So far so good

If my typing looks a little jumpy, it’s because I’m bopping along to the Freshkills Collective and Junia-T, part of our Groove and Graffiti festivities at Nathan Phillips Square…

It’s Saturday already! And although this is only the third day of the festival, it’s been a hectic week - it feels more like day five. Tuesday night Tara Davidson kicked things off with a special preview concert at the North York Central Library with her trio; Wednesday night was the annual Player’s Party at The Rex which, as house band host Terra Hazelton said, feels like “Jazz Christmas” - a wonderful celebration of the outstanding musicians who make great jazz music in this city all year round.

The festival officially opened Thursday night, and much of the focus was on Jane Mallet Theatre, where we celebrated the 90th anniversary of the birth of Oscar Peterson with a very special concert featuring two members of Oscar’s quartet - guitarist Ulf Wakenius and drummer Alvin Queen - along with special guest bassist Christian McBride and local piano hero Robi Botos filling some very big shoes on the keys. The music itself was outstanding - some of Oscar’s most well-known repertoire, played with enormous energy, passion and mastery - and, though it sounds cliche, there was something special in the air that night. To have four musicians on stage so connected to Oscar, with his daughter Celine’s occasional commentary, with the photo montage being projected…I think everyone in the room, if they didn’t feel Oscar’s presence when they arrived, certainly felt it by the time they left.

Friday morning started for me at 8:40 with an interview with Radio-Canada (more French…ish…). After a morning at home I came down to Nathan Phillips Square for our opening night party. I’m not going to lie - walking onto the Square each year for the first time is a thrill. An enormous amount of work goes into setting up the square - a 1200-seat tent does not go up on its own - and somehow the whole thing all comes together. By the time I arrived, most of the wristbands for the evening’s performance had been given out, but it was hard to tell exactly how many people we were expecting. I spent some time walking around the square, taking it all in, doing a quick interview on JAZZ.FM; once Dumpstaphunk took the stage at 5 pm we began to realize the night really was going to be a party. The band set the funky, groovy tone from their first note, and the Square slowly started to fill. Morris Day and the Time followed at 6:30; by the time George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic took to the mainstage at 9 pm, the Square was absolutely packed. Pfunk did not disappoint - for almost 120 minutes straight they kept the audience dancing, hands in the air, playing hits from throughout the collective’s 40+ year career. We wanted a party…and we got a party.

I ended the night at the Jazz Bistro for the first of six Festival jam sessions. The crowd was sparser than we would have preferred, but the trio - under the direction of drummer Morgan Childs - did not hold back. Eventually a few musicians showed up, including Steve Nelson; he’s in town playing vibes with the Renee Rosnes Quartet and was happy to sit in for a tune. We look forward to growing the jam over the course of the week - be sure to come out. Tonight, then June 23, 25, 26 and 27, all at the Jazz Bistro starting at midnight. It was a late night, but it felt good to have the festival truly underway.

I started the day today at noon at The Distillery District, where Norman Marshall Villeneuve’s Jazz Message took to the stage at noon for a show dedicated to the late Archie Alleyne, who passed away only a few short weeks ago. (Full disclosure - a goof on my part meant we had to change Norman’s show date - and the show time of tomorrow’s Jorge Miguel set - and I appreciate the grace with which Norman and Jorge worked with me to get new dates and times lined up.) Norman is a Canadian jazz treasure, and any opportunity to hear him play live is a treat. The sun was shining, a nice crowd was on hand, and the band was swinging. Plus, good coffee was readily available (I mean, I had to buy it, but it was worth it) - many of the elements of a good start to the day.

From The Distillery I made my way to Nathan Phillips Square for Tyler Yarema’s Lunchtime Concert. He and his bandmates were right in the pocket, playing an enjoyable mix of swing, blues and New Orleans sounds; saxophonists Richard Underhill and Allison Young were featured prominently. I always enjoy hearing musicians who completely understand the style in which they are playing, and Rich and Allison nailed it…and seemed to be having a blast while doing so. Lunchtime Concerts continue daily now until next Saturday in the tent at Nathan Phillips Square - 12:30 pm, free admission. And now I’m enjoying our first ever collaboration with Manifesto, featuring some of Toronto’s hottest emerging hip hop and r&b artists while Mediah, Elicser and students from Central Tech create a graffiti mural (all part of our annual Groove & Graffiti activity).

The rest of the day looks promising too - the Shuffle Demons, Tower of Power, Renee Rosnes, more late night jamming…complete listings are available on our website.

As the title says - so far so good!


P.S. - I’m going to do my best with my festival blogging this year, but the entries might be a bit more sporadic. I’m going to reserve my mornings for my family (because, no offence, I like them better), so entries will be created whenever I’ve got a few minutes throughout the day. If you’re not already on our email list, you can sign up here for daily updates on what’s happening at the festival.

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