TD Toronto JazzFest 2013: CJQ with Houston Person

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Sophisticated Gentleman of Jazz: Canadian Jazz Quartet with Houston Person – Home Smith Bar – June 26, 2013

Festival Report by Paul J. Youngman – July 2013

Billed as Masters of Mainstream, the concert series that ran at the Old Mill Inn, Home Smith Bar was without question some of the best jazz that took place during this edition of the Toronto Jazz Festival. The Canadian Jazz Quartet or CJQ for short, have been around for awhile (founded in 1987). They play what I would consider the best straight ahead jazz in the style of their namesakes the Modern Jazz Quartet or MJQ. The MJQ was established in 1952 and was made up of John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibes), Percy Heath (double bass) and Connie Kay (drums). Like the MJQ the CJQ are comprised of the same instruments with the exception of piano, substitute the guitar of Gary Benson, and includes Frank Wright (vibes), Duncan Hopkins (double bass) and Don Vickery (drums).

In the fashion of the MJQ the CJQ plays music that touches on bebop, hard bop and cool jazz and just about all of your jazz standards. The CJQ adds guest soloists to each performance and throughout the jazz festival they had some heavy weights. Appearing from June 24th through to the 28th the following jazz luminaries made guest appearances, Harry Allen, Ken Peplowski, Allan Vache, Randy Sandke and Houston Person. I was fortunate to make it out to witness saxophone giant Houston Person and what a show it was. Person who just turned 78 this past November is playing with the same serious power and fortitude of his earlier years, a muscular style of sweet saxophone playing that easily breaks into hard bop form – taking the spotlight and lifting the energy level to high intensity.

Playing standards, ballads and the blues the CJQ with Person in the house was right on the money for an intimate gathering of straight ahead soulful jazz as only a small bar setting like the Home Smith could provide. Gary Benson the founder of the CJQ had aged since I last saw him at the “Quotes Bar”, the mainstay of the CJQ for many years, where they hosted “Fridays at Five”, they’ve now moved next door (Kama Restaurant & Bar) to host “Thursdays at Five”, regardless of age – Benson plays the sweetest sounding guitar this side of Jim Hall. “It Could Only Be You” had all members of the CJQ performing sumptuous solos that were rounded out by Person opening and closing with his distinctive smooth as honey saxophone sound.

The high light moment for me was a duet with bassist Duncan Hopkins, the song, a ballad, a standard of which the name escapes me, was performed with such emotion that it brought back memories of some of the best saxophone playing I’ve ever heard – in particular Sonny Stitt. Person like Stitt is a highly emotional player, touching and tender saxophone voicing, where the melody is expanded upon and the stirring lines sing to the soul, and when played with basic instrumentation such as a stand up bass – it just doesn’t get any better than this.

Canadian Jazz Quartet 2
Canadian Jazz Quartet with Houston Person – Photo by Paul J. Youngman