Halfway? Really?

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Wed Jun 29 10:22am

Believe it or not, the conclusion of day 5 represented the halfway mark of the festival. Already! Here's how it went...

Alejandra Ribera started things off with a lovely set of music at noon on the Outdoor stage. The musicians were groggy after a late-night show in Montreal and an early-morning flight to Toronto, but any exhaustion was absent in their playing - Alejandra's characteristic voice was in great shape, and she was adeptly accompanied by Joel Visentin on piano and accordion, and Brian Kobayakawa on bass. She had the audience rapt with attention...until the skies opened up and the rain started to fall. I'm not sure I've ever seen 300 people move so quickly! The musicians were good sports, however; they continued to play to those who sought shelter, stopping only once the rain started to make its way onstage. So the show ended a bit early, but we still got to enjoy about an hour of music.

From Metro Square I made my way (stopping frequently to seek shelter from the rain) to The Rex to introduce the Big Band Slam and moderator Andrew Jones. The Big Band Slam was initiated last year and features the talents of local high school students - four Toronto-area high school big bands get together for an afternoon of low-pressure performance. It was a great event - a bit more on this later.

Just before 2 pm I returned to Metro Square for my Ken Page Memorial Trust workshop hosting duties. I was looking forward to my chat with Cathy Mitro about music education, and it ended up being a very interesting discussion. Cathy is an outstanding educator and administrator, passionate about education, and rightfully acclaimed for her work at Humber College. What started out as a conversation about whether jazz should be taught in a school setting ended being a detailed evaluation of what makes a good program, what kinds of support systems young jazz musicians need, where our current system is succeeding or letting our students down...we could have chatted for hours! What emerged over the course of the workshop is that there are some very complex challenges facing the jazz education system, but that for the most part we are well equipped to face these challenges; we need now to figure out how to balance the needs of the students with the needs of the institutions with the health of the local jazz community. You know, simple stuff (!!)...

And then it was back to The Rex. I have to say, it's a treat during the festival to see the biggest names in the jazz world performing live in Toronto. But something about giving students an opportunity to perform in an environment such as The Rex Hotel during the jazz festival - and sensing the energy and excitement they bring to the opportunity - is perhaps better than anything. Each of the four bands (from Bethune CI, Agincourt CI, Don Mils CI and Loretto College School) played their hearts out, and the audience showed their appreciation with lots of applause. Moderator Andrew Jones kept things light and relaxed, with positive reinforcement for all; everyone just seemed to get it - this was about celebrating music-making, celebrating young musicians, celebrating teachers...it was a fantastic, satisfying, energizing afternoon. Our thanks to all of the participants and to The Rex Hotel for being such gracious hosts.

The rest of the day was a bit of a flurry, and the recurring theme was "I wish I could have stayed longer...":

5:00 pm, Quotes - The Canadian Jazz Quartet with Scott Hamilton and Guido Basso. I couldn't stay long, but I was so happy to catch a bit of this show. I've always admired Guido's playing (I'm a trumpet player) and it was a treat to hear him in this intimate setting.

5:30 pm, Outdoor Stage - Kollage. One of the perks for me at this year's festival has been hanging out a bit with Archie Alleyne. He has achieved so much during his career - as a musician, an advocate, an educator - and he seems to not be slowing down any time soon. Which is good news for us. With Kollage, Archie carries on the tradition of great bop playing, joined yesterday by Alexis Baro (trumpet), William Carn (trombone), Michael Arthurs (tenor sax), Stacie McGregor (piano) and Artie Roth. They were on fire from the get-go; Michael Arthurs is a new player for me and I especially look forward to hearing more from him.

6:00 pm, Glenn Gould Studio - Vijay Iyer, solo piano. Vijay is one of the jazz world's most important pianists, so I was excited to hear him play. (He's also a great thinker, as was clear from our brief conversation backstage about jazz festivals...) This is one show, though, that I feel I needed to experience in its entirety to truly gain an appreciation for his playing. The tunes I heard varied widely - from an introspective ballad to the dazzling technique on display on Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy" to an East Indian-sounding piece complete with left-hand drone - and promised an interesting and stimulating night of music-making (later confirmed by a few of those in attendance).

7:00 pm, Enwave Theatre - The Bad Plus. I admit to an almost giddy admiration for The Bad Plus. I don't have many of their albums, but I've seen them live and have heard other live broadcasts, and they bring an energy and creativity to their playing that I find hard to resist. They met all of my expectations last night. Their music is entirely unpredictable, switching from quiet moments to all out rock at the seeming flip of a switch. Each of the musicians (Ethan Iverson on piano, Reid Anderson on bass and Dave King on drums) is a pleasure to watch, and they achieve a level of interaction that comes at only the most professional levels. This was fun, and I was sorry to leave; but as was the case with the shows on Monday night, I left satisfied.

8:00 pm, The Music Gallery - Gord Grdina Trio with Mats Gustafsson. This was another example of a concert I wish I could have seen all the way through. I don't know Gord's music well, but from what I've seen and heard I know that it can vary widely. He plays in all kinds of worlds - more straight-ahead jazz, free jazz, world music - and in the tunes that I caught last night this variety was on display: the group started with what sounded like full on, group improvisation, with the powerful tenor saxophone of Mats Gustafsson soloing first, then Gord on guitar, and then suddenly everyone dropped out for a great bass solo from Tommy Babin. The unpredictability of the music (and the quality of the playing) kept it interesting for me; I snuck out as they began their next tune with Gord on oud - it was clearly going to be a creative show.

8:50 pm, Koerner Hall - Jessye Norman. I wasn't sure what to expect from this recital from opera-superstar Jessye Norman. I knew the repertoire was to celebrate the great jazz standards and showtunes of the past 100 years, but how would an opera star handle this music? The setting was perfect - at 1100 seats, Koerner Hall still feels intimate, and the acoustics are outstanding. Jessye made us all feel welcome - it was as if we were in her living room - and during the four songs that I caught she made great use of her powerful instrument. "Stormy Weather" and a spiritual were very moving, her voice well suited to the emotion of both tunes; and with the "Mack the Knife" it was clear she was having fun. The audience hung on to her every note, and showed their appreciation with enthusiasm.

9:45 pm, The Rex Hotel - The Rex Hotel Orchestra. Under the direction of John MacLeod, the Rex Hotel Orchestra must currently be one of Canada's best big bands. A recently Juno award certainly backs up such a bold statement, but when one hears them live it becomes clear that the "proof is in the pudding". These 20 musicians sound outstanding as a unit, playing with great blend and dynamics, with fiery solos and excellent arrangements (with writing primarily from there fearless leader). The club was packed, and the band deserves the attention. I try not to single out musicians, but Al Kay's performance on "Laura" (which I've heard a few times now) is pretty unbelievable...

10:30 pm, Mainstage - Los Lobos. On such a busy musical night, with so much going on, I had to miss the opening band on the Mainstage double-bill, Los Lonely Boys. By all accounts, they were fantastic, and Los Lobos picked up right where Los Lonely Boys left off, quickly whipping the packed tent into a frenzy. The range of repertoire was impressive - blues, rock, country, Mexican folk, even Cancon ("Cinammon Girl" by Neil Young) were well-represented. They played a nearly 90-minute set and the audience had already been on its feet for a few tunes by the time they launched into "La Bamba"...it was a true party in the tent!

12:00 am, Quotes - Late night jam with the Stacie McGregor Trio. I finally made good on my threat of pretending to be a trumpet player last night and sat in on a couple of tunes with Stacie on piano, Artie Roth on bass and Archie Alleyne on drums. These three are not only outstanding musicians, but they are gracious as jam hosts, making each guest musician feel welcomed and encouraged. There were a few musicians out last night to jam, so there was a bit of a buzz in the bar; Robi Botos sat in on a couple of tunes and reminded us all why he's one of Canada's best (you can hear him on Sunday night on the Mainstage at Metro Square). This was a fun way to wrap up the day. The jam continues tonight and tomorrow night, so drop by, sit in, or just enjoy the music.

Here's my list for today:

I'm looking forward to another full day of music!

Josh