Emerging, established, outstanding

As the days get busier, these posts might get shorter. Whether that's good news or bad I'll leave to you to decide…

Shortly after 5 pm yesterday we welcomed the Toronto Arts Foundation and their guests for a special reception and celebration for the Emerging Jazz Artist Award. Chelsea McBride, performing on the Outdoor Stage at 6:30 pm with her big band, won the 2014 Award; immediately prior to her show we announced the winner of the 2015 Award. The event was full of positive energy; Justin Gray and Mackenzie Longpre, two or three nominees, were in attendance (Tara Davidson, the third nominee, is currently in Europe), as were Cheryl and Manuel Buchwald, who have guaranteed a $10,000 prize for the Award for the next ten years. The jury's decision was difficult as all three nominees are deserving of extra support; ultimately it was Justin Gray who took the Award. Congratulations to Justin, and also to Mackenzie and Tara, who each come away with $1000 as finalists (also courtesy of the Buchwalds). The official ceremony was followed up by an outstanding performance by Chelsea McBride's Socialist Night School. Chelsea is a talented saxophonist who is already earning wide acclaim for her composing. The afternoon was a wonderful celebration of emerging jazz talent; we can expect great things from each of these artists in the future.

And thus began a night of running around.

The Robert Glasper Trio started about 10 minutes late (the Jane Mallet Theatre staff wanted to ensure that most of the sold-out crowd was in place before starting the show), and he was given a rock star's welcome - rousing applause, hooting and hollering - before even playing his first note. He quickly set the audience at ease with some witty banter, and they were off to the races. I was able to stay only for the first extended tune, but I enjoyed hearing Robert play on an acoustic piano in a more soloistic role. While his Experiment is more groove based, he seemed last night ready to stretch out on his solos, giving a better sense of his improvisational approach. Reports I've heard from the rest of the show have been enthusiastically positive.

After a "hitting every red light and oh I guess this street is closed" (grumble) cab ride to Koerner Hall, I plunked myself down for a few tunes from Kurt Elling's quintet. Now, if you've read my Artistic Director's Guide entry on Kurt, you know I'm biased - I think he's fantastic. And it took a total of one note to remind me why I so enjoy his work: his voice, the way he uses it, the way he interprets melody…it's masterful. Last night's show was more ballad-based, which meant in the three tunes I heard Kurt did not solo; but it also meant he had more room to work with the melodies and put his own personal stamp on them. The highlight for me was probably during a groovy arrangement of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name". The melody of that tune is fairly range-y; when Kurt went up to the top of his register the sound was glorious: big, full, unstrained. I was fascinated also to watch him as a bandleader - always in control, cueing his bandmates with subtle yet clear hand motions. This was a master class in singing but also musicianship in general.

Next stop was the tent, where I caught the first three tunes from Christian McBride's big band. This is a powerful band. Based on the repertoire I heard, it's style varies from tune to tune: while "Brother Mister" is imbued with funk and soul (it's a tribute to James Brown), Christian's arrangement of "Broadway" was just as swinging as the repertoire performed by the Count Basie Orchestra two nights prior. And while the Basie Orchestra was all about a particular sound, McBride's band last night was slightly less restrained. No less tight as a unit necessarily, but perhaps a little rougher around the edges, which provided for me a different kind of excitement - something more reminiscent say of the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, a hugely important influence on my development as a big band enthusiast. And kudos to Kelly Jefferson, local saxophonist extraordinaire, who was called yesterday at 1 pm - seven hours before the show - to sub in. I don't know exactly why he was needed, but I do know he jumped right it. Not only was he sitting immediately beside Christian McBride on the bandstand, but he had a big solo in the very first tune of the night. To hear him play, though, one could be forgiven thinking he was a regular member of the band - a testament to the outstanding talent we have in this city year-round.

My final stop of the night was the Jazz Bistro, where Phil Dwyer (covering sax and piano duties) was on stage with his son Ben Dywer (bass) and drummer Jim Doxas. I wasn't sure exactly when their show would be done and when he announced - as I walked in - that they were playing the last tune of the show, I was worried that I had missed it altogether. Happily, there was one more set to come; in fact, I met a friend there and actually sat, had a bite to eat and watched the whole set. Civilized, almost! Phil and Jim delivered everything I would have expected from two outstanding players; as I had never heard Ben on bass I was pleasantly surprised. He's a solid player who solos creatively no matter what the tune; it was his broken bass lines which I especially enjoyed. When combined with Phil's power and Jim's freedom on the drum kit the trio created a loose, playful feel which requires the highest level of talent to work well - and work well it did. A thoroughly satisfying set of music.

Attendance at last night's jam was a bit thin, but there were about a dozen or so musicians in the room which meant the stage rotation was kept consistent. It was nice to have some out of town guests stop by too: Robert Glasper stayed for a bit (but did not play - he had an early flight and is heading into a week at the Blue Note in New York); Quincy Phillips, the drummer for Christian McBride's big band, was also there and sat in for a few tunes. Jams continue Thursday, Friday and Saturday - complete details here.

Today's Lunchtime concert featured a double treat for me. The music was outstanding - Ian McDougall's 12-tet - and I got a visit from my family. Not to get too personal here, but I've been missing them more than usual this year: Adelaide starts kindergarten in the fall and Oscar, who just turned one, is exploring the world around him more than ever - so it's especially fun to be around them both at the moment. I was glad to have them on the Square today. (And Jeanette's pretty cool too.)

At a certain point during today's concert, Ian McDougall said on the mic, "This rhythm section is fantastic." I looked on stage - Reg Schwager on guitar, Don Thompson on piano, Neil Swainson on bass, Terry Clarke on drums. Fantastic is an understatement - that's probably the best veteran rhythm section in the country. And so it was with the rest of the band, too - some of Canada's top musicians. The music was excellent and brilliantly performed. I'm not that familiar with Ian's writing but everything I've heard I've enjoyed - it's unique and refreshing; his compositions and arrangements don't sound like anyone else's writing. As I said above - it was a treat to hear this ensemble in action.

If my calculations are correct, it's Wednesday - right? So that means: Michael Occhipinti's Creation Dream at The Rex at 5 pm; Ikebe Shakedown on the Outdoor Stage at 6:30 pm; Branford Marsalis at Jane Mallet Theatre at 8 pm; John Pizzarelli (and Jessica Molaskey with special guest Alex Pangman) at Koerner Hall at 8 pm; Booker T in the tent at 8:30 pm; and Gord Sheard's Sinal Aberto at the Jazz Bistro starting at 8 pm. (And more - full details here.) This is gonna be fun!

Tomorrow's going to start out on a great note too - Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra, with special guest Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, plays the Lunchtime concert, 12:30 pm in the tent. Christine's writing is fantastic, and Ingrid has long been one of my favourite trumpets players - so yeah, that's going to be a good one. (Tomorrow's lineup is here.)

See you on the Square!


P.S. - For all you people doing a word count: I said the posts might get shorter…

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