Toronto Jazz Festival

Concert Review: Trombone Shorty, Nov 17, Opera House

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

Last Thursday Trombone Shorty played the Opera House as part of Toronto’s Nujazz Festival with support from the Toronto Jazz festival. Growing up in New Orleans’ treme neighbourhood, Troy Andrews a.k.a. Trombone Shorty has taken his jazz roots and fused them with funk and soul to create something that’s, well, pretty badass.

It was like watching Kanye play if Kanye knew how to play the trombone.

Having recently started watching HBO’s Treme, I’ve only just come to learn about this vibrant part of New Orleans culture. The show is a fascinating look into a post-Katrina New Orleans and Trombone Shorty himself even appears in few episodes. It’s clear that music is deeply ingrained into the fabric of New Orleans, and it’s just as deeply ingrained in her musicians.

It’s hard to describe how effective this fusion of jazz, soul and funk really is. There’s no mistaking the fact that band was tight. However it was woven even tighter with Troy’s intense trombone and trumpet playing. The man knows how to play. He knows he can dig in with the best and that gives him some serious bravado. It was like watching Kanye play if Kanye knew how to play the trombone. By the second tune the audience was hooked. Although I probably could have done without some of the vocal tunes, the sheer intensity of the instrumentals made this show kick ass.

Trombone Shorty ~ Backatown by verveforecast

TO Jazz Review: Vijay Iyer, June 28, Glenn Gould Studio

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

Toronto – Going into Tuesday’s Vijay Iyer show at the Glenn Gould Studio, I knew very little about Iyer aside from what’s written on the Jazz Festival’s website. Not knowing what to expect, I was a little dismayed when I heard the opening tune; abstract, seemingly without melody, it felt like this was going to be the kind of contemporary jazz show that turn people off the music as too expressionist and inaccessible.

What I’d missed, because I was late getting to the show and too busy settling myself and such to be paying close enough attention, was that Iyer had actually segued in that opening tune from one of his own compositions into “Epistrophy” by Thelonious Monk. After that came a concert that blended Iyer’s complex, and, indeed, somewhat abstract, jazz piano with the more familiar as Iyer covered songs from Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and even Michael Jackson.

Iyer is a genius, musically and otherwise. Yale undergrad degree in physics and math at 20. Ph.D in Technology and the Arts from Berkeley. Faculty member at multiple New York schools. Compostions and collaborations with musicians from all over the world. He’s also won multiple awards, including a Grammy in 2010 for Best Instrumental Jazz Album. Knowing that now, if his set had been completely above my head it wouldn’t have been too surprising. I mean, I like jazz, but A Love Supreme and In a Silent Way are about as free jazz/fusion as I get. I don’t even like Bitches Brew.

However, any concerns that Iyer’s set would be above my head were dispelled when he launched into “Darn that Dream,” an old Broadway tune and jazz standard. From there, Iyer rattled off Michael Jackon’s “Human Nature,” Ellington’s “Black and Tan Fantasy,” and a Coltrane song who’s name I can’t place (which is driving me nuts, by the way) in succession, adding his own impressionist flare with complicated solos, without losing the melody and rhythm of the tunes. Between songs, Iyer was soft-spoken and charming, though he seemed slightly reluctant to speak much, which is too bad, because hearing such a brilliant person speak a little about their passion is always great. At one point he said he tended to let the piano take him where it wanted to go, and indeed, when he paused before each song, head down over the keys, eyes closed, you could almost believe he and the piano were speaking, trying to decide where they would go.

In the end, Iyer played a few of his own songs after his Coltrane cover, then left without an encore, his hour and a half set ending all too quickly. Even though the small crowd of 50 or so got to see Iyer play, it felt almost as though we’d caught just a glimpse of genius. Maybe next time it’ll be more than just a glimpse.

TO Jazz Review: Bela Fleck & The Flecktones + 5 After 4, June 30, Metro Square

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Toronto – Here’s the thing about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones’ (or, the ORIGINAL Flecktones, if you’re a stickler) Jazz Festival set. It was excellent, bordering on utterly brilliant, except for one thing: it would’ve been better if it had been shorter by three songs.

This isn’t about the set going too late (again), and I wasn’t the only one who noticed it, as my compatriot Mark said the same thing. Bela Fleck, along with bandmates Victor Wooten, Howard Levy and Futureman played brilliantly all night. Their solos were breathtaking, their call-and-response playing was mesmerizing, and the band built to an incredible climax with “Big Country” alongside fiddler Casey Driessen…then lost all momentum with a rather indulgent, noodly tune of loosely connected solos called “Rocket Science,” a lengthy introduction of each band member, then two more songs not half as good as “Big Country” before leaving the stage. Granted, they did impress with an utterly insane encore, featuring a long solo by Wooten, who’s bass playing is unlike any I’ve ever seen before. But still, the set sort of resembled a roller coaster where the excitement climbed to a thrilling, dizzying height, then flatlined before climbing again all-too-briefly and ending.

Opening act 5 After 4 were good, but not real memorable after Fleck and his crew ripped up the stage. Drummer Vito Rezza and his band, who are apparently all career session musicians, play 80’s-reminiscent smooth jazz. To my ear, they sound like they could’ve been doing the soundtrack to an 80’s cop movie, actually. A good 80’s cop movie soundtrack, though. You could sort of picture Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte going through a montage where they’re mad at each other to the music, right before they get back together and catch the bad guys. I’m not being as flattering to 5 After 4 as I meant to be here. They were not bad.

I don’t mean to be hard on Bela Fleck and the Flecktones either. The only reason I point out the uneven set and the loss of momentum is because minus the three songs before the encore, this show was probably a five out of five. Fleck’s five-string banjo playing has to be seen to be believed. Levy alternated between harmonica and piano and was excellent on both. Wooten, once again, is unlike anyone I’ve ever seen on the bass with his virtuoso slap technique that demands to be noticed. And I don’t even understand how Futureman’s, aka Roy Wooten’s, drums work. My first reaction to seeing him onstage was “what the hell is that guy playing?” (also, “why the hell is that guy wearing a pirate hat?”) and it took me at least three songs to realize that the thing he had in his hands, apparently invented by him and called a Drumitar, was what he was using to play the drums.

The crowd hung on their every move. Fleck got the biggest cheers for his solos, but Wooten was a close second, and his encore solo, which he capped off by flinging his bass around his body by the strap several times, was epic and got the loudest reaction of the night.

It was a great show. I only knew the band by reputation going in, but came away thoroughly impressed. Still, I can’t help but think that minus a few songs, this could’ve been a set of the year candidate, or at least best of the festival, instead of a very good show.

TO Jazz Review: Branford Marsalis & Joey Calderazzo, June 29, Koerner Hall

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

Toronto – As this year’s festival heads into its final weekend, it’s high time we talk about artistic director Josh Grossman. Josh was brought onboard last year and has been doing some great work for the festival. He’s been a force of nature when it comes to promoting jazz in the city, and his own blog offers up great insights into this world. He’s demonstrated an ability to be both progressive and expansive by including bands like the Roots and Aretha Franklin in the line-up.

I had the pleasure of meeting Josh last year and had but one request: “please please please bring back Branford!” In 2009 the festival featured the Branford Marsalis Quartet playing the main square at Nathan Phillips. While a great show in its own right, I was hoping beyond hope that we could get to see Branford in a more intimate venue. I can only assume that my conversation with Josh left such an indelible impression on him that he immediately pick up the phone and booked Branford to play a duet at Koerner Hall with Joey Calderazzo. So thanks Josh, it was totally worth it!

“Piano is hard…” – Toronto-based jazz pianist Matt Newton commenting on Joey Calderazzo’s playing

This was my most anticipated show of the festival; superlatives can’t begin to express how special it was. With talent and work, some musicians get to the point where they can describe the beauty, complexity, and perplexity of this world using only the sounds that emanate from their instrument. Others can do so while levitating on a magical flying carpet and looking out over the earth. That’s what Branford & Joey sounded like for the world premiere of their latest album Songs of Mirth & Melancholy.

“[We’d always ask our dad to play with us, and I’d ask him what key he was playing in] he’d say, son, there are no keys, only sounds.” – Branford Marsalis quoting his father Ellis Marsalis

As much as I love the energy of the quartet, it was positively sublime to hear what these artists could accomplish as a duo in the intimate and fabulous sounding Koerner Hall. That these two are good friends in addition to fellow jedi masters is evident. As Joey would solo, Branford would silently groove out and tap his foot. He’d open his eyes and look over as if to enquire “you done?” With Joey’s own eyes closed and lost in his world, Branford would chuckle to himself and let the man come back down to earth on his own time. With songs like Cheek to Cheek, these two were able to skirt the line between the familiar and the foreign with effortless skill.

There are many genres of music that have a special and indescribably sublime quality. To be able to experience such masterful music that transcends such boundaries in a live setting is both a rarity and a treat.