Koerner Hall is, most assuredly, not a club. Completed in 2009 as the centrepiece of the Royal Conservatory’s massive mid-2000s renovation, the venue’s plush seating, acoustic clarity and ligneous splendour have made it a major destination for all manner of art music. Unlike the venues normally covered in this column, typical club activities – hooting at the stage, drinking in one’s seat, posting shaky Instagram clips of instrumental solos with fire emojis in the middle of a song – are frowned upon, though still possible (other than drinking in one’s seat), with a little determination and disregard for concert-hall decorum.
Mainly Clubs, Mostly Jazz
Of the many experiences that point to our collective hunger for dependable post-lockdown life, none has hit quite so close to home for me as seeing post-secondary students get back to classes. Sure, it still feels like a novelty to watch maskless people thunking melons in the grocery store, restaurant patrons trying each other’s drinks, or a trumpet player mercilessly spraying the floor of a venue with spit-valve effluvia. But – as I experienced on an unexpectedly brisk morning in early September, walking across the University of Toronto campus for coffee with a friend – nothing quite says “we’re back” like overhearing two new roommates arguing about whether hanging a Quentin Tarantino poster would be “edgy and transgressive” or “you know, uh, maybe a bit much, like… politically?”
During COVID, we witnessed seismic changes on the club scene: closures, pivots, renovations, and rebrandings. For some organizations, the enforced and recurring lockdowns meant the end: time ran out. For others the lockdowns bought time for necessary rethinking and new developments.
Live music, it seems, is finally, reliably, and consistently back. Barring some unexpected, novel calamity (imminent asteroid impact? Lake Ontario bursting into flames?), this will likely be the last time that I begin my column with the obligatory nod to the pandemic that seemed so necessary throughout the last 28 months. To those who continue to read my pieces: thank you. There was a point, early in the pandemic, when I thought I was going to have to do something truly depraved, like going to law school and getting a real job; thankfully, that grim reality has not come to pass.
So, to the music.
On July 22, keyboardist Aaron Davis plays at Revival House in Stratford, as part of the Stratford Summer Music Festival. For those who may be unfamiliar, Davis has been a longtime fixture on the Canadian music scene, as a performer (with the likes of the Holly Cole Trio, Measha Brueggergosman and the band Manteca), an arranger (for the likes of Alison Krauss, Natalie McMaster and Eliana Cuevas), and a film composer with over 100 titles to his name. A newish resident of Stratford, Davis has assembled a compelling roster of musicians, including Ben Wittman on drums, Dylan Bell on bass, John Johnson on woodwinds, Lori Cullen on voice, Suba Sankaran on voice and keyboards, and Maryem Hassan Tollar on voice and shakers. With Davis’ deft touch on the piano and his penchant for nuanced, interesting orchestration, expect a compelling evening of music that evokes the best from his highly capable collaborators.
In some ways, it never left; though live shows have been few, Jazz Fest – like many of its festival counterparts – presented a variety of livestreamed events, and kept busy with community-oriented projects to support musicians and to deliver live performances to its audience. This year, however, Jazz Fest is back in full, with new artists, new stages and ten days of free outdoor shows throughout Yorkville, Victoria College at the University of Toronto, and Queen’s Park (in addition to a number of ticketed shows at venues such as Meridian Hall, Koerner Hall and Longboat Hall).
There are many pleasant aspects to writing this column: going to cool shows, getting to think about jazz professionally, having an editor who excises my most egregiously constructed jokes. One of the most pleasant, however, is developing an ongoing knowledge of the ever-changing activities of musicians who comprise Toronto’s vibrant jazz scene. New names start to become familiar as you see them pop up as side people with a few different bandleaders; established musicians start to play in different styles and their distinctive sound starts to grow in exciting new ways; veteran players undertake new projects and begin to collaborate earnestly with younger generations. A scene, as much as any individual performance, band, or song, is a multifaceted cultural text that invites spirited engagement, appreciation and criticism; one of the joys of Ontario’s reopening has been watching the local scene reconstitute itself.
Ewen Farncombe: to those readers who regularly attend live jazz shows in Toronto, is a name that will likely be familiar. A pianist and keyboardist, Farncombe won a prestigious DownBeat Jazz Instrumental Soloist award in the Undergraduate category when he was still a second-year student in the music program at Humber College. At Humber, Farncombe studied with the celebrated pianist Brian Dickinson, who characterized him as “definitely among the finest” pianists to have passed through the program during Dickinson’s tenure as head of the school’s piano department.