Ori's Stories: Jazz in the Clubs
“Kenny Barron has been one of my favourite pianists for 25 years,” says Mervon Mehta of the Royal Conservatory, recalling that it was pianist Danilo Perez who turned him on to the piano genius. “Danilo said to me that when he first arrived from Panama to New York he used to go and sit and watch the left hand of Kenny – how his fingers and his mind work, how he would play individual chords, melodies and percussion on the piano. So I listened more and more and realized that Kenny has a facility at the keyboard that very few have. He can play any style of piano from the past 50 years and he continues to sound relevant. On his new record he doesn’t sound like a 70-year-old guy playing like he did in the 60s – he’s playing for today.”
As part of the Art of the Trio series presented by the Royal Conservatory and curated by Mehta, Barron’s October 29 date at Koerner Hall is a double bill with gifted keyboardist Robi Botos. Born to a musical Roma family in Nyíregyháza, Hungary, in 1978, Botos is the winner of several international honours including the 2004 Montreux Jazz Piano Competition, the 2012 Festival international de jazz de Montréal TD Grand Jazz Award and the 2016 JUNO for Best Jazz Album of the Year for Movin’ Forward. Among other influences, Botos certainly echoes the school of Oscar Peterson, not only recalling OP’s dazzling technique but also his showmanship, treating each solo as an opportunity to knock it out of the park.
The Robi Botos Trio varies slightly from night to night. On October 29, he will be joined by two of the brightest lights in Canadian jazz: Mike Downes on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums. Says Botos: “The three of us have been playing together for a long time on and off in a lot of different musical situations. Working with Mike and Larnell is very easy. They’re both amazing listeners and willing to serve the music. This way it’s easy to keep things fresh and in the moment. We also recently recorded some of my original compositions. I’m really not into a lot of rehearsing because the best moments are always the unrehearsed ones. We do enough to make sure the compositions sound good and leave lots of room for improvising. That’s how jazz should be played I believe.”
Says Mehta: “I knew the only possible choice to co-bill with Kenny Barron would be Robi because they have a mutual admiration. I saw them interact at the Oscar Peterson 90th birthday celebration concert last year. I asked Robi then and he almost said no because Kenny Barron is such a huge hero for him, but thankfully he did say yes.”
With a gentleness of spirit that comes in handy for his brand of musical sensitivity, Barron is one of the jazz world’s living legends, winning just about every award possible – except perhaps a Grammy, for which he has been nominated nine times. While in his teens, he started out with Dizzy Gillespie in 1962 and worked with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Turrentine, Milt Jackson, Buddy Rich and Yusef Lateef before recording his first LP as leader in 1974. Since then Barron has released over 40 albums, an astonishing discography if you think about the ratio between years and releases. I asked him what some of his favourite jazz trio recordings are, and why:
“Ahmad Jamal, live at the Pershing Lounge. [At the Pershing: But Not for Me]. It sounds so tight and the way he uses space. He uses the other members of the band to finish his phrases sometimes. You think he’s going to play it and he doesn’t. It’s a unique approach and it always sounds very together. Then there is Tommy Flanagan. There are so many. One of them is an album called Overseas with Wilbur Little and Elvin Jones. It is the epitome of taste but for me, everything Tommy does is like that. That’s what I call the real smooth jazz.”
With regards to the trio that Toronto audiences will hear at Koerner on October 29, Barron reflects on his sidemen:
“I met (bassist) Kiyoshi Kitagawa when he first moved to New York from Osaka, Japan. He played around town with a lot of fine musicians like Winard Parker and Jon Faddis. He has been a part of my bands for almost 20 years now. I’ve known Johnathan Blake since he was seven or eight years old – his father is the wonderful violinist John Blake and we used to play together, so I watched Johnathan grow up. His first instrument was violin and he later switched to drums. He studied at William Paterson University in New Jersey right outside of NYC so I was able to hear him frequently.
“The three of us started working solidly as a trio about ten years ago, touring around the world and the US. It seemed time to make a recording of our time together so we went into the studio and came out with 20 songs in two days! That’s how Book of Intuition came about…Working as this trio doesn’t require hours of thought or rehearsal. I usually say here’s a song and let’s see what we can do with it and they do. I don’t tell them what to do – they respond and we go with it. They bring in music and make suggestions too. They push me.”
The “Art of the Trio” concert on October 29 is sold out but the series continues – November 19: Stefano Bollani Trio & Roberto Occhipinti Trio; December 10: Joey DeFrancesco Trio & Jensen/Restivo/Vivian Trio; April 1: Jason Moran and the Bandwagon & Alexander Brown Trio; May 13: Christian McBride Trio & James Gelfand Trio.
Fay’s Home (Smith): That being said, the notion of the jazz trio being an art is explored very frequently at the intimate Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill, thanks to the booking of Fay Olson and the loyalty of the owners to live jazz programming. I last wrote about Olson in October 2009 and since then she has not missed a week of booking local jazz talent at the Old Mill and elsewhere. Says Olson:
“Then-owner of the Old Mill Inn, Michael Kalmar, first gave me the mandate to enhance jazz programming at the Home Smith Bar toward his vision of it becoming a ‘first class jazz room’ at the beginning of 2009. The first thing I did was add Thursday nights to the schedule and book trombonist Russ Little with a trio for a ‘Jazz Thursdays’ residency that ran that whole year. I’d actually been on the books at the Old Mill Inn as a marketing PR consultant for a couple of years before that, helping promote shows Michael had scheduled into the Dining Room.”
A sought-after ticket each year at the Old Mill Dining Room is New Year’s Eve, which once again this year will be hosted by June Garber and her trio.
“She’s uber-talented, but I think the ideal NYE experience should be so much more than a great performance, and June delivers in spades. She has the kind of warmth and personality that make everyone in the room feel as though they’re attending a blowout house party. One of the staff said when June hosted last year that she treats everyone as though they’re her personal dinner guests.”
If you check out the Jazz Listings section you will see how difficult it would be for Olson to recommend just three shows to WholeNote readers…nevertheless, I asked her to try her best, to which she replied:
“When I’m booking the Home Smith Bar, my mission is to present a monthly lineup that ensures no matter which first Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday someone chooses to be there, they’ll be assured of enjoying jazz performance of the highest calibre, whether delivered by the best established artists or some of the most talented emerging artists on the Toronto jazz scene.
“Soooo, my three recommendations are by no means intended to place anyone higher on the October roster than anyone else booked, but here you go:
“On Thursday, October 13, the great drummer (and head of the Drum Department at Humber College) Mark Kelso presents his stellar Trio (pianist Brian Dickinson, bassist Mike Downes) but with a twist people don’t usually expect from Mark. His outstanding singing talents will also be on display. I first heard Mark sing a jazz arrangement of The Rainbow Connection with Brigham Phillips’ band a few years ago and was knocked out. I kept pushing him to make singing a bigger part of his act for the Home Smith Bar, so he finally did, and he’s great!!
“On Friday, October 14, the superb singer and musical theatre actress/singer Alana Bridgewater (she’s wonderful on June Garber’s new album, and a veteran of the Charlottetown Festival) makes her debut starring appearance at the Home Smith Bar. Alana has sung there before as the guest of an instrumental trio, but never leading her own ensemble (Scott Christian on piano, Henry Heillig on bass).
“Saturday, October 29 is a rare departure from mainstream jazz - a special blues edition of the ‘Year ’Round Jazz Festival’ when outstanding blues guitarist/singer Brian Blain relaunches his New Folk Blues recording lampooning life in the music industry (in collaboration with saxophonist Alison Young, Michelle Josef on drums, bassist George Koller and an ‘element of blues-tinged electronica’ by Joel Blain.”
One important thing to note, which distinguishes the Home Smith Bar from other rooms, is that there are no reservations taken. Seats are assigned on a first-come, first-serve basis, which appears to be working quite well! Glasses raised to audiences who respect, listen to and support trios everywhere.
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.
Toronto musicians have been cutting their teeth at Free Times Cafe for 35 years. That’s how long owner Judy Perly, a local hero to Toronto musicians and audiences alike, has been booking: since the early 1980s, over 12,000 evenings of music, more than 400 poetry readings, 500 nights of comedy and improv, 100 original art shows and nearly 1000 concerts of klezmer and Yiddish music.
Located just seconds from Kensington Market at 320 College Street, Free Times is a casual, inviting, warm restaurant and music venue. The live music is presented in the cozy back room, seating approximately 50. According to Perly, the much buzzed-about “Bella, Did Ya Eat?” Sunday brunch literally keeps her business alive. “It’s not unusual that we will do in sales more at the brunch than in the back room the entire week. The brunch averages 100 to 200 people a week. The reason it works is because there is nothing else like it – in the world!” Indeed this might be the only place on earth that has weekly klezmer and Yiddish music accompanied by an all-you-can-eat buffet, serving 50 items from smoked salmon and potato latkes to gefilte fish and blintzes. Bella’s Bistro, the front room where the Brunch is served, is sentimentally decorated with a variety of art including a large portrait of Perly’s mother, painted by Judy herself.
“I wanted to do something for my mother after she passed away. And the more connected I got with my mother, the better things got. My mother would always get the right ingredients – she worked very hard all the time. People say I work hard, but I say she worked way harder. She had a husband and three children.”
Growing up, the Perly family’s record collection contained everything from the blues and reggae to folk icons like Ian and Sylvia, Joan Baez and Buffy Sainte-Marie, as well as classic jazz from Holiday to Sinatra.
“The other connection I have to jazz is that late in their lives, my parents started following Dixieland jazz. My mother even made up this crazy dance! (laughs). In fact Jim Galloway played for free at my parents’ 32nd anniversary because he loved them so much …”
I pause to tell Judy about Galloway’s work for The WholeNote and his support for the Toronto jazz community, and she reminisces about the great jazz musicians that walked through her doors, especially in the early days.
“I would say the music started on a regular basis in 1982. The very first time was a year earlier, at an art opening. I was going out with a man who was a part-time bass player [in the] Sam Miya Trio – Sam and Roy Miya who were Japanese Canadians – and I was going with Sam. He played bass and Roy played piano. Then Sam’s nephew was studying at York University and he asked me, ‘Can we play on Saturday night?’ We had a very small room in the back in those days. So he started on Saturdays, and we gave him some food, and then other people asked. So many great musicians.
“If you scrape the surface of the Toronto music scene you will find a lot of people who started out at Free Times. We didn’t even have a stage. It was a lot of folk singers at that time. Tex Konig, Mose Scarlet. Ian Tamblyn, who is coming back here in September, he’s from Ottawa. Sneezy Waters is another icon. David Rea who played guitar with Ian and Sylvia. And then I hired a gentleman by the name of Michael Katz who used to bring all these musicians from the great folk festivals. Soon we were packed every night. We were one of the only places as there weren’t a lot of clubs like ours. George Koller was here all the time. Micah Barnes, Fern Lindzon, Brian Katz, Rob Piltch. We had a poetry series with major poets …
“But I have to tell you, the economics of jazz are hard. This is a small room and jazz audiences don’t spend a lot of money. They sit on a drink, it’s not a party night, it’s a little bit more serious, right? So I never really sought it out, but of course I always welcomed it, and the first time we had music it was jazz.”
But it wasn’t always easy, to say the least:
“It was a real struggle. And the downside to all of this where the music was concerned was that for quite a few years – five years I would say – I didn’t even enjoy the music. I just wished that it would go away! I was mean, I was nasty, I never was here at night. After I started the brunch I realized I could do $2000 to $3000 in five hours and the whole night of live music was $300. From a business point of view sometimes it feels like banging your head against the wall. But I didn’t have a choice – I tried to kill it and it wouldn’t die! (laughs) Isn’t that interesting that it just wouldn’t die. And of course, it’s because of the music that I’ve been able to go on, because as you know music is a healer. It makes you feel so good about everything, and you have those moments. Like any relationship there are the ups and the downs … and I realized that I had to change my attitude. I had to go through a spiritual evolution in order to do this because things weren’t going to go my way, and I had to deal with it. I’m happy that I was able to get out of that.”
Speaking of healing music, one of the series that Perly is most excited about presenting these days happens on the third Wednesday of every month called “Where Have All the Folk Songs Gone” hosted by folk duo Sue and Dwight. Covering classics by Dylan, Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and many more, this is a popular series in its fourth year that often sells out.
“People are practically in tears and they keep coming back! A lot of my brunch customers heard about it on the newsletter and once they come once, they are hooked!”
After all these years of hard work and determination, does she consider herself a success?
“I’ve lasted. I guess I’m sort of successful now, but I worked for nothing for years, and I cried for ten years straight! (laughs). Nobody helped me. They’d say, too bad, so sorry! I used to want to quit every day, then it was every week, then monthly and now it’s maybe once a year.
The thing is with me that I’m not coming at this with an agenda. That’s why the club has lasted. I’m a conduit – I allow other people to do things. My agenda is keeping my business going.”
Meet Judy Perly in person at the Ashkenaz Festival where she will be a featured guest, speaking on Saturday September 3 at 6pm on the Fressers Summit and a not-to-be-missed special demonstration of her potato latke-making on Monday September 5 at 2pm, including latkes!
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.
Pat Taylor, co-founder, with the late Jim Galloway, of Toronto Downtown Jazz, producers of the the TD Toronto Jazz Festival has stepped down this year, after 30 years on the job. Stepping in as CEO is Howard Kerbel, who has for nine years been a member of the eight-person TIFF (Toronto International Film Festival) leadership team, with a special focus on branding and marketing strategy. Taylor remains as a member of the programming team and an advisor to Kerbel.
“This transition will allow me more time to focus on strategic initiatives and allow Howard to develop one of the country’s favourite brands,” states Taylor in the official release announcing Kerbel’s appointment. “After 30 years at the helm, I have confidence that Howard has the passion to build upon this foundation and take it to the next level.”
What that “next level” will be is anyone’s guess. (After all, when TD Toronto Jazz started out 30 years ago, who would have thought it would end up with such places as the Second Cup at King and John, or the posh department store Holt Renfrew for that matter being listed as “official festival venues”? And how does a pop star headliner Sarah McLachlan at the Sony Centre or film star Kiefer Sutherland playing country at the Horseshoe fit into a jazz festival lineup? Taylor is refreshingly blunt. “Balancing the books,” he says. “Thirty years ago we were the only game in town. Now there are 21 jazz festivals in the GTA. Every concert hall has a jazz series. That’s what we wanted to see happen. In our mind, jazz is doing well in town. I’m not making a living as a musician but I’m sure it’s better than 30 years ago…”
As a musician trying to make a living now, particularly since the Internet took over the world, I’m not so sure about the “better” bit. As in many industries, the value of music has so drastically changed that as of the time of this writing, each play on Spotify equates to small fractions of a penny, and even the penny has been discontinued as physical currency due to its worthlessness.
Speaking of balance, the free outdoor shows of any music festival are crucial to the creation of new musical connections, for audiences and musicians alike. As unexpected as venues like Holt Renfrew and Second Cup are, it sure would be nice to see live music in these places all of the time, if only for the element of surprise that is so essential to jazz music. It’s fun to watch passerby reaction, especially when it’s with a smile and a head bop.
And if you’d like to get to know a budding musician, on Saturday June 25 between 2 and 4pm the Regent Park School of Music will help animate Nathan Phillips Square with musical demonstrations and interactive opportunities. Following the performances, the audience is invited to try out the instruments, or as it has become known, an “instrument petting zoo.” Perhaps best of all, Dave Clark and his Woodshed Orchestra will lead you on “a raucous, romping march” through Nathan Phillips Square. Not to be missed!
Nathan Phillips Square is once again the hub of TD Toronto Jazz, balancing paid and free performances throughout the festival. The lunchtime concerts at 12:30pm will introduce ears to a diverse offering, including the Toronto Mass Choir, Brian Barlow Big Band’s salute to Ellington at Newport with special guests Guido Basso, Dione Taylor and the Backsliderz and Jim Galloway’s Wee Big Band, directed by Martin Loomer. And an additional outdoor stage at Nathan Phillips Square will include jazz and blues performances during the afternoon and early evening, from the sizzling soul of Tanika Charles (Sunday June 26 at 2:30pm) to the disco-flavoured spun vocal sugar that is The Spandettes (Monday June 27 at 6:30pm) to charismatic blues brother Raoul and The Big Time (Saturday July 2 at 6:30pm), and…to a visiting artist worth highlighting: Welsh singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist Gwyneth Herbert (Thursday June 30 at 6:30pm) who will be making her Toronto debut.
I met Herbert unexpectedly, sharing a cab in Bremen, Germany, en route to the Canadian Blast concert at jazzahead, just weeks before writing this article and was blown away, both by her story and how she told it. (You’ll get some sense of this unique individual in the sidebar to this piece!)
In this crazy age of streaming music for fractions of pennies, my hope is that when Gwyneth Herbert performs her free June 30 concert (right before a Molly Johnson-Jane Bunnett double bill!), that all will sell out of CDs and merchandise. To support this music, all you have to do is show up! Look for ticket contests on the festival’s social media outlets.
Sometimes these ticketed shows can be priceless. Jazz piano fans should not miss Oliver Jones (June 28 at Jane Mallett Theatre), now 81 years old and still swinging his behind off. Beyond this, one concert that I would guarantee a good time or your money back will take place at the Opera House on Wednesday, June 29. Romanian super band Fanfare Ciocarlia opens for local band of heroes Lemon Bucket Orkestra. Do YouTube searches of both brilliant bands! Instant fanhood is guaranteed.
Finally, an exciting development at the Toronto Jazz Festival this year is the returning commitment to a nightly late night jam session at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar, hosted by local saxophone great Chris Gale nightly at 1am. Seen frequently around town as a sideman who sensitively adds just the thing to any musical situation, Gale has been hosting the weekly Tuesday night jam beautifully and inclusively. Please come out and support the jam session!
Botos and Barlow at PEC Jazz fest: Speaking of jazz jams that are worth the drive to Picton, reading up on various festivals that will take place in July and August, I stumbled upon the programming of the 16th Annual Prince Edward County Jazz Festival, which features a jazz jam hosted by the Robi Botos Trio, no less. I contacted PEC creative director, drummer/bandleader Brian Barlow to discuss PEC Jazz, starting with the success of these jam sessions.
“The After Hours Jam Sessions have been very popular” he told me. “One of the things that make our festival unique is that we encourage musicians to spend time in the county by providing them with multiple gigs over a number of days. It’s not unusual for a musician to have six or seven gigs in the five or six days they spend with us. This not only works out well for them financially, it also give them the opportunity to relax and get to know the county. Since they’re staying overnight, and there’s not a great deal to do in Picton after 10pm, they tend to come out to the jam sessions. Robi has done these often but not every year. Many of the mainstage Regent Theatre artists have come to the jam sessions, including Ellis Marsalis, Vincent Herring, Louis Hayes, Guido Basso, Ranee Lee and Chet Doxas.”
Prince Edward County is a magnet for people in the arts and they are all very supportive of each other, so the local audience tends to be quite hip and informed where jazz is concerned, Barlow tells me. “There are many fine jazz musicians living in the county and surrounding area. Guido Basso has lived here for over 35 years, and Belleville is home to the Commodores’ Orchestra, a big band that holds the record for being the longest continuously performing big band in the world, having been formed in 1928.” And the festival builds its audience from very early spring (as early as February in some years) with our Jazz Dinners and then in April “our TD Jazz Education Program that finishes up with a concert at the Regent Theatre. So the festival itself has an almost six-month presence in the county.”
A unique feature of this festival is that Prince Edward County is an island, forming a natural boundary to work within. “We usually have about 40 events at venues from the soft-seat Regent Theatre, to wineries, restaurants, pubs, community centres, churches (and church steps), a farmers’ market and a cemetery. We also have a Jazz Van that drives around the county putting on concerts.
The band is all acoustic with nothing to set up so they simply arrive, jump out and play a 45 minute set. Then they jump back in the van and drive to the next location. It’s very popular and some people spend the day following them from place to place. This festival is all about Prince Edward County and all it has to offer, from art galleries, to beaches, to wineries.
It’s also all about cultivating the future of the music. “Our programs for young musicians have been a main focus for us for many years now and will probably be the most important legacy of the festival” Barlow says. It begins with their TD Jazz Education Program in the spring, with four high school jazz ensembles chosen out of the many who ask to come each year. “This year we hosted 90 students. We tend to look for schools from the smaller communities where funding for music programs is not as readily available, but we do have schools from the GTA from time to time. We also like to have schools come two years in a row when possible. We find that the second year the students know what to expect and get in the groove a lot quicker.” And then there’s the “Rising Young Star” that is a feature of every August’s festival. “We receive applications from all across Canada and the chosen candidate receives a cash award plus the opportunity to perform each evening at the Regent Theatre with our mainstage artists. The RYS is also featured at our evening Jam Sessions and performs a concert of their own on the Friday of the festival week.” Many of these musicians have gone on to be professional players and several have come back to the festival as main-stage artists (Marika Galea, Ian Wright and Eli Bennett).
And then there’s their Young Jazz Series, providing paid concert performances for students in the post-secondary school system (UofT, Humber, York). Among several other excellent young artists, vocalist/pianist Hannah Barstow will appear, as well as versatile singer Kalya Ramu who can be heard around Toronto regularly singing not only jazz standards but also blues and rock with Angora, and winning folk in the duo Mermaid and the Bear.
From jazz as big brand to keeping the real thing alive, here’s hoping you, dear WholeNote reader, will come around the jazz clubs this patio season, get out and about, and spread the word. Without an audience, live music cannot live. And live music can’t be Spotified!
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.
Gwyneth Herbert's Toronto Honeymoon
You kind of got used to asking the tattooed, muscle-necked landlord if he’d mind turning down the racing while you played Fly Me to the Moon to the corner clientele who’d just tried to sell you a VCR on the way in, and invariably if the bar-owner didn’t offer us a gig they’d give us a drink on the house. At the end of one of these long, street-peddling days, I’d sipped enough Dutch courage to go into the legendary Pizza Express Jazz Club in Soho. The visionary manager there at the time, Peter Wallis, was famed for championing new talent – he gave Norah Jones and Diana Krall their first breaks in the UK. Fired up by my day’s refreshment, I asked to speak to the manager, and when asked if I had an appointment, I ordered a large brandy (which I’d never drunk before, but it seemed like it sounded sophisticated) and said, “Just tell him it’s Gwyneth Herbert.” When Peter arrived, I came clean and said that of course he had no reason to know who I was, but that I loved music more than anything and that I wasn’t looking for a gig, but any advice would be so gratefully received, and with shaky fingers thrust our little demo into his hand.
He gently but firmly explained that he received over 300 such demos a week, but, admitting that no one had quite approached him like that before, said he’d try to give it a listen. Within two weeks, Will and I were signed to his indie label Dean Street records, had the amazing vocalist Ian Shaw as a mentor and producer, and were recording our debut album First Songs and touring with Jamie Cullum and Amy Winehouse soon after. Jamie Cullum sang a duet on that record, it started getting some airplay and - riding high on their recent success with Jamie – it wasn’t long before Universal came sniffing and snaffled me up.
But you left the label to pursue life as an indie artist. Why? Having a major deal gave me lots of great things. The ability to work with exceptional musicians, a press profile, a new haircut…I’m so pleased that I had that opportunity as for so many artists it – even in the current climate – remains the holy grail. But it just didn’t work for me. I got signed so young and I soon found that it was my own stories that I wanted to tell, that didn’t fit in with the label’s marketing strategies and formulas. Much of the discussions had nothing to do with creativity and everything to do with finance – naturally, because a big label’s purpose is to make money. I’m also really grateful because it gave me something to kick against – I got signed so young before I had a clear idea of what I wanted to say and make, and it made me find answers through the questioning.
As an artist who frequently records your own compositions, what degree you fit within the term “jazz.” I grew up listening to jazz and blues. I’d sit and learn all of Billie Holiday’s phrasing and mimic Big Maybelle’s tone and try to feel Anita O’Day’s timing deep in my bones. As a tiny teen in an ever-so-English village in a totally different era, I’d hear and hold the heartbreak and the joy and feel it as if it was all my own. I still love those old songs – they speak of huge human experience in simple poetic language and they’re true and vast. And I love diving back into them now, from time to time, to see what they help me discover.
But now I live the miraculous life of a discoverer, a story hunter – finding and animating hidden stories, finding new ways to give them breath. There are melodies and rhythms everywhere, and the flavour of my work’s always informed by the music and language of the particular world it inhabits...There are seagull cries and pub chatter, there’s the rattle of a ship mast and the hum of an escalator. There are shanties and funerals and newspaper headlines. I do work with amazing jazz musicians in my band, and one of the wondrous things about playing with people with that sensibility is the improvisatory language they bring – there’s a push and a pull and then we navigate the journey together. It’s fresh and it’s a different kind of magic, every time.
And the British music scene in London and beyond? After 13 years in London, I’ve run away to the sea – I live on the beautiful south coast in Hastings. There’s a real buzz about this little town, people making things everywhere, skiffle and poetry and metal in the pubs, parades through the streets. I love coming back to London – my favourite club is the 606 in Chelsea which feels like an extension of my living room, an underground secret dive bar vibe with the most amazing international musicians both on the stage and hanging at the bar and some delicious nachos. Performing for me is like coming home, but I spend most of my time these days working on wonky art/music/film/theatre commissions in collaboration with sculptors and directors and clowns and communities all over the country and beyond…Today I was exploring the process of contraception through the medium of dance for a music theatre piece I’m writing with playwright Diane Samuels called The Rhythm Method. I have so many hats that are interchangeable on a daily, sometimes hourly basis – it’s exhausting and challenging but somehow each hat feeds the others and I’m constantly learning - as a performer, as a writer, and as a general human being stumbling through the world.
You’ve been to Montreal before but this is your Toronto debut, yes? This is indeed my Toronto debut, and I am so excited to be exploring so much more of Canada for the first time. I’m joined by the incredible percussionist and multi-instrumentalist Dave Price, and also my very newly wedded husband Ned Cartwright on piano – I have a feeling this is going to be a musical honeymoon to remember!
The fact that festivals are becoming as ubiquitous in Toronto as ways of collecting, and spending, frequent flyer miles, shouldn’t deter one from paying attention when really good ones come along. Over the past few years, SING! – the Toronto Vocal Arts Festival – has stuck to the task of shining the spotlight on the diverse world of a cappella music – including great visitors and top talents who grace the scene year-round. This year the fest will illuminate some of the best, including an appearance by veterans of the scene, the Nylons, as part of their Farewell Tour.
Founded in 1978 by Paul Cooper, Mark Connors, Denis Simpson and Claude Morrison, the Nylons became one of the most prolific collectives in the a cappella world. After 37 years, the only surviving original Nylon is Morrison, now 63 and ready to embark on semi-retirement, but not before an extended farewell tour that includes a SING! concert May 14 at the Jane Mallett theatre.
“When we began I was the youngest, now I’m the oldest – the mileage is beginning to catch up with my body. I find that the less I do, the more I enjoy it, and sometimes the less I do, the better I do it. That said, it won’t be over until about a year from now. We are taking the show across Canada and into the United States, so it’s a bit of an extended farewell, kinda like “I can’t miss you if you don’t leave!” (chuckles) It’s been a good long run. I can’t even think of many groups who have been around for this long. It’s been a great life – more than a living, more than a lifestyle, it’s been a life.”
It has been said that a cappella found the Nylons and not the other way around; but Morrison, who was working as a professional dancer at the time, recalls it thus:
“I remember Mark [Connors] saying to me, we’re going to form this a cappella group, we want you to be in it, and we’re going to go all over the world and be really famous. So Mark seemed to have an idea that this was going to take off, and we just kind of stumbled head over heels into this and never looked back. For some reason, at the time four guys singing a cappella was considered to be outrageous. We played fashion shows, parties, benefits, and word of mouth took off very quickly. We became media darlings here in Toronto. Fast forward to a couple of years later, we self-financed our first album which was self-titled. That went Gold in about a month and Platinum in about two months, so there was a market out there.”
Is there a particular recording you’re proud of?
“Our version of This Boy by the Beatles has got this breathtaking key change, and I remember the night we recorded it, thinking, I’m going to remember this night forever because I was dealing with an unrequited love, and all my pain went into that key change. Of course, The Lion Sleeps Tonight has been really good to us. One arrangement I’m personally proud of is O Canada which they still play in the schools! I remember we did a show on Canada Day on Parliament Hill, and at the end of it everybody joins hands and sings O Canada and it was like Kumbaya. I remember thinking, where is the energy here? Who died? So I thought, let’s do a version where there’s a beat to it. People seemed to love it. We did it at Game 6 of the Blue Jays World Series in 92, down in Atlanta, which was very exciting. We did a show recently where someone yelled out, ‘Do O Canada!’ and I said, ‘Well that’s a cheap way of getting a standing ovation!’”
Your reaction to the thriving a cappella scene?
“I’d like to think that we contributed to it somehow. So many people from that world come up to us and say, we owe this to you, because we probably wouldn’t have done it unless we had seen that you were able to do it, and it gave us the boldness to go for it. So that’s really gratifying to know that you’ve made a difference in people’s lives, that you inspired them.”
FreePlay: One such talent is Dylan Bell, who went on to produce and arrange for The Nylons. As Claude Morrison puts it, this man is “a bundle of talent, wonderful to work with and all over the place! Performing with four or five different groups, he’s like a moving target that’s hard to hit.”
Bell first heard the Nylons at age ten, then went on to become a Bobby McFerrin devotee and didn’t stop there:
“I still remember the moment I got my copy of Take 6’s debut record. I ran into our music room and said to my friend Kevin Fox: ‘Stop everything, and listen to this.’” Shortly after that, Suba Sankaran and I met at York University, where we were both members – and later directors – of the student-run a cappella group Wibijazz’n’. That was in 1993, and we’ve been singing together ever since. Kevin now sings with the Swingles, and Suba and I have since made a cappella singing the cornerstone of our musical careers.”
Partners in crime, Bell and Sankaran perform together as the FreePlay Duo, and I’m willing to bet that even the most ardent a cappella fan would be wowed by this act. FreePlay’s voices are as impressive as their arrangements, where Bach, bebop, solkattu and hip-hop harmoniously transcend cliché. Very much a modern group, they even add a loopstation to the mix in order to create a multilayered sound in live performance. With the help of various granting organizations, Bell and Sankaran have taken their act on the road, with stops in North America, Europe, East Asia, India and Africa.
One memorable highlight: “In 2013, we embarked on our first trip to Africa, specifically Nairobi. Mary Tangelder, Suba’s former jazz choir member and voice student, wanted to create a program to explore using music as a tool for cross-cultural communication and healing. Living in a multicultural environment such as Canada, we take cross-cultural enrichment for granted: in Africa, exchanges between members of different tribes or linguistic groups can be tense or even dangerous. As part of our workshop, we taught a simple vocal counting exercise, and as part of the cross-cultural component, we had workshop participants teach each other the exercise across languages. What seemed a simple exercise for us was novel for them: the idea of teaching your language to another tribe was almost unheard of, and was an eye-opening experience for all of us. One workshop participant, hearing about our workshops, came in from eight hours away, near the border with Somalia. Being from a strict Muslim sect, he had never made music before in his life, and the experience for him, he told us, was life-changing.”
“Well, to start, I had my Grade 8 piano in high school and took Grade 2 theory just so that I could have an extra subject in Grade 13. When I married my ex-husband (Gordon Fleming), he was one of Toronto’s major B3 R&B players, but couldn’t read a note. I became his copyist – so I became pretty adept at hand-writing music. Then Atari Notator came along, and I was so scared to get into computerized stuff, but damn it, it was so exciting! And suddenly, I thought, you know what? This would make the music far easier for singers to read. So because I had the computer, and I had the ideas in my head, I started to think about arranging more seriously.
“Actually I was motivated to put together another vocal group thanks to David Blamires. He had come home from a tour with Pat Metheny – he was touring with him at the time as a singer – and when they were in Holland of all places, he heard this fantastic vocal group, Take 6, and you couldn’t buy them here. He brought a tape back for me and I freaked when I heard them, I thought, that is the kind of harmony I want! And one of the first things I did was, I sat down and I tried to lift the six parts that they did of Quiet Place. I thought, maybe I could do this. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life. Hearing the outside parts was easy, but hearing all their little crunchy things in the middle – it was a trial but it was a joy, because it kind of honed my ear.
“So I put together a bunch of singers who did studio work and could read really well, and one of them was Emilie-Claire Barlow, Judy Tate’s daughter. I remember Judy said, ‘Why don’t you bring Emilie in?’ and I said, are you kidding? And she said ‘Oh no she really reads well!’ and I thought, well okay, let’s try her. So she worked out like a dream, and we would sit around my dining room table, all these people, Elaine Overholt, Laurie Bower, and we would just love to do this.
“I discovered Suba Sankaran and Dylan Bell through Phil Dwyer. I said to Phil, ‘You’re teaching up at York University and I’m always wanting to find people who can read and who like jazz harmony.’ He took me to see Suba and Dylan, they were only 19 years old, and they knew Tom Lillington because they were part of Wibijazz’n’ – they started that group. So they joined us.
“We had regular rehearsals, and our first concert was at the Music Gallery, before we had recorded, which was in 1996. It was kind of hard to get people out, as it is now. I had to do a lot of promotion and publicity. In 1997 we did our Christmas CD.
“By the time we were first written up in The WholeNote – 1999 I think it was – we had two concerts a year. It was happening, but it wasn’t something that hit the major population – jazz a cappella wasn’t really a huge thing. But for those who dug it, we were it. We did the crunchy harmonies – we’d hold a chord and it would be so great with sharp elevens and the whole damn thing and then there would be dead silence and you could hear everyone go ‘Ahhhh.’” (laughs)
The distilled version of the group, The Hampton Avenue Four, will be performing at the SING! fest. Also this month, Fleming is thrilled to be releasing a new recording, Back to Bacharach, featuring an all-star band led by all-star pianist Mark Kieswetter. But why Bacharach?
“I was at one of Laura Marks’ jams out on the east end. I got up and sang one of my all-time favourites, A House Is Not a Home, which I have been singing for years. It’s not jazz but it’s one of those songs that gets me right in my heart. Well, Maureen Kennedy was there, and she came up to me and said, ‘You know, that was really nice. I could never really sing Bacharach, because it’s really hard to do it well.’ So I thought, BINGO! I wanted to do another album, and I was looking for something that would set me apart from all the other great singers in town. There are so many who sing the American songbook like the phone book for God’s sake. But I have never fit into a slot. I’ve done everything from classical to rock ’n’ roll to country to R&B which is my heart and soul, and jazz. And this was like water off a duck’s back – yes, rangy, yes, melodic, but I could perform Bacharach with no problem. Since Dionne Warwick started off as my favourite singer, and later on Aretha Franklin, and both of them did covers of Bacharach, I thought Back to Bacharach. We recorded it at Studio Number 9 and the release is Thursday May 26 at Jazz Bistro.
For all the SING! listings visit singtoronto.com. May this festival, along with the Canary Pages, inspire YOU to sing, Toronto!
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.
Dream Barriers: David Braid’s artistry continues to find new directions, moving steadily forward towards the unexpected, fuelled by tremendous musical gifts. Fresh off a media appearance to discuss his role as composer for the Ethan-Hawke-starring Chet Baker biopic, Born to Be Blue, the two-time JUNO winner sat down for a one-on-one interview to discuss his latest project.
The project revolves around his 12th recording, Flow, which is on the Steinway & Sons label. Later this year he will perform in Russia, Norway, Scotland and Australia to support the album; this month he tours across Canada including a stop in Kingston on April 1 at St. Mark’s Church, April 4 at London’s Aeolian Hall and April 5 at Jazz Bistro in Toronto.
The new recording is a collaboration with Prague’s Epoque String Quartet. “We have a world tour coming up this year, and I really wanted to bring the Epoque Quartet to Canada, so we’re doing a cross-country tour.” But in keeping with the project’s genesis, it’s a tour that will feature three different quartets. “The first ten days are with [Epoque]; our last concert before they go home is at Jazz Bistro. Then I fly to Calgary on the sixth and pick up the Borealis Quartet, then central Canada with the Penderecki String Quartet. So I’m having a great time working with these amazing musicians and learning a lot about their world, and intermingling their music with my world.”
Flow is a unique departure from Braid’s previous efforts, and not only because of the instrumentation. Courageously conceived, the bold recording blends Western classical, folk, ancient and world music forms. Jazz, Braid’s musical home turf, is perhaps more evident in the spirit of the risk-taking than the sound. So will this effort net another JUNO nomination and if so, in what category? Braid does not seem to care, and that’s precisely the point.
“I found it very liberating to cut myself off from thinking in practical terms – to lose my identity as a ‘jazz pianist’ and just think about making a program of music that feels like it’s fresh and alive and not influenced by any practical decision, i.e. not being jazz, or classical. Not limited by the performance practices of a particular style. I just wanted to build something that was beautiful, that was artistic, that people could connect to.”
So why now for this change of direction? “Probably…with me growing increasingly frustrated playing in jazz venues where the sound is so ridiculously loud. I feel like I’m not performing at my best because I’m fighting to create energy. I found that collaborating more with classical musicians opened up the sonic playing field fully for me. I’m really interested in playing my instrument and making a good sound at the piano and using the full range of dynamics, which could be very expressive. I wanted to go back to acoustic fundamental vibrations: strings resonating in a room, piano hammers hitting strings in a room, and nothing that’s modified by technology. Revitalizing the beauty of natural sound.”
The actual catalyst though, he says, was Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010. The film recounts the experience of French backpackers, who in 1994 discovered ancient caves containing paintings covered by mineral deposits, which took thousands of years to grow.
Braid’s wonderment at the film is still evident as he speaks. “It turns out these paintings are 32,000 years old, the oldest art work in the world – twice as old as what was previously considered the oldest. And if you see these images, we’re not talking about stick figures or primitive ideas – these are sophisticated three-dimensional drawings with very contemporary ideas. There’s a painting of a bison with eight legs – one set of legs extended, the other closed– where else do you see a single image with multiple movements? It’s a cinematic idea– and they had the same type of thinking 30,000 years ago – they were explaining in the film that when you hold torchlight up to the images on the rocks, the flickering of the torch makes it seem alive and moving. It’s mindboggling…I had never even seen a film twice before, but I saw this film nine times! One thing that really came through for me was that art has the potential to be transformative. This film made me remember that art can have a much deeper, more fundamental, ancient purpose.”
In keeping with the theme of visual inspiration, Flow, which will be released on vinyl as well as compact disc, features a stunningly vibrant painting on its cover, courtesy of Beijing artist, Sophia Gao. Currently hanging in Braid’s living room, the work is fittingly titled Qi and will be on display with several other original works by Gao at Jazz Bistro when Braid and the Epoque String Quartet play on April 5.
Why did Braid choose the Epoque String Quartet to record with?
“The last couple of years, I played with a lot of string quartets in a lot of different countries, and although they are all great, with the Czech quartet, early on in our collaboration, we talked about recording. We had done a couple of demo recordings, and a pile of concerts in Prague. They weren’t sure if it was going to connect with audiences – we were playing in this jazz club in Prague, the Jazz Dock, and it’s a real jazz club – here we are with a string quartet and piano, and they were like – ‘I don’t know if people are going to like it, let’s see what happens’ – and people went nuts! I felt as though with them, I broke through my dream barrier in terms of making that special type of connection with completely fresh new music. We did two more concerts that tour and we had a similar, deeply emotional response from the audience which was kind of unexpected. With new music this is unusual and so it meant a lot.
“At one of the concerts, the Canadian culture attaché was in attendance and he said ‘I hadn’t seen a reaction like this before – Czech audiences are usually very critical, especially of new music.’ So that audience in Prague, which is the first place I put the program out for public consumption. These guys – all they do is play music. Three out of the four play in the state orchestra, really well taken care of, their families are musical royalty. When I wanted to do the recording, they just said, ‘We’ll just do it at the best recording studio at the Czech television station with the best engineer, we work there all the time,’ and boom, there it happened! So for many reasons, it just felt very natural to do it with these guys.”
Czech mates part two: Jazz singer, educator and impresario, Lynn McDonald, is no stranger to Prague herself; next month will mark her nineteenth visit to the Czech capital, where she has sung countless tunes and absorbed bountiful inspiration. On April 19 at 6pm, she will be sharing the stage with Prague’s star guitarist Roman Pokorny at 120 Diner (where in the interest of full disclosure I should state that I have a significant hand in the programming).
Lynn McDonald's Czech Connection continued from page 19
I asked McDonald about her connection to Prague and how she became such a loyal tourist. She was happy to share her memories:
“When a dear friend from Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic, died suddenly, I made it my mission to visit his homeland,” she recalls. “In Prague I felt more at home than I do in my own province! I never get lost. My biggest thrill is packing my music charts and going somewhere I do not speak the language. I smile at the band, I count the tune in, and then we communicate.”
The Czechs are not “touristic," as she puts it. “They make no effort to be phony or charming. Having suffered both Nazi dictatorship, ghettoization, and then Communist occupation, they are quite serious. However, Czechs form very deep and lasting friendships. I was sincerely welcomed in the 90s. It was rare to get a visitor’s visa and took weeks. They called me ‘Canada,’ saying ‘You must be Canada,’ when we met over the years. Back in my early visits to Bohemia, we would practise by candle light in small flats heated by coal, electricity being an ‘option.’ I swear all the musicians lived on nicotine and caffeine then. Oh, and Pilsen on a good day.”
“They often asked if I was a diplomat, a jazz ambassador. The jazz musicians at that time had all learned their craft in secret, behind closed doors, mostly from contraband recordings, which they still value. The Communists were pulling out and all kinds of Czech art was coming out of the alleyways and shadows into the bright light of day. Classical musicians were changing to jazz and playing, literally on the bridge all night. I was so exhilarated by the value put on freedom. The Czechs restored their beloved Prague to its former sixteenth-century glory, with new velvet and gold, recobbled streets and fresh paint and frescoes. Sadly in 2002, the Vlata River flooded its banks and destroyed much of their hard work. They started over. The Czechs are in a constant process of reinventing themselves; tirelessly healing, fixing, repairing.”
Over the past few decades, McDonald has become intimately familiar with the city’s jazz club scene, as well as the Praguers’ way of life:
“In Prague, there is a cover charge. People value art and come out seven nights a week to hear music, cuddle in the corner and relax. They are smoking less in the clubs today, if at all. Their homes are small flats so Praguers socialize in coffee shops and clubs.
“Czechs love the standards. They listen with their eyes shut, experiencing what they had only heard on recordings. I enjoy walking home at 1am, hearing my solitary footsteps on the cobblestones, feeling safe in the medieval narrow streets and the archaic gas lamplights. Sheer bliss for me. There is no physical crime that I have heard of. The odd beggar, but I always carry provisions for them.”
When she isn’t in Prague, McDonald proudly presents live jazz for people who want to listen; she currently books a series at the Jester’s Court in Port Perry:
“There is a no-talking policy. I was raised in George’s Spaghetti House, the Imperial Room, Café des Copains and Montreal Bistro, where there was attentive silence during the performances. That is why players like to come to Port Perry to be in my music series in the Listening Room at Jester’s Court. I pay them, feed them and guarantee an appreciative audience. People drive from Barrie, Peterborough, Oshawa, Bowmanville, Newmarket and Toronto to sit in a quiet reverie. Similar to the vibe in Prague, if you can believe it!”
“When I first heard Roman (romanpokorny.com) he was cranking out one blues after another at the Ungelt in Prague. His band, Blues Box Heroes, cleans up all the awards. The next night he was in a Latin band, Brazilian Mood, with Yvonne Sanchez. The third time I saw him he was playing like Grant Green in a fabulous jazz venue. Roman is a force of Nature on the guitar. Powerful and aggressive or tasty and delicate. A child in Europe is handed an instrument at four years of age and expected to practise daily for hours, for years. He did and it shows. During the height of Communist oppression he would ride his bicycle to the forest and practise alone or jam with friends, willing to chance getting caught, learning forbidden American jazz songs. Czech folk know that nothing is free and nothing comes easy.
“Roman is recording with a New York rhythm section and visiting me for a few days. Tuesday April 19 at 6pm as you know, we are at 120 Diner. But Jester’s Court (Sunday, April 17, 7pm) is in the works and also Blues and Brews at the Old Flame Brewery with Howard Ross and Dave Restivo. (Wednesday, April 20, 8pm).”
Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.