Jake Epstein. Photo credit: Jacob Cohl.On July 12, I went an hour and a half early to Kensington Market in the hope of being first on the waiting list to get tickets for the brand-new solo musical at the Toronto Fringe Festival: Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein at Supermarket. Others had beaten me to it and I was number 3 in line, but I took my chances and waited.

The run had sold out very quickly, perhaps because of how well known Jake Epstein is from his time starring on TV in Degrassi: The Next Generation, and more recently on Designated Survivor and Suits – or perhaps because he was so brilliant as Bruce Springsteen in The Musical Stage Company’s 2017 theatrical concert Uncovered: Dylan and Springsteen. In any case, the word of mouth from long before the start of the Fringe was that this was a “must-see” production.

Written and performed by Epstein and supported onstage by music director Daniel Abrahamson on  piano, the show was developed with director Robert McQueen (Fun Home, Life After) and is produced by Derrick Chua for Past Future Productions. 

This is Jake Epstein’s first solo show, and is based on his own experiences of both the highs and unexpected lows of following – and achieving – his dream to be a performer on Broadway. The stories, interwoven with songs throughout, start off with relatable memories such as family road trips to New York, Epstein and his sister singing along in the back seat to recordings of Broadway cast albums from Lion King to Les Mis, imitating the voices of their favourite performers. Inspired by the audience reaction to the child performers they see in the musical Big, he auditions back home for the Claude Watson School for the Arts, and soon is auditioning for professional productions in Toronto and landing the role of the Artful Dodger in the Mirvish production of Oliver. Later he wins a leading TV role on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but when he auditions for the Juilliard School in New York he doesn’t get in – just one of the many self-deprecating stories about unexpected setbacks that he shares with us along the way. However, meeting with two strangers on the street outside Juilliard, they ask to take a selfie with him because they love him in Degrassi and he is inspired to stay in New York  and soon lands leading roles in North American touring productions of cutting-edge musicals American Idiot and Spring Awakening.

When in 2012 he is cast as the alternate for the lead in the troubled Julie Taymour/U2 musical Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark, it’s a dream come true (complete with actually flying around the Broadway theatre), but he gets hurt and doesn’t want to tell anyone back home. A year later he has another iconic chance – to create a leading role in a new Broadway musical, Carole King’s husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin in Beautiful. Once again there are brighter and darker sides to the story, and as a result he spends more time back home in Toronto.

A recurring theme in Boy Falls From The Sky (yes, the title is a tongue-in-cheek reference to his role in Spiderman) is Epstein not wanting to seem ungrateful for his luck and the success he has achieved, marked by the repeated singing of snatches of “give them the old razzle dazzle.” Luckily for us in the audience, eventually he did tell the full stories of what his life on tour and on Broadway was really like, and friends and family encouraged him to turn those stories into this show.

This is excellent musical theatre storytelling by a performer with natural star power – including the ability to make everyone in the audience feel as though he is talking to them alone. Add to that the edgy energy of a BYOV “Bring Your Own” Fringe Venue in Kensington Market and the fact that the star and writer is a hometown boy made good, and the 70 minutes speed by too fast and are over too soon.

Jake Epstein's Boy Falls from The Sky is from the first moment engaging and fun, his presence electric and yet relaxed, his timing perfection and the laughs strongly rooted in self-deprecating honesty. I loved this show – as I had hoped I would.

Boy Falls From The Sky: Jake Epstein Live at Supermarket ran from July 4 to 13 at Supermarket, Toronto, as part of the 2019 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

The Dover Quartet in Koerner Hall. Photo credit: James Ireland.The afternoon before the Dover Quartet’s concert at Toronto Summer Music in Koerner Hall on July 17, second violinist Bryan Lee gave a public masterclass in Walter Hall that offered a preview of the Dover’s approach to performance. The masterclass presented three chamber music works by Debussy, Mozart and Dvořák played by fellows of the TSM Academy. Lee thought that the McGill-based Iceberg String Quartet’s playing of the fourth movement of Debussy’s String Quartet in G Minor needed more of a sense of gesture – they were holding back, he said. Lee had followed the score without taking notes, giving detail-oriented comments with an authoritative sense of clarity: “Find different types of non-competing sounds so they come out in the texture,” he said. “And do something extremely uncomfortable – it felt really tame.”  It could be really exaggerated – by a factor of ten – he said.

After a second group of fellows played the first movement of Mozart’s String Quintet in D Major, No.5 K593, Lee said: “I think the larghettos need more rhetorical time and the allegro needs more joy and drama.” Later he said that some chords were “kind of crunchy,” provoking some smiles. He told the fellows who played the last movement of Dvořák’s Piano Quartet No.2 in E-flat Major, Op.87 that they needed to pick spots to really emphasize, and take more time to appreciate everything going on in the music so that it didn’t feel like a big run-on sentence.

All of which shed light on the masterful performance of the Dover Quartet the next day. They made each note count and every gesture meaningful. Britten’s String Quartet No.1 in D Major, Op.25’s nakedly quiet opening bars with Camden Shaw’s expressive cello pizzicatos broadened into a series of distinct voices by the entire quartet, contributing to an implacable sense of unity as the music rose to a level of urgent passion. They played the brief second movement with flair and authority and brought out the achingly romantic melody and profound sense of calm in the third movement, the work’s emotional centerpiece; the finale’s light-fingered passages were simply astounding. With their superb sense of Britten’s sonic architecture, the Dovers’ reading felt definitive.

Intense and propulsive, they held nothing back in Bartók’s String Quartet No.3, mining its igneous beauty. After intermission, they brought out the lyricism and sense of optimism inherent in Dvořák’s popular String Quartet No.12 in F Major, Op.96 “American,” and balanced its folk-infused amiability with a sense of restraint that flowed easily and organically. Typically crowd-pleasing was the second movement’s melt-in-your-mouth tune that seemed to dissolve into thin air. A spontaneous standing ovation brought the Dovers back for a sublime take on Ellington’s In a Sentimental Mood.

Joel Link, violin; Charles Richard-Hamelin, piano; Camden Shaw, cello; Milena Pajaro-van Stadt, viola. Photo credit: James Ireland.Two days later on July 19 in a sold-out Walter Hall, three members of the Dover Quartet – first violinist Joel Link, violist Milena Pajaro-van Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw – joined pianist Charles Richard-Hamelin for what turned out to be my personal highlight of TSM 2019 thus far: an impassioned performance of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op.25. Lush and warm, well-balanced – no one was hiding – with an intensity that conveyed the score’s riches (including hints of the composer’s Second Piano Concerto), the first movement set the stage for what was to follow. The grace of the second movement and the lyrical wonderland of the third led to the angular, animated, assertive finale with its wild abandon. No standing ovation was ever more deserved. 

The Dovers brought out the best in Richard-Hamelin, who began the evening with Rachmaninoff and Chopin. He has an agreeable tonal disposition for chamber music, his round tonal texture making each note meaningful, but always within the boundaries of the ensemble as a whole. His solo Rachmaninoff – the composer’s five Fantasy Pieces, Op.3, written when he was just 18 – was lyrical and warm, with a balanced rubato that enhanced the music’s melodic core. The famous second piece, Prelude in C-sharp Minor – a piece that audiences loved and Rachmaninoff grew to hate – was followed by three more, including the tuneful exoticism of the Serenade in B-flat Minor. Richard-Hamelin finished his solo selection with Chopin’s Andante spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante, Op.22, the dreamy Andante – with its second theme reminiscent of a Ballade – settling into the big footsteps of the Polonaise.

A key element of Toronto Summer Music’s Academy program is the opportunity for its fellows to perform with some of the world-class musicians who act as their mentors during their stay here. In a brief email exchange with Richard-Hamelin [published in the summer issue of The WholeNote], Richard-Hamelin told me that inspiration was the most important thing a mentor can do. “A great mentor, over a very brief period of time, can make you love the music you’re playing to a point where you don’t want to stop working until you’ve done justice to it.” The fruits of Richard-Hamelin’s own mentorship were on display last Saturday, July 20, in Chausson’s Concert for Piano, Violin and String Quartet Op.21. The instrumentation made for many possible pairings – violin and piano, violin and string quartet etc – and the music’s exuberance was contagious, leading to a spontaneous standing ovation. The fellows included the Iceberg Quartet and violinist Gregory Lewis, one of CBC’s “30 Hot Canadian Classical Musicians Under 30.” Richard-Hamelin’s sensitivity shone through and Lewis’ confidence was apparent in a work that ultimately favoured the violin. 

Before intermission, the Dover Quartet’s Camden Shaw and his heartfelt cello playing shepherded two fellows in Dvořák’s charming Piano Trio No.4 in E Minor, OP.90 “Dumky,” one of the most lovable pieces in the repertoire. 

Toronto Summer Music continues at various locations throughout Toronto until August 3.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, pianist Steven Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet. Photo credit: Sean Howard.Toronto Summer Music’s 2019 season opened on July 11 in a festive mood before a full Koerner Hall audience, with a gala roster of performers emblematic of the talent this year’s edition promises.

Artistic director Jonathan Crow astutely chose the CBC’s Tom Allen to host the proceedings, introduce the artists and connect whatever dots needed connecting vis-à-vis this year’s TSM theme of “Beyond Borders.” This Allen did with his inimitable enthusiasm and an engaging and informative patter was – part ringmaster, part colour commentator. His backstory of the Turkish-Viennese linkage, anecdotes of violinist-composers Pablo de Sarasate and Fritz Kreisler, as well as how Ravel came to write Cinq mélodies populaires grecques, brought an extra sense of immediacy to the performances.

The evening began with Jon Kimura Parker’s unpretentious playing of Mozart’s Piano Sonata in A Major, K331 “Alla turca.” Parker’s unadorned simplicity suited the first movement’s theme, its variations elegantly shaped, the whole an expression of Mozart’s melodic heart. After a brisk Menuetto, the finale’s famous Turkish march put TSM’s celebration of the cross-cultural influences that have pervaded classical music on display, thanks in part to Parker’s fancy fingering and rhythmic integrity.

Adrianne Pieczonka, fresh from her celebrated turn in Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites at the Met in May and her recent assumption of the post of first vocal chair and head of the vocal department of the Glenn Gould School, soared in Ravel’s Five Popular Greek Songs. Reminiscent of Cantaloube’s Songs of the Auvergne in their wild abandon and evoking the purity of the outdoors, Pieczonka (with pianist Steven Philcox) gave us an experience rich in joy.

Kerson Leong, violin, and Rachael Kerr, piano. Photo credit: Sean Howard.Just before intermission, violinist Kerson Leong (and pianist Rachael Kerr) brought the audience to its feet with a dynamic, kinetic, authoritative performance of Sarasate’s Zigeunerweisen. Just 22, Leong, a protégé of Jonathan Crow, dazzled the crowd with his command of his instrument and stage presence. He returned after the break with a Kreisler set that began with a tasteful rendering of La Gitana, moved to Kreisler’s arrangements of Cyril Scott’s Lotus Land and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.17, and concluded with the well-judged pyrotechnics of Tambourin chinois.

After Parker came back to perform Chopin’s Ballade No.4 – presenting its evocative sonorities in a compact tonal palette – it was left to Pieczonka to conclude the evening with John Greer’s arrangement for string quartet and piano of Richard Strauss’ ineffable Four Last Songs. Pieczonka, Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet made it memorable. The power of the first song, the joyousness of the second suffused in beauty by its end, and the transformative journey into heavenly bliss by the fourth – this was the outlier to the Crossing Borders theme, unless you consider it the ultimate border crossing. Violinists Jonathan Crow and Andrew Wan’s exquisite support of Pieczonka was palpable.

Soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, pianist Steven Philcox and the New Orford String Quartet. Photo credit: Sean Howard.The following evening found the New Orford on the Walter Hall stage celebrating ten years together. Crow recalled before introducing the quartet’s encore, François Dompierre’s lovely, wistful Pavane solitaire, that their first-ever concert had begun with Haydn’s String Quartet Op.20, No.2, followed by a string quartet by Canadian composer Sir Ernest MacMillan and Beethoven’s Op.132. Their concert on July 12, ten years later, began with Haydn’s Op.20, No.4 followed by the world premiere of Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming” and Beethoven’s Op.59, No.3. Such is the cyclic nature of programming.

The New Orford’s playing of the Haydn’s first movement was buoyant and exacting, attentive and cohesive; the immaculate sense of ensemble that resulted typical of their professionalism. The affecting slow movement, filled with yearning, showed off the quartet’s precision and first violinist Andrew Wan’s deftness. After a jaunty Menuetto, the concluding Presto, with its scurrying orchestral quality, was sheer brilliance.

Commissioned by TSM for the New Orford String Quartet, Hatzis’ String Quartet No.5 “The Transforming” is “a deeper view of crucifixion and resurrection as metaphors for everyone’s life and the future of the world,” the composer said in a 30-minute lecture an hour before the concert. His initial reaction to the commission when he heard the name New Orford was that it would be a licence to be “difficult” – such was his admiration for the quartet’s remarkable music-making skills. Hatzis talked about how chamber music can create interpersonal relationships through putting everyone’s ego aside, because a quartet as a whole is a person in its own right; how Beethoven’s late quartets owe much of their power to that characteristic; and how this latest quartet is the culmination of a 25-year cycle that began with his first quartet in 1994.

The first movement, Pesach, came across as complex and mesmerizing, with intense silences and dramatic chords reduced to repetitive three-note phrases. The second, La Pieta (Jerusalem), was inspired by Renaissance paintings but is defined by Hatzis’ use of Hubert Parry’s anthem of the British Empire, Jerusalem, its beauty declaimed by pianissimo descending notes and the inscrutable hymn based on the text by William Blake. “Every time I hear that hymn I get chills,” Hatzis said in his lecture. Regeneration, the final movement, with its celestial arpeggios tuned in just intonation in C, begins with a quiet sul ponticello pizzicato that passes through an intensely calibrated build-up to a new order. The use of quarter tones introduces a new vocabulary. Kudos to the New Orford String Quartet and first violinist Jonathan Crow for their definitive performance.

After intermission, the third of Beethoven’s Razumovsky quartets brought the concert to more familiar terrain and produced the third spontaneous standing ovation of the opening two concerts. While the first movement was not as surefooted as we have come to expect of the New Orford, the rest of the composer’s middle-period masterwork was a model of elegance culminating in a flourish of a finale.

Toronto Summer Music continues at various locations throughout Toronto until August 3.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

CAPTION: Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood. Photo credit: Laura Headley and Phyllis Jacklin. When I first investigated the extensive, 24-panel brochure for this year’s TD Toronto Jazz Festival, I was struck by the phrase “Jazz After Dark,” which appeared as one of the many thematic concert categories that the TJF used to shape its 2019 offerings. (Some other categories: Emerging Artists, First Plays, Educational Programs, CBC Music and JUNOS 365, and a “musical celebration” of “gospel, jazz and hip hop” on Bloor Street.) I’d spoken to TJF Artistic Director Josh Grossman in May about the festival’s 2017 shift from Nathan Phillips Square to Yorkville, and the coincident severance of links to the many clubs that used to present music under the auspices of the festival, albeit with no real administrative oversight from the TJF offices; during our conversation, Grossman had mentioned that there would be more nocturnal options in and around Yorkville, so that festival patrons could easily move from outdoor stages (whose days typically finished by 9:30pm) to nearby indoor venues (at which performances began at 10pm).

TJF’s goal, then, was clear: work with local bars and restaurants to create a kind of pop-up ecosystem of late-night jazz venues, in order to create a fuller, more all-encompassing experience for patrons who would – at least theoretically – be able to seamlessly transition from out- to indoor shows, all the while feeling as though they were still participating in activities that were comfortably within the festival. Given the location, this is a more daunting task than it might seem. For those who may not know: though Joni Mitchell may have sung about the way “music comes spilling out into the street” in the area during the late 1960s when it provided a comfortable home to artists, bohemians, and other members of the contemporary Canadian counterculture, Yorkville does not currently have an abundance of live music venues (it is possible, however, to purchase “handcrafted bohemian moccasin boots,” currently on sale for $458.43 at Free People, a local boutique). (The Pilot is something of an exception: while it is not a full-time music venue, it does host a weekly jazz series on Saturdays, although it was not a festival venue this year as it was last year.)

And so – being of relatively sound mind and body, having an overarching interest in Toronto jazz in general and the TJF specifically, and, most importantly, looking for any excuse to get out of my apartment and not spend another evening contemplating the horrifying inevitability of my eventual descent into the endless silent void, I decided to check out the TJF’s “Jazz After Dark – Presented By Mill St. Brewery.” My goal: attend a show at each of the four night-time venues, and attempt to assess whether the TJF’s evening offerings hang together and feel linked, both to one another and to the festival as a whole. Briefly put: does the TJF succeed in creating the kind of ineffable festive affect that, while difficult to plan and implement and control, constitutes an immediate and palpable shared experience for festival attendees, from the most ardent local jazz fan to the friend of a friend who was dragged along to the show and whom I heard asking aloud (hand to God), “isn’t Miles David [sic] the ‘Wonderful World’ guy?” More briefly: does the “Jazz After Dark” portion of the festival feel, well, festive?

Mill Street Late-Night Jam at Proof Bar

As in previous years, the jam – a central component at most major Canadian jazz festivals – was held at Proof Bar at the InterContinental Hotel, located opposite the ROM on Bloor Street. Hotel bars seem to provide the de facto location for Canadian jazz festival jams; hotel-bar-pricing on drinks notwithstanding, the choice seems logical. The InterContinental is something of an upper-middle class hotel, with large washrooms, crisply-uniformed staff, and the kind of stark marbled lobby that would come standard with, say, a starter mini-mansion in Thornhill. The bar area is fairly large, and is mirrored by an even larger back patio; in my two visits to the jam, both areas were full. With the exception of two of its ten sessions, the jam was hosted by bassist Lauren Falls. Falls is a confident, experienced jazz player, and was also adept at managing the jam’s attendant duties. (In addition to playing as much as is needed for your particular instrument, hosting a jam also requires you to meet with prospective jammers as they arrive, keep the ever-shifting ensemble organized, and keep track of tunes, all the while maintaining some semblance of consistent set lengths; it’s a bit like being both server and chef simultaneously.) Between my two visits to the jam, I took in a combined total of three and a half sets of music, all of which were interesting, entertaining, and indicative of the high level of musicianship in Toronto. Most of the musicians I heard seemed to be Torontonians who had come specifically to play, as opposed to musicians (local or otherwise) who had played in the festival and were stopping off for a post-gig nightcap. At one point, a couple in attendance got up and started swing dancing; more on this later.

Hemingway’s Restaurant and Bar

I know I joked about the moccasins, but Yorkville is much more like The Distillery than it is, say, the Upper East Side, and most of its dining and shopping options are geared more towards the visiting sub- and exurbanite than towards the demonstratively wealthy. Hemingway’s – which, like The Pilot, contains a number of distinct rooms, including a never-unbusy rooftop patio – is more typical of the area than a bar like Proof, and features local craft beer priced at a reasonable $8.50 for a 20oz. pint (because, as the drink menu reads with no hint of irony, “SIZE MATTERS!”). I went to Hemingway’s on Saturday, June 29, and started things off by eating some nachos and drinking a 20oz. pint on the aforementioned rooftop patio with some friends, including JUNO-award-winning saxophonist/comedy enthusiast Allison Au, who was gracious enough to hang out with me on that particular evening, and my brother Sean, who has not won a JUNO, and whose knowledge of modern comedy is middling at best. After paying our reasonable bill, we went downstairs to watch guitarist Margaret Stowe play with her trio. Stowe – a fluid, technically-accomplished guitarist, whose playing pairs folky lyricism with an athletic grace – was holding court on the main floor. It was a beautiful, warm night, Hemingway’s was beyond full, and staff members were never seemed anything but polite and good-natured about everything in what, as far as I could see, was a pretty good venue.

Sassafraz Restaurant

After watching Melissa Aldana’s set on the Cumberland mainstage, van-owner/bassist Mark Godfrey and I tried to go to Sassafraz, but it was busy, and it was impossible to secure a table close to the band. Happily, the Sassafraz windows were wide open, and we were able to enjoy the music while sitting at a table in the Village of Yorkville Park (as it is named on the TJF brochure).

Later, while the band at Sassafraz was playing a 32-bar standard, an aggressive man stood close to us and yelled “Really?! The blues, in Yorkville, the richest neighbourhood in the city? Nice, reaaaaal nice.” He moved away quickly, so I did not have time to tell him my theory about how Yorkville is really more like The Distillery than it is the Upper East Side, or about Hemingway’s reasonably-priced 20oz. pints.

The Gatsby At The Windsor Arms Hotel

I saw two shows at The Gatsby: the violinist Aline Homzy, who played a beautiful show with bassist Andrew Downing and guitarist Jozsef Botos, and the guitarist Eric St-Laurent, who played with bassist Jordan O’Connor and pianist Todd Pentney. The Gatsby – a neo-jazz-age bar, named, presumably after the titular character of The Great Gatsby, a novel about the ultimate meaningless of decadent wealth – is located in The Windsor Arms hotel, which, as I learned online, has “been the home away from home for visiting royalty, aristocracy, stars of film and screen as well as heads of state and industry.” The décor is heavy on chandeliers and velvet. There is also a rack of fancy hats available at the entrance to the tea room, so that High Tea attendees won’t have to endure the shame of being hatless in the very room, apparently, in which Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor for the second time, in 1967. (Some Wikipedia research indicates that Burton and Taylor were still on their first marriage by 1967, and would not divorce and remarry until 1974-75; in any case, one imagines that Taylor would have brought her own hat.) Perhaps it’s because of all of the velvet, but The Gatsby had good acoustics, and worked well, at least from a sonic perspective, for the drummer-less groups I heard. As at Proof Bar, the food and drink options, though tasty, were not inexpensive, and attendees tended to be an older, sedate crew, with the notable exception of musicians who were there to support their friends.

On Dancing

As I mentioned above, there was a moment at the jam when a middle-aged couple got up and started swing dancing (they seemed perfectly nice, and I’m sure they were having a good time, and what’s to come is really not about them, although, I suppose, it really is). This dancing occurred during someone’s solo, continued until the end of the song, and, minor occurrence though it was, proved to be a deceptively complicated moment to parse; I’ve come back to it more than a few times over the past week. Initially, it seemed nice, as any physically affirmative reaction to live music tends to seem: the couple enjoyed the music, and, like so many have before, they started to dance to demonstrate their appreciation and to participate more fully in the experience. But I soon started to wonder if it wasn’t, well, sort of disrespectful to the soloist and to the band, if not intentionally so: is a jam not meant as a dedicated space specifically for musicians, in which they have the freedom to engage in the creative play of improvisation for an audience that should not treat them, even inadvertently, as background music to another activity? But, then again, the idea that jazz is calcified art music and that audiences should be bound by strict behavioural guidelines seems damaging, and, anyway, who’s to say that the couple dancing weren’t fully invested in the band’s music, and were earnestly trying to participate and honour the art they were experiencing? And yet: did the dancing not represent, in a venue that was not set up for dancing, in front of players who were concentrating on the deeply serious act of improvising, a moment in which the audience, innocent though it no doubt was of its error, made a claim about the balance of power in the room? I don’t know; it is still hard for me to say.

And so, as to whether the “Jazz After Dark” offerings fulfilled their implicit mandate to foster the intended post-sunset festival vibe: I can’t say, really. The more pressing question seems to be related to the dancing episode, and the complicated power structure that exists between festival, venue, artist, and audience. It is, I suppose, this: who is a jazz festival for, anyway? It is certainly not just for the audience, but nor is it for the artists. It is, ideally, both, simultaneously. But how can any festival – not just the TJF – strive to better strike that balance? I don’t know, at least not yet. It’s getting late, and I need to get to bed.

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival ran from June 21 to 30, 2019, in various locations throughout Yorkville, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

A new report published by Orchestras Canada last month promises to shed new perspective on classical music in Canada – and on how the orchestra can do better for the communities it aims to serve.

Co-authored by Soraya Peerbaye and Dr. Parmela Attariwala, “Re-sounding the Orchestra: Relationships between Canadian orchestras, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour” serves as a preliminary investigative look into Canadian orchestral culture, with a specific focus on interrogating the orchestra as a colonial, political and educational entity. The product of over one year of research, interviews, and roundtable discussions with arts administrators, orchestral artistic directors, Indigenous musicians and musicians of colour, the report is an effort to consolidate research and recommendations for a more equitable framework for orchestral music – including discussion around gender and racial diversity, cultural appropriation, and decolonization.

The report was presented at an Orchestras Canada national conference in Ottawa on June 12, and is publicly available for download here on the Orchestras Canada website.

Organized into three main chapters, “Re-sounding the Orchestra” begins with a presentation of insights gathered from interviews and roundtable discussions on the relationship between an orchestra and its surrounding communities. The second chapter takes the Orchestras Canada 2017 IDEA (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Accessibility) initiative (of which this report is a part) as its basis, and presents an overview of issues related to equity, diversity and coloniality in Canadian orchestras. The third, titled “Re-visioning Western classical musical training for the 21st century”, discusses how issues of equity are connected with orchestral training, mentorship and collaborative processes, including potential new directions for classical music education. The report ends with recommendations by the authors for how Orchestras Canada as an organization might move forward in the pursuit of defining – and creating – a more equitable orchestral culture.

As co-author Attariwala details at the beginning of the report, this is an important opportunity to open up discussion around the often-problematic legacies of the country’s musical institutions. “Who belongs in the orchestra, and whose music belongs in the orchestra?” she asks. “What is the relationship between orchestras and other musical cultures? Can those relationships exist equitably and according to current definitions of cultural ownership and sovereignty?” 

They’re challenging questions to answer, but the current report is an encouraging start towards reconsidering and reinventing those orchestral relationships. It’s a valuable document, not only for orchestral personnel, but for anyone interested in the creation of more equitable futures in the arts – and hopefully, the beginning of more discussions to come.

Re-sounding the Orchestra: Relationships between Canadian orchestras, Indigenous peoples, and people of colour” was published in June 2019 by Orchestras Canada, and is available online on the Orchestras Canada website: https://oc.ca/en/resource/re-sounding-the-orchestra/.

Melissa Aldana. Photo credit: Harrison Weinstein.On Tuesday, June 25, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival hosted the Chilean-born, New York-based tenor saxophonist Melissa Aldana. Aldana had a busy day: in addition to performing on the TD Mainstage in Yorkville with her eponymous quartet in the evening, she also made a guest appearance with a student ensemble from Berklee College of Music (her alma mater) in the afternoon, and participated in a masterclass in the morning. The masterclass, part of the TJF’s Jazz Musicians Intensive series, took place at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College Chapel, and was hosted by Mark Micklethwaite; though Aldana played two beautiful solo pieces to bookend the event, the masterclass primarily took the form of an interview.

Aldana has become something of a household name in the jazz community in recent years, but for those who may not have been familiar with her resumé, the masterclass was a good opportunity to learn. On paper, Aldana’s many accomplishments – full scholarship to Berklee to study with the likes of Joe Lovano and George Garzone; 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll Rising Star Tenor Saxophonist; winner, at age 24, of the 2013 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Saxophone Competition; and the recipient of a substantial prize and a record contract with Concord Jazz – constitute an enviable template for early-career success. When Aldana elaborated on these experiences, however, she was remarkably candid about the difficulties that her particular path had presented to her.

Many of these candid moments came near the end of the masterclass, in response to audience questions. When answering a query about whether she would consider moving out of New York (an emphatic “no,” as she hasn’t found another city that is as musically inspiring), she spoke openly about the difficulties that New York presents, including the cost of living, the low pay for creative gigs, and disparity between the high number of excellent players and the relatively low number of gigs. She also talked about the financial realities of her contract with Concord Jazz: though winning the Monk Competition was a boon for her career, she didn’t feel that Concord was really invested in her as a long-term artist, and that she saw maybe “a couple of cheques for $60” in royalty payments from Melissa Aldana and Crash Trio, her one Concord album. (Her newest release, Visions, is on the label Motéma, about which she spoke fondly.) Speaking freely about money is something that many young, successful jazz artists don’t always do, but Aldana reiterated what most in the room probably knew: that you make money as a musician from touring, which she will be doing with her band in North America and Europe for the majority of the summer. 

When I watched Aldana’s quartet – which included the pianist Sam Harris, bassist Pablo Menares, and drummer Kush Abadey – perform later that day, I was struck by several qualities of the music: Aldana’s tone, phrasing, and far-reaching technical command of the saxophone; the interplay between Harris and Abadey, both of whom have the ability to fill space in creative, musical ways without being intrusive; and the depth and melodicism of Aldana’s compositions. Throughout the concert, however, I kept coming back to a moment that occurred near the end of the masterclass, when Aldana was asked about how she maintains her motivation to tour, to compose, to rehearse and practice and write emails and deal with the endless waves of complicated overlapping responsibilities that attend a career as a musician. Her answer was simple, delivered with the same good-natured equanimity with which she’d spoken throughout the masterclass: because “playing music makes [her] feel lighter.” It is the work, as she further explained, that helps to make her feel calm, to make sense of other parts of her life, and to feel that she’s making a positive contribution to the world. After spending the morning cheerfully de-mystifying various aspects of her professional life, she could easily have faltered when asked to discuss the experience of playing; instead, she spoke honestly about the ways in which the work of music is its own unique reward. 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Melissa Aldana in three events—“The Jazz Musician Intensive 2019: I’m out - now what?” (10:30am, Victoria College Chapel), Berklee Quintet feat. Melissa Aldana (2pm, TD Mainstage), and the Melissa Aldana Quartet (8:15pm, TD Mainstage)—on Tuesday, June 25, 2019, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Makaya McCravenOn Saturday, June 22, I attended drummer/producer/bandleader Makaya McCraven’s concert at Adelaide Hall as part of the 2019 TD Toronto Jazz Festival. It was the sole festival show taking place at Adelaide Hall, also known as RADIO (it’s listed as Adelaide Hall on the TJF brochure, as RADIO on Google Maps, and as both on the venue’s website, although apparently the name was officially changed last year).

Conveniently, I was able to chat with TJF artistic director Josh Grossman, who happened to be standing near me in the audience before the show started. Grossman – who, it should be noted, was sipping a Mill Street beverage, an appropriately on-brand gesture given that the brewery is an official TJF sponsor – informed me that the show was originally meant for the Horseshoe Tavern, but, due to some logistical issues, had to be moved to an alternative venue. A few nights after the McCraven show, the Horseshoe hosted a double bill with Ghost-Note and Rinsethealgorithm; as all three groups play within a certain groove-based tradition, it’s easy to see the spectral framework of a venue-specific series that didn’t quite materialize. Despite the fact that it wasn’t the festival’s first choice for venue, Adelaide Hall has good sound, a relatively open layout with good sightlines, and an atmosphere that lent itself well to McCraven’s music.

I first heard the Chicago-based McCraven relatively recently, on Marquis Hill’s 2017 standards album The Way We Play; I remember being struck by McCraven’s ability to play time with propulsive authority while still remaining open and communicative. (Listen to his brushwork on “My Foolish Heart” for evidence of this, as he brings intensity and weight to the arrangement’s 3/4 groove.) It wasn’t until I did a bit more research on him that I realized the extent of his creative output and the breadth of his artistic practice, which includes playing in more traditional jazz settings with artists such as Hill and guitarist Bobby Broom, performing DJ sets at Turntable Lab NYC, and playing with his own project for Boiler Room London

It was a version of the latter band that played in Toronto. In addition to McCraven on drums, the ensemble included Greg Ward, saxophone; Matt Gold, guitar; Junius Paul, bass; and Greg Spero, keyboards. McCraven and co. played funky, groove-oriented material – music that, though deeply rooted in jazz, had strong elements of hip-hop, rock and other genres. With the exception of some crisply-delivered lyrics, sung by Paul on the Tony Williams composition “There Comes a Time,” it was an instrumental show, with a setlist that seemed specifically organized to keep the energy high throughout the evening. All five band members have chops to spare, but it was in the intelligent, methodically-constructed arcs of tension and release that the group really shone, honouring the compositions by putting the emphasis on groove and group interplay rather than individual feats of musical athleticism. Not that there weren’t thrilling solos (there were!), but the show’s most rewarding moments had more to do with texture and groove.

The last official song of the show – before the encore – was the McCraven original “This Place, That Place,”  a jittery, high-energy piece that features syncopated sixteenth-note shots over an odd-metre vamp. McCraven soloed over the vamp near the end of the tune, and even then, in a moment in which an audience might expect a band-leading drummer to let the notes fly, he played a measured, thoughtful, patient solo that ultimately proved to be one of the highlights of the evening.

An exciting show overall, in an unexpected venue that functioned well as a Toronto Jazz Festival showcase space for beat-driven music. 

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Makaya McCraven on June 22, 2019, at Adelaide Hall, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

Adanya Dunn, in the 2017 production of Charlotte. Photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann.On June 1, I had the opportunity to see Theaturtle's Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music at Hart House Theatre. A three-way collaboration between Canadian librettist (and Theaturtle's artistic director) Alon Nashman, British scenographer Pamela Howard and Czech composer Ales Brezina, this was the only performance in Toronto before the company goes on a world tour. Two years ago, an earlier work-in-progress version of Charlotte was presented at the 2017 Luminato Festival before touring abroad for the first time, and I became fascinated by the show and the creative team's innovative approach.

Inspired by the autobiographical series of 700+ gouache painting/collages entitled “Life? Or Theatre?” created by the young German Jewish artist Charlotte Salomon in the two years before her death at Auschwitz in 1942, the design of the costumes and props are taken literally from Charlotte's art. They are stylized, colourful, and evocative of a slightly surreal version of Germany and southern France in the 1930s and 40s; surrounding the stage are thin plastic sheets daubed with splashes of paint, meant to evoke the tracing paper with which Charlotte covered her creations. The music and text notes she made as part of her collages inform the libretto and music as much as the drawings inform the physical design, the creators aiming for a complete synchronicity of word, image and music to immerse us in her world.

According to Nashman, the team approached the musical aspect of the project as a singspiel in the Brecht/Weill tradition. “It is neither opera nor musical, even it it contains elements of both,” he explained to me last month. “There are moments of bitterly ironic cabaret, classical music references turned on their heads, some intense vocal experiments and contemporary sound poems.”

The script follows the story depicted in Charlotte's art (although the approach has changed quite a lot since the first time I saw it – more on that shortly). At heart, as the creative team feel, it is a real story that still resonates today, particularly now when people around the world are suffering under a frightening upsurge of far-right politics. Yet it is not so much a story about the rise of Nazism, but a young girl's journey to selfhood and her struggle to understand what is right in a world full of horrors – a girl who chronicled this coming-of-age during the rise of fascism as if she somehow knew that her own time was short. She was only 26 when she died.

What caught me so strongly in the 2017 workshop performances was the depiction of this struggle not to let the horrors, or horrible decisions Charlotte herself has to make, destroy her soul or spirit. I felt that there was still work to be done tightening and strengthening certain parts of the storyline, but this central theme shone through at the end of the play, making it a satisfying, as well as fascinating (although sometimes rather uncomfortable), experience.

Given this reaction to the original work-in-progress, my expectations of the revised version I saw on June 1 were very high. Reaching out before the performance to ask about how much the production might have changed, I learned from Nashman that “the past two years (had) been devoted to a process of refining and deepening.”

Interestingly, my original expectations of where the revisions and changes would happen were very different from where they actually did. One of the things I had liked best in 2017 was the opening sequence: in real time, in the south of France, we meet the parents (father and stepmother) looking for any tangible trace of Charlotte left behind after the end of the war. They are handed a paper-wrapped package which turns out to be the series of over 700 paintings she had created while exiled in France. As her parents start to look through the artwork exclaiming at memories from their past life together, Charlotte herself comes onstage and starts to tell us about the paintings and the people in them. As I wrote in my notes at the time, this opening offered an easy entrance into Charlotte's story – “grabbing our interest in a gentle way then segueing into the storytelling itself. As the story jumped ahead, Charlotte would pop out of the frame now and again, anchoring us and connecting us to each time period and introducing us to anyone new who entered the story.

In the 2019 version this opening is gone, and is replaced by a new prologue for Charlotte alone with her paintings which then leads into the autobiographical story depicted in her artwork. In this new version, rather than occasionally “popping out of the frame,” Charlotte is very much the narrator from beginning to end.

This fits with what Nashman had told me about the revision process. “Watching the video and reflecting on the 2017 productions at Luminato and the World Stage Design Festival, I came to realize that Charlotte had to be kept in the centre of the frame, that her voice needed to be even more present,” he explained. “I worked with dramaturge Ellie Moon, and found ways to bring Charlotte, both as creator and subject of the paintings, into sharper focus.” This he has done – but in moving away from the more naturalistic original opening and the more subtle introduction of Charlotte, something has been lost, and she has become a much less sympathetic character.

I felt the same way about the new ending. In the 2017 version, we realized in theatrical real time along with Charlotte the true horror of her family's history of suicide, and were caught up with her (as I wrote in my notes then) as she is torn apart by the need to decide whether she should  kill her predatory grandfather ‘as one kills an evil rat with poison,’ and as her memories of her lover lead her to choose life and creation instead of death.

In the new version, Charlotte talks about the decision she made, but without sharing the process with us in real time, and so it becomes a less personal moment, and to me felt less uplifting as a consequence.

The tone of the play is altered further by a change in the direction. There is now a more stylized physical acting approach for all the characters, a broader and sometimes over-the-top attack on character creation, particularly when actors are playing secondary parts (there is a lot of doubling), an approach that not all the company seem comfortable with. Thinking about this now, I wonder if the creative team is wanting to move toward a more thoroughly Brechtian approach to telling Charlotte's story: an approach that would use Brecht's famous “alienation effect” to present the story in a less personal or naturalistic style, using instead broader dramatic strokes and shocking juxtapositions to awaken in audiences, as Nashman said he hoped the new version would do, “a greater sense of amazement and loss as the story unfolds.”

The character of Charlotte is presented in a brasher, more modern way, with little vulnerability (though this may be partly due to changes in casting). This could be taken even further. For example, in the new version there is no indication that Charlotte is dead or that she died soon  after completing her series of paintings. Looking back at the opening scene, I would have liked her to say to us, straight out, something like: “I died in Auschwitz when I was 26. Somehow I knew that I had to record my life and hope in my art as quickly as I could.” A clearer differentiation between the narrative bridges and the story sequences throughout would have made both more effective.

Before seeing the new version, I had asked Nashman if he thought that the show was in its final form. His reply: “From everything I have experienced, music theatre demands a much longer development period than a play. There are so many creators, so many moving parts. I suspect that we will continue to tinker, but I would say that we are getting close to the final form.”

I am very curious to see how Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play With Music will continue to evolve as the production visits festivals around Europe and is experienced by different audiences. Will the company go 'all out' in the direction of a very stylized physical presentational performance, or go back and reincorporate some of the best bits of the earlier, more naturalistic storytelling?  Whichever direction they take, this is an important story – and a fascinating theatrical production to experience.

Theaturtle presented Charlotte: A Tri-Coloured Play with Music, at 2pm on June 1, 2019, at Hart House Theatre, Toronto.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Luciano Pavarotti. Photo credit: Sacha Gusov, c/o Mongrel Media.One sunny spring Saturday afternoon in the early 1980s, I happened to be walking through Little Italy in Lower Manhattan when I was transfixed by a glorious operatic aria spilling into the street from a nearby store. I had never heard singing more beautiful. The music drew me into its source, an Italian butcher shop. I asked the butcher what he was listening to and he told me it was the Met live broadcast. “Who’s singing?” I wanted to know. “Pavarotti,” he said. As I left the shop to continue my walk, I like to think that the whole neighbourhood was filled with that incredible tenor voice. I had suddenly joined the millions of fans of Luciano Pavarotti.

Pavarotti, the new documentary by celebrated filmmaker Ron Howard, is an engrossing portrait of an outsize personality that focuses on the musical career of a man considered to be the greatest tenor of the last half of the 20th century: a man of great appetites and even greater empathy, whose golden voice carried with it an unsurpassed emotional quotient that resonated with all who heard it.

Howard, working with the same team that produced the dynamic doc, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years, had unprecedented access to Pavarotti’s estate: photographs, recordings, video, home movies and interviews, both vintage and newly minted for the film. The movie opens with one of the most astounding clips of all. The year is 1995 and the place is Manaus, Brazil, in the thick of the Amazon jungle. Here, in the little opera house known as Teatro Amazonas, where Caruso himself once sang 100 years before, Pavarotti is seen in his sweatpants accompanied by a piano, pouring forth with total abandon for a handful of passers-by. Flutist Andrea Griminelli – who shot the footage – pointed out that the trip up the Amazon followed a concert for 200,000 people in Buenos Aires.

Much of the rare footage Howard used came directly from the personal collection of Nicoletta Mantovani, Pavarotti’s second wife, the mother of their daughter Alice and head of the Pavarotti Museum in Modena. Mantovani also arranged many of the new interviews, including those with opera stars such as Plácido Domingo and Angela Gheorghiu, as well as Pavarotti’s first wife and their three daughters (all three of them born within four years and seven months of one other), whose insights into his home life add immeasurably to an understanding of this complex artist. His daughter Giuliana, who loved his costumes as a child, once cried out “Papa” when she saw him shot dead in Tosca.

The film contains many nuggets, especially in the first act of Pavarotti’s real-life three-act arc – for instance, that he learned to breathe (“which is the most simple thing but the most difficult”) from Joan Sutherland when they toured Australia together; he saw how firm her diaphragm was before she attacked any note. Other such moments in the film: Gheorghiu pointed out that soprano and baritone voices are natural, but to become a tenor is unnatural, and “you must have the high C.” Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo said, “A tenor voice is constructed, not natural; a great tenor makes it feel natural.” American soprano Carol Vaness: “Luciano’s voice always went straight to my heart – clear, passionate, beautiful, heaven on earth, truly.”

Pavarotti was born in 1935 in Modena, Italy, the son of a baker “and a tenor.” He made his debut in 1961 as Rodolfo in La Bohème; two years later, he performed the role at Covent Garden as a replacement for an ailing Giuseppe Di Stefano. But it was Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, with its nine high Cs, that made him famous. As the film progresses, we learn why he held a white handkerchief and how he was a nervous wreck before every performance at the Met. “I go to die,” he would say.

His second act was centred on the Three Tenors; rock music promoter Harvey Goldsmith adds colourful anecdotes along the way. Nicoletta Mantovani tells us that her husband wanted to be remembered for bringing opera to the masses and that he surely succeeded. By the third act of his life, the Pavarotti and Friends period, he had cemented relationships with the likes of Princess Diana and Bono, was raising money for his children’s charity, and expanding into collaborations with pop stars. By the time of his death in 2007 from pancreatic cancer, the charismatic performer had been seen by more than ten million people and sold more than 100 million albums.

In a film so filled with music that it makes any attempt at cataloguing it an exercise in futility, Pavarotti’s voice reigns supreme, both as a man and as an artist.

Honor Swinton Byrne in The Souvenir. Photo credit: Nikola Dove, c/o A24.By contrast, the two dozen or so snippets of music that are used to punctuate, comment on or simply bridge scenes in Joanna Hogg’s artful, coming-of-age, quasi-autobiographical new British film, The Souvenir, couldn’t be more dissimilar to Pavarotti’s richly mined vein. Set in the early 1980s, The Souvenir tracks a love affair between Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), a guileless, well-to-do film student, and Anthony (Tom Burke), a seemingly posh Foreign Service Officer.

Their relationship is swollen with mystery and presented in a series of perfectly composed cinematic postcards, often with painterly care and dialogue that rings true. Swinton Byrne (whose real-life mother, Tilda Swinton, plays her mother in the film) has an appealing naturalism that makes no effort to conceal the emotions her romance often brings to the surface. Burke’s caddish, dissembling character nevertheless does charm his younger lover, pushing her buttons with allusions to the cinematic world of Powell and Pressburger. (“We don’t want to see life played out as is, we want to see life as it is experienced within this soft machine.”)

Most of the music excerpts are contemporaneous, like The Specials’ Ghost Town, Gary Numan’s Metal or The Psychedelic Furs’ Love My Way; most take up less than a minute of time. Some, like Robert Wyatt’s Shipbuilding and Joe Jackson’s Is She Really Going Out with Him?, directly comment on what we’ve just seen. The use of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Verdi’s La forza del destino activate a sense of foreboding that gets our attention. As does Hogg’s carefully calibrated film.

Pavarotti is currently playing at Cineplex Varsity & VIP. The Souvenir is currently playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

Alex Fournier. Photo credit: Paul Hillier.Alex Fournier – bassist, composer, bandleader, concert curator – has established, steadily and surely, an important presence in the Toronto creative music scene. You can find him at clubs like The Rex, at which he played, in March of this year, with trumpeter Jim Lewis, drummer Nick Fraser, and famed American saxophonist Tony Malaby; in a variety of groups, both as a co-leader (Money House, Gardening Club, Quartzite Jongleur) and as a sideperson (Colour and Noise, Lake Affect, Bearrah Fawcett, the Dan Pitt Trio, Pineapple); and programming and running his own concert series, Furniture Music, which, as the name implies, began as a series of house concerts (Furniture Music events now tend to take place at The Tranzac, Toronto’s de facto home base for free and improvised music, and Wenona Craft Beer Lodge, a relatively new venue which, in an improbable but happy turn of events, has been hosting a number of creative, musician-curated series). The Rex is also where Fournier will be releasing his sextet’s eponymous debut album, Triio, on June 2. Triio is Fournier’s longest-running project, and has grown organically from a standards ensemble into its current iteration, which, in addition to Fournier’s bass playing and compositions, features Bea Labikova on woodwinds, Aiden Sibley on trombone, Tom Fleming on guitar, Ashley Urquhart on piano and Mark Ballyk on drums. 

Triio begins with ESD, an urgent, pulsing song that functions as an effective example both of Fournier’s compositional style and of his band-leading philosophy. A lengthy solo piano introduction gives way to a snaky melody, which sits atop jittery drums and a doubled bass line; in time, this dissolves into a free improvised section, which ultimately morphs back into the melody at the song’s end.

It is common, in this style of playing, for bandleaders to bring in fairly simple melodies, and to treat the compositions as seasoned jazz musicians would treat a leadsheet in a straightahead setting; that is, as a melodic and harmonic sketch, which they collectively fill in. This is not the approach that Fournier has taken. One of the most striking features of Triio songs like ESD, Noisemaker, and Permanently Hiccups is the specificity that Fournier employs to realize his musical vision; more striking still is that the shifts from composed to improvised material never feel unnatural, but rather like the inevitable consequences of the proceedings. The notable elements of Fournier’s tunes – through-composed forms, textural shifts, tightly orchestrated (and highly technical) melodies – don’t seem to hamper the creativity of the rest of the band as much as inspire it, by providing clear parameters in which a certain kind of musical play can happen. That this all seems to happen readily and unselfconsciously is a testament to Fournier’s musical leadership qualities; it’s easy to imagine that he would be good at teaching someone how to play a board game, or cribbage, or any activity in which the purest expression of play comes from a solid understanding of the rules, and the paradoxical freedom of being bound by those rules. 

Fournier’s developmental path has been somewhat different than that of some of his peers. After graduating from the University of Toronto’s jazz studies program, he did what most young jazz musicians do: established a freelancing career, taught privately, and attended workshops, including the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and the School for Improvisational Music (SIM), which takes place in New York at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music. It was at SIM that Fournier first worked with the American bassist Michael Formanek, whose 2010 ECM album The Rub and Spare Change had been pivotal in Fournier’s compositional and improvisational outlook. As Fournier describes, it was the first time that he saw how all of the musical elements that he loved could fit together: “you can play this composed thing, you can do whatever you want with it, you can continue the momentum, you can abandon it, you can change it, and then the tune comes back in, but it’s not even the same tune that you started, but you can just end it there.”

Fournier got along well with Formanek at SIM, which led to a grad school application to the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, where Formanek was a faculty member. While most Toronto jazz musicians look to New York for their grad school experience and are more focused on being part of an inspiring scene and an elite cohort, Fournier opted for Baltimore, a smaller city, and Peabody, which is better known for its classical program than for jazz.

The trade-off – working with Formanek – was worth it. Fournier’s experience with Formanek at Peabody was much closer to an intimate mentor/mentee relationship than one commonly finds in jazz programs, even at the graduate level. Beyond productive private lessons, Fournier had the opportunity to guest-lead some of Formanek’s classes, including a big band, small ensemble, and a global improvisation class, which focused on what Fournier describes as “empirical ideas that you can apply to different aspects of your improv.” For Fournier, it was a rare experience: a relationship in which, as he puts it, “you go in as student/mentor, and you come out as friends.” 

Upon returning to Toronto, Fournier jumped back into the scene, working in other people’s bands, helming his own projects, and organizing the aforementioned Furniture Music series. When I suggest that he is becoming a bit of a leader in a particular corner of the local music-making community, however, he’s quick to shift focus onto the musicians who inspire him, “fantastic luminaries” such as “Lina Allemano, Nick Fraser, Andrew Downing, Rob Clutton,” and others who are “able to have their feet in both worlds” – the worlds of free improvised music and more straightahead jazz. (Like many musicians in the field, Fournier doesn’t love using the term “free jazz” to describe certain aspects of what he does; “modular music,” his preferred way of describing his process, is more formally accurate, while still as generically vague as terms like “improvised music,” “creative music,” or, on the classical side, “new music.” Nomenclature is particularly tricky for music focused on exploring the porous boundaries between ideas and styles.)

Triio.Fournier’s curatorial efforts, his respect for the formal and informal mentorship process, and his band-leading all share one key component: a willingness and enthusiasm to make room for others, and to facilitate unique collaborative work. With the release of Triio, Fournier’s work has come full circle: by embracing a generous musical model, he has created a band, album, and performance practice that showcases a wide range of his abilities, all the while honouring his band members and the work of those who have come before him. 

Alex Fournier’s group Triio releases its eponymous debut album at 9:20pm on June 2, at The Rex, Toronto.

Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached through his website, on Instagram and on Twitter.

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