There is a conventional narrative about a musician’s career trajectory, perpetuated in television and film: in the US version, the talented young musical artist plays progressively bigger stages, from high school talent shows to local clubs to Madison Square Garden, or Carnegie Hall, or the Grand Ole Opry, depending on the genre; and at the conclusion of the hero’s journey, we are left with an image of our protagonist as having arrived, as it were, on their rightful stage, never again to play in a venue smaller than an aircraft carrier.
Such unidirectional narratives, of course, are fiction, even for prominent popular acts – think John Mayer playing Blue Note Tokyo this past holiday season, or Foo Fighters’ late drummer Taylor Hawkins using his downtime from touring to play in a cover band in his hometown of Laguna Beach, or artists like Flo Rida making a living playing corporate events. But like most fictions it has more than a grain of truth to it. Even in jazz, in which stadium shows are uncommon, the opportunity to see a popular, mid-career touring artist in a club setting, rather than a large soft-seater, is rare.
The Cellar: When I was still in high school, growing up in BC, there was no venue that seemed more central to the Canadian west coast jazz scene than The Cellar Jazz Club (now defunct, though its spirit lives on through proprietor Cory Weeds’ Cellar Live label). A bistro with a strong kitchen and bar program, The Cellar felt somewhat like the Blue Note in New York, or like Jazz Bistro here in Toronto, with a programming emphasis on hard bop, funk- and blues-inflected jazz, and more open, modern music. In high school, I saw a number of exceptional international artists there – musicians that seemed to have no business being in a venue of that size.
The Jamaican-American pianist Monty Alexander played there with his trio, smiling through a stellar straight-ahead performance that seemed perplexingly effortless, when compared to my own juvenile instrumental exertions. Joey DeFrancesco was even more mystifying to me; playing in the classic organ trio format, with guitar and drums. It was unfathomable that a musician could play both bass and single-note lines at the tempos that DeFrancesco routinely played at. A bit later – during my brief time at Capilano University, before I left for Toronto’s mild winters and affordable housing market – I saw Chris Potter’s Underground band, with Adam Rogers on guitar, Craig Taborn on keys, and Nate Smith on drums. (I confess to having spent the show with a Zoom recorder hidden under a menu, in an act of artistic service to a saxophone-playing friend of mine.)
The Jazz Bistro: I share this with you to properly express my delight at the prospect of seeing Brian Blade and The Fellowship Band at Jazz Bistro on February 7, 8, and 9, with Jon Cowherd on piano, Melvin Butler on tenor and soprano saxophones, Myron Walden on alto saxophone and bass clarinet, and Roland Guerin on bass. It is unlikely that many WholeNote readers will be unfamiliar with Blade, given his prominence within the jazz community. Born in Louisiana, Blade developed his musical skills in the Baptist church of which his father was pastor, before attending Loyola University in New Orleans (where he first met Cowherd). Since his emergence onto the scene, he has built one of the most impressive careers within the industry, performing and recording with Wayne Shorter, Joni Mitchell, Chick Corea, Brad Mehldau, Norah Jones, Daniel Lanois, Sarah McLachlan, and a near-endless list of other world-renowned artists. Through it all, the Fellowship band has continued to perform and develop, since their first recording on Blue Note in 1998.
The appeal of Blade is very easy to discuss with those who have heard him play live, and somewhat difficult to describe to those who haven’t. Blade performs with a kind of earnest, joyful presence that is a delight to witness. Combined with his enviable command of dynamics, his grasp of idiomatic jazz language, and his capacity for thoughtful, open improvisatory interaction, his playing seems to be just as captivating to his fellow performers as it is to audiences. In the process of writing this article, I spoke to a drummer friend of mine who, at the age of 14, had a transformative experience listening to Blade when he (my friend) was just beginning to listen to jazz, and just beginning to really think about what it meant to make music on the drums. The magic of Blade’s drumming, my friend said, was that all of the qualities that he appreciates about Blade – the dynamics, the interactivity, the tone, the seemingly spontaneous waves of sound – were somehow just as apparent then as they are to him now, some twenty-plus years later.
Jazz is a complex music that, often, requires some aural development to start to understand; it can take a little while to “get it.” To play with the kind of musicality that is just as compelling to a newcomer as it is to a seasoned listener is truly special.
Cross-border collaborations: There are several other special shows that will be happening in Ontario this month and next, with an impressive amount of cross-border collaboration. From February 7 to 10, at The Rex, New York-based saxophonist/clarinetist Don Byron will be taking the stage with the Michael Occhipinti Quartet, along with Occhipinti on guitar, Rich Brown on bass, and Jinu Isaac on drums.
On February 17, at the Jazz Room, in Waterloo, catch vocalist Angela Verbrugge with another New York musician, pianist Ray Gallon, backed up by the rhythm section of bassist Jon Maharaj and drummer Morgan Childs. And back at The Rex, playing a run from February 21-24, Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop is joined by the American saxophonist Joel Frahm (who now lives in Nashville, though most of his career was spent in New York).
Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer, and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, and on Instagram and Twitter.