At time of writing I am about to officially enter summer mode, which for me means less cello playing and fewer classical pursuits, and more time spent with my folk instruments - guitars, mandolins and accordion. I am pleased to have found several new releases which fit this summer sensibility. The first is Europa, which features local guitarist/vocalist/songwriter George Grosman and his band Bohemian Swing (www.georgegrosman.com). The disc takes us on a whirlwind tour of European capitals with original songs such as Budapest Café, Sarajevo Waltz, The Thief of Bucharest, London in November and Cole Porter’s I Love Paris. Accompanying Grosman on this adventure of love, loss and remembrance are violinist Jonathan Marks, trumpeter Ian MacGillivray, accordionist Fabrice Sicco, upright bassist Abbey Leon Sholzberg and a host of guest artists. Despite occasional moments of naïveté and political incorrectness the project is a clever and compelling portrait, presenting stories almost as film vignettes, giving us both the lighter and darker sides of some of the great cities of the world. You can catch Grosman and Bohemian Swing in a live performance at The Rex on July 10 at 3:30.
A little further afield is the primarily instrumental ensemble The Black Sea Station, which grew out of the North End Klezmer Project in Winnipeg. Founding members Myron Schultz (clarinet), Victor Schultz (violin) and Daniel Koulack (acoustic bass), all alumni of the seminal klezmer band Finjan, are joined here by Toronto-born renaissance man Ben Mink (violin, mandolin, mandocello) and Moldovan accordionist Nicolai Prisacar on the rollicking Transylvania Avenue (www.blackseastation.com). The self-described “combination of original compositions influenced by traditional styles and traditional songs set with contemporary arrangements” very effectively conveys the band’s respect of tradition while placing them firmly in the 21st century. Highlights for me include the food oriented My Dinner at Schwartz’s and At the Café Sambor and three Romanian melodies combined to make Nine-Eight, the concluding Trance Sylvanian Waltz (with Sabarelu) and March of the Shikker with guest vocals (well, mutterings really) by Geddy Lee. Although the band’s only summer concert date was in June at the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, I’m hoping they will tour again soon – perhaps a return visit to next year’s Ashkenaz Festival?
If you are reading this on the first day or so after publication you may still have time to get down to Metro Square for what is bound to be one of the highlights of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival – a performance by the original members of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones on June 30. Fleck’s banjo-led quasi blues band is in fine form on their latest release Rocket Science (EOM-CD 2133 www.eonemusic.com) with Howard Levy on harmonicas and piano, Victor Lemonte Wooten on electric basses and Futureman (Roy Wooten) on “drumitar” (a synthesizer of his own design) and acoustic drums and percussion. All of the tunes are original – in more ways than one – with Fleck and Levy taking most of the writing credits, but a particular treasure is Futureman’s The Secret Drawer, surely one of the most eclectic “drum” solos in the realm of popular music. Other favourites include Fleck’s Gravity Lane, Falling Forward and Bottle Rocket and Levy’s Joyful Spring. If you miss their live performance this disc will go a long way to explaining what all the fuss is about.
Of course the Toronto summer music scene does not exclude classical music and this year we have seen the addition of the Capital One Black Creek Summer Music Festival with its eclectic offerings rivalling those of Luminato. But the backbone of the classical summer remains the Toronto Summer Music Festival which gets under way with a gala performance featuring Kirill Gerstein at Koerner Hall on July 19. While the festival’s theme this year is “Beethoven and the Romantics” and Gerstein’s repertoire for the concert reflects this – Beethoven’s last sonata and Liszt’s iconic B minor – I was pleased to find that the 2010 Gilmore Award-winning pianist’s inaugural solo album Liszt – Schumann – Knussen (Myrios Classics MYR005) also includes some 21st century fare. The disc begins with Schumann’s Humoreske, a weighty work belying its title. Gerstein’s performance brings out both the thoughtful melancholy and the moments of whimsy inherent in the work. Oliver Knussen’s Ophelia’s Last Dance was commissioned by the Gilmore Foundation for Gerstein in conjunction with the $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award. Based on earlier fragments intended for but not used in his Third Symphony (1973-74), Ophelia’s Last Dance is a 2010 reworking somewhat reminiscent of Debussy at his most contemplative, but with an expanded tonality firmly rooting it in the music of our own time. Gerstein’s personal take on the Liszt sonata is very effective, beginning in near silence and then bursting to life to hold our wrapt attention for the next half hour. I expect the audience at Koerner Hall will be similarly enthralled.
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