The Original Superstars of Jazz - The Phoenix Concert Theatre Toronto, Nov. 16, 2006
The Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion concert with Roy Ayers, Lonnie Liston Smith, Jean Carne, Wayne Henderson, Bobbi Humphrey, Ronnie Laws & Jon Lucien was a tremendous success. The fusion occurred between the promoters, a co-production of Toronto Downtown Jazz and REMG Productions and the audience, a diverse mix of young and old. The young people were singing along to songs that were written in the 70s, these are some of the most popular samples that have been added to the hip-hop, rap and dance music of the day. The atmosphere at the theatre was electric, a crowd of close to three hundred, came to groove on jazz inspired funk, soul and R&B music. They got all of that and much more.
Roy E. Ayers was born on October 9, 1940 in Los Angeles, CA. He grew up in a musical family where his father played trombone and his mother piano. At the age of five, he received a vibraphone as a gift from the famous vibes master Lionel Hampton. As his interest for the vibraphone grew so did his involvement in the west coast jazz-scene. He started playing with artists like Chico Hamilton and Gerald Wilson Orchestra (1965-66). In 1966, he joined up with Herbie Mann, an association that lasted four years. During this period, he also became interested in musical forms other than the be-bop he grew up with. After contributing on Mann's hit album," Memphis Underground", and recording three of his own solo projects on the Atlantic label, with Mann as producer, Ayers left Mann's group in 1970 and moved to Manhattan, NYC. In Manhattan, he formed his own group, Roy Ayers Ubiquity.
With Ubiquity, Ayers recorded several albums for Polydor using legendary musicians such as, Sonny Fortune, Billy Cobham, Omar Hakim and Alphonze Mouzon. From the beginning, Ubiquity was a fusion of R&B, jazz and rock. Influenced by artists such as, piano wizard Herbie Hancock’ Head Hunters sextet and the electric side of trumpeter Miles Davis. The band lost much of its jazz influences and instead began to create its own blend of R&B, funk and 70s dance, generating commercial successes. The greatest success came with the classic tune "Running Away" from the 1977 album Lifeline. Another Ubiquity hit was the tune, "Everybody Loves The Sunshine," from the album of the same name released in 1976. Ayers and The Ubiquity Band performed a great version of the song this night that featured an amazing drum solo by Lee Pearson.
The Phoenix Concert Theatre is 18,000 square feet of historical Toronto architecture encompassing three distinct environments. The Main Room where the Roy Ayers concert took place, features one of the cities largest dance floors, five bars (including a 50-foot marble bar, nice for taking notes). A massive stage (and full concert facilities), a giant projection screen, and one of the largest mirror balls in Canada so I’ve been informed. "Le Loft," which overlooks the main room, features an overhanging balcony, however this was closed for the Ayers concert, which stretches the entire width of the club. The loft is a lounge with seating for over 100 and has its own separate bar. The Parlour, reachable from the main room and the front entrance, features a separate sound system, a separate dance floor, another bar, lounge seating and four pool tables.
Lonnie Liston Smith was the first superstar to shine, taking to the organ and backed up by The Ubiquity Band he proceeded to produce some eerie sounds, when combined with the lighting that cast a hot red glow over the stage. With a pounding, sensual beat driving the rhythm the crowd moved en-masse to the front of the stage. There were no chairs; it was a standing, swaying, motivated crowd. Bass player Donald Nicks, playing an electric bass in a classical style, laid down a funk pattern, a syncopated beat that the drummer played on top of at double time pulse. A dynamically energetic heavy rhythm section, that pushed each song with joyful abandon from beginning to end.
The second tune was very mellow, it had a calypso feel to it and Lonnie Liston Smith played the organ producing sounds similar to steel pans. The song made way for Bobby Humphrey, who played a Lionel Ritchie song "Hello" the song built in intensity spurred on by the boogie-woogie piano of Mark Adams. The next song was a remix of a 1973 classic "Hard Working" Humphrey has a nice flute style, she had great sustain and pulled off some very fast runs. On the last chorus, Humphrey took an extended solo that was very nice, well composed and set the mood for the next song.
At this time, Roy Ayers and Jean Carne joined Humphrey on stage. Lonnie Liston Smith had departed after his song to make way for Humphrey. The show progressed with The Superstars of Jazz Fusion making appearances by themselves or in various combinations. Ayers stayed on stage for most of the show, playing vibes, sometimes utilizing a single mallet technique and at other times a double mallet technique, as well as vocalizing. Jon Lucien was introduced to the stage for the sixth song, he was looking and sounding sharp. Dressed in a Rose coloured suit with black shirt he commanded attention, he is a crooner with a deep smooth voice. He sang and scatted in a very percussive style, playing off the bass player’s rhythm. The second number he performed was a Jobim number, a ballad that he sang with passion.
Jean Carne would come back out and sing her hit single of the 70’, "Don’t Let It Go To Your Head" as well as "Thank You" she brought out Vincent Wolfe, a Toronto native who assisted with back up vocals. Carne has a voice that reminds me of Tina Turner with some Donna Summer influences. Carne was with Earth Wind and Fire as a back up vocalist in the early 70s.
The instrumental component of the show took over at this point with the introduction of saxophone great Ronnie Laws of Earth, Wind & Fire fame. He would play soprano on "Well You Needn’t" performing a very elegant solo with some audience-supplied percussion. The full band was cookin’ on this number.
A highlight of the concert was Wayne Henderson and Laws, on tenor saxophone, performing together. Henderson on slide trombone, with an upturned bell similar to Dizzy Gillespie’ trumpet. Wayne Henderson is a multi-instrumentalist and producer/composer with a dynamic trombone style. Henderson was the leader of the legendary Jazz Crusaders and was responsible for many hit-recordings, since the group’s inception in 1961.
Henderson would also play the valve trombone. He has an energetic stage presence that picked up the pace, driving the audience to participate with some great vocalizing in "Keep That Same Old Feeling." The complete ensemble was on stage for the finale, they had the audience happy and near exhaustion. The combination of standing, singing, drinking, dancing, clapping and generally grooving to The Original Superstars of Jazz Fusion had taken its toll, the audience participation in the encore chant was mediocre at best. The Superstars of Jazz Fusion graciously came back to the stage for an encore number.
I look forward to many more fusion inspired shows at The Phoenix Concert Theatre. Thanks to the co-production companies and staff, especially REMG Productions on site promoter Neil. The fusion of the music of yesterday, today and tomorrow are what keep jazz alive.
Report by Paul J. Youngman KJA Jazz Advocate