2012 TD Toronto Jazz Fest – Report by Paul J. Youngman

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Jazz Time 10/4

Time; finding time to take in the myriad of musical shows, from Mainstage, to back alley bars and out of the way concert halls in Toronto during the 26th annual jazz festival. For me, the best shows are the intimate performances of jazz headliners who show up at out of the way locations, Benny Green and Kurt Rosenwinkel performing solo at Church of the Holy Trinity. Or the After Five concerts at Quotes Bar with the mainstays and guest artists, Byron Stripling, Huston Person or Ken Peplowski, appearing with the regulars – The Canadian Jazz Quartet. The renowned drummer Victor Lewis, swinging hard at a little jazz club on Queen Street with a group from Israel no less, Assaf Khati Trio.

I like to take the week off during the jazz festival so that I may be immersed in all that is jazz, a wide range of music these days when you consider the opening act for the biggest jazz festival in Ontario, The TD Toronto Jazz Festival was Janelle Monae and the closer, Tower of Power. Both were sold out shows, both I attended, one a contemporary R&B pop diva and the other, one of the original funk big bands from the seventies. These off the jazz radar acts are somewhat typical of most major jazz festivals these days, mix it up and give everybody something to dance to. Unfortunately I couldn’t get the week off and had to settle for a lot of running around and making time. I still managed to see a fair bit of jazz. A recap of my festival experience follows:

I got into jazz festival mood early with a Thursday June 21st late night show at Lula Lounge. A Brazilian show with dancers, capoeiristas and afro-Brazilian music, a packed house, a great vibe, wonderful food and drink. I was in the mood for a jazz festival. Friday, Brian Barlow Big Band at the outdoor stage at Nathan Phillips Square a free show that swung hard. The band went through a set dedicated to Duke Ellington and burned brightly under the mid day sun, musically and literally, as it was a scorcher of a day.

As the sun was going down I ventured out to The Church of The Holy Trinity. Tucked neatly away at the back of Trinity Square, across the road from Nathan Phillips Square, this historical landmark was a majestic site to host guitar ace Kurt Rosenwinkel. His solo concert was a treat, he seemed to play to the church, adding to the ambiance, enhancing the surreal glow of the stained glass windows and bringing to life the massive pipes of the church organ.

The Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square is jazz central for the festival, the Mainstage performers, the big names of the festival are here from the opening act till the closing act ten days later, July 1st.   I checked into the Mainstage tent just in time to see the opener Roman GianArthur take to the stage. The excitement of the audience was intense and the crowd was huge. There were chairs on the right and left of the stage as well as in the private VIP sections at the back of the tent, the centre was open no chairs just wall to wall people, a sold out show.

My next show was another sell out, George Benson with opening act Treasa Levasseur & The Daily Special. Who do you book to open for a jazz guitar legend? How about an up-tempo happy go lucky R& B band featuring a kick ass singer. The band opened heavy with solid back beats from a strong rhythm section and Levasseur’s voice, a mid range alto that is sweet sounding with a mildly grinding inflection. Two guitars, keys, drums and bass added to the smooth ride of easy listening, good time tunes with a strong blues base, a fine set up to welcome the headliner.

George Benson came on stage in high energy fashion; he seemed pleased to be playing Toronto and thrilled to be at the jazz festival, reminding the audience to ask for him back again soon. He looked good, much younger than his professed age of 69.   He played a mix of instrumental and vocal music, including many of his hit songs, “Masquerade”, “Breezin” and “Tequila” as well as his romantic songs, “Give Me The Night” and “Turn Your Love Around”. He found a whole lot of love in the audience judging from the fans screams of delight. Benson showcased his excellent guitar playing style. His voice is not as smooth as it used to be but he still has it and his combined scatting and playing licks to match his voice was still a highlight. Benson and his tight band put it all together and blew the audience away with a dynamite show. George Benson is the consummate showman.

Thursday’s show was contemporary jazz at its finest starting with a solo piano show at Church of the Holy Trinity with Benny Green. Green serenaded the audience with a blend of powerhouse piano playing, combining intense flourishes of piano brilliance with beautiful melodic renderings. It was a pleasure to listen to Green’s interpretations of some of the masters, Land, Clark and Silver inspired some of his original songs. He played tunes from his record,  Source (2011 JLP). A short walk back to the Mainstage to take in Esperanza Spalding with opening act Gretchen Parlato followed.

The Radio Music Society, a funky big band with a full horn section “To Dream The Impossible Dream” started Spalding’s’ show, she has a lovely voice, strong and confident, she is a dynamic bass player, yes Spalding has it all. The show turned into a radio broadcast or at least that’s what I got out of it. After every song Spalding would talk to the radio audience giving her take on the music or life in general. She alternated between electric and acoustic bass. I thought that the encore was a nice touch, Spalding invited Parlato up to the stage and the two vocalists sang a duet – beautifully, Jobim’s “Useless Landscape” the best finish possible.

Upon leaving the show who should I pass but Victor Lewis, a last minute replacement for Billy Hart. Both are drumming legends, the gig a small club on Queen St. Rex Jazz & Blues Bar.  I hang around on the patio taking in a couple of songs from the heavy guitar playing of Assaf Khati and the trio.

My next show – the closer on July 1st, Tower of Power, a true powerhouse band from the seventies that put jazz-funk on the map. They were preceded by the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars. The All Stars came on strong playing a reggae-funk, percussion heavy and bass banging, boogie band that put it all out there. I thought it may be a challenge for the four decade old Tower of Power to come off with the same energy as these funky all stars. There was no challenge however, driven by master drummer David Garibaldi the band stepped onto a high energy kick and never looked back through an hour and a half of soul, funk and R& B. As for the jazz, the two saxophone players, Tom E. Politzer and Emilio Castillo thru in a bit of improvisation, it sounded like jazz. So there you have it, 10/4 – over and out, on another great TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Janelle Monae – Friday June 22, 2012
Mainstage Concert Series – Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Phillips Square

The opening act for Janelle Monae was Roman GianArthur, Monae’s label mate, co-author and producer of her Grammy nominated album ArchAndroid. GianArthur fronted the Arch Orchestra, the same group Monae would lead on her performance. GianArthur has a good voice, a range from falsetto to alto and he has a great stage presence, he moves as a natural dancer.

Act II – Monae secreted to the stage in the guise of one of her back-up singers, they appeared looking like hooded, robed monks – her voice rang out pure and loud above the Orchestras booming tones, five minutes into the song and she is defrocked, and in all her tuxedoed glory she absorbs the audiences enthusiastic applause and responds with electrifying energy.

Monae released her ArchAndroid album in 2010 to critical acclaim, a Grammy nomination and good record sales. Her style is different, yet familiar, she reminds me of a female James Brown, all that drama and intrigue or David Bowie with all that space Odyssey and spectacle. Her voice is pleasant – reminiscent of Shirley Bassey, she performs a few Bassey hits – “Goldfinger” was a standout at Fridays’ concert.  The Orchestra would also back her up on The Jackson Five’s – “I Want You Back” and   her big hit, “Tightrope”.

I would have liked to have heard a cleaner sound mix, the high end distortion was masking the strings, the bottom end – from bass and bass drum was booming to mask out the mid range tones. And that left a whistling in my ears that was present for the rest of the evening. I suppose loud volume equates to increased energy level and excitement or so the sound management for the Orchestra and the ArchAndroid production believes. They may be correct as the masses who gathered at the front of the stage young and old seemed to dig this new style prog-rock opera from Janelle Monae and her Arch Orchestra.

The Rosenwinkel Holy Trinity

Kurt Rosenwinkel performed Friday June 22 at Church of the Holy Trinity as part of the 26th edition of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Accompanied by a duo of Fender amplifiers, one at each shoulder and a microphone at centre stage, he and his D’Angelico New Yorker archtop guitar preached harmonics to the good sized gathering of jazz fans.

Rosenwinkel seemed to be playing the spirit of the room. The Church of the Holy Trinity is a glorious two hundred year old Gothic Tudor building with towering pipes for the church organ, dramatic architecture from wall to ceiling and beautiful stained glass windows that bathed the interior space in a serene glow. The acoustics were good, any distortion was intended, echo and sustain were magnified and glorified.

Rosenwinkel produced sounds that ranged from wind instruments through to organs, harpsichords and on occasion a typical jazz guitar. Chords would billow out into the ambiance, touching all corners of the rafters to reverberate and fall back over the audience. With sounds and energy reminiscent of the Phantom of The Opera, the guitarist produced high melodrama in shocking distorted chords while he chanted along with the sonic modulation.

Some standard jazz riffs were played and pretty melodies were sang or hummed over top. A bossa nova melody was played to soften the more improvisational portion of the performance. The audience listened in what appeared to be rapt attention to this intimate and spiritual performance.

* Featured photograph of Bettye Lavette by Atael Weissman.

An independent journalist, based in Toronto, Canada. A professional musician and a fan of music, dance and the arts. I have written short stories, lyrics, poetry and reviews. I have been published in numerous online webzines. I’ve taught drumming and played in bands; I have felt the passion to create. I enjoy expressing that passion, the artistic experience, in words, reporting on the shows and musical experiences that I have witnessed.

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