Brilliant Performers Run Stylistic Gamut at Toronto Jazz Fest
Almost every summer jazz festival does it: book big-name non-jazz attractions from the worlds of pop, hip-hop, r&b, funk, even country and bluegrass, in order to broaden the audience demographics.
So it’s no surprise that this year’s sprawling, well-attended Toronto Jazz Festival, held June 20–29, featured popular artists like Willie Nelson, Boz Scaggs and Steve Martin with Edie Brickell alongside such major jazz acts as Bob James & David Sanborn, John McLaughlin and Gregory Porter. In fact, of the nine headliners appearing on the festival’s Main Stage over as many days, only three could be classified as bona fide jazz artists.
Yet, beyond the headliners, the festival ran the gamut from Dixieland to avant-garde and offered more than enough brilliant performers to warrant an extended visit to Toronto, including mesmerizing sets by organ virtuoso Dr. Lonnie Smith, pianist Bill Charlap and the duo of guitarist Ben Monder and tenor saxophonist Noah Preminger. This year’s program included more than 350 performances with over 1,500 musicians. One of the main attractions is the delightfully diverse and cosmopolitan city itself, in which most of the clubs and other venues are easily navigable via an efficient subway and streetcar system.
On opening night, Don Byron appeared at Toronto’s venerable Rex Jazz & Blues Bar. Byron, playing clarinet and tenor, led a quartet that included Canadian guitarist Michael Occhipinti, bassist Roberto Occhipinti and drummer Max Roach (no relation). An electric violinist, Hugh Marsh, joined them for the final two tunes. One of the great eccentrics in jazz, Byron bridges the gap between swing and the avant-garde. With his natty, checked sports jacket and white horn-rimmed glasses, there was something good-humored about how he blended old-fashioned tunefulness with more “outside” excursions.
Contrarian that he is, Byron’s set included Hank Williams’ “Lovesick Blues,” which he sang, complete with yodeling. “I was teaching some singers how to sing blues,” Byron explained by way of introduction, “and this is what I taught them to sing.” At first the Toronto crowd didn't quite know how to react. Byron seems to live for such consciousness-raising moments, however, and by the end the crowd was cheering. A similarly unexpected source was an old Bert Kaempfert song based on an African source, “That Happy Feeling,” which had the audience clapping along blissfully. The set’s finale was an infectious reading of Eddie Harris’ “Sham Time,” on which guitarist Occhipinti used a Leslie-type effect to produce a sound much like a grooving organ trio.
Down Queen Street a few blocks, a much larger crowd was reveling to Smokey Robinson’s vast catalog of hits at the festival’s Main Stage, a tent seating 1,200 in Nathan Phillips Square. Backed by a funky six-piece band with two keyboards, plus three singers and two dancers, the entire ensemble garbed in white, the show was as much Vegas as Motown. Yet there’s no denying that the man can still sing, and such songs as “Ooo Baby Baby” (1965) and “Cruisin’” (1979) demonstrated his stature as the original king of the slow jam.
Toronto’s deep pool of local talent was on display at dozens of events. Homegrown big bands performed every afternoon in the big tent. Toronto pianist and educator Dave Restivo, playing with quiet authority, backed another Toronto native, baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, at an outdoor gig in the Distillery District. Opening for Eliane Elias (see separate review), flutist Bill McBirnie proved a passionate and eloquent improviser, with sure-footed support from pianist Bernie Senensky. Their set included works by Antônio Carlos Jobim and Clare Fischer and a show-stopping finale penned by Senensky that he said was inspired by Hermeto Pascoal and Charlie Parker.
Dr. John and his latest band, the Nite Trippers, kept the tradition of Professor Longhair alive in a high-energy show. As usual, the ageless Doctor was the coolest dude in the house; his piano chops were deeper and wider than ever, and the band was explosively funky. Before his encore of “Such A Night,” he thanked a long list of accomplices, concluding, “And I’d like to thank Mac Rebennack, my personal assistant—80 years on the case.” (Considering that Malcolm John “Mac” Rebennack Jr. was born in 1940, the phrase “80 years” is an exaggeration.)
Jazz-fusion paragon John McLaughlin transmuted technical virtuosity into ecstasy in another memorable Main Stage concert. His remarkable 4th Dimension quartet included Cameroon’s Etienne Mbappe on bass, India’s Ranjit Barot on drums and vocals, and Gary Husband on keyboards and, occasionally, drums.
The amazing band Rudder, with Keith Carlock on drums, Henry Hey on keyboards, Chris Cheek on tenor and Tim LeFebvre on bass, tore it up at The Rex with their brand of loud and rude jazz-funk.
Fred Hersch turned in a sublime piano recital at the Enwave Theatre, a dramatic brick-walled performance space on Toronto’s Harbourfront. He displayed his sensitive touch and endless invention in readings of his own compositions, an atomized, rhythmic and harmonic deconstruction of Jobim’s “O Grande Amor” and a simple, gorgeous interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man.” In the end, Hersch showed that a single artist with a piano can have as much (or more) impact than a stage full of electric musicians.