Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Review: Return to Forever, June 28, Sony Centre

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 3 Comments

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.

TO Jazz Review: Paco de Lucia, June 27, Sony Centre

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

Toronto – Guitar legend Paco de Lucia played the Sony Centre last Monday. It was an evening of flamenco music, crazy flamenco dancing, and perplexing reversals of gender stereotypes. It was one of the most highly anticipated shows of the festival, and while there was certainly some amazing music to be heard, it did leave many feeling a little underwhelmed.

When I think of harp music, it brings to mind thoughts of light classical music gently strummed by slightly creepy baby angels.

Columbian harpist Edmar Castaneda opened the evening with a very strong, if short, set. When I think of harp music, it brings to mind thoughts of light classical music gently strummed by slightly creepy baby angels. For me the harp is a gentle and fair instrument. It evokes sleepy times. Edmar’s treatment of the instrument was distinctly different from the status quo. His was the most assertive approach to the instrument I’ve seen. He muted strings with his elbows and plucked like a madman; it was a rhythmic and percussive treatment of latin music.

Before long, el hombre himself took to the stage to lay down some sweet flamenco. Don’t get me wrong, Paco is one talented guitarist. He plays guitar the way Superman would play guitar if he were so inclined. The only difference being that Superman would probably need a specially constructed guitar made of carbon fibre or some shit to withstand his super grip. If I had to describe Paco’s backing band, I would use the words tasteful,  judicious, and a little crazy. Spanish flamenco singing is kind of like yelling in key and the trio of male singers were pretty intense.

Halfway through the set, one of male singers hopped on the wooden dance floor for some traditional flamenco dancing. Although technically this type of dancing  is a unisex sport, I always associate it with beautiful and voluptuous Spanish women; what with their crazy innate understanding of confusingly sensual rhythm and their crazy little tiny finger cymbals. This male singer/dancer strutted around with all the feminine bravado, or feminado, of a Spanish Michael Flatley. The fact that just an hour earlier I was listening to a masculine harpist only helped to further confuse my gender stereotypes. Needless to say, I left the Sony Centre much more distraught about who I am.

Paco is one talented guitarist. He plays guitar the way Superman would play guitar if he were so inclined.

Easily the most disappointing part of the show was the encore, or rather lack thereof. To be fair, I don’t think encores should be automatically granted. However, with great fame comes great responsibility. When an entire auditorium is clamouring for a little more from a musical legend, the encore becomes a key gesture of goodwill. I was more than little surprised to see the lights go on after a few minutes of intense clapping. The crowd was not ready to give up. Eventually someone came out and announced that due to “hall regulations”, there was a “curfew” and they could not “play anymore”.

That was weak. I’ve been to many a concert at the Sony Centre and am not aware of any curfews for 10:36 pm, including the following night when badass band Return to Forever played till 10:46. The crazy thing about this is how easily it could have been avoided. Just take the existing playlist and end it one song early. People would applaud, the band would leave the stage. Paco would come back. The crowd would go wild. He’d play one more song. The lights would go on, and people would leave with a smile on their face. Instead, many of the crowd left the Sony Centre feeling disappointed that their encore request was so flatly denied. It felt like a rookie mistake from a seasoned veteran.

Edmar Castaneda:

Paco de Lucia:

TO Jazz Review: Robert Cray Band + Digging Roots, June 27, Metro Square

Posted on by Brian in Toronto Jazz Festival | 9 Comments

Toronto – In several years of covering the Toronto Jazz Festival, I’ve largely avoided the fest’s ample blues offerings. I just don’t have a whole lot of affection for the genre, aside from a soft spot for some of John Lee Hooker’s old albums and the Blues Brothers. I don’t really know what contemporary blues is even supposed to sound like, frankly. Nevertheless, I did see the Robert Cray Band open for Eric Clapton four or five years ago and I remember liking that set, so I thought I’d take in Cray and opener Digging Roots on the jazz festival’s main stage Monday night.

First of all, I don’t have a single nice thing to say about Digging Roots. Taking the stage at 8:35 and playing for almost an hour, their set was too long by half, as were most of their songs. Their lyrics and themes were remarkably trite and insipid. Vocalist ShoShona Kish said one tune was about “speaking out for what you believe in, and more importantly peace”; the lyrics then largely consisted of the words “rebuild”  and “stand up” repeated over and over. Other songs about “planting seeds” and “free speech” were similarly riddled with song writing clichés. Their rhythm section is boring. Front man Raven Kanatakta is not a terrible guitarist, but his fondness for distortion is irritating and his voice is nothing special. Kanatakta and Kish’s occasional attempts to rap (at least, I think that’s what they were doing) and inspire audience participation were painful. There were those in the crowd that really enjoyed the set, so your experience may vary. The show’s rather annoying MC seemed to think Digging Roots’ recent Juno Award win made them worth listening to. Of course, the Junos have terrible taste in music. I disliked Digging Roots intensely. Let’s move on.

Cray and his band took the stage at 10:10 after a 45 minute set break. Unfortunately, my self-imposed curfew for jazz fest shows this week meant I was leaving at 10:45. My curfew is a function of living in the west end, working at 8:00 in the morning, and being on the wrong side of 30. Covering jazz fest was a lot easier when I lived at Bloor & Christie instead of Dundas & Kipling and was semi-employed, that’s for sure.

However, the six or seven songs I heard of Cray’s, which included “Phone Booth,” one of his best known tunes, were quite good. It’s easy to see why Cray is popular with blues fans. His guitar playing is top notch and his voice has just the right amount of whine to it to make it work. He’s a personable and funny stage presence, who went to great lengths to introduce his keyboard player, then to make sure the crowd remembered his name, did it again. He also said the persistent hum from his amplifiers was just the sound of the amps trying to sing along. His band, bassist Richard Cousins, keyboardist Jim Pugh, and drummer Tony Braunagel are quite good, doing a nice job on both Cray’s uptempo numbers and slow blues dirges.

In a jazz festival full of innovative and creative music, however, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of blues is a little stagnant. Though Cray is a very capable guitar player, the 12-bar blues has been the basis that John Lee Hooker and the Blues Brothers and hundreds of other blue musicians have been relying on for decades now. And how many different ways can you write a song about your baby being gone? To give Cray credit, even though he went to the “my baby’s gone” well frequently, one song was about being glad that his baby was gone so, y’know, it was a twist.

If you like the blues, I can say you should definitely check out Cray sometime, though if you like the blues you probably already know this. If you’re kind of indifferent to the genre, Cray is probably as good an example of it as anybody. But I think from here on out I’ll go back to mostly avoiding the blues acts in the jazz festival lineup.

TO Jazz Review: Spanish Harlem Orchestra, June 26, Metro Square

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 3 Comments

Toronto – The first thing I noticed about the Toronto Jazz Festival this year is that it has moved. I can easily detect these kind of things because I’m a detail-oriented kind of guy. Also, I’m a quick study. You can’t easily slip things like a major venue change past me. No sir. Especially after a few meandering circles around and through the old venue at Nathan Phillips Square, and then confusing the jazz fest for a homeless man on Queen Street, and then listening to him yell and sing at me while tending to his pet rats. Like I said, quick study.

As a hard-nosed amateur music journalist, I know that you expect me to ask the tough questions. This is why when I finally arrived at the new venue at Metro Square, I found the very first person with a staff badge and asked, “but, but, why did you move?” This man with a hat told me that Nathan Phillips is in the midst of a facelift. Apparently these renovations will make the new square better for every day use, but not so good for festival use. I for one believe him. Did I mention he was wearing a hat, and hats are inherently reputable? Well they are.

“With salsa music, you could be singing about the holocaust and it would still make you want to dance, smile, and wiggle your butt.”

Anyway, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra played Sunday evening at the Toronto Star Stage. This is the Toronto Star Stage at Metro Square, not the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square, which no longer exists. Let’s try and keep up people. Opening for them was Dubmatix, which consisted of two DJ’s, a saxophonist, and a bass player. It was chill reggae beats with some occasionally feisty horn playing. Creatively mixing beats is no small feat. However, it’s interesting how much a difference a charismatic vocalist can make. They play such a crucial role as a focal point for a band. Without one, I just didn’t know who or what to focus on.

Next up was the Spanish Harlem Orchestra. Not only did they have one vocalist, they had three. This made it very easy for the crowd to focus. The singers would sing, and we would look at them. Problem solved. They were backed by a hefty brass section, and some top-notch percussionists. It was tight, upbeat, happy salsa music. At least I think it was happy. I don’t speak Spanish so I can’t  tell if the lyrics were happy or not. Still, with salsa music, you could be singing about the holocaust and it would still make you want to dance, smile, and wiggle your butt. By the end of the show, the band had succeeded in getting most of the people in the tent up and dancing. Not bad for a Sunday evening.


Spanish Harlem Orchestra: