Size doesn't matter

Submitted by Josh Grossman on Thu Jun 30 10:17am

Yesterday's lineup featured groups ranging in size from solo to big band, and each musician held his or her own, regardless of the number of players on the stage. Here's a rundown...

Chris Donnelly kicked off the day at noon with his Lunchtime Concert. Chris recently released a solo piano CD, and he was the only musician on stage for yesterday's show. Playing a 75-minute solo concert on any instrument is challenging both physically (no resting!) and artistically (choosing interesting repertoire), and Chris got it all right. He kept the audience interested with a great mix of tunes, ranging from Gershwin to Doug Riley to Oscar Peterson, and his creative soloing sounded fresh on each song.

At 2 pm, John MacLeod sat down with Jim Galloway for a Ken Page Memorial Trust workshop, to discuss his experiences as a big band leader. The conversation spanned John's career, from Dixieland arrangements in high school to his recent Juno Award win for Our First Set, his Rex Hotel Orchestra's debut recording. It was another stimulating and entertaining session - John has some unique insights into what makes him tick as a musician, and Jim Galloway drew out a variety of anecdotes (whilst peppering the chat with trademark puns).

A bit of downtime meant a chance to grab an Americano and some freshly-made mini-donuts at Little Nicky's Coffee, on Peter Street just south of Queen. I recommend it - both coffee and donuts (made fresh to order) were delicious.

At 5:30 pm, Batards des Bouches, a harmonica quartet from Montreal, took to the Outdoor Stage. Just four harmonicas - bass, chord, chromatic and melody. I couldn't stay long, but if their opening tunes - a Klezmer ditty then a bluesy waltz - were any indication, the audience was in for a treat. Our thanks to the Ashkenaz Foundation and Eric Stein for helping to put this show together.

From the Main Stage I sauntered (yes, actually) over to Glenn Gould Studio to catch the first couple of tunes from Kenny Barron, also playing solo piano. Kenny is a powerhouse player, and his outstanding bebop technique was on full display. I heard "Love Walked In" and then a Thelonious Monk tune, and the way he got around the keyboard was impressive. As with Chris Donnelly's noon-hour show, I didn't miss having bass or drums on stage - Kenny carried the show perfectly well on his own. It's been a treat this year to see some true jazz legends in action.

The next stop was the Enwave Theatre to check out Eliane Elias, whom I had never seen live. The group (Eliane on piano and vocals, Rubens de la Corte on guitar, Marc Johnson on bass and Mark Walker on drums) wasted little time establishing the intensity with which I imagine the whole concert unfolded: these were authentic Brazilian grooves, and whether the tempo was up or down, the tunes I saw had the perfect amount of edge - no sleepy playing here from anyone. Eliane was especially impressive in her soloing, Marc and Mark (a funky bunch!) provided the rhythmic propulsion and Rubens floated on top, adding a perfect colour to the music.

Shortly after 7:30 pm I hopped in a cab and sped over to the Music Gallery for the first group in a double-bill. Hat & Beard are Ken Aldcroft (guitar) and Dave Clark (drums), and the duo interprets the music of Thelonious Monk. I knew their set would be unpredictable, but I didn't expect Dave Clark to emerge in a white robe with what looked like a giant thimble on his head, I didn't expect the audience participation (clapping and singing along at Dave's request), nor did I expect Dave, at one point, to journey through the hall with tap shoes in his hands, tapping merrily on the church pews as he went. It may sound gimmicky, and maybe it was, but it was also very good. Ken is extremely inventive on the guitar, and he moved seamlessly in and out of Monk's melodies; I had never heard Dave play (his background includes The Rheostatics and the Woodchoppers Association) and I was impressed by the grooves he laid down and how good it felt, even when he was laying on the musical comedy.

From The Music Gallery I cabbed up to Koerner Hall to catch a few minutes of the Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo duo performance. I didn't see much, but what I did see was fairly fantastic. Branford's tone was gorgeous, and Joey's touch (in the tune I saw) was wonderfully reserved. Koerner Hall, with its outstanding acoustics, was the exact right setting for this show, and the musicians seemed almost to use the hall as a third instrument, allowing it to resonate, allowing their respective sounds to fill the space, without any amplification. I was sorry to not hear more.

However, I wasn't sorry for returning to the Music Gallery to hear Colin Stetson play. By the time the solo saxophonist took the stage, the hall was packed to capacity, and the audience was rapt for the full set of music. Now Montreal based, Colin has performed with a variety of musicians including Tom Waits, Arcade Fire, TV on the Radio and Feist, and he has developed a truly impressive technique on the instrument. During his set he switched between alto and bass saxophones, and on each tune he played the role of melody and accompaniment, using arpeggiated chords and even singing through the instrument while playing. I can honestly say that I have never seen anything like it, and I was spellbound. (Have you ever seen anyone circular breathe on a bass sax?!) The audience agreed, and leapt to its feet when Colin wrapped up, exhausted, after a 50-minute set. This was a highlight for me.

At this point in the day, the musician count was: three solo shows, two duos and a quartet. Sneaking out before Colin Stetson's encore, I made my way down to Metro Square, picked up my trumpet and checked out a couple of tunes from the Count Basie Orchestra. The tent was full, and the band sounded fantastic - these were the exciting lines, the tight horns and the swinging rhythm section sound which made the band famous 75 years ago. It was a treat to have a big band on the mainstage, a pleasure to see so many people in the tent enjoying some classic jazz, and an exciting way to celebrate the mid-point of the festival.

From the Mainstage I walked up to Yuk Yuk's for one of the shows I was most excited to see - comedian Reggie Watts. In the lead-up to the festival, I was frequently asked what a comedian was doing at a jazz festival. The answer, in my mind, is simple: Reggie Watts is an incredible improvisor, whether on the microphone, singing into his looping and effects boxes, or playing the keyboard. He brings to the stage all of the qualities that a great jazz musician brings: a great sense of timing, creativity and unpredictability (albeit with a fair bit more profanity). In last night's set (his second of the night), his stream of consciousness spanned everything from why we should buy local to why the recent film Green Lantern was awful to a song about "Lady Humans". And, when sang rhythms into his looping and effects boxes, he created some incredible rhythms, equal to the best DJs. The room was packed, the audience often roared with laughter and we made sure that he got a standing ovation.

The last official stop of the night was Quotes for the Stacie McGregor Trio and the jam session. I brought my horn along and sat in on a tune, which was fun but ever-so-slightly intimidating, as two of the Count Basie Orchestra musicians were in the room (including the band's leader, Dennis Mackrel). After a long show they were happy just to hang out, so didn't get up onto the bandstand, but it was an honour to have them there. As has been the case all week, Stacie and the trio sounded great, there were some excellent guest musicians, and when the session wrapped at 1:30 am there was a nice buzz in the room. Tonight's the last night for the jam; I hope you'll come out to help make it memorable.

It's entirely possible that after Quotes I made my way back to the Mainstage where some of my colleagues were hanging out with a couple of the Count Basie Orchestra musicians, it's entirely possible that some wine was consumed, and it's entirely possible that I got home at a fairly unreasonable hour. But, of course, that would all be speculation.

Starting today the musical activity slows a bit, but the quality maintains - there are fantastic shows today. Here's where I'll be:

I'm having a blast so far...

Josh