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

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

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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

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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.

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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.

TO Jazz Review: Sharon Jones, Nathan Phillips, June 26

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

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Toronto – After last Friday night’s Sonny Rollins show, I decided to high-tail it over to Toronto Jazz Festival headquarters at Nathan Phillips Square to check in on Sharon Jones. Thankfully I was able to catch the last half of the set. Even though Sharon is appearing on Day 1 of the festival, it was apparent from the packed tent of happy dancers that this show was going to be a festival highlight.

It’s clear from the crowd that Sharon and her Dap-Kings were able to strike a resonant chord with her impressive pipes, her effervescent stage presence, and a top-notch band that knows how to will a crowd to their feet.

Sharon Jones was in Toronto last October promoting her latest album 100 Days, 100 Nights. It was a fun show (coverage here), but the less then stellar venue that is the Kool Haus limited her audience to die-hard soul fans that were already familiar with her work. Thankfully, Sharon Jones really got the opportunity to stretch her legs in front of a larger and uninitiated audience at the jazz fest. This included a whole gaggle of people just outside of the main tent soaking up some of Sharon’s crazy energetic stage presence for the first time.

Sharon Jones

Sharon is backed by the Dap-Kings, a tight group of old-school soul & funk revivalists. The ringleader is the understated and cool Bosco Mann, the bassist behind the scenes that keeps things funky. This band produces a consistent and driving funk sound that will keep people happily dancing for hours. One highlight for many was Sharon’s tribute to Michael Jackson with a rendition of I Want You Back.

Since I didn’t cover the entire show, I’m not going to rate this one. However, it’s clear from the crowd that Sharon and her Dap-Kings were able to strike a resonant chord with her impressive pipes, her effervescent stage presence, and a top-notch band that knows how to will a crowd to their feet.