Toronto – Last Tuesday jazz super-group Return to Forever played two intense sets at the Sony Centre. In the 1970’s jazz started to fuse with the rock & roll. Bands like Weather Report and some of Miles Davis’ projects from that era started to blend ideas of improvisation with gut-punching rock beats. Return to Forever is the last band standing from those days, and they continue to play at the top of their game.
Return to Forever is badass. Watching them live is like getting kicked in the nuts. It hurts, but it’s a good kind of hurt.
Now not everyone could get behind this jazz rock fusion. To be sure, there were people on both sides of the camp that felt downright alienated with the idea that jazz and rock should slowly run towards each other with arms outspread. At the same time, it was clear that this fusion was attracting the top musicians of the day. Pioneers like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Miles Davis, and Stanley Clarke flocked to the cause. You had only to stop and listen to the musicianship that these artists brought to the table to understand that theirs was a music that was coming from a different musical plane altogether. These guys could rock, and they could do it from a place of such absolute musical mastery that ordinary rockers could not touch.
Untouchable: that’s basically how this band sounds. Simply put, Return to Forever is badass. Watching them live is like getting kicked in the nuts. It hurts, but it’s a good kind of hurt. This latest tour includes the addition of Jean-Luc Pointy, who Chick Corea described as “the best jazz violinist on the planet.” Since there aren’t a lot of jazz violinists out there, this kind of sounds like giving someone the prize for being “the best jazz bagpiper on the planet”. This accolade doesn’t do Jean-Luc credit; he blended with the rest of the group seamlessly, is a musical tour-de-force in his own right, and added a refreshing variant to the RTF sound.
Toronto – I’m generally not one for making New Year’s resolutions, but this year, inspired after reading Alex Ross’ Listen to This, I decided that I would take it upon myself to expand my musical horizons somewhat, digging a bit deeper into genres such as classical and jazz. So when the opportunity arose to check out Lee Konitz in a concert presented by The Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC), I gladly took it. Konitz is a jazz legend. He’s been playing since the ’40s and has collaborated with many of the greats of the genre, most famously on Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool.
Konitz was backed up on this occasion by the talented Brian Dickinson Trio. the interplay between the musicians was pretty impressive. Drummer Barry Romberg was especially entertaining to watch, but each player had their moments. In fact, on the second song, Konitz left the stage and the trio did a number on their own.
Konitz is an interesting performer to watch. Casually dressed and wearing sunglasses, he didn’t say too much, but addressed the crowd on a few occasions. He told stories about his songs, such as “Thingin,” a tune based on “All The things You Are,” which he described as “thievery in good spirit.” “I put a little melody on top of it. I didn’t tell Jerome Kern I was going to do that.” He further demonstrated his sense of humour by referring to the trio as “my colleagues … they know their names,” before holding his hand up to his mouth as if to let the audience in on the secret that he forgot their names. If he did in fact forget their names, that’s probably forgivable, as they did form a bond as performers that night, improvising through various numbers. Konitz even included the audience in on the act, inviting everyone to sing a note along with the band during one number. I guess everyone at the Glenn Gould Studio that night can now add their names to the long list of Lee Konitz’s collaborators.
Toronto – There have been times at NXNE where I’ve run from one venue to the next in a desperate attempt to see and hear everything that could possibly be seen and heard. This year I decided that my new rule of thumb is no more than two venues per evening. The new plan is to minimize the hopping and get friendly with the locals and the locales. The night began at the Harlem restaurant with some sultry jazz in the form of sultry sultry Elise LeGrow.
Some people are surprised to hear that, although I am huge jazz fan, I’m not typically into the vocalists. While I do have a soft spot for the old greats like Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, much of today’s fare strikes me as more adult contemporary. It’s perfectly innocuous music that features prominently on many a jazz radio station. Listening to a snippet of it can be like having a popsicle on a nice summer day. Too much and it’s more like cotton candy laced with bubblegum and sprinkles all melting together on an uncomfortable humid day with a smog warning in effect. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate contemporary jazz vocalists out there; as was evident by the first show of the evening.
Elise LeGrow is a Toronto-based songstress that has both the voice and charisma that evokes the great jazz women of yesterday. She sang a mix of both contemporary songs and classics for a small and appreciative audience at the Harlem. I have to admit her stage presence was so captivating that it was a trying affair to concentrate on the music. While making her way through the set, she bobbed up and down and playfully ran her hands through her hair at all the right times. It was so incredibly distracting that I spent the better part of the hour looking around my environment for some kind of materials that I could use to a fashion a makeshift engagement ring. Did I mention her sultriness?
If there was one thing that I was a little lacking in the performance, it had nothing to do with Miss LeGrow herself. While her band provided some solid backing, I could imagine that the addition of some musical reinforcements would really kick things up a notch. Hers is a stylish and elegant music that is perfectly suited to a classy little downtown restaurant like the Harlem. I wonder what she would sound like if we added the authentic woody thump of real double-bass, and swapped out the electronic keyboard with a baby grand? With that kind of setup, a snifter of brandy, and some arts & craft type ring making materials, I’d be as happy as a kid with cotton candy.
The next set at the Harlem was Toronto-based Erin Hunt and her groove-based funk and R&B band. She started things off with a rendition of Crosstown Traffic. I could tell during from the noodling by the guitarist during the band setup that we were in store for some really groovy stuff. Easily the highlight of this set was the work of guitarist Ricky Tillo who showcased both amazing chops and an excellent sense of rhythm. I wish he could have had more freedom to stretch his legs.
In the previous set, the backing band needed some shoring up to match the talent up front. In this set, it was the opposite dilemma. Erin didn’t have the vocals or stage presence that could captivate the audience. What she did have was a kick-ass band that I would not hesitate to go see in a purely instrumental incarnation. Unfortunately she made a few gaffs that weren’t terribly endearing. She forgot the name of her drummer when introducing the band. Then when encouraging people to stay for the next set, she admitted that she didn’t know what band was following her, but was “sure they were good”. Not the classiest move of the evening.
I’d definitely go see that guitarist again in any other setting though.
Toronto – Ah the holidays. A frantic time of both relaxation and activity. A time to get together with family and friends. A time for food and a time for music. For some, Christmas music is pure bliss. It evokes fond memories of childhoods past. For others, it’s about as fun as a root canal adminstered by Oscar The Grouch, if he was all coked up. On cocaine.
So what can you do about the holiday music? Personally, I’m a fan of Christmas music. It’s just not quite the holidays without the voices of Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, and Nana Mouskouri explaining to me in painstaking detail exactly what the hell feliz navidad means. That being said, I do like to spice things up by mixing the traditional with fresh new takes on the classics.
Which brings me to my best of list. It’s not going to be about the winning albums or best songs of the year or decade. I’ve left that task to my more qualified Panic Manual brethen and sistren. Instead, I’m going to play to my strengths here and take a different route: the best non-traditional Christmas albums.
Non-Traditional = Not Bing Crosby or Nat Cole
1 – Vince Guaraldi – A Charlie Brown Christmas
Ok, so I’m most certainly cheating by making this my number one hit. Good thing for me I’m in the drivers seat. Considering the popularity of the soundtrack to this 1965 CBS special, it’s pretty much already a bonafide classic. Vince’s work on the Charlie Brown TV series put him on the map. Let’s be thankful for this commercial success, because behind these hits is an under-rated jazz pianist. He takes new and traditional christmas songs and infuses them with a swinging jazz that’s both thoughtful and playful. This isn’t just my favourite christmas album, it’s one of my favourite jazz albums too. I call that a twofer.
2 – Verve Remixed Christmas
For you electronic folks, you can keep things both festive and damright (yes I said damnright) groovy with Verve’s Remixed Christmas album. It takes the Verve’s Unmixed Christmas album and well, remixes it. Modern DJ’s like Sonny J and The Orb rework old greats like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. If you’re throwing a Christmas party at some hip downtown lounge, this is the album you wanna play. The remix of Jimmy Smith’s God Res Ye Merry Gentlemen is just about the hippest and most danceable Christmas tune I’ve ever heard.
3 – Trojan Christmas Reggae Box Set
For some island fun, the Trojan Christmas Reggae Box Set will certainly entertain your guests. How can you go wrong with songs like Santa Claus is Ska-Ing To Town? That’s a trick question fool, because of course the answer is, “you can’t”. Look here for reggae versions of all your holiday favourites on this crowd-pleasing compilation.
4 – Don Ross – Wintertide
Canadian-based fingerstyle guitarist Don Ross put out an album called Wintertide. In it he creates more of his accoustic guitar magic set to holiday inspired tunes. It’s great atmospheric music, and his accoustic sound and effortless technique create a holiday album that’s decidedly off the beaten path.
5- Jimmy Smith – Christmas ’64
Jimmy Smith, the Hammond B3 organ wizard himself, put together this album of Christmas hits in 1964. Like all of his other stuff from this era, it’s funky and it grooves. On the Christmas to jazz spectrum, it weighs in heavily on the jazz end. I think that’s why I like it so much. It’s Jimmy Smith unaplogetically cranking out Christmas tunes the only way he knows how to do it, dripping with blues and gospel inspired funk jazz.
6- Sarah McLachlan – Wintersong
She’s got a voice, and she’s singing new holiday stuff in a folk vein and it’s pretty good for people who are tired of all my christas jazz recommendations.
7 – Kevin Gibbs – Christmas Presence
But in case you’re not tired of my christmas jazz recommendations, here’s some more christmas jazz! This time with sweet vibraphones!
8 -The Chieftains – The Bells of Dublin
But if you are really freakin’ tired of my christmas jazz recommendations, then who not mix Christmas with Celtic? The Chieftains are such a treasure trove of traditional Celtic fare. This christmas album is certainly going to be fresh take on festive music for your guests.
9 -Oscar Peterson – An Oscar Peterson Christmas
Oh no! More fricken’ Christmas jazz! Not quite as awesome as the Jimmy Smith one, but still some good jazz from a Canadian legend.
10 – Enya – The Christmas EP
I realize by even writing this recommendation I’m going to be the subject of much ridicule in the upcoming podcast. But hey, Enya makes great atmospheric music, and anyone who hates her also hates the Lord of the Rings (because she plays a song on that soundtrack). You’re new age hippy parents will love this album.
Have a happy and safe holiday! Thanks for reading and listening this year. We look forward to kicking it up a notch in 2010.