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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