Musical contrasts

If jazz - and all its various kinds - can be represented by a rainbow, all of the colours were on display last night…

(Hey. Gimme a break. Opening lines are hard.)

The evening started for me at 5 pm at The Rex, where I caught some of Michael Occhipinti's Creation Dream - his arrangements of Bruce Cockburn music. The album of the same name, which Michael released a few years back, is lovely, so I was glad to hear the music performed live. Don Byron, guesting on clarinet and tenor sax (he's also on the album) sounded excellent; the arrangements were lush, well played and enthusiastically received by the audience. Now, I'm biased - he taught me as a student at U of T - and I know I've said this before, but I feel as though Kevin Turcotte sounds better every time I hear him play. On one tune in particularl yesterday - a medium-tempo, one-chord vamp - I wondered how he would create interest in his solo. (When the harmony isn't moving, it's up to the soloist to create harmonic interest in addition to the usual melodic interest - sometimes a challenging task.) He started slowly, and then built an incredible solo, using the entire range of the trumpet, slipping from one harmonic center to another - he certainly met the challenge of creating musical interest, and my ears received a welcome trumpet-based refresher.

Next was Ikebe Shakedown, a Brooklyn-based soul/funk/Afrobeat collective. They've been to Toronto a few times - at The Rex; opening for Lee Fields at The Horseshoe - and their appeal became evident from their first groovy tune: this is dance music, and many in the audience were happy to oblige. Strong solos supplemented the original compositions - perfect music for a sunny afternoon.

From the Square I walked down to the Jane Mallett Theatre, hoping to pass a nice little coffee shop on the way for a pick-me-up espresso. I don't want to spend too much time on this particular issue, but where do people who work downtown get good espresso?! This is my sixth festival and I've still not really found anything satisfying. A first-world problem, to be sure, but at 7 pm, after not enough sleep, it certainly starts to feel urgent…

Where was I? Oh yeah. Music. It was Branford Marsalis' quartet at the Mallett last night. We would have preferred a larger crowd (it was respectable, but not full), but the musicians didn't seem phased when they walked on stage. In fact, Branford took a minute to chat with the audience, setting a relaxed tone for the evening. And somehow, the tune "Moon River" came up - I missed how exactly - and it became a bit of a running joke. They launched into "The Mighty Sword" - a take no prisoners, high-energy tune - to kick off the show, and "Moon River" worked itself into the melody and the solos. A good reminder that even though this is high-level jazz, they were there to have a good time. At the end of the tune, Joey Calderazzo needed a minute before launching into a more ballad-y number, turning to the audience and saying "It's like a hurricane!" For me, it was almost an antidote to a more "packaged" product that we sometimes hear on our festival stages - Branford's show featured four musicians leaving nothing on the table, and though there was obviously some planning and structure in play, the music I heard sounded gloriously loose and free.

Next up was Koerner Hall, where I caught some of the Radio Deluxe show with John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey and special guest Alex Pangman. The format of the show was relaxed - it was structured as an episode of Radio Deluxe and was recorded for future broadcast - and featured John joking with the audience, and an informal chat with Alex. John's quartet was swinging, as I would have expected, and it was a treat to hear Alex sing in that context. The house was nearly full, and every tune was met with enthusiastic applause. A stark musical contrast to Branford's show, to be sure, but still musically satisfying: tight, swinging playing, great solos, and lovely vocals from Alex and Jessica.

A quick subway ride got me back to the Square for some of Booker T. The crowd was larger than we had expected (always a good thing), and they were clearly ready to rock out. The little set I caught was a lot blues and a lot rock and roll, and the audience loved it. I got to hear him play "Green Onions", a tune I remember playing in high school stage band (never you mind how long ago that is now); I always find it especially cool to hear a tune played by the artist who first recorded it! I admit, though, that after Marsalis and Pizzarelli, my ears were not in the mood for wailing electric guitar; after their rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Hey Joe" I made my way over to the Jazz Bistro.

At the Bistro, Gord Sheard's Sinal Aberto was just about to go on for their third set…and they wasted no time getting into a Brazilian groove. Gord on piano with Will Jarvis (bass), Mark Kelso (drums) and vocalist Luanda Jones transported us to South America, working through a variety of Brazilian styles. These musicians have all seriously studied Brazilian music, and it showed - the various grooves felt authentic and natural. I had not yet heard Luanda, and was glad to get the opportunity; the music kept me bopping throughout the set. Add a nice little post-show hang and the day came to a satisfying end.

As expected, today's Lunchtime concert with Christine Jensen's Jazz Orchestra (with guest trumpeter Ingrid Jensen) was fabulous. I'm a huge fan of the Jensens. Christine's writing is lush, epic in all the right ways and fun to play (she guested with my big band - and her charts - a couple of years ago); Ingrid's trumpeting is technically acrobatic yet always melodic and interesting. Toronto is their fifth stop on a cross-Canada tour, and the band sounded fantastic as an ensemble; the individual soloists ensured that each arrangement was kept fiery. A large audience was in attendance, including a number of musicians - always, I feel, the greatest compliment to the artists on stage.

After the Lunchtime concert I was at The Rex for the first part of the Big Band Slam. The Slam is one of my favourite events each year - a chance to showcase younger jazz musicians in high school big bands from across the Greater Toronto Area. The students always have a great time playing on The Rex stage, the club is always packed, and it's a good time for all involved. This year's special guest is Kelly Jefferson; he'll play a tune or two with each band over the course of the afternoon. Our thanks to the Ken Page Memorial Trust for supporting the Slam (and many of our educational initiatives) and to The Rex for hosting the event each year.

I'm now back at the Square, where I had a number of administrative tasks to attend to, and did an interview for a German radio program (!). A little bit of free time awaits me now until 6:30, when Hilario Duran takes the stage with special guest Ignacio Berroa. And later: Dave Holland (et al) at Jane Mallet at 8 pm; Al Di Meola on the main stage at 8:30 pm; Duchess at the Jazz Bistro starting at 8 pm; and a late night jam starting at midnight. Complete listings here.

And, after what almost certainly will be not enough sleep, JUNO Award-winning Bobby Rice Latin Jazz Big Band will kicks things off tomorrow on the main stage at 12:30 pm. Tomorrow's complete listings are here.

See you on the Square!


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