Jazz_Stories_1.pngPat 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.

Jazz_Stories_2.pngAnd 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!

Jazz_Stories_3.pngBotos 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

Jazz_Stories_Sidebar.pngHow did you end up on a label so quickly? When I was supposedly studying English Literature at university, I actually spent the majority of my time singing jazz with fellow student Will Rutter, a guitarist and kindred spirit with whom I’d roam the cobblestones of the North of England – along with Edinburgh, Paris and Amsterdam in our holidays – busking and hustling for gigs in pavement cafes. When we graduated we moved down to London together, a couple of wet-eared country kids with no concerts, no money and no contacts, and picked an area of the city a day…armed with an A-Z map, Will’s guitar and a fistful of demos recorded in a bedroom, we went into every pub, wine bar, cafe and restaurant and asked if they’d give us a gig.

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!

Nylon_Banner.jpgSing_1.jpgThe 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.”

Sing_2.jpgHampton Avenue: Just how did Debbie Fleming go from versatile vocalist to sought-after arranger and founder of a cappella group Hampton Avenue?

“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.

BBB-Jazz1.jpgDream 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.”

BBB-Jazz2.jpgCzech 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!”

BBB-Jazz3.jpgMcDonald met guitarist Roman Pokorny in the early 1990s; he put together a band for her and booked gigs.

“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.

2106-Jazz_Stories.pngDollars to doughnuts Amanda Tosoff will win jazz piano fans in a flash with her stupendously swingin’ version of Rodgers and Hart’s There’s a Small Hotel from 2013’s Live at the Cellar with Jodi Proznick on bass and Jesse Cahill on drums. But aside from the odd standard or bandmate’s original tune, most of Tosoff’s recordings to date have focused on her own original compositions, including 2008’s Wait and See which was followed by the prestigious General Motors Grand Jazz Award at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

Designed to showcase some of Toronto’s finest local jazz talent, the TD Discovery Series is a year-long initiative of music and educational performances created by Toronto Downtown Jazz, producers of the Toronto Jazz Festival, and supported by TD Bank Group. This year, Amanda Tosoff’s Words Project is the first of four TD Discovery Series Special Projects. It finds the pianist, composer and arranger echoing a welcome tradition in Canadian jazz and creative music: setting poetry to music with stunning results. As great as the sum of its parts, the project features the following artists: Felicity Williams, voice; Amanda Tosoff, piano; Alex Goodman, guitar; Jon Maharaj, bass; Morgan Childs, drums; Rebekah Wolkstein, violin; Amy Laing, cello. As is always the case, this will be an evening not to be missed, and advance tickets are highly recommended.

Amanda Tosoff is a daring improviser and gifted composer. Words, her fifth release, is a bold move, as evidenced by words taken directly from her website. “The desire to challenge oneself (and the audience) is a key component of the DNA of a true artist.” The concept of setting music to poetry was not planned; it was itself an improvised result of a composition exercise:

“One day I just decided to find a poem and write a melody to it – the song on the record called Owl Pellet by Tim Bowling. I had such a great time doing this that I decided to continue on with this idea, eventually choosing a bunch of poems that resonated with me. I have to admit that I hadn’t really checked out much poetry since high school, but this project has definitely made me more interested in poetry, and how poems can provide a great starting point for composition. They give you moods, images, emotions and phrasing to start with. I definitely feel that this has expanded my composition skill and also my approach to style. I really look forward to exploring this more.”

May the fans of William Wordsworth worldwide check out the opening track Daffodils – it is available for listening on Tosoff’s YouTube channel. Other sources of text include Canadian poets Carole Glasser Langille and Laura Lush and song lyrics from talented songsmiths (and members of Tosoff’s family), Melissa Mansfield and Lloyd and Ted Tosoff.

At first listen, and very much at the forefront of this project’s success, is vocalist Felicity Williams, a musician who shines consistently. Much admired within the communities of creative music, jazz, pop and beyond for her pure, unaffected sound, intense vocal range and endlessly inventive improvisational ability, the York University Music alumna has worked with a wide range of projects, from Bahamas to Hobson’s Choice.

“Felicity is amazing,” says Tosoff. “She’s such a great musician and was perfect for this project. As soon as I wrote the first piece I heard her singing it. I think it is her beautiful pure tone, but also, perhaps, her range too. I have to admit that when I was writing these pieces I was singing a lot to figure out how I wanted my melodies and phrasing to go. I think that her voice was most similar to mine in range and the way I wanted the melodies sung – so I guess I wrote these pieces for myself, but needed a fantastic singer to bring the songs to life!

Says Felicity Williams:

“Amanda found a way to make the music spring up through the words, as though both music and words were flowing from the same point of origin. I think that’s what you have to do when you take someone else’s poems and set them to music. If you make yourself receptive to the rhythm and the phrasing of the words themselves, you can get on their wavelength. And then you extend the creative process, by making something new.”

Amanda Tosoff’s Words CD release concert takes place at the Music Gallery on March 10 at 8pm, $20 or $18 in advance; and March 11 at 8:30pm at The Jazz Room in Waterloo.

Readers who find the setting of poetry to jazz interesting will want to check out a previous TD Discovery, the Sarah Yeats Project, a contemporary chamber jazz group that features the poetry of William Butler Yeats. With original music and arrangements by Sarah Jerrom, the featured poems are arranged for nine-piece instrumentation comprised of strings, woodwinds, brass and a traditional jazz rhythm section. This is a highly ambitious project and Jerrom invites you to join her crowd funding campaign to complete the recording of The Yeats Project through her Kapipal page: visit sarahjerrom.com.

Plugged-In Weston: Meanwhile, at galenweston.org you can find Plugged In, the latest recording from innovative fusion jazz guitarist Galen Weston (“Not that Galen Weston,” jokes his publicist, citing no relation to the current executive chairman and president of Loblaw Companies Limited). This Galen Weston, owner of a beautiful new recording studio called the Rose Room (roseroom.ca) has an extensive business background, although the music came first:

“I graduated from Humber College in 1997; they were nice enough to introduce me to jazz and ruin my life,” he jokes. “Prior to that I was rocking it out, two-hand tapping. I loved instrumental rock – Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, I was a huge guitar fan - then I got there and I had to learn all this vocabulary, speak this new language – but I fell in love with it.

I never achieved what I wanted to achieve in college – I wasn’t getting out there and getting to tour with Gary Burton – or anyone, for that matter. So I wasn’t sure what I would do because I had this desire to play jazz and fusion and that’s what I wanted to do, but my ability wasn’t in line with my desire at the point of doing it professionally. My reading was strong, so I would have been good enough to lose my mind in a pit band or something, but I was broke, too. Student loan debts meant that a good paying job for me at that time was eight dollars an hour at a gas station. And I wanted to stay in Toronto so I needed a job to make money.”

As a determined self-taught, self-made entrepreneur, Weston went from making 350 phone calls a day selling penny stocks to becoming RBC’s most successful rookie.

“The whole company came in and they made me talk about how I got so successful, and then the next day I quit, it just wasn’t me. I had enough money to pay off my student debt, but I needed another plan. I liked Lead Generation and working with the internet, and I really worked hard…seven years later, while the US market tanked, everyone wanted safe money so they bought annuities, and I had my entire engine set up for Lead Generation.”

Weston is considered a financial Internet marketing pioneer. His company AdvisorWorld.com has helped tens of thousands to obtain successful professional relationships with trusted advisors.

Success has allowed Weston to recently come back to music full circle, spending his time practising, writing and recording at the Rose Room Studio. The Galen Weston Band is comprised of David Woodhead on bass, Al Cross on drums, Matt Horner on keyboards, Richard Underhill on alto sax and appearances by Rick Lazar on percussion. The band’s beautifully produced Plugged In album has been slowly picking up steam online; Song For Daphne has been played over 136,000 times on SoundCloud as of this writing. As for gaining exposure in the Toronto music scene, unsurprisingly, Weston has a plan.

“I’ve always been thinking it’s hard to get Torontonians to music in general, it’s almost like you have to drag them out by the earlobe. So I thought, how do I get them there? I had to do something that opens me up to a theatre audience. I needed to make my show more theatrical – I don’t like speaking and I’m not very good at it – so this was kind of inspired by U2 and Pink Floyd – adding a visual element that people aren’t used to.”

On March 26 at the Berkeley Street Theatre, the Galen Weston Band will be appearing live – and animated! In collaboration with his uncle, award-winning animator Stephen Weston, the concert experience will take audience members to a world where “Fantasia meets Guitar Hero” and where the animations tell the story of the guitarist’s own journey, or as he puts it: “a tongue-in-cheek meditation on the struggle for identity in a genre-obsessed world.”

Kudos to the artists who take risks and the audiences who honour them with ears and cheers. 

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

2105-JazzStories.jpgOn an excruciatingly cold January afternoon Gene DiNovi welcomes me into his home and provides warm smiles and a pair of slippers. He leads me up the stairs, through the kitchen, proudly showing me family photos and art pieces he has collected through the years. We finally reach “the museum,” a spacious room busily adorned with framed photos and autographed posters, shelves full of sheet music and a grand piano.

Now 87-years young, DiNovi has been in show business for seven decades and has hundreds of stories to share: We talk about his new gig at The Old Mill on the first Tuesday of every month; on his triumphant career as pianist, arranger, songwriter and musical director; on working with Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae; sitting in with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker; recording with Lester Young and Benny Goodman; his native Brooklyn; a stint in Los Angeles; moving to Toronto.

But how did he get into this music in the first place? He takes a moment, stares ahead, and smiles as he remembers his first musical inspiration: “I heard a record of ‘The World is Waiting for the Sunrise’ which is a Canadian tune actually, by Ernest Seitz and Gene Lockhart. It was Mel Powell and His Orchestra – Melvin Epstein from the Bronx, who became Mel Powell. My brother Victor used to take me to the Paramount Theatre on a Saturday, or the Strand, or the Loew’s State Theatre. But I heard Mel there. Mel recorded that song a number of times with Benny. On this particular side he plays a solo which had three or four horns on it: Billy Butterfield on trumpet, George Berg on tenor, Lou McGarity on trombone and of course Benny on clarinet, Kansas Fields on drums, who I played with later. So I heard this piano solo, and it is, to me, the greatest piano solo I ever heard in my life. Mel Powell was very different from me – incredibly gifted guy. At 16-years-old he had it all together. He could play like Teddy, he could play like Tatum, he could play like everybody. Once I heard that record, that was it … and I’m still trying to do it,” he laughs. “I still get chills when I hear it!”

As for diving into the music:

“I started late, at 12 years old – the reason I got the start was, my brother would decorate houses in Brooklyn, and this guy, Frank Izzo, who was a very eclectic guy said, I don’t have enough money to pay you, can you wait? And my brother said, give my kid brother piano lessons. To this day I can’t really say if it was a good deal or not,” he chuckles.

Living in Brooklyn meant being a subway ride away from the seminal musicians of the day. “I used to hang out on 52nd Street, where you could stand in the doorway and listen to Art Tatum. You go to the next one, you listen to Billie Holiday. You go to the next one, you could listen to Red Norvo. There were six, seven, eight clubs. You could hear all of this on a summer night.”

At the age of 15 – 15 and a half, to be precise – he found himself on stage with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, a life-changing moment.

“This was at the Spotlight, in 1945. There was still a curfew in New York City because of the war. They would start playing at four in the afternoon. I would get a ginger ale and just sit there. By that time I was on the street so much the owners and the musicians knew who I was. Dizzy had heard me at one of the other clubs … eventually he was like an older brother to me.”

By his late teens, DiNovi became a fixture on the modern jazz scene, but before long he needed a change.

“You got to remember, this was the beginning of the bebop period, which was a terrible period from the narcotics point of view,” DiNovi recounts. “And I never understood it – why the hell do you want to do that? For me, the music was enough … . Working at Birdland a couple of years later on, I turned around and realized that everyone on the bandstand was a junkie but me. And I said, wow – I have got to get away from this – where can I go to play the music I love without being around this – so I ended up with Peggy Lee, the first singer I played for. Can you believe it? Never a note out of tune. Never a note out of time. She was one of the great natural musicians.”

DiNovi spent many years as a treasured accompanist and musical director to some of the greatest vocalists of the day: Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae, Mel Tormé, and most notably Lena Horne, with whom he worked from 1955 to 1963, and occasionally after that.

Composing and arranging: Studying with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco launched DiNovi on another arc in his career – composing and arranging. “He trained me, he trained André Previn, Nelson Riddle, Mancini, John Williams, Marty Paich, a generation of film composers. A lovable man, an Italian Jew who had to get out of there fast when Mussolini hooked up with the other guy. He ended up in Beverly Hills where he taught all these people. Can you imagine? You walk in and Villa-Lobos is in there or Segovia is there going over the fingering, you know? (laughs) It was heavyweight stuff!”

Living in Los Angeles, DiNovi started to gain respect as an arranger and musical director and worked on six specials for Gene Kelly. But the times they were a-changin’: “Things really dried up because this was a period where you could replace 65 guys with two synthesizers.”

DiNovi pauses to ask me if I want to hear one of his tunes that Carmen McRae recorded, and how can I decline? It’s titled “Boy, Do I Have a Surprise for You” (lyrics by Spence Maxwell) from the 1968 album, Portrait of Carmen on Rhino Atlantic. To the ears of this McRae fan, she never sounded better than on this majestic recording, which DiNovi also arranged and conducted.

After a memorable engagement with McRae at the Colonial Tavern for a week in 1971, DiNovi tells me, he soon found himself back in Toronto accompanying two other MacRaes – Meredith MacRae for two weeks, followed by two weeks with her mother, Sheila MacRae.

“So I lived at the Royal York Hotel for six weeks for the lowest rate in the 20th century! It was a couple of hundred bucks for the six weeks (laughs). ... So I said hey, I like it here in Toronto! It looks like New York in 1945. In L.A. you had to drive 50 miles just to have a cup of coffee with somebody. I liked the New York feel of Toronto.”

These days DiNovi still maintains an admirable performance schedule, appearing with clarinetist James Campbell, guitarist Andrew Scott and bassist Dave Young, to name a few. And at the end of our interview he melts my heart as he gracefully tickles the 88:

“There are three tunes always on my piano: Strayhorn’s ‘Lush Life,’ Harold Arlen’s ‘Last Night When We Were Young’ and ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’ by David Raksin – those three, you’re gonna go in the swamp if you don’t play them every week.”

To experience the magic of Gene DiNovi’s playing up close and personal, and to hear some of his famous stories, do not miss the opportunity on the first Tuesday of every month at The Old Mill’s Home Smith Bar from 7:30 to 10:30pm.

Stylianou JPEC-Bound: Some 70 years after DiNovi sat in with Gillespie and Parker, it isn’t uncommon for Toronto-based jazz artists to leave the nest and head towards the Big Apple. Vocalist Melissa Stylianou, formerly a fixture at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar, where she started out as a waitress and ended up a headliner, is a fine example. About the decision to relocate, she says:

“I did the Jazz and Improvised Music program at the Banff Centre in 2003, and many of the faculty and other musicians I met happened to be from New York. I came down to visit and to take some lessons and later received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to relocate here temporarily and study. I fell in love with the place and the people and decided to stay. I feel a real kinship with the large but still tight-knit group of musicians I play with and listen to here and find myself inspired to explore different musical directions as a result.” 

Stylianou performs regularly in New York City, especially at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, where she has held down a monthly residency for the past six years. Of all the venues in New York City, this casual, cozy and unpretentious spot is perhaps the most Rex-like.

“Toronto will always be my home, but New York is the source of much of my creative inspiration. Living in New York is an intense proposition. I’ve found I need to be really present all day long here: to navigate this crazy city and get where I need to go; ... to be aware of my surroundings in the interest of my personal safety, and to grab opportunities for connection with the people in my life. And being the parent of a toddler in the city adds some interesting elements  - what little time I have to work on my craft and the business of music is often squeezed into tiny cracks in my life.”

The silken-voiced Stylianou will be performing a concert titled “Everything I Love” at the Toronto Centre for the Arts on Saturday February 13, launching an exciting new series presented by JPEC (Jazz Performance and Education Centre).

“I’m really excited to be coming up to play this concert. Jamie Reynolds (my husband and musical collaborator) and I have been exploring the voice/piano setting since our first musical meeting in 2003, and we both love the intimacy and space this format provides. We’ll be playing repertoire which stretches from Fats Waller and Irving Berlin to Bjork and Annie Lennox, along with some of our original songs. We’ll be joined by my friend (and former member of the Melissa Stylianou Sextet back in the day!), John MacLeod on cornet and flugelhorn.”

The TCA JPEC series continues February 27 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts with “Justin Gray’s Synthesis” fusing Indian music and jazz, featuring Justin Gray on bass, Derek Gray on percussion, Ravi Naimpally on tabla and special guest Ted Quinlan on guitar. On March 5: “Jazz n’ Pizazz” with Jane Fair on saxophone, Rosemary Galloway on bass, Nancy Walker on piano, Lina Allemano on trumpet and Nick Fraser on drums. Tickets are $30 and $20 for students. Visit jazzcentre.ca for details.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

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