Well, that was a pretty incredible way to start the festival...
Despite weather worries, logistical challenges and the adjustments required for a new venue, we got the 25th TD Toronto Jazz Festival kicked off in fine fashion last night. Two legends (one jazz, one soul) took to two different stages, and there was great music all night long.
For me, the evening provided a window into the varied jazz music that we can expect to hear over the next nine days. Most of the day was spent looking up, hoping that the weather would settle, and by the time I arrived at Quotes shortly after 5 pm, it seemed like we were in good shape. The Canadian Jazz Quartet (CJQ) was in full swing with special guest Harry Allen when I arrived, and it was a treat to see these musicians strut their stuff. The CJQ alone is a swinging crew - veterans Gary Benson (guitar), Frank Wright (vibes), relative youngster Duncan Hopkins (bass) and Don Vickery (drums) - and combined with Harry Allen's gorgeous tone, great time and masterful technique, the group had the near-capacity crowd roaring with each tune. I felt in some ways transported back to the swing era, especially with Harry's playing - where other players his age are challenging the traditional conventions of jazz, he is embracing the sound of great players of a classic jazz era: Zoot Sims, Ben Webster, Lester Young and more. His technique is no less impressive that his more contemporary-based colleagues; in fact it's the way he uses it - mostly reserved, and very "in the pocket", but with flashes of brilliance especially on up-tempo tunes - that was perhaps most impressive to me.
From Quotes I met up with my wife Jeanette and we crossed the street and entered the main "campus" of the festival on Metro Square. I know there were some challenges with getting everything set up in this new (to us) venue, but I think it looks and feels great. There is a real sense of a "hub" of activity, with the outdoor stage and tent side-by-side, and surrounded by a ring of food and merchandise vendors. The setup in Metro Square creates a sense of excitement and anticipation; I encourage you to make a trip down to King Street to experience it yourself.
We had some time before the evening's festivities got underway, which meant an opportunity to walk the grounds and meet up with people who, in some cases, I hadn't seen since last year's festival. I was reminded how much I enjoy that aspect of the festival - being in the same place with all kinds of people who are there for the same reason I'm there - outstanding music. I look forward to connecting (and re-connecting) with musicians and audience members alike over the course of the festival.
Finally it was showtime, and I have to admit that it was pretty cool to be giving my welcoming remarks on the mainstage to a packed tent and, looking out onto the square, the thousands of people who set themselves up on the lawn to watch the show on one of the big screens. I like to think my words were especially profound - and that's what got the rise out of the audience - but I'm fairly certain I could have said almost anything and got a reaction: people were there for one reason, and one reason only and, despite what my ego was telling me, it wasn't for me.
As Jordan John and the Blues Angels took to the stage, I slipped out the back and made my way to Koerner Hall. I didn't get a chance to see Dave Brubeck last year, and I wanted to make sure I saw him this time around. Brubeck has an open invitation to the festival, and each year our audiences welcome him with open arms. Koerner Hall was sold out, and the packed audience seemed to hang on his every note. The rhythm section swung, Bobby Militello provided some fire on alto sax, Dave's son Matt added an interesting colour with his electric cello, and Dave played in the classic Brubeck style - reserved but full of colour. His soloing may have cooled over the years, but he is still able to get an impressive array of sounds out of the piano, covering the full range of dynamics, moving easily between one-finger lines and full-chord, two-handed passages. They wrapped the show with the classic "Take Five", and the audience was quick to show their appreciation.
So - from the Swing Era to Cool Jazz, now it was time for some soul. By the time Aretha Franklin took the stage, the crowd had filled Metro Square and was spilling out onto King Street. We were all there to experience a live performance by the Queen of Soul, but we weren't totally sure how it would go. A recent health scare meant she had to take several months off from her performance schedule and, though she started touring again a few months ago, there was always the possibility that she wouldn't be her old self.
She put that to rest pretty quickly, I would say.
Performing a broad range of repertoire - from classics like "Freeway of Love" and "Natural Woman" to tracks from her most recent CD and jazz classics like James Moody's "Moody's Mood for Love" - Aretha showed that she still has an incredible voice. What stood out for me - apart from her voice - was her control. She knows this repertoire so well; the tunes started, ended, got louder and softer exactly when she wanted them to, and she knew exactly when to sing - and when to let her outstanding backing music take over - for greatest effect. The performance ran for 90 minutes straight, which can be challenging to the stamina of many musicians, but she didn't let up for one minute, taking only a brief pause about halfway through (while the band played on). Special mention should be made about the backup band. Although Aretha brought a core of musicians with her, the horns and two percussionists were all local musicians - a testament to the talent we have in this city. On little rehearsal, these musicians sounded as if they've been playing this music for years; as a trumpet player I recognize too that this was a hard show to play: a lot of long, loud, high passages. It was a pleasure to see so many familiar faces on stage.
At the end of the show, Jeanette and I looked at each other and realized that there was one song she hadn't performed. "Respect." How could Aretha Franklin not perform "Respect"?! And then I realized, I just saw Aretha Franklin. Live. For free. And she was awesome. A performance of that one extra tune couldn't really have made it more awesomer. (Wait...awesomer?)
As Tyler Yarema and his Rhythm kicked off their late-night set on the outdoor stage, I walked Jeanette to the subway and made my way to Quotes, where Richard Whiteman's trio was hosting the late-night jam. It had been a while since I last saw Richard play, and it was a treat - he sounds great, and his bandmates kept things swinging. He also did a great job keeping the jam part of things moving, sharing the stage with the various musicians who made their way down. The jam continues tonight then Monday through Thursday.
My last stop of the night was The Rex Hotel, where I caught the last bit of the groovy Triodes, with special guest trombonist Ray Anderson. The group sounded good, with Michael Occhipinti on guitar, Paul Neufeld on keys, Roberto Occhipinti on electric (!) bass and Doan Pham on drums; they kept the late-night crowd grooving until after 1:30 am.
So - swing, cool, soul, blues, funk...that's my report on day one of the festival. I'll do my best to write daily; though some entries may be shorter than others, depending on the amount of sleep and number of refreshments which accompany each night's activity. Here's what's on my list for today:
- Mark McLean's Playground, 12 pm on the Outdoor Stage at Metro Square (free!)
- KPMT Workshop with Jim Galloway's blindfold test of Ted Quinlan, 2 pm in the HMV Store at Metro Square (free!)
- Gord Sheard's Brazilian Jazz Experience, 5 pm at Quotes
- Jim Galloway and Friends, 5:30 on the Outdoor Stage at Metro Square (free!)
- Dave Holland Quintet, 7 pm at the Enwave Theatre
- The Average White Band/Stax!, 8:30 pm on the Mainstage at Metro Square
- Sparks, League & Thomas, 11 pm at The Rex
- Late-Night Jam, hosted by the Stacie McGregor Trio, 10:30 pm - 1:30 am at Quotes
For a complete list of today's activity go to our home page, www.torontojazz.com. I hope to see you on the square!