Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Review: Chris Potter’s Underground, The Pilot, June 30

Posted on by Mark in Everything, Toronto Jazz Festival | 7 Comments

Chris Potter & Nate Smith at The Pilot

TorontoChris Potter’s Underground played The Pilot last night. He was accompanied by drummer Nate Smith, pianist Craig Taborn, and guitarist Adam Rogers. Chris Potter is new blood in the jazz world and updates things by creating a funk fusion that, while incorporating straight-up rock beats, is still firmly grounded in the traditions of jazz.

[The Pilot has] all the pre-requisites for being a great jazz club: it’s small & packed, it’s intimate, the room is awkardly weird and long, and it sounds great.

Before I go into more detail about the show, I’d like to take a moment to describe The Pilot. Located on Cumberland street in the heart of Yorkville, this was surprisingly my very first show at The Pilot. Not surprisingly, the place follows an aviation theme. It’s got all the pre-requisites for being a great jazz club: it’s small & packed, it’s intimate, the room is awkardly weird and long, and it sounds great. I think the biggest drawback of the Pilot is that it’s smack dab in Yorkville. I ordered a rusty nail, a blend of scotch and Drambuie and was charged $17 for the honour.

Honestly folks, it’s not going to break my bank to buy a $17 + tip drink, but the very thought of it made me cringe. I’ve been living in this city for over a decade and by now consider myself a Torontonian. That being said, there’s never been another moment in recent memory where the sad display of big-city conspicuous consumption has made me want to pack up my things. Aside: Conspicuous Consumption is a book written by social scientist Thorstein Veblen over 100 years ago that neatly explains why we humans will gladly pay for a $17 drink because we happen to be in Yorkville.

A lot of modern jazz really loves the rock beat. [They’ll incorporate traditional beats and roam free] but there is something to be said about when the drummer finally gets back to belting out a straight-ahead rock beat. It makes for one helluva groove.

Anyway, let’s get to Chris Potter’s Underground. This band has been playing in its current format for about 5 years now, which is like 10 years in the jazz world. The first time I saw them was at the now defunct Top of the Senator club in 2004. When I asked them about that show, they recalled that it was one of the first shows they played in Toronto as a band. They’ve been spending their time since then honing their skills and their craft.

Keeping the time was Nate Smith, who readily lets loose with the rock beats and can drip funk. Interestingly enough, a lot of modern jazz really loves the rock beat. They fuse it with more traditional jazz beats and then roam free. But there is something to be said when the drummer finally gets back to belting out a straight-ahead rock beat; especially when a master soloist like Chris Potter is riding the wave. It makes for one helluva groove.

Chris Potter is a virtuoso of a sax player, but he just doesn’t play fast because he can, as is evident during the more atmospheric songs that this band will concoct. The quartet is about to start a European tour for the summer. When I asked Chris if there were any particular European clubs that he was looking forward to playing, he replied that it’s really more about the people than the place. If the crowd is into it, it makes his job that much easier. Like all musicians, Chris and his band feed off the energy of the crowd. Thankfully for everyone, the crowd was digging it last night. We’re happy to help out any way we can.

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: 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.


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