Mainly_Mostly_1.jpgJazz jams can be a beautiful thing. To my mind, if a jazz jam is working as it should (as, for example, it does every Tuesday at The Rex), everyone involved should be primarily interested in three things: making good music, respecting each other, and above all, having fun. To me, fun is the launching point for everything. If you don’t have fun playing your instrument, you won’t have fun practising it. If you don’t have fun practising or playing, no one will have fun listening. Look at Oscar Peterson’s face. Was he having fun? I rest my case.

But unfortunately, and this is no big secret, some jazz jams can foster an unfortunate atmosphere of tension, intimidation, and competitiveness, which destroys the fun and undermines the spirit of the music. Artists of all sorts should absolutely care about the quality and integrity of their art. But at the end of the day, it is just art. When petty concerns of quality and integrity eclipse art’s purpose (whatever it is), that, to me, is tragic.

Luckily, the active jazz jams I am fortunate to regularly attend in this city evade these troubles. Generally they are welcoming and accepting of instrumentalists of all levels and walks of life – instrumentalists being the key word here; there has always been a sort of self-imposed segregation between vocalists and instrumentalists. And for reasons I don’t have the space or time to discuss here, it can be difficult for a vocalist to find a jam where they are welcomed and not underestimated or relegated to the sidelines.

Lisa Particelli was acutely aware of this, as most jazz singers are, when, more than a decade ago, she founded GNO: Girls’ Night Out (where gentlemen are welcome, too). GNO Jazz began its ten-plus-year run at The Cabbage Patch, a now-defunct pub that was located on Parliament St., where the Flying Beaver Pubaret existed until property damage forced that venue to close this past summer.

Although GNO has recently included a house band complete with piano, bass and drums, when it started on Parliament in January, 2005, the house band consisted only of Richard Whitehouse on piano. Within the first year, Peter Hill took over on piano, and after sitting in on several sessions, Ross MacIntyre became the official bassist.

As GNO grew, the jam – and the community which sprang up around it – cycled through a few venues, including Ten Feet Tall (defunct), Dominion on Queen (currently closed for renovations), and many more, before settling on Chalkers Pub on Marlee, seven years ago.

Chalkers: It was during GNO’s run at Chalkers that Lisa Particelli was able to establish a scholarship fund to encourage and help young vocalists achieve their artistic and professional goals. Chalkers was also, during this time,  a venue that hosted jazz greats like Oliver Jones, Jason Marsalis and Sheila Jordan – whom I had the great pleasure of meeting when I ushered for two of her concerts there. (In addition to being a genuine and adventurous performer, she is one of the sweetest, most infectiously charming people I’ve ever spoken with.)

The aforementioned Oliver Jones, incidentally, is indirectly responsible for the Chalkers piano. If you have seen, heard, or had the good fortune to play the wonderful piano on the Chalkers Pub stage, you have Oliver Jones, Don Thompson and Lisa Particelli to thank: “Oliver Jones’ attendance at my jam helped me to convince the former Chalkers owner that we needed a real piano,” Particelli explained. “We first got a Yamaha upright and later Don Thompson helped choose a Shigeru Kawai grand from Merriam Music which we all were sad to [say] goodbye to since leaving Chalkers after July 1st.”

In addition to all these wonderful things that happened to, because of, and around GNO over the last seven years at Chalkers Pub, Chalkers was where I discovered GNO. I came into it fairly late (both in the jam’s history and on any given Wednesday night), but when I got there, in addition to a great house band (Peter Hill, Ross MacIntyre and Louis Botos Sr., who is the granddaddy of the incredible Botos family), I saw wonderful and important things happening: I saw people going up on stage without – or despite – performance anxiety; I saw professors and professionals mingling with students and novices, and perhaps most importantly, I saw an audience offering unconditional support to whomever was on stage.

Since GNO left Chalkers Pub after the very last Wednesday jam on Canada Day this year, GNO has been on hiatus. But at the end of July, during her monthly session at Morgans on the Danforth (on the last Sunday of every month, 2 to 5pm) Particelli finally announced that GNO would be returning weekly, this time on Tuesdays from 7 to 11pm, at 120 Diner on Church (Ori Dagan can be thanked for that booking). Unfortunately, there will be no longer be a drummer in the house band – and Louis Sr.’s services will be missed – but aside from that, everything will be the same. The same great bassist, the same great pianist. The same great vibes. And the same amazing community.

Particelli is excited about it, as we all are. “We look forward to seeing everyone in September,” she said.

Mainly_Mostly_2.jpgLaura Swankey is the kind of singer who will offer up variations so tastefully you could swear they were in the published melody. I first encountered her last fall when she attended a monthly jam at Habits Gastropub hosted by drummer Harrison Vetro. When I went on stage, somebody called Stella by Starlight, somebody else counted it in, and we were off. Swankey began “The soooong the robin sings ....” And before the end of the head, I was a fan.

Since then, I’ve attended a bunch of her shows, and found that in addition to playing straight ahead gigs – in which she will play a mix of standards and originals – she also performs “free music” (the quotation marks are there because all music, free music included, has parameters, and I am a little skeptical of the notion that free music is all that separate from other music). At gigs where she joins and is joined on stage by people like Emily Denison (trumpet), Christine Duncan (voice), Andrew Furlong (bass) and others, music is played that I, to be frank, don’t fully understand. But I like it. Patterns do emerge, and my brain, being conditioned and steeped in tonal music, tries to make tonal sense of it; but ultimately, that isn’t the point.

At one such show, though, Swankey surprised me with a wonderful rendition of Smile; she sang it slowly, sleepily, over a drone created by the guitar, with the trumpet playing a challenging counterline. It was one of the most engaging live performances I’ve seen in this city. A description on paper would not do it justice. You’ll have to go and check her out in the clubs.

And luckily, this month, you can! Swankey will be performing a few days this month. On Saturday, September 12 at the CMC (Canadian Music Centre), she will be participating in the one-year-anniversary celebration of OPUS:TESTING, a bi-monthly composition workshop that started in June 2014. Swankey describes the event: “Six break-out groups from different disciplines [will come] together for the day to create some kind of improvisation art presentation.” The presentation is happening between 6 and 7pm.

The next evening, she’ll be playing more straight ahead music at Gate 403 with Connor Walsh on bass and Leonard Patterson on drums - a chordless trio, in which the horn is a voice.

And finally, on September 16, Swankey will be appearing with The Wind and the Water, an a cappella quartet which will be performing music by Rachel Cardiello, as part of the Dead Dad’s Club premiere. The group also includes Aimee Butcher, Belinda Corpuz and Danielle Knibbe. “These three women are fantastic musicians and I love singing and creating with them,”, Swankey said. Details are forthcoming on The Wind and the Water’s Facebook page.

These gigs will be coming on the heels of Swankey’s return from Banff, where she worked with Billy Hart, Ingrid Jensen, Vijay Iyer, Tyshawn Sorey and many more. I think we can be confident that the “amazing and life-changing” experiences she had in Banff will be reflected in her September gigs.

I have always enjoyed the types of singers who use their voices with the same improvisational spirit as any good horn player – Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, and company. Swankey is in that company. She, like many singers, (including the aforementioned Sheila Jordan, who studied with Lennie Tristano) studied with at least one instrumentalist; during her time at U of T, she studied with saxophonist, Toronto jazz scene fixture and Shuffle Demon Mike Murley. Swankey describes those lessons as “Amazing! I felt very connected to him as a person and the way he teaches and approaches his playing. Mike is a very lyrical and soulful player.”

One more gig I need to mention. Sadly, I won’t be present at either of the two listed performances – at the Jazz Bistro September 28 and the KW Jazz Room September 19 – of saxophonist and arranger Bobby Hsu’s A Sondheim Jazz Project. But I feel the need to convince as many people as possible to go in my place. In addition to the fantastic musicianship of the band, and the tremendous voice of Alex Samaras, Hsu is doing something important with this group.

It’s a given that a lot of jazz standards have their origins in Broadway musicals (many of which failed, despite the success of the songs that later rose from the ashes). What Hsu’s group is doing, in bringing songs into the jazz world (from a composer whose work is not nearly present enough in it), is a natural extension of the tradition we all already knew existed. A Sondheim Jazz Project does it with dedication and love, and it’s very entertaining.

I cannot wait to see you all in the clubs this fall. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at

It’s here, it’s here, the Toronto Jazz Festival is here! On the Old Mill Inn website, where they list the jazz concerts happening at the Home Smith Bar, they refer to their lineup as a “year-round jazz festival.” I like that. But I would object that the term describes not just that venue, but the whole city. The festival never stops. There’s jazz happening every day and night of the year, and it’s not too hard to find the really top-shelf players. So in terms of local talent, the week of the TJF isn’t much different from the rest of the year: Toronto heavies just being heavy in Toronto.

What is different is that the Jazz Festival brings us some of the best international talent.

Mainly-Ari.jpgAri Hoenig: Born in Philly but based in New York, Ari Hoenig, the monstrous, melody-playing, time-bending drummer, will be coming back to Toronto for more. Last time Hoenig was here in town, he brought his own ensemble (but not his own cymbals – he used mine, which is perhaps a story for another time and place), playing his original music, which is consistently both rhythmically intricate, as you would expect from a drummer, and harmonically sophisticated, which you might not. Hoenig’s original music is something else, and it must be heard. But if there’s one recording that I think captures the group at their best, it’s a rendition of a song by another composer: their take on Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ from the album Lines of Oppression is pure gold. The recording begins with Hoenig demonstrating what he’s at least partially known for, which is his ability to play coherent, discernible, tonal melodies on the drums, capturing the notes of a given chord with the drums’ open tunings, and achieving in-between notes and bending pitches with his hands and elbows. He plays the melody, but the solos are done with all the instruments in their traditional roles. Over a dirty jazz shuffle that swings hard and pushes everything forward, his bandmates do Moanin’ justice, to say the least. Honourable mention goes to Tigran Hamasyan’s piano solo which is dripping with attitude on that track.

Hoenig will be coming to The Rex for two nights to play with Alex Goodman’s trio – Alex is a U of T alum who did his master’s degree in music at the Manhattan School and settled in the Big Apple. Rick Rosalo, the bassist in the trio, incidentally, is also a jazz musician of Canadian origin who was drawn to NYC like a moth to the flame. Sensing a pattern here?

Mainly-Snarky.jpgSnarky Puppy used to have a modest fan base in Toronto. A base of which I was a part. Around 2011 to 2013, I attended every single concert they played in Toronto. If they played two nights, more often than not, I went to both. I wasn’t alone in being such a dedicated fan – the band regularly sold out The Rex, leaving behind a handful of people who were naive enough to think they had a chance of getting in without coming early. I remember one snowy night in 2012; I was one of those naive kids. I waited 90 minutes outside in the freezing cold, but was eventually let in and caught a set and a half. It was worth it.

I say they used to have a modest fan base, because that base has since exploded and become anything but modest. It may have been simply word of mouth, but more likely it had something to do with that Grammy they won. Since then, The Rex has become way too small for the gigantic audience they would inevitably draw – they started playing bigger venues, like Lee’s Palace and Adelaide Hall. Sometimes, they’d do a surprise late night set at The Rex, which, despite the short notice, would still end up packed. Snarky Puppy’s studio recordings and videos show their music being represented by a gigantic ensemble, practically an orchestra, including a string section, too many keyboards, and just enough grandeur. But when they play live, at least in Toronto, they bring a condensed version of the ensemble which sounds not worse, not better, but different. There’s a certain rawness and aggression present in their live shows that is softened in their studio recordings. To say the least, it’s worth checking out, if only once.

For a survey of what this group is all about, listen to three songs: Skate U, Binky and Lingus. All appear on different albums and all can be found online. Snarky Puppy will be crowding the Toronto Star stage at Nathan Phillips Square for the festival on June 26. As someone who’s seen them live at least 12 times and never got tired of it, I can confidently say you’ll have fun.

Other out-of-towners gracing Toronto stages for the TJF include: Branford Marsalis, Dan Weiss Trio, Phil Dwyer Trio, Robert Glasper, Tower of Power, Kurt Elling and a supergroup featuring Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland. A lot of these groups (and others not mentioned!) are appearing on the main stages, which haven’t been listed in the Clubs section, so make sure to go to for all the details you need to plan your festival week, and pick up paper guides at any of the main stages.

Are you ready? Let’s do this thing. 

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at

Beat_-_Mainly_Mostly.jpgWhen I think of contemporary jazz musicians who are both great singers and great pianists in equal measure, three names rise to the top of the list: NYC-based Brenda Earle Stokes and Laila Biali (both Canadian-born), and the Nova Scotia native, Steve Amirault, relatively new to the Toronto Jazz scene, The latter, though primarily known as a pianist, will occasionally bust out the mic and sing a tune or two. And when he does, it’s the warm timbre and the conversational phrasing that will draw you in. It almost sounds effortless, until you remember how much work he must have put into mastering both these instruments — yes, the voice is an instrument — to such a degree where he can be expressive and free with both at the same time.

On May 15, Amirault will be leaving to do a solo voice/piano gig in Korea for four months. So before he leaves, don’t forget to check out some of his gigs, the last in Toronto until autumn: May 1 and 10 (at Hirut and The Local Gest, respectively), with trios led by drummer Chris Wallace, who is, like Amirault, a recent arrival on the Toronto scene, and May 2 at Chalkers Pub, in his own trio, featuring jazz veterans Jim Vivian on bass and Barry Elmes on the drums. The group will be playing some of Amirault’s original music, mixed in with selections from the standard repertoire. “I’m very happy to have Jim and Barry on the gig,” he says, “Jim and I have recorded and toured together and it’s always fantastic to work with him. This will be my first time sharing the stage with Barry Elmes. Barry is a great drummer and I’m really looking forward to our musical meeting.”

Barry Elmes, by the way, will be leading his own group a week later at the Home Smith Bar, a classy, intimate venue, complete with stone walls, fine wine and the obligatory fireplace. The Home Smith doesn’t charge a cover for the top quality musicians they showcase — that cost is covered by the food and drinks, which you will inevitably be tempted into purchasing if you catch a whiff or a glimpse of someone else’s dinner!

Extraordinarily well-versed in the tradition, insistently original both as a drummer and a composer, with an enviable musical resume that includes Tommy Flanagan, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Haden, Joe Henderson and more, Elmes(and the ensembles he leads), puts on a show that is not easily passed up; when he plays two nights in a row at the same venue, I go both nights. And so should you.

The Toronto Jazz Festival begins next month, and, of course, the official listings can be found at — but check back here in June for those listings in great detail and more. Aren’t you excited? I’m excited.

Bob Ben is The WholeNote’s jazz listings editor. He can be reached at

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

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