Mainly_Mostly_1.jpgIt’s just my luck, isn’t it? It’s just my luck that two weeks after I plug Organic’s weekly engagement at Joe Mama’s in The WholeNote, that that gig shuts down permanently. I don’t know yet what will happen on future Sundays at Joe Mama’s. But hopefully they stick with the theme of high-level musicianship and unmistakable chemistry.

The final Organic session on April 17 was fuller than I’ve seen it in a long time, and I think there’s a lot of irony in that. I think it very loudly says a lot about our responsibility as lovers of live music. But if it wasn’t loud enough, I’ll say it louder: if we, lovers of live music, don’t go out and support the bands we claim to love, then who will? Casual listeners with fat wallets? Fat chance! Jazz concerts are tragically sparsely attended and the only remedy for that is for us to attend.

And I say “us” very deliberately here; I am not innocent in this. I do not attend every show I can, not even all the ones about which I loudly rave. And I don’t always have a good excuse. I know all the good excuses though. I know that life gets in the way, and sometimes it seems like bus fare two ways plus cover charge plus one drink is breaking the bank. I get it. I’m not trying to sit on a high horse, to lecture you, the reader, or to make it sound like not attending concerts is some egregious sin, or to imply that we are personally responsible for every gig that stops (no gig lasts forever, obviously). All I’m trying to say is that if we want to support live music, we should stop taking it for granted and go support live music. We all should. Let’s make it a new season’s resolution.

With that in mind, Justin Bacchus’ weekly engagement is still happening at The Rex for the foreseeable future, and for each Saturday in May the explosive and virtuosic R&B outfit will be joined by the marvellous Stu Harrison. I’ve only heard Stu Harrison three times – once when he sat in for one song at a Sophia Perlman gig, and twice when he subbed in the house band at Lisa Particelli’s Girls’ Night Out. He does not gig or record much, which is baffling to me – though he probably is awfully busy with his work for Merriam Music. When I heard he’d be at The Rex weekly in May, I made my plans immediately. Let’s hope I don’t break them, and let’s hope the whole city gets out to this gig – or some other gig, any gig! – at least once a week this month.

Alex Samaras was introduced to me in the summer of 2012 by a friend who hails from the States and was acquainted with Samaras through their mutual association with a music camp in upstate New York. Samaras, too, was previously written about in The WholeNote, by Ori Dagan, and by myself this past autumn, when I plugged his gig with Bobby Hsu’s A Sondheim Jazz Project, which you can read about in the September issue. Samaras has a voice of clarity, precision, finesse, power and control. He clearly knows a lot about his instrument. It shouldn’t be a surprise, therefore, that he’s also an educator, who teaches voice at the University of Toronto. You can sample A Sondheim Jazz Project’s album, City of Strangers, on YouTube, and you can buy it on iTunes. I have only sampled it (I prefer to buy albums from artists in person), but I can already confidently recommend it.

I was only introduced to John Alcorn’s voice recently: this winter. I had asked Mark Eisenman about recordings he had played on aside from his coffee-themed albums recorded with Chase Sanborne (which are also wonderful), and he told me about Flying Without Wings, an album which was reviewed in The WholeNote by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke earlier this year – so I won’t go on about it for too long. The singer and trumpeter on the album are, respectively, Alcorn and Warren Vache. Eisenman had, and I say this affectionately, pestered me about these two musicians before. Each time they’ve had gigs in Toronto in recent years, Eisenman had told me to go, and I had failed to every time. After hearing the album, I will not make that mistake again.

One of my favourite moments on the album comes on the first track, Just One of Those Things, on the final chorus, when Vache and Eisenman are sort of trading response lines in the cracks between Alcorn’s phrases, and Alcorn opens one phrase with a second – literally, one second – of what sounds like the beginning of a scat solo, before diving back into the words. It sounds so spontaneous and unhinged. There is such palpable excitement on the part of all the players, particularly the three responsible for the quasi-counterpoint of the moment.

This seems like a small thing, but something else I really respect about the album is the fact that songs with verses are done with the verse. Songs with beautiful verses which supply the rest of the song with extra clarity, or just emphasis – such as Autumn in New York, A Sleepin’ Bee, and But Not For Me, the latter of which is on Flying Without Wings – are too often performed with the verses omitted. Such recordings are valid and often great, of course, but the kind of fidelity to the song as it was originally conceived, shown by Alcorn, commands a lot of respect, especially when executed, as it is here, with such passion and faculty.

I was thrilled to come across Alcorn and Samaras listed together for the evening of May 22 at Jazz Bistro. They will be accompanied by Mike Downes on bass and Dave Restivo on the Bistro’s Red Pops Steinway piano. This will be the third time the illustrious quartet has appeared together in Toronto, but it will be a first for me. It’ll be a lot of firsts for me, actually. It’ll be the first time I see this particular quartet. It’ll be the first time I see John Alcorn live. If they’re selling CDs, it’ll be the first time I buy an album featuring Alex Samaras.

I’m going to, as I always do when I go to shows at Jazz Bistro, call for reservations the day of the concert, and I’m hoping they’ll tell me the place is almost full and my choice of seating is limited. Can this city collectively make that happen? I’m tired of empty jazz clubs. Let’s make ours unbearably crowded.

Happy spring, Toronto. See you in one club, or another. Or both. Or more.

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

BBB-MainlyMostly1.jpgSheila Jordan. Is it April 1 or April 2 as you are reading this? If so, you should be calling Jazz Bistro to make reservations for tonight for Sheila Jordan’s first appearance in Toronto in, if I’m not missing anything, two years. Almost exactly, in fact: it was near the end of March 2014 when Jordan appeared for three consecutive nights at Chalkers Pub. For two nights she performed accompanied by Don Thompson on piano and Neil Swainson on bass, and on the third night she led a vocal workshop, accompanied by Thompson alone. I was in attendance at all three events, having volunteered, way ahead of time, for door duties.

Sheila Jordan comes across on and off stage as a warm and caring person. You can always tell whether someone has any genuine interest in what other people are saying, or whether they’re waiting for their own turn to talk. Sheila belongs to the former camp. She cares about people. She loves the world. She has a sense of humour and a sense of wonder, and all that is on display when she performs.

When she performs, she’s equal parts singer and storyteller – both during and in between songs. Her songs are both deliberate and spontaneous – rehearsed and subject to change. Each time you hear her sing, it is worth hearing. As the concerts grow chronologically further away, my memories of them become fuzzier. But almost a year ago, I wrote that “In addition to being a genuine and adventurous performer, [Sheila is] one of the sweetest, most infectiously charming people I’ve ever spoken with.” I stand by that.

I bought two CDs while I was there – one of Jordan’s, Yesterdays, which is a duo album with bassist Harvie Swartz, and the Thompson/Swainson duo album, Tranquility, both of which I will recommend wholeheartedly, and the latter of which was reviewed for The WholeNote by the late Jim Galloway earlier that year.

These concerts will take place at Jazz Bistro on April 1 and 2; the cover charge is $20 and dinner reservations are, as I write this, still available.

Nathan Hiltz: The following day, April 3, at the same venue, you can check out Nathan Hiltz’s trio, with Pat Collins on bass and Morgan Childs on drums, playing tunes by one of my favourite jazz composers, and by very far my favourite jazz lyricist, Cole Porter. On some tunes, those lyrics will be delivered by Ori Dagan, in whose mouth those lyrics can be said to be in good hands. Or, around good teeth – whatever you like.

I know I’ve taken up all this space talking about a couple of shows which, more likely than not, are in the past as you read this, so before signing off, I want to direct your attention to a weekly engagement which shows no signs of stopping. If you dig or dug Hiltz’s guitar playing in a trio setting, you may dig him in the organ jazz quartet Organic, which generally features Bernie Senensky on the organ, Hiltz on guitar, Childs on drums, and Ryan Oliver on sax. The band has been together since its genesis over a decade ago, Oliver’s brainchild, and their effortless chemistry makes that more than apparent. They play weekly on Sundays at Joe Mama’s. There is no cover or tip jar, so you can take the money you saved on that and buy more drinks at the bar than you normally would.

Musideum: You’ll notice, if you thumb through the listings this month, that Musideum is conspicuously absent. Early last month, Musideum owner and founder, Donald Quan, announced that the end of March would mark the end of Musideum as a venue for the foreseeable future. Quan is indefinitely – but not necessarily permanently – closing Musideum to focus on other understandably indispensable aspects of his life: his health, his family, his friends and his own musicianship.

Musideum was a remarkable venue, an intimate space in which to interact with other people: as a performer to an audience, as an audience to a performer, or artist to artist to artist. It will remain open as a store for the first few days of April, so I’d encourage anyone who still has the chance to, go now and check it out.

And I hope to see you all soon, in one club or another. Check the listings!

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

2106-MainlyMostly.pngArtie Roth once said to me – and I’m paraphrasing – that the drummer is the encyclopedia of the ensemble, the player who knows the repertoire most intimately, who can most immediately call up what happened on this chorus of that recording in Febtober of 19whenever. It’s a generalization, of course; all musicians should know these things. And of course, there’s a chance that Artie was saying that so that I’d go home and study the repertoire more. But when I think of drummers like Morgan Childs, or the guy who sits behind that giant bass drum at Grossman’s on Saturday evenings, it fits perfectly.

What doesn’t fit perfectly, however, is how few drummers you’ll find leading groups in town in any given month. As far as I know, the only drummer-led groups in the clubs this month are those led by Harrison Vetro, a young talent with a sound that can best be described as crisp, and Brian Barlow. Barlow is someone I’ve only heard live once, with his own big band at the Jazz Festival in 2011. He is a thoroughly seasoned professional drummer and arranger with experience all over the field, having worked with everyone from Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett to Alanis Morrisette and Shania Twain to the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Canadian Opera Company. He’s played on dozens of film scores and musical theatre productions. He was a member of Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass. I could go on and on.

Barlow’s gigantic beat is something I haven’t forgotten in the five years since I heard him play in person. His big band was on the main stage in Nathan Phillips Square and his drums were amplified a bit too much. The band opened with some standard tune (I want to say Satin Doll?) at a relaxed medium tempo swing – somewhere around 130 to 140 beats per minute. Barlow played the swing beat on the hihat while feathering with the bass drum, authoritatively, almost but not quite aggressively. It’s said that a drummer’s feathering should be “felt not heard.” Due to the almost indecent amplification, every note played on the bass drum shook my entire body. So, yes, it was felt. Thoroughly felt.

Anyways, I’m looking forward to hearing that huge beat again in a smaller, more intimate, less amplified setting, with a smaller ensemble, at the cozy Home Smith Bar at the Old Mill.

harry-photoshoot-27.jpgHarrison Vetro, the only other drummer-as-leader I’m aware of in the clubs this month, was a classmate of mine at York University. Walking around the halls in York’s music building, you can always hear people practising, because those doors, thick though they may be, are not soundproof by any stretch of the imagination. Drummers who used the rooms at York could be divided into two categories: those who play, and those who practise. Sometimes, you could walk by and hear someone blazing around the drums with (or, you know, without) remarkable speed and accuracy. That was a player. Someone who was in there to keep playing what they already do well. Or just to blow off steam.

Then, there were practisers. If a practiser was in the room, you would know it because you’d walk by and hear them either messing up or playing really slowly or both. You’d hear them playing the swing beat at 40 or fewer beats per minute, or playing some impossible pattern and being slightly less uncomfortable with it after repeating it relentlessly for longer than you could even pay attention.

Someone once said that if you sound good while practising, you’re doing it wrong. That might be a slight exaggeration, but you can see their point: instead of bolstering your strengths (which is also a valid and valuable way to spend your time), the majority of your practice time should be spent attacking your weaknesses. The players who did that, and remained truly disciplined and focused in the practice room, and tolerated not always sounding like a beast, almost invariably grew into the players who sounded more professional, cleaner, more comfortable and more individual than the rest.

Harrison was a practiser. And the cool thing about having been at York, and having known him as long as I have, is that I watched that progress happen. He sounded better every time I heard him. Noticeably better. Even after we no longer went to school together, when I would occasionally hear him on a gig (like when he led the house band at the no longer extant jam at Habits), there would be enough time in between that I would hear that improvement in leaps and bounds, while he, as each individual player does, only heard it in increments.

Harrison Vetro’s group can and should be heard on the evening of March 7 at the Emmett Ray.

Sheila Scats: One more thing to get ahead of, jazz lovers: Sheila Jordan will be in Toronto for at least three nights, starting on the last day of March at 120 Diner with a workshop, and the first two nights of April at the Jazz Bistro. Book it off now, and I’ll see you folks in the clubs, more likely than not.

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

2105-MainlyMostly.jpgCutting through the huge sound of the horns behind him, Martin Loomer plays the appropriate chords in the appropriate order on his electric guitar, laying down the time as authoritatively as any drummer. He wears a contagious grin and what looks to me like a bright orange jumpsuit. Which is super cool. If there’s anything I admire, it’s a loud outfit, and there are few outfits louder than a bright orange jumpsuit.

Martin Loomer’s Orange Devils have a monthly gig, on the second Monday of every month, at The Monarch Tavern. They play music by big bands of the 1930s and 40s, like those led by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and more, with skill and authenticity.

And who better to bring these charts to life than someone who makes his living as a music copyist?

I first became aware of Loomer through the Orange Devils’ vocalist Rita di Ghent about three years ago – almost to the day – at the end of January 2013. Since then, I’ve chased down the Orange Devils, and Loomer himself, attended several of their gigs and bombarded him with questions, as you do with those more experienced in your field.

I guess I must have asked the maximum number of questions he could answer at a gig or on Facebook, because he eventually invited me and a friend to come to his house to talk about composing and arranging. We convened in his living room, me, my friend, Loomer, his wife Karen, their cats, and a tray of muffins and tea, and we talked about a lot: family, education, cartoons and video games and, even at points, music.

Once we migrated from the living room, Loomer showed us his score collection, which might be the largest number of scores I’ve ever seen in one room, music libraries included. This was a long while ago, but one thing I remember clearly is marvelling at how messy Duke Ellington’s handwriting was.

The Orange Devils combine Loomer's encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire with the expertise of those sharing the bandstand with him: people like John McLeod, William Carn, and Richard Whiteman  (including, up until recently, the late Dr. Kira Payne who passed away on January 2: Payne doubled flawlessly both on alto and tenor saxophones, and as a musician and an accomplished M.D.; she is missed by the community). Go hear this band with no skepticism. Just go. I have no doubt you will like it.

Turbo Street: Another fairly large band – as distinct from a big band – I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to is Turbo Street Funk. If you don’t know them by name, you might recognize them from their busking days on major street corners around the downtown core, including Queen and Spadina, Bay and Bloor and so on. The band plays a combination of original tunes and pop standards, modern and otherwise, tightly arranged and performed by recent graduates of the big three music schools in the city. Turbo Street Funk will be bringing their outdoor dance party indoors on February 9 at Fat City Blues.

This, friends, is the month when the city begins to thaw. Or, it will be if there is any justice in the world. Come out and celebrate. With any luck, I’ll see you in the clubs. 

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

Mainly Mostly 1Until this autumn, I’d never been to Grossman’s Tavern for a show. Sure, I’d wandered in a few times in the middle of the day, and heard a song or two if a band happened to be playing. But I’d never made plans with people to go to Grossman’s and make a night of it.

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday, I was wandering in Chinatown and I walked into Grossman’s to find a band packing up their stuff. I asked the musician who seemed the least in a hurry whether there would be more music tonight. He said another band, hosting a blues jam, would be starting in an hour.

So, for an hour I sat alone in Grossman’s, looking around, inadvertently eavesdropping, and sending copy-and-pasted text messages to anyone I thought might be interested: “blues @ grossman’s? bring your ax.” Grossman’s is, like most establishments in Chinatown, completely unpretentious. The sign above the Spadina Avenue entrance is unassuming and easy to miss. The dimly lit room is decorated with posters and photos depicting performers who have played at Grossman’s, and little else. The food is standard pub fare, with no fancy additions or inventive names. The prices are downright affordable. I believe the menu states the total after tax. (I swear they’re not paying me to write this.)

Brian Cober led the 10pm National Blues Jam from the guitar, although the drummer, whose full name I never got, also seemed to have a great deal of sway. The bass player appeared to be a guest. Cober shouted form at the other members of the band, indicating stop time, dynamic shifts and chord changes. Of course, blues tunes generally draw on established conventions, so there was no danger of a train wreck. Had I not been watching, I would have assumed that this group had been playing together for years.

Of those I texted, two showed up. At peak hours, it seemed everyone was a regular but us three. They all knew the protocol, the repertoire and the people. We, huddled in the corner as a little pocket of blues jam novices, played it by ear. One of the two people I drew was a trombonist, and once he saw a bari sax player go up without being called, he did the same (after speaking to a member of the house band at intermission, of course). When I was called up to join the band on the drums, they called tunes I’d never heard before. I know jazz standards; I do not know blues standards. But again, with fairly simple forms, I caught on quick and had a ton of fun. I took a mental note. To do: learn blues repertoire.

One of my friends told me afterwards that they had a Dixieland jam on Saturdays, and that it was poppin’. So, I went; and, oh my goodness, it popped so much. I have rarely seen so many people in a jazz club – and never for a weekly thing. Residency gigs and the like are often, too often, sparsely attended. This jam, on the other hand, was full almost to the point of being a fire hazard. Usually, when I see a jazz club that full, it’s for a trendy band that attracts people of one age group almost exclusively. But here, there were quite literally toddlers and octogenarians on the same dance floor. The best thing about the jam was its overwhelming and palpable positivity. Nobody was isolated from anyone. Everyone danced together. Unprompted, folks introduced themselves to me. One woman was putting her index finger on people’s heads and spinning them like tops.

The band was authentic, as far as I could tell. I’m not a Dixieland scholar – which made it a little intimidating when I was called up. Patrick Tevlin, the leader of the house band, the Happy Pals, asked me quite abruptly before I came on stage: “You ever play old style?” I gave him the shortest honest answer that I could: “I can.” I was fairly confident that if I kept it simple, I could get across the vibe that I’d heard on records and shows but never really steeped myself in. I made another mental note. To do: listen to more “old style.”

Tevlin sits in a chair in the centre of the stage with his horn and mic within reach, horn players and guitarists seated on either side. Charismatic and relaxed, he sings the tunes like he was born singing them. When he introduced the band, he included the names of guests. It’s apparent that he thinks of the Happy Pals as a big, ever-expanding family.

The jam culminated in a parade of musicians – with the house rhythm section still on the stage, playing the changes to When the Saints Go Marching In, the horn players – guests included – marched in a circle around the venue. People moved out of the way as they cheered and sang along.

The Happy Pals Dixieland Jazz Jam has been happening at Grossman’s every Saturday for more than 45 years, and shows no signs of slowing down or stopping - certainly not this month. So come on down! Bring an instrument! Just...don’t expect to find a seat. 

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

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