Dear rain…

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Wed Jun 25 9:58am

Obviously, someone didn't get the memo: there is to be no rain at the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Happily, some fantastic music carried us through the day despite the elements. Here's how my day went down.

The Amy McConnell and William Sperandei Quintet performed at noon on the mainstage. I can't remember exactly when I first heard them, but I've been huge fans ever since, and they put on an excellent show yesterday. They perform standards, show tunes and pop songs with creative arrangements, and they are experts at assembling a set list: they covered a broad range of territory in a broad range of styles. Amy's voice was in fine form, and it's always a treat to hear trumpeter William play. If I had one complaint - which doesn't seem particularly fair given the high caliber of the show - it would be that I didn't hear enough soloing from the other outstanding musicians on stage: Mark Kieswetter on piano, Roberto Occhipinti on bass and Mark McLean on drums. A great way to start off the day.

After catching up on emails (no baked goods search yesterday), it was time for Mike Murley's trio to set up on the acoustic stage for their 5 pm show. Here's where the elements started to wreak havoc. About 30 minutes before 5, it rained. Not for long, but enough to make the stage quite wet. As you can understand, musicians needing to plug in amps are a bit apprehensive about doing so in puddles. (Something about electricity and water not getting along particularly well.) As a result we had to do a bit of creative problem solving. My thanks to Mike, Reg Schwager and Jim Vivian for their patience and willingness to be accommodating. They set up around the corner from the acoustic stage - under the Nathan Phillips Square walkway - where it was sheltered and dry. And, as you can imagine, with three of Canada's top musicians playing together, the music was fantastic.

If the rain dampened my mood somewhat, it did so only temporarily - the evening's music was too good to keep me feeling lousy.

I started the night at KAMA, with more swinging music from the Canadian Jazz Quartet, this time with guest saxophonist Harry Allen. Harry was a standout in my mind from previous festivals and he sounded great last night. I especially enjoyed hearing him play Duke Ellington's "Cottontail" - I don't hear it often on gigs, and Harry included excerpts in his playing from the Duke Ellington Orchestra's recording: some of Ben Webster's solo, some of the sax soli, some of the band chorus. I'm not at classic swing gigs very often, so these nights are a treat for me.

Next stop was the mainstage tent for the Brandi Disterheft Quartet's opening set. I was able to catch only a couple of tunes, but what I heard was deep in the pocket, with excellent playing from Brandi along with William Sperandei on trumpet, Dave Restivo on piano and Morgan Childs on drums. As one of my university teachers used to say, "Not bad if you like that great playing great time great soloing kind of thing."

From the mainstage I went to the Sony Centre to catch some Earth Wind & Fire. While not a diehard EWF fan, I did not want to miss the opportunity to hear live their brand of funk, soul and pop. I was not disappointed. While it was a definitely a "show" - every minute detail felt slick and rehearsed, from the dancing to the lights to the blocking on stage - what it lacked in spontaneity it more than made up for in energy, musicianship and, frankly, fun. The Sony Centre was completely sold out, and the audience was happily singing, clapping and dancing along. Ovations were reserved primarily for familiar tunes but the place went wild after one particularly impressive vocal display by Philip Bailey - I'm sure I've never heard any man sing like that. I was a happy camper.

My next stop could not have been more different: the Jazz Bistro for some Jon Ballantyne solo piano in front of a disappointingly sparse audience. I enjoyed what I heard and wish more people had been there to hear it. Jon's approach is creative and unique, his proficiency on the instrument impressive. He played a mix of standards and originals; before playing "Freedom Jazz Dance", he took an extra beat or two at the piano, almost as if he wanted to be sure he started the tune as he had never started it before. I snuck out just as he launched into a stride piano version of a standard (I've forgotten which tune), demonstrating the variety of styles on display at the piano last night.

Back to the mainstage I went to catch about 30 minutes of Dianne Reeves' set. It took a total of one note from Dianne to get me hooked. I think hers is a special instrument. She sounds fantastic, but the quality of her voice is only one part of the Dianne Reeves package - her phrasing, the way she interprets melodies, her love of performing - these were all on display last night. Her new album is more on the R&B side of things than her previous work but she sounded last night as though she's always been singing in this style: whether she was singing a song about finding one's swagger after a breakup or Bob Marley's "Waiting in Vain," her approach remained intact. Geoffrey Keezer (piano), Romero Lubambo (guitar), Reginald Veal (bass) and Terreon Gully (drums) all grooved along with her - the tent was feeling alright under their guidance.

My final official stop of the night was the Horseshoe Tavern for the guitar duo of Nels Cline and Julian Lage. It was a smaller audience here too; those in attendance made the best of the space, sitting on the floor in front of the stage, creating an intimate setting for the show. As advertised, Nels and Julian moved back and forth between composed and improvised segments, though there was more structure perhaps than I had expected. (I'm not complaining, just remarking.) That these two guitarists are master craftsmen is no surprise; I particularly enjoyed watching their interaction. Julian especially had his eyes glued on Nels for most of the performance; even when they weren't making eye contact they were communicating beautifully, throwing ideas back and forth, trading roles (from accompanist to soloist and back again) and seeming to know exactly when to kick the music up a notch or when to wrap things up. After the show they were gracious and generous with their time, sitting on stage and chatting with audience members.

Now off-duty, I made my way over to The Rex Hotel, where Jamey Haddad was wrapping up a set with bandmates Billy Drewes (sax), Leo Blanco (piano) and Roberto Occhipinti (bass). The scene didn't turn into the epic jam session of the night before (which I heard about, but did not see), but I enjoyed the opportunity to chat with a few of our most hardcore volunteers, and a few musicians including Romero Lubambo, who is very funny and, apparently, a good negotiator: he managed to literally get the shirt off of the back of one of our volunteers. (He liked the shirt.) It was a relaxed end to a full day six.

Here's what's on today:

The full listings are here.

See you on the square!