Toronto Jazz Festival

TO Jazz Review: The Roots, June 29, Toronto Star Stage

Posted on by Mark in Concerts, Toronto Jazz Festival | 6 Comments

Toronto – If I had to sum up the show The Roots put on last Tuesday at Nathan Phillips Square in one word, it would be “Wow!”. If I had two words at my disposal, it would be “Holy Crap!” The band brought an energy that I haven’t seen in quite some time to an audience that was feeling every ounce of it, and sending it right back at them. No matter how you cut it, The Roots, The Roots, The Roots were on fire.

After recently releasing their latest album How I Got Over, you’d think the band would be playing a healthy dose of new material. It was refreshing to see that they were more interested in putting together a kickass live show. The influences of the night came from all over the map. From “Sweet Child of Mine” to “Jungle Boogie”. From a tribute to Fela Kuti (Nigerian Afrobeat), to some sweet Curtis Mayfield funk. The band demonstrated great versatility and managed the transitions oh so smoothly while keeping the energy pegged at 11 for the nearly two hour set.

No matter how you cut it, The Roots, The Roots, The Roots were on fire.

The Roots fuses intellectual lyrics and hip hop with elements of jazz and funk. The band was tight as they wove their way through their set with confidence and dare I say bravado. The live wires of the night were easily guitarist Kirk Douglas, a.k.a. “The String Assassin” and sousaphonist Damon Bryson, a.k.a. “Tuba Gooding Jr.”  They got down from the stage several times to get down and jump up with the crowd. The sousaphone was amazing. Seeing Damon play awoke a deep-seated longing within me that I didn’t even know existed: I want to be a sousaphone player in a hip hop band. I never knew such a thing was possible.

I’ve never given a show a 5 star review before. I was thinking about that in the tent. A great live show consists of a few key elements: the energy the musicians bring to the table, their talents and abilities, and the amount of love that the crowd is sending back to them. As I rocked out in the tent, it occurred to me that The Roots had all of that in spades. Live music just doesn’t get better than this.

TO Jazz Review: Taj Mahal, June 27, Toronto Star Stage

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

TorontoTaj Mahal brought his brand of traditional blues to Nathan Phillips Square last Sunday. Most of the city was busy processing the aftershock of all that G20 smashy smashy. It seems that after basking in the unfavourable global limelight, most Torontonians have in turn looked back out at the world and the picture out yonder ain’t much rosier. Things seem to be a big ol’ global mess. We’re leaking thousands of tons of oil into the Gulf every hour, and the global financial system is a lot less resilient or stable then our economist friends would have us think.

It’s easy to look at all of this and feel hopeless. Despairing at the fact that life unfolds in unplanned, unforeseen, and uncontrollable ways is what the blues are all about. To the crowd on Sunday night, it made all the sense in the world to let their sorrows air out with Taj.

The music was straight-up blues, no chaser. Taj alternated between electric and acoustic guitars, and occasionally some work on piano. I’m not sure if it was the after effects of the Herbie Hancock show from the previous night, but I just couldn’t get into the music. The blues at its best contains an x-factor that can be hard to reproduce and impossible to fake. It typically involves the musician taking an inner journey to some uncomfortable and personal places. That’s not easy to do on demand. I didn’t feel that the x-factor was present for this show, but that in itself seemed to make sense after the surrealism of the weekend.

TO Jazz Review: Tomasz Stanko, June 28, Church of the Holy Trinity

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

photo courtesy pgaif13’s Flickr photostream. used with attribution under Creative Commons

I really like concerts in churches. Churches make great venues for a few reasons: the surroundings are interesting to look at, they’re almost always on transit routes or have free parking, and above all, the acoustics are fantastic. The great high ceilings and wood panelling is all wonderfully designed for one person to project his or her voice to a large group of people. Put a band with a bunch of instruments in such a room and the sound is excellent. The one thing I can’t stand about church shows, though, are the pews. I genuinely can’t sit in most pews for longer than 20 minutes, or my back starts threatening to go into painful spasms. It makes it difficult to appreciate the other things that are great about church shows when you can’t sit and enjoy in comfort.

My relationship with free jazz, like the sort that Tomasz Stanko plays, is similar. It’s great music for a few reasons: I enjoy a lot of the improvisations that come out of it, I appreciate it as a historical movement in jazz, and the players are almost always talented as hell. It’s designed to foster brilliant creativity. Put a great, experience band leader like Stanko with a group of talented musicians and they can do great things. The thing about free jazz, though, is the total lack of structure to most of the songs. I generally can’t sit through a free jazz session for longer than 20 minutes, or my mind starts to wander away on me. I want to appreciate it for all the great things about it and the musicians that play it, but my tastes and/or attention span just run to more melodic, less chaotic jazz.

It probably doesn’t help that I was 15 minutes late arriving to Stanko’s set. I really have no idea if Stanko’s quintet was playing tunes from a new album or classic stuff or what. Since he didn’t talk the whole time I was there, I actually have no idea if Stanko spoke to the crowd at all. Getting there late did have the advantage of me being able to sit at the back and get in and out of my seat without disturbing anybody. Sure enough, after 20 minutes of sitting in a pew, I stood up the rest of the show, and I wasn’t the only one. And sure enough, after 20 minutes of music, my mind started to really wander.

Don’t get me wrong, Stanko is a brilliant player, and deservedly one of the greats of Eastern European jazz. I wanted to go to his show because I’d heard his name a couple of times while living in Europe, and since I passed on seeing Dave Brubeck again this year, the Bill Evans/Robben Ford show was cancelled, and I skipped Herbie Hancock, Stanko fulfills my “jazz legends” quotient for this year’s festival. His band, playing electric guitar & bass, piano, and drums, was also quite good.

But as much as I like a lot of things about Stanko’s music, the overall package just doesn’t hold my attention. Judging by how the crowd appeared to alternately be completely enraptured or totally bored stiff during the show, I daresay I’m not the only one. I would feel bad giving the show a poor rating; it’s really just my own personal taste that didn’t allow me to get that into Stanko’s set, and I did enjoy some bits and solos. But when all five players on stage sound like they’re all playing a different song at the same time, well, I start wondering what’s being posted on Twitter. Let’s give it an average rating and leave it at that.

TO Jazz Review: Herbie Hancock, June 26, Toronto Star Stage

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

Toronto – The great things about the world of jazz is that it’s pretty darn close to being a meritocracy. The cats with the talent and the x-factor are the ones that everyone else in the community looks up to. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, the colour of your skin, or how old you are. If you can dig in and keep up, you’re in. Big names in jazz will not hesitate to cross generational boundaries in search for the right person to complete their sound. Last year Branford Marsalis played the jazz festival and brought in a young, but very talented Justin Falkner. Miles Davis’ second great quintet consisted of a young Herbie Hancock; a jazz legend in his own right now.

Herbie played the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square last Saturday. Keeping with this jazz tradition, he introduced us to Tal Wilkenfeld, a 24-year old bassist who has been chosen to accompany Herbie touring his latest album The Imagine Project. Although she may look a little green, her playing is anything but. Anyone who gets asked by Herbie to come play with them is going to have both serious chops and be covered in a sprinkling of magical fairy dust. Tal has both. I wonder if Tal was having a serious “pinch me is this for real” moment. Her excitement and energy playing on stage and grooving with such a legend seemed palpable.

Herbie Hancock is probably the only musician I can think of that can effortlessly switch from the elegance of a grand piano, to the modern sounds of a synthesizer, and finally to the awesome sounds of a tacky keytar and still not lose an ounce of legitimacy. When the keytar comes out, it’s as if the crowd just nods their collective heads, shrugs, and says “Yep. Ok. Do what you gotta do.” Herbie is the only person in the world that can make playing the keytar cool. If you need proof, then here is some internet proof to prove it.

I mentioned in the jazz festival preview that “grandmasters can turn it on like a switch”. Herbie is one of those cats. As he approaches his 70th birthday, we’re glad he could make it down to share some of his funky and inspired music with us.