Mark Eisenman’s name doesn’t show up in the listings that much. In February, he popped up twice, both times as a sideman, and both times at the Home Smith Bar. Then in March, his name didn’t show up at all. This month, in the clubs listed here, he will be playing a whopping four gigs! One at Chalker’s Pub with his trio, in its original lineup – together for the last 27 years – with John Sumner on the drums and Steve Wallace on bass. One at the Home Smith Bar, led by Arlene Smith. And two back-to-back gigs at The Rex leading a quintet with John McLeod on trumpet and flügelhorn and Pat LaBarbera. And of course, the common thread between all these gigs will be Sumner and Wallace, bringing to the bandstand the irreplaceable chemistry of three musicians who have been playing together for nearly three decades.
I first heard Eisenman play in a YouTube video – which is still up – of Bonnie Brett (a name to keep your eyes peeled for!) singing “Comes Love,” along with Eisenman on piano, Sumner on drums, and Mike Downes on bass. From the video, you can, or at least I can, hear Eisenman thinking like an arranger as he plays: he exploits the wide range of the instrument exploring the various combinations of available textures, while tastefully inserting responses to Bonnie’s phrases which to my ear sound as though they are a permanent part of the song, inextricably linked to the written melody. In fact, I think that last phrase describes most of what you’ll hear at these four concerts. You’d better not miss them, because as I’ve said, Eisenman’s name doesn’t show up in the listings very much, so you might not get another chance for a long while.
When it comes to jazz, I think in general that singers are under-appreciated by instrumentalists. Their craft is brushed off as though it’s easy (it’s not), trivial, and frivolous, and I’m not too sure why. I’ve heard a lot of explanations for this: some people think a failure of music education has led to an overabundance of oblivious young singers; some people think it’s about sexism (jazz singers are women, more often than not); some people just think jazz voice is not a serious artistic pursuit. I don’t know the answer – but it’s definitely not the last one. All that said, I always try to make a point of promoting this underrated art form. So, keep an eye out for singers in the clubs this month; Coleman Tinsley, Alex Samaras, Alex Pangman, Jordana Talsky and more, will be gracing stages around Toronto throughout April, and you’d be a fool to miss them.
Within the deep pool of fantastic jazz singers who play regular gigs in Toronto, a personal favourite of mine is the theatrical and exciting performer, Whitney Ross-Barris, who will be playing an early-evening gig at Gate 403 on April 24. She will be joined by pianist Mark Kieswetter, whose ability to accompany with spontaneity, whimsy and sensitivity makes him a friend to singers everywhere (watch out for him this month in bands led by Coleman Tinsley, Rebecca Enkin and John MacMurchy, as well as at Chalkers Pub’s weekly jam). The duo has been playing this gig at this venue for five years now, and they still have not settled into the trap that is playing things the same way every time. “I love playing the Gate with him because we tend to do on-the-fly arrangements of standards that go to crazy places,” Ross-Barris says. “What results is a number of performances that both of us kick ourselves for never having recorded.”
The jazz scene in this city is teeming with talent and creativity. I can’t wait to get back out there and take in more of it, and I hope to see many of you In the Clubs, my southern-Ontarian friends.
Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org