‘Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn….’

Fifteen seasoned jazzmen (save one) exploded with youthful zest and irresistible momentum on stage at Toronto’s Old Mill on September 15 – thankfully all together just the once – at the annual gathering that signified the 13th edition of the Ken Page Memorial Trust Gala.

The trust supports jazz professionals, encourages young musicians in numerous ways, sponsors live and recorded jazz performance and fosters education – and, as always, shows it can host a swinging jazz party.

Before a loudly enthusiastic audience, many of the grey-hair and no-hair persuasion, a group of jazz stars from both side of the border played 10 mix-and-match sets in various configurations, celebrating for the most part the jazz music that used to be called mainstream, a description now claimed by descendants of bebop, and even more bizarrely christened ‘traditional jazz’ by youngsters blithely unaware of accurate jazz tradition.

A program put together by Jim Galloway, former artistic director of the Toronto Jazz Festival and still very handy with his signature curved soprano sax, swiftly took shape as a lengthy highlight reel of all that’s good and great about this music, performed without benefit of rehearsal or playlists.

Numbers were called on stage, rarely with tune titles, but it didn’t matter a whit to fans familiar with songs of the era. And, amazingly, the show started on time.

It’s worth remembering that the ranks of golden oldies are dwindling, but their contribution to jazz is undiminished. The Page bash attracted American trombonist George Masso, 85, and American tenor saxophonist Houston Person, 76, while among the mature gathering of Canadians were trombonist Laurie Bower, 78, Galloway, 74, and flugelhornist Guido Basso, 73. (The youth front was represented by lively violinist Drew Jurecka and guitarist Reg Schwager, who for countless years has masqueraded as a high school senior).

All present belong in the top flight, ready to blow, strum or thrash from the first, relaxed notes of Gershwin’s “S’Wonderful”, piercing clarinet from Allan Vache (with accent ecu on e), spirited comping from breathtakingly versatile pianist John Sherwood, super-solid bassist Neil Swainson and ever-busy drummer Terry Clarke. This sextet with trombonist Al Kay and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte was in full vigour mode, notably on a rabble-rousing version of “Broadway” that stirred an outbreak of foot-tapping, head-nodding and finger-tapping among fans far from comatose despite a substantial supper.

With Toronto’s Ted O’Reilly keeping proceedings in a semblance of order, the band population shifted lightly to a frontline of Galloway, Masso and popular gala returnee Warren Vache on cornet with his succulent, bright sound. The trombonist caressed the melody with delicacy, careening delightfully at solo’s end before the group surged through “Blue Skies” over a pulsating beat.

Basso chose flugelhorn for a masterful take on Duke’s “In A Mellow Tone” in the next set, followed by John MacLeod on cornet for some heroic blowing on “Things Aint What They Used To Be”, which also had a rich, emotional contribution from Person and whiplash work from Sherwood.

And there was much more, too much to detail here, on a magical evening surely unlike any other past or planned for 2011 in these parts.

Standouts included a stylish Basso-Schwager-Swainson trio creating an achingly-lovely “It’s The Good Life”, a brass quintet belting out “Perdido” and Sherwood indulging his keyboard smarts on “Up A Lazy River”, Person plus pulse threesome whirling through a Broadway standard, sweetly breezing through “Stella By Starlight” and then charging flat-out on “C Jam Blues” followed by deliberately chosen vintage material brought to life by Galloway and Allan Vache with a minimum of sonic confusion and concluding with the former’s beautiful version of “Come Sunday”.

There was just time for Warren Vache and Schwager to deliver a poignant “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face” before the gang was all there, blaring an uptempo swinger that peaked into a devout shoutabout that mirrored the classic Mingus “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting” for impact and joy.

The night as a whole was indeed classic, leaving audience and players, especially the almost constant beat boys – Swainson and Clarke – exhausted, but more than happy. Here’s to next year.

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