Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Fest Review: KC and The Sunshine Band, June 24, Nathan Phillips Square

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“I’m 65. What the hell happened? I can’t even remember if that’s the way I like it,” joked Harry Wayne “KC” Casey near the beginning of their set. “Some of you young people may not even know me. I was your mother’s N Sync. This is what Justin Timberlake will look like in 30 years.” Apparently in 30 years time, Justin may end up looking like James Gandolfini gone Vegas. But I digress.

So yes, KC is old, but for a man his age, his voice is still there, he’s still got some pretty sweet dance moves and he definitely puts on a show. At times, the show got a little too glitzy and showbizzy for my taste, but it’s pretty hard to deny songs like “(Shake Shake Shake) Shake Your Booty,” “I’m Your Boogie Man,” and “Get Down Tonight.” Those are some crowd pleasers right there and KC certainly aimed to please, leading his band through all the hits and getting the people moving. And if the crowd wasn’t shaking their booties as much as KC may have hoped for, there were a couple of dancers onstage to make up for it, literally shaking some booty throughout the night – yes, there was twerking involved.

Alongside the big hits, they played a few songs from their latest, a collection of ’60s covers, as well as a few that I didn’t even realize were by KC and The Sunshine Band, including “Please Don’t Go,” “Yes, I’m Ready” and George McCrae’s “Rock Your Baby,” which KC explained was the first big hit that he wrote, adding that it inspired ABBA to write “Dancing Queen” and John Lennon to write “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night.” It seemed a bit like KC was tooting his own horn at that point, but whatever. If I wrote a song that inspired ABBA and one of the Beatles, I’d probably be telling everyone too.

TO Jazz Review: Nellie McKay, Becca Stevens Band, June 30, Horseshoe Tavern

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Nellie McKay is one of those artists who I just haven’t paid enough attention to. I remember vaguely liking her 2004 album Get Away From Me, but even that never totally captured my attention. And then … I just sort of forgot about her. Yet, to my slight surprise, she’s been releasing albums pretty regularly since then, including a tribute to Doris Day(!) and has even created a musical based on the life of convicted murderer Barbara Graham. So she’s certainly no slouch in the work department. Perhaps she’s been off my radar a bit because of a self-imposed boycott of Canada due to the continuation of the seal hunt. However, as she noted, she’s not quite at the level of Paul McCartney or Morrissey and so perhaps her boycott wasn’t having quite the impact she’d hoped it would. Still, it’s great that she’s standing up for something.

McKay is nothing if not opinionated. She’s a quirky and charming performer, albeit one with a bit of a biting sense of humour and a definite political edge. So while she can do a cutesy song about her dog one minute, she can also turn a trio of British Invasion covers into a commentary on the role of women in society or introduce a song by cheerily announcing, “In honour of Canada Day, here’s a song about the tar sands!” There was a fair bit of satire on display throughout her set, most notably during the hilarious “Mother Of Pearl.” I also really enjoyed how, while singing a couple of a capella songs from a project about environmentalist Rachel Carson, she sort of skipped over parts of the songs, preferring instead to describe them rather than sing the whole thing. Also funny? Introducing her version of “Don’t Fence Me In” as “a song about illegal immigration.”

She ended her set with “Sari,” a song she said she wasn’t planning on playing, but decided to after a shouted request from fan in the back since she “asked so emphatically.” That song ended with her screaming at the top of her lungs, dropping the Judy Garland-esque persona from earlier in the set and suddenly channelling Sam Kinison. So yeah, Ms. McKay, you’ve got my attention again.

Also catching my attention was opener The Becca Stevens Band, who impressed with their blend of the jazzy and the folky. Stevens has a strong voice and a charming onstage demeanor. I feel like she was smiling throughout their set. The Brooklyn based band offered up a couple of memorable covers, namely Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” and The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out.” They were down one man, having lost their accordion player at the border. “Not in a bad way,” clarified Stevens, “We just left him at a gas station at the border.” One presumes they left him there with his consent and didn’t just ditch him there, but it would be funny if they just drove away on him, laughing and pointing as they did so. Or maybe that’s only funny to me. Who knows. Still, they impressed me (in some ways, I enjoyed their performance more than McKay’s) and I’d be interested in seeing what they can do with the full band configuration.

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.