Blues, Gospel and Big Bands

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Mon Jun 23 9:36am

Between personal, professional and festival commitments, yesterday was a particularly full day.

The day started with a bittersweet family commitment (see: unveiling). My grandmother passed away last year shortly after her 95th birthday and yesterday's gathering was an opportunity to once again celebrate her life.

Given the morning's activity, it was fitting in some ways that the first show of the day at Nathan Phillips Square was a Gospel choir. Although the inspiration behind the Toronto Mass Choir comes from a different faith, I find their music is powerful, uplifting and in a way, for me yesterday, comforting. Plus they are fantastic. Forty voices singing in tight harmony, a five-piece band, and an absolute firecracker of a Musical Director. As my colleague Patti said to me, two tunes into their set, "They don't exactly ease into their shows!" This was high energy music from the first note, and the audience was perfectly happy to sing, clap and dance along.

From Nathan Phillips Square I went over to the Paintbox Bistro to catch some of Jazz for the Teach. When I got there, the first session, on jazz fundamentals and combo playing, was wrapping up with the jam session portion. I was impressed - clinicians Lisa Martinelli and Andrew Scott had more than half of the participants up on stage jamming with the house trio. I enjoyed seeing the teachers dive in - it takes courage to step on stage and take a solo; my impression is that for most of the teachers on stage, jazz improvisation was somewhat unfamiliar territory. I'm encouraged to see teachers seeking to learn more about jazz and how to teach it - I think it bodes well for their students.

After a short break, the big band from Cawthra Park loaded in; it was great to catch up a bit with their conductor Andrew Jones, a classmate of mine from the University of Toronto jazz program, a talented teacher and composer, and an all-round nice guy. Plus, the clinician for the big band session was Paul Read, who taught Andrew and I at U of T - so it was a lovely reunion of sorts. I had to leave shortly after introducing the session, but I know the participants were in good hands.

Next up was a rehearsal of my own - my big band's got a big show next Sunday night at The Rex (all Radiohead music!) and yesterday was our final rehearsal. I continue to be grateful for the (up to) 19 musicians who make each Toronto Jazz Orchestra project happen. They work their butts off to make the music sound fantastic and, suffice to say, we're not exactly getting rich playing in a big band. In the midst of a busy festival during which I am hearing lots of music, I welcomed the opportunity yesterday to help make some music.

The evening's festival activity for me got started at the Music Gallery for Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. I had been looking forward to this show since getting it booked a few months ago. It took a lot of work (see my previous posts re: contrabass clarinets and bassoon stands and such), but it paid off. Darcy's is some of the most creative and interesting big band composing being done anywhere these days, and the band includes some of the top musicians in New York City. After playing "Transit" (a personal favourite, and the only Darcy James Argue chart in my band's book) and "All In" (dedicated to the late trumpeter Laure Frink), they played "Brooklyn Babylon" in its entirety. This is a mammoth work, exploring a full range of musical styles, dynamics and instrumental textures; had I closed my eyes at times I could just have easily been at a contemporary classical music concert or even a parade. The band knocked it out of the park and the audience stood in appreciation, giving the band, the work and its composer a rousing ovation.

I wasn't sure where my next stop would be, but I knew it would start at Nathan Phillips Square. As I walked back to the Square, though, the day's schedule started to catch up with me - I felt my energy reserves starting to deplete. I had high hopes of getting to the Jazz Bistro and maybe even The Rex, but ultimately decided to stay put. Happily, Kenny Wayne Shepherd was putting on a heck of a show on the mainstage - this was authentic blues, much of which was of the 12-bar variety. It was kind of a no-frills shows - with a spare stage setup, the quintet relied on great music-making to keep the audience engaged. For me, it was a treat to hear music which was so directly connected to the history of blues - I admit to not having a lot of blues in my record collection, and it's rare that I get to hear live some excellent 12-bar blues. Their official set wrapped up around 10:45 pm, but the audience demanded more and they jammed until just after 11, with the audience on their collective feet the whole time.

And, after a good night's sleep, I'm ready to tackle today's schedule:

The full list, including the clubs, is here.

See you on the square!