the song] then we cross the chasm between innovation and familiarity. It’s both new and old. Everybody wins. Hurray!

Over the years a lexicon has been built of standards that all jazz musicians learn. Call it a rite of passage. Many of these standards start life as contemporary pop music. As jazz artists discover and re-invent them, they bounce around the collective conscious and in time, a few lucky tunes reach the lofty distinction of becoming a standard. Perusing my music library, I have no less than 15 versions of the tune Summertime from different artists. And yet, Pat Metheny and Gary Burton were able to play Summertime last night in way that was fresh and new to me. Why?

In jazz, it’s more about the singer than the song. When we understand and know a song well, it makes it that much easier for us to follow the artist when he or she reinterprets that song. You can better hear how they’ve embellished the melody and left their own unique fingerprints. When we get right down to it, jazz is  collective improvisation. And if we are improvising over familar patterns and familar songs, then we can cross the chasm between innovation and familiarity. It’s both new and old. Everybody wins. Hurray!

Musicians of this calibre have the uncanny ability to turn it on like a switch, and seeing them in action is well, special.

The next standard played was a Bossa Nova song from the pioneer of the genre: Antonio Carlos Jobim. It’s a tune called O Grande Amore and was tastefully interpreted by Stan Getz in the 60’s. This particular version of the tune was so evocative that I could practically hear Getz’s saxophone on the other side of Gary’s vibes and Pat’s guitar.

Now some people feel that the vibraphone is a bit of a limiting instrument in expressive capability. It has a very particular sound that evokes a very particular feeling. It’s hard to make the vibes sound sad. The timbre they produce sounds almost as happy as a steel pan. That being said, when you’ve got such master-vibraphonist in Gary Burton, playing with three other top-calibre artists, I will not be among the first to complain with the sounds that surround me. Musicians of this calibre have the uncanny ability to turn it on like a switch, and seeing them in action is well, special.

TO Jazz Review: Melody Gardot, June 29, Harbourfront Centre

Posted on by Brian in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 11 Comments

melodygardot

Toronto – Melody Gardot’s set at the Enwave Theatre in the Harbourfront Centre for the Toronto Jazz Festival very nearly put me to sleep.

I guess that’s a review in itself.

Gardot is a singer and piano player from Philadelphia who was hit by a car when she was 19, according to Wikipedia. She was helped in her recovery by something called music therapy; she already knew how to play piano (during the set she remarked she started playing in a piano bar in Philadelphia at age 16), but during her therapy learned to play guitar. She damaged her pelvis in the accident, and as a result, she has to sort of put one foot up on a pedestal when sitting on a stool to play guitar (or piano, presumably, though I couldn’t see what she rested her foot on under her piano) to ease pressure on her hip area. She also reportedly has a sensitivity to light and sound, as evidenced by how dark it was in the Enwave Theatre throughout her set, with minimal lights on her and the band, the strict no photos at the show policy, and the hat and dark glasses she wore throughout the set.

Interesting stuff, right? If only Gardot’s music were nearly as engaging as her back story.

Now, I don’t think Gardot is a bad singer. I can understand why some people quite like her voice. It’s sort of sultry and husky easy to listen to, even if it doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of range. Gardot is also rather pretty with very nice legs, which she was more than happy to show off in a short skirt, fishnets and high heels.

Do I think she’s a particularly good songwriter? Well…no, not really. Her songs all sound more or less the same after a while and all seem to devolve from lyrics into scat-vocals at almost exactly the same time. Her choices of covers, the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” and the pop standard “My Favourite Things,” were uninspiring. Apparently singing them slower and quieter in a bluesy manner makes them songs “you’ve heard before, but never quite like this” in Gardot’s mind (’cause no one’s ever thought of covering those songs from a different genre before). Really, if you’re going to do a version of “My Favourite Things” at a jazz festival, you should be a saxaphone quartet channeling John Coltrane.

The music she and her five-piece backing band played, at least on this night, never elevated above the level of decent hotel lounge music. Despite several horn and bass solos, her backing band rarely distinguished itself, except maybe for the xylophone player, who was quite good and entertaining to watch as he clutched four mallets in his hands to strike different tones. Gardot’s own piano and guitar playing was unremarkable.

Gardot started off in piano bars, in her own words “playing songs [she] didn’t want to play,” something she’s now grateful she doesn’t have to do. That piano bar/lounge singer vibe pervades her show. Some crooners are entertaining and talented enough, with a combination of a great voice and a charming persona to outgrow that cheesy lounge vibe (Like Tony Bennett, appearing later this week at the Jazz Festival). Gardot just isn’t there, at least not yet; she spoke briefly and quietly between songs, revealing little about herself, and although she tried to make a big deal about strutting over to her piano with her cane and high heels and taking a sip of brandy several times, she just doesn’t have much of a stage presence.

You can draw a pretty straight line between Diana Krall, Norah Jones and Gardot’s music, and I’m not sure Gardot offers anything new. It’s all ‘pop-jazz,’ if you will, jazz for people who mostly listen to top 40 and want to seem more well-rounded. Honestly, I’m trying to be less of a music snob these days, and wrapping my head around the idea of different people having different taste, but it bothers me that a show like this sold out the 350-seat Enwave Theatre and played to a standing ovation when a show like Delerium the other night at the Church of the Redeemer drew all of ten people. I ducked out before Gardot’s encore.

Concert Review: Camera Obscura, Lee’s Palace, June 27

Posted on by Allison in Concerts | 7 Comments

This is a dual-review.

Allison’s Perspective:

Guy: [Unimpressed] Hmph, sounds like she’s hitting a baby with a cat.
Lisa: You have to listen to the notes she’s NOT playing.
Guy: [Still unimpressed] Pssh, I can do that at home.

This was my initial impression of opener Anni Rossi’s (an art-house sort of solo-violinist/vocalist from Chicago) set on Saturday night — at least her first couple of songs. I liked the third, but by that point she had lost me a bit. Like Jeff says you can either hate her or love her, there’s no in-between. And although her abrupt 18 minute set was extremely well-received by the sold-out audience I can say that her sparse, plucky, augmented style is too innovative for me. I could definitely appreciate her breath-of-fresh-air musicality, but my palette is less refined than the average bear. Check her out for yourself, anyway. I can at least guarantee that it’s not boring: http://www.myspace.com/annirossi

Anni Rossi

Apologize for the general crumminess of the photos but we risked looking like douchebags to capture these on Jeff’s cellphone.

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TO Jazz Review: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Nathan Phillips, June 27

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

mmw1

Toronto – Medeski, Martin & Wood, hereafter referred to as MMW, played Nathan Phillips square last Saturday night. This New York-based band skirts the line between jazz and electronica, with elements of hip-hop and rock beats thrown in for good measure. Having MMW play the jazz festival is a great nod towards the contemporarization of jazz. This is a music that continues to evolve. While bringing in the new blood may alienate the old guard, it’s a worthwhile and necessary sacrifice to ensure that the music stays relevant.

The atmospheric vibes that MMW produce has given them a veritable stoner entourage. This was apparent at the beginning of the show when I thought someone had turned on a smoke machine near the front of the stage.

I heard a few grumbles of surprise from the traditional jazz fans when they saw the sheer number of youths standing in the front and obstructing their view. But youths want to groove and the jazz festival demonstrated good judgement by clearing chairs for a dance floor. It was put to good use, as there were certainly moments when many in the crowd were getting their groove on.

mmw2

The atmospheric vibes that MMW produce has given them a veritable stoner entourage. This was apparent at the beginning of the show when I thought someone had turned on a smoke machine near the front of the stage. However, MMW’s is often struck with intellectual moments where they stray far enough from their reassuring beats that they’ll never quite have a Phish-like entourage.

MMW is a very capable band. They can sound like whatever they want to sound like. At one point they were playing some beautiful quasi-traditional jazz. At another point they were pounding back a straight-ahead rock beat. But it was the intellectual landscape moments where MMW was far enough from the beaten path that had the crowd perplexed. The youths couldn’t groove, and the old-guard had a hard time identifying with jazz meets contemporary music. In other words: MMW knows how to be crowd-pleasing, but they don’t always give the crowd what they want. I think some equations are in order:

Rock Beat + Airy Jazz Improvisation = Happy Stoners

Hard-to-Identify Beats + Intellectually-challenging Jazz Fusion = Confused Stoners

So while I’m glad that the jazz festival is keeping things fresh with bands like MMW, this particular show didn’t have the oomph I was hoping it would.