A Class Act
Another first for me, a Christmas holiday show to see a Canadian jazz chanteuse. A debut concert at the Royal Conservatory in support of her new album Lumières d’hiver, her twelfth independently released album on her own label, Empress Music Group. Emilie-Claire Barlow, with a performing career spanning over twenty years. Someone who I hadn’t seen live for about ten years, not since her time with Bill King’s Real Divas. She has honed her skills as an arranger, producer, manager and bandleader, as well as winning numerous awards and accolades along the way.
The introduction showed class, individual members of the band coming on stage one at a time, beginning with Kelly Jefferson. He would play his shaker to a holiday rhythm, a great shaker player. He was followed by the bassist Daniel Fortin, then drums, keys, guitar, the backing vocalists and last but not least the star of the show Ms. Barlow. The song progressed from a shaker to a full blown sound, a French song or two, as she indicated to the audience we had just heard “Combien de Noël” and “Janvier”. At one point in the intro she danced over to the pianist – Amanda Tosoff and joined her for a bar or two, a different approach to showing the audience she can play piano too.
Ms. Barlow was shimmering this night, in a long golden gown, bare shoulder, open back. Black strap stiletto heels peaked out as she pranced across the stage in glowing splendour. Her hair, done up in a bun and pulled tightly back, she looked elegant and sophisticated. A class act. Her band looked classy as well, the men all dressed in suits, the back up vocalists, three ladies, Kathryn Rose, Stephanie Martin and Rique Franks were dressed elegantly in formal wear, dark dresses and high heels. The string section made up of three women and one man were also looking dapper.
Emile-Claire Barlow seems at ease on stage, she enters into easy rapport with her audience, she can be funny, cracking a joke or telling a story of life on the road or in the tour bus. She can get serious with stories of how songs came to be written, as the one composed by her mother, “Angel’s Lullaby” a tribute to her mother who was in the audience. The song performed as a beautiful ballad, heartfelt and displaying an impressive vocal range by Ms. Barlow.
The new album, Lumières d’hiver comprised of fourteen songs is Christmas jazz, I believe the audience heard the complete album this night including some songs from her other albums. The show was well produced, the back up vocalists departed the stage to make way for the string section who joined the show about six songs in. The strings played on “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve” a great arrangement, with a full lush sound. Another song with strings, “I’ve Got My Love To Keep Me Warm”, I was most impressed with the strings of Reg Schwager who took an inspired solo during the song. “Santa Baby” was another one with a duet intro by Emilie-Claire and Mr. Schwager before the band kicked in to make this a frolicking festive favourite. The strings would depart to make room for a new set of strings, Melanie Doane and 26 of her students from the Doane Uschool, who were then joined by another 125 kids all of them with ukuleles who came in through the aisles and mingled with the audience. I have never seen, nor heard so many ukes. And away we all went, with a rousing rendition of “Dashing Through The Snow”.
After so much excitement it was time for the rest of the band to take a pause, and the audience was treated to a duet of Reg Schwager and Emilie-Claire Barlow. A beautiful rendition of “Bells Will Be Ringing” performed slow and mellow, full of serenity and the blues. One of the songs from the new album that really impressed me, “River” by Joni Mitchell, with arrangements by Ms. Barlow and Mr. Webster. A fresh, inspirational take on a classic tune. One by one the band rejoined for songs in trio format, quartets and quintets until we arrived at the point where the full band was on stage and Ms. Barlow introduced her stellar cast to the audience. The first of a couple of standing ovations, while the audience paid homage to the entertainers. The final song “Winter Wonderland” had all of the musicians romping and grooving with a fast upbeat rhythm. Kelly Jefferson blowing his heart out on the tenor saxophone with stops and starts and howls of delight. The string section was strumming with fire, the back up singers were movin’ and shakin’. A grand finale, an exciting ending to a wonderful concert.
Emilie-Claire Barlow, vocals
Kelly Jefferson, tenor saxophone
Reg Schwager, guitar
Amanda Tosoff, piano
Fabio Ragnelli, drums
Daniel Fortin, bass
Melanie Doane, ukulele
François Pilon, violin
Mélanie Bélair, violin
Ligia Paquin, viola
Sheila Hannigan, cello
Kathryn Rose, vocals
Rique Franks, vocals
Stephanie Martin, vocals
Students from the Doane USchool
Hilario Durán and David Virelles at Koerner Hall in Toronto
On Thursday, October 13, 2022, representing two generations of Cuban Piano Masters, Hilario Durán and David Virelles got together at Koerner Hall, one of the most magnificent concert venues in Toronto. They were celebrating the release (in Canada) of their new recording Front Street Duets (Alma Records), a project they started working on at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
Both artists were extremely happy of releasing their duet album after these past two years of the unimaginable worldwide health crisis. They were also excited to be in Toronto, and for being able to accommodate their busy schedules to perform their music in front of a very enthusiastic audience. Durán and Virelles expressed their utmost respect and admiration for each other. David from an early age considered Hilario as one of his musical heroes, a musical giant and influential figure in Cuba, in Canada and abroad. Hilario considers David as one of the most important Cuban pianist of his generation, a big star shining globally, from the highly competitive musical scene in New York.
The concert got started started with Epistrophy, the first tune copyrighted by Thelonious Monk, followed by Sophisticated Lady / In A Sentimental Mood, two compositions by Duke Ellington. Next, Durán and Virelles performed four tunes from their new album: 1. Danza Lucumí, (beautifully arranged by Virelles), a song written by Alejandro García Caturla, a Cuban composer who together with Amadeo Roldán, are considered the leaders of Afro-cubanismo, a nationalist musical trend that incorporates Afro-Cuban songs, rhythms, and dances. 2. Challenge, a new composition by Durán. 3. La Malanga (also arranged by Virelles), a composition by Calixto Varona, one of the most important composers from Santiago de Cuba from the XIX century. 4. Guajira For Two Pianos, the first track on the album Front Street Duet, a fiery composition written by Durán.
The first set came to an end with Airegin (an anadrome of Nigeria), a jazz standard composed by American saxophonist Sonny Rollins in 1954.
The second part of the concert started with a solo performance by David Virelles, Canción Estudio, composed by José Antonio “Ñico” Rojas, a prominent Cuban composer and guitarist, considered as one of the founders of the style of Cuban song called filin. Then it was Durán’s turn for an inspired solo performance of Autumn Nocturne (a notable composition written by Russian-born Josef Myrow with Kim Gannon). Durán had previously recorded this tune on his 1999 Justin Time Records release Habana Nocturna, a superb album that feature acclaimed saxophonist, flautist and bandleader Jane Bunnett, and drummer extraordinaire Horacio “El Negro” Hernández.
Next, both pianists performed a set of four pieces written by Hilario Durán for the recording Front Street Duets. 1. David’s Tumbao, a composition dedicated to David Virelles. Durán is well known for his fiery tumbao style when he’s playing. 2. Punto Cubano #1, inspired on the genre of Cuban music known as punto guajiro or punto cubano, a poetic art with music that became popular in the western and central regions of Cuba in the 17th century and consolidated as a genre in the 18th century. 3. Santos Suárez’s Memories pays tribute to the Havana neighbourhood where Durán grew up, where he fell in love with the piano and became a musician. It brings back cherished memories involving his upbringing, his family and close friends. 4. Milonga For Cuba, a very special tribute dedicated to the people who protested in Havana last summer 2021.
For the encore, Durán and Virelles interpreted a wonderful rendition of Body And Soul, a popular song and jazz standard written in 1930 with music by Johnny Green and lyrics by Edward Heyman, Robert Sour and Frank Eyton. Body and Soul is the track that closes the album Front Street Duets, and also brought to an end a tremendous musical night at Koerner Hall in Toronto.
Photographs by Danilo Navas
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