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Jazz Lives!

The 22nd anniversary of the Toronto Jazz Festival was one for the record books with more venues, more musicians and more aspirations of becoming the very best North American jazz festival. There literally was something for everyone. That seems to be the theme for most festivals these days, but with 50 venues, 350 concerts and an estimated 1,500 performers this event aims to please. The big shows focused on piano, the Grandmasters series, featuring Ahmad Jamal, Michel Legrand and Dave Brubeck. Michel Legrand canceled due to health issues, I couldn’t get a ticket to Dave Brubeck but I was definitely pleased to have witnessed a fantastic performance from Ahmad Jamal, more on that later. There were a few other cancellations, the band E.S.T canceled due to the death of pianist and leader, Esbjorn Svensson. The guitarist and vocalist, Susan Tedeschi canceled.  I can’t think of any other major cancellations. A couple of the venues decided to close, Healey’s Roadhouse and Opal Jazz Lounge, bumping planned performances of some local acts.

The hub of festival activities takes place at Nathan Philips Square with Toronto’s city hall acting as a backdrop. The Toronto Star Stage, this is the main stage under the big tent and The Primus Stage, out in the open, surrounded by Davis Lane to the north, Gillespie Street to the south, Hampton Avenue on the east side and Cab Calloway Blvd. to the west. The sounds of the festival officially got under way at noon June 20. A Friday, with Gary Morgan & Pan Americana, a twenty member Latin jazz orchestra that kicked off the festival in party rhythmic fashion.

The party atmosphere continued into the night with a tribute to New Orleans. Mardi Gras was in the air as The Wild Magnolias took to the stage for a rousing show that included Big Chief Indians in wild costumes. Three members of the group dressed in traditional Native American costumes with huge head dresses, lots of feathers. Coming on as brightly coloured as peacocks, they danced into the show during the third song. There were plenty of beads and bangles tossed to the audience on the way to the stage. The crowd stood and clapped throughout the entire show. The band performed tunes that were all about "Party" and "Pock-A-Nae", they even had the audience singing, Handa Wanda, Mardi Gras, a repetitive catchy phrase from the song "Handa Wanda". This was a heavy night of rhythm and blues with plenty of funk.

Next up, Dr. John, strolling onto stage looking dapper, sporting a powder blue jacket, a flashy fedora and carrying his walking stick. He was ultra cool and full of southern charm. The audience received him with a standing ovation that caused him to tip his hat. He rolled up his sleeves and prepared to bare down for some serious Louisiana R&B. He took a seat at the piano and started playing some well known, get happy tunes, "Makin’ Whoopee" as well as songs from his new album City That Care Forgot (2008, 429 Records). Making the concert a political statement, with dark tunes like, "Time For A Change", "Promises, Promises" and mixing in the classic, "Right Place, Wrong Time". Everybody was up and dancing for this one. The band backing the good Dr. played with passion, they were members of The Wild Magnolias, other songs included "Got To Keep On Goin", "Say Whut?" "My People Need A Second Line". These were heavy funk numbers with Dr. John pounding on the organ and bringing forth sounds as tearful sighs. The encore number took us back into the political arena for "Save Our Wetlands". Despite the nature of the songs from the new album, the concert was a joyous affair.

On Saturday, June 21st, pianist Steve Koven took over the Primus stage and along with his Project Rex band members, Kenny Kirkwood, Dan Bone (saxophone), Stitch Wynston (drums) and Rob Clutton (bass). The band entertained the capacity crowd with a mix of fun, easy going, easy listening jazz tunes, "Bye Bye Blackbird" and Sonny Rollin’s "St. Thomas" had the audience dancing the entire afternoon. The evening show at the Mainstage featured the John Hammond Jr. quartet. Hammond Jr. singing, playing guitar, dobro and harmonica. The rest of the band consisted of Marty Ballou (bass), Neil Gouvin (drums) and Bruce Katz (keys).

Hammond Jr. had the audience warmed up and ready for the next act. A long intermission ensued while the stage was set up for the R & B Divas and the audience cooled. The R & B Divas were a fill in for Susan Tedeschi who canceled due to a scheduling conflict. The Divas are Ronnie Spector, Darlene Love, and Mary Clayton.

The Lincolns a famed Canadian R& B band took to the stage to fire up the audience and act as back up to the R&B Divas. Led by Prakash John on bass, Jordan John on drums, Danny Weiss on guitar, Denis Kelvie on keys, John Panchyshyn on saxophone and Michael Dunston singing. They opened the show with "Shotgun", the band sounded great, they carried on with Marvin Gaye’s "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" and the national anthem of R&B, James Browns’ "I’m A Soul Man". I would have been content to listen to the Lincolns all night long.

The R&B Divas, starting with Ronnie Spector, the first Diva to be driven up to the entrance by limo. She performed her first song and announced on conclusion that she was only here for three songs and it felt like she had already sang five songs. She sang her three songs ending with, as she put it, "The song that started it all for her and the Ronettes." The 1963 hit "Be My Baby". She left with very little fanfare and in true Diva fashion, boarding her limo and never looking back.

Darlene Love, the next Diva of the three to perform, came on with a tremendous amount of energy and showed plenty of stage presence. She performed her three songs, opening with "At Last" and closing with "Da Doo Ron Ron". She appeared to be enjoying herself and she got the audience singing along with her, they seemed well versed in her hit tunes. The final Diva arrived after the Lincolns played a few songs with a personnel change that saw drummer Jason John become lead guitarist and vocalist for some heavy blues - rock stylings. The new drummer Al Cross took over for "Do Right" and "The Seventh Sun". Mary Clayton finally arrived and proceeded to sing some smooth blues influenced tunes, "Steam Roller Blues" and "Gimme Shelter" by the Stones.

The next night really started the jazz offerings in a big way with the Geri Allen Quartet followed by Alto Summit in the form of Red Holloway, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson and Greg Osby. The Allen Quartet included bassist, Kenny Davis and drummer Kass Overall. The quartet was rounded out by tap dancer Maurice Chestnut who was an integral part of the band. He blended with the rhythm section and provided serious solos that were exciting and interesting. The two groups played their versions of high art with Allen staying close to her spiritual roots and The Alto Summit doing their best to play songs that highlighted their impressive and very distinct styles of alto saxophone playing.

June 23 The high art work continued with piano great Oliver Jones and followed by the amazing Ahmad Jamal. Two completely different styles of piano playing and so wonderful to see in a single evening. Jones serenaded the audience with gorgeously crafted tunes, "Second Time Around", "Simple Blues" and "D is for Doxas" dedicated to his drummer Jim Doxas. The bass player Eric Legacie and Oliver Jones played a most touching duet in tribute to Jones’ friend Hal Hills’ wife, "In Memory Of Chris". The Oliver Jones trio did not expand on their songs, they played them short and they went through seven or eight songs in a fluid and thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining manner.

Ahmad Jamal first played Toronto in 1948 at the Town Theatre, The Town is gone and Jamal is here in full force with a cast of superb musicians, Manola Badrena, a Puerto Rican master percussionist, James Cammack bass and James Johnson drums. The band came on cool and left smoking hot. They received numerous standing ovations, this was well before the last song was played. After the final song, three encore numbers were presented as the crowd just couldn’t get enough of this amazing pianist. Running through extended versions of Monty Alexander’s "You Can See" and as Mr. Jamal put it, "This is the 50th anniversary of what must be the most plagiarized song ever, from my best selling album." Ahmad Jamal At The Pershing. The band proceeded to play Jamal’s’ trademark song "Poinciana" composed by Bernier and Simon. Jamal would also perform songs from his new CD It’s Magic. Including "The Girls In My Den", "It’s Magic", "Paris After Dark", "Papillion" and "Bopudee". The highlight concert of the festival had just occurred.

Another great pianist showed up on Wednesday, Cyrus Chestnut. It was another great show and another great trio. Neil Smith on drums and Dezron Douglas playing very inspired bass. Mr. Chestnut qualified the style of performance with the following announcement, "The band will play notes and harmonies we have not played yet, composing at a rapid rate and with no chance to edit. Spontaneous compositions," the songs that they came up with were excellent. "Soulful", "Baby Girl Strut", "Mason Dixon Line" and "Twelve Bar Ballad". I even recognized some tunes on my own. Although I found it hard to believe that I was hearing a jazz version of "Suspicious Mind" and "You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog". The Blind Boys Of Alabama held court later that evening and performed a rousing Gospel inspired show.

The Salute To Jazz At The Philharmonic brought the festival closer to the finale, I managed to catch the first act, another great show. Featuring the Roy Hargrove Quintet, Roberta Gambarini Quartet and special guests Paquito D’Rivera, Frank Wess and Russell Malone. I rushed off to The Opera House a little to the east of the big tent for Marcus Miller. Marcus Miller had a rockin’ big band with him that included harmonica specialist Gregoire Maret. The horn section made up of Patches Stewart (trumpet), Keith Anderson (sax) and a heavy rhythm section, Bobby Sparks (keys) and Poogie Bell (drums). The House was packed, standing room only with people shoulder to shoulder and fire codes on the verge of being breached.

I had heard rumors of a great late night jam later that evening at a small club named The Supermarket, in the west part of Toronto’s Kensington Market. I headed over there right after Marcus Millers’ concert, to check it out. The Botos Brothers, Robbie (piano)and Frank (drums) showed up and they played a couple of tunes sounding as inspired as usual. The folks from the Philharmonic didn’t materialize, some feeble excuse about catching a plane at 6:00 A.M.

Saturday June 28 Hilario Duran Trio followed by Arturo Sandoval, what a delight when a world class trio located in your own backyard can steel the thunder of a big name star. Hilario Duran said, "This is a very special concert for me, I had a nine year partnership with Arturo." The tunes the Duran trio performed were exciting and complex, such as "Conversations With A Lunatic" and ending with "For Emiliano" the ride along the way was full of intensity and incredible accompaniment from drummer Mark Kelso and bassist Roberto Occhipinti.

June 29 A Sunday and the final day of the jazz festival, a date with Lizz Wright, a great jazz singer, performing at the Diesel Playhouse. Wright is a pop singer with great jazz sensibilities. Lizz Wright is lacking a polished stage side manner. She is not at ease in an intimate dinner theatre such as the Diesel Playhouse at least not this night. Her mannerisms were cold and she seemed detached from the audience and the band.

Ms. Wright&&&s voice was as smooth as honey and her songs are spiritually enlightening. She mentioned to the audience, " I don’t know why I’m here, at a jazz festival, if you’re good I might play a jazz song." I’m not sure if she ever played a jazz song, if she did I didn’t recognize it. She did play her hits, they came off nicely, although I didn’t like the bands sound, from my vantage point it was all low end bass frequency. The highlight was a duet she performed with her keyboard player on the gorgeously crafted, "Stop".

The TD Canada Trust Jazz Festival, the 22nd version wrapped up after ten days. A lot of great music, 50 venues, 350 concerts and 1500 performers. I didn&&&t catch all of the festival or visit each of the venues. I did manage to cover some great music and I feel confident that jazz is in good hands. Yes - Jazz Lives!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Toronto Jazz Festival
  • Concert Date: June 20 - 29, 2008
  • Subtitle: The 22nd Anniversary of the TD Canada Trust Toronto Jazz Festival
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