2471Toronto`s Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC) is a registered charity that focuses on jazz education, cultivating new audiences for the music as well as mentoring young musicians. Inspired in part by Jazz at Lincoln Centre in New York City, JPEC aims to establish a first-class, multi-purpose facility in Toronto to feature performances, educational programming, recording facilities and a Hall of Fame and Archives to preserve Canada`s jazz heritage and tradition.

Last night at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, JPEC presented its third annual gala, ``Jazz at the Movies,`` featuring a wealth of local talent including four vocalists which charmed the audience in their own sweet way. Heather Bambrick entertained with her trademark warmth, wit and class, singing and emceeing in style. Crooner Denzal Sinclaire`s delicious, effortlessly smooth delivery evoked the late Nat King Cole, while newcomer Francois Mulder won the crowd over with his attractive voice. If one performer stood out, it was without a doubt Jackie Richardson, whose impeccable brand of musical storytelling is truly an experience to behold. This woman`s on-stage magic is not a dish, but a full-course meal: an almighty voice that wows, a great big heart that feels, impeccable timing that cooks, and a huge pair of eyes that light the room on fire. Sprinkle these elements with Richardson`s humility and grace and you have a true national treasure.

All four vocalists were accompanied by the JPEC Tentet which featured ten highly regarded, award-winning jazz musicians, all of whom also serve as educators: Shirantha Beddage, baritone saxophone; Mark Promane, alto saxophone and flute; Mike Murley, tenor saxophone; William Carn, trombone; Ted Quinlan, guitar; Brian Dickinson, piano; Pat Collins, bass; Terry Clarke, drums; Don Thompson, vibes; and Denny Christianson, trumpet and musical director.

There was a welcome balance of vocal and instrumental jazz in the evening`s program; the tentet played several instrumental arrangements including a memorable version of the famous Duke Ellington/Peggy Lee collaboration, ``I`m Gonna Go Fishin`,`` while the Mario Romano Quartet dazzled with a short set that included a poignant ballad reading of ``Someday My Prince Will Come`` starring the legendary Pat LaBarbera.

All in all, this was a highly entertaining event for a very ambitious and admirable endeavour. Good to see that it was well-attended, and even though the event didn`t sell out, it seemed that a lot of the audience learned of the organization`s initiatives by attending this gala. The next Jazz Performance and Education Centre event takes place at the George Weston Recital Hall on Sunday November 20 at 7:30pm, when West African jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke`s trio takes the stage. If you`ve never heard of him, check out this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KXzgWTZ2NW0 and here`s hoping to see you at the concert!

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Hot venue on a Saturday night. Koerner Hall in its third season hosting yet another jazz spectacular.  Can’t miss!

Yet there was room at the inn on Oct. 15, far too many seats vacant given the calibre of the visitors. It should have helped fringe fans decide to attend when half the music presented was based on the songs of prolific pop icon Stevie Wonder. Perhaps it’s the don’t-care attitude to jazz on the part of mainstream media hereabouts.

For serious jazz followers the SF Jazz Collective with its innovative repertoire has been leading the charge down one of many jazz-fostered highways of 21st century music-making since it was formed in 2004. The eight performers in the collective, whose personnel has slowly evolved over the years, decide annually to play new compositions “by a modern jazz master” and by themselves.

Some might well object that Stevie W is not on the same planet as previous honorees such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock – but what does that really matter. The concert was mostly splendid, more pleasing for jazzers rather than followers of the talent born Stevland Hardaway Judkins 61 years ago.

The atmosphere at first was studied, California cool, but the shrieking high notes of trumpeter Avishai Cohen soon dispelled the calm and proceedings began to heat up with tenor saxophonist Mark Turner duelling the exemplary  pulse pals underpinning this sophisticated octet, drummer Kendrick Scott and bassist Matt Penman.

The tune, which turned out to be Wonder’s Sir Duke, was rife with riffs and deep-layered ensemble playing, a factor all evening. This presentation, like the others, worked better when a soloist was deserted by colleagues who sidled reverently to the sides of the stage. Otherwise, you might easily think there was too much happening at once.

Vibraphonist Stefon Harris made an eloquent verbal case for the group’s  reinvention of music before employing multiple mallets effectively and effortlessly on his instrument on every tune.

Alto saxist Miguel Zenon, one of those lucky McArthur Fellowship ‘genius’ recipients, provided a rich and yearning core for his tune More To Give while exceptionally fluent trombonist Robin Eubanks (who confessed at intermission that the Stevie suggestion came from him) was in stirring, raucous mode on his own Metronome though here as elsewhere there was much forward momentum but not enough swing for my taste.

Eubanks is an imaginative standout among his peers, working well – as did everyone – with veteran pianist Ed Simon, a skilled interpreter whatever the genre and complex compositional structure.

Recent Wonder track Creepin’ preceded a bizarre segment with soloists rambling then letting bass and drum noodling intervene. Didn’t work, in marked contrast to fire-and-brimstone takes on Stevie’s Superstition and an earlier pop classic whose every word is familiar but whose title stubbornly remains elusive.

It didn’t matter. This was an inspiring evening.

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There can be very few cities to have seen two different stagings of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride within the last three years, but Toronto, luckily, is one of them.  Opera Atelier gave the 1779 opera its Toronto professional premiere in 2003 and remounted the work in 2009.  Now the Canadian Opera Company, that staged its very first Gluck just earlier this year with Orfeo ed Euridice, has launched its new season with Robert Carsen’s production from 2006 owned by several companies.  The production features gorgeous singing from the principals and the chorus.  Visually, however, it’s stultifying.

Carsen’s production employs a concept that I have seen far too often and have never found satisfying--namely, to present an opera or play deliberately in a visual impoverished, or in this case, oppressive setting, with the sole goal of setting up a visual transformation at the very end.  We had an example of this technique just earlier this year in the COC’s Ariadne auf Naxos, when the entire opera-within-the-opera was played on a tatty, cobbled-together set, only to be whisked away in the final moments to reveal a star-strewn vista.  The problem is that director Neil Armfield in the case of Ariadne auf Naxos and Carsen in the case of Iphigénie has sacrificed visual interest during the entire course of the opera for a single theatrical effect at the end.  Such a sacrifice is not worth it.  It is unfair to the audience and to the opera.

Tobias Hoheisel’s design for Carsen’s Iphigénie is particularly stark.  The set consists of the floor and three sides of a black box.  In this modern dress productions, all the women, including Iphigénie, are barefoot and wear identical black, plain, one-piece dresses.  All the men wear black--long-sleeved shirt, trousers, belt--and are barefoot when meant to be vulnerable or socks and shoes when not.  Oreste and Pylade, the foreigners, are not distinguished in dress from the others.  Thoas wear a large black coat to show his authority but his men wear identical black coats when accompanying him.  Needless to say, watching a production entirely in black on black for the majority of two hours is extraordinarily tedious.  The design necessarily forces us to focus on the performers’ faces and hands, but even then Carsen has the principals sing facing away from the audience at key moments.

The meaning of the box is clear.  Iphigénie, her brother Oreste and his friend Pylade find their lives still constrained by the curse on the house of Atreus.  Oreste believes that Iphigénie has been sacrificed by her father Agamemnon at Aulis, not knowing that Diana substituted a simulacrum for her and whisked the girl to safety in Taurus.  Now Thoas, ruler of Tauris has had a dream that he will be killed by a foreigner and so commands any new arrivals be sacrificed.  Of course, Oreste and Pylade are the first foreigners to arrive after the decree.

The meaning of all the black is clear.  Gluck wanted to reform opera to bring it back to the simplicity of the Greeks and the opera is a tragedy, albeit with a happy ending.  Yet, even the Greeks were never as stark as this.  They plays took place in the daylight and they and used colourful three-sided periaktoi to indicate change of place.
Carsen has placed the singing chorus in the pit and uses a chorus of dancers on stage to generally confusing effect.  When they lie on the ground it’s unclear whether they are asleep or dead.  The priestesses can suddenly turn into the Furies who pursue Oreste as can the prone populace into snakes.  At the end when the people are supposed to be rejoicing, Iphigénie is surrounded by seemingly dead bodies and Oreste and Pylade who ought to be celebrating with her and each other rush away from her in opposite directions.  It does not make sense.

Fortunately, the singing of Susan Graham in the title role is magnificent.  Not only is her voice warm and radiant but she has a beautiful sense of line and breathtaking command of dynamics.  Russell Braun in fine voice throws himself into the role of Oreste with even more intensity than usual, giving the most naturalistically detailed performance on stage.  As Pylade, Joseph Kaiser appearing at last again in Toronto after achieving fame elsewhere, has a wonderfully passionate, multihued voice ideal for the character.  Carsen does not go as far as Opera Atelier in depicting Oreste and Pylade’s true passionate relationship and thus places Pylade too often in the situation of trying to get close to Oreste, who repeatedly casts him off.  Thoas is Mark S. Doss, who wields a sepulchral bass and a vibrato that tends to obscure his diction.

Conductor Pablo Heras-Casado, last on the podium for Nixon in China, leads the COC Orchestra in traversal of the score with a very narrow dynamic range, as if the work were all forte and fortissimo.  He does attempt to lighten the orchestral texture but he is not as successful at this as Harry Bickett was in Orfeo, and in general the sound remains overly heavy.

If one has to compare the OA and COC productions there is simply no doubt that the OA production is far superior in storytelling and in eliciting a wider range of detailed acting from its performers that makes their changing emotional states much clearer.  While it wonderful to see such performers as Graham, Braun and Kaiser in such fine form on stage they may as well be performing the opera in concert given the clothes they wear and the box they stand in.  One feels that they, like their characters, are trapped by an oppressive regime that inhibits rather than supports full enjoyment of their gifts.

‘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.

The Blackcreek Festival ended on Saturday night in grand style, with the London Symphony Orchestra performing in Toronto for the first time in thirty years. It was a splendid evening for sitting outside under an open sky enjoying Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Perfect weather was no small matter here, since that very evening the whole of the east coast was battening down for Hurricane Irene, and the festival had already had to postpone or cut short concerts because of persistent rain and lightening. The Rexall Centre was well-filled. Parking on the  campus of York University went smoothly, without the gridlock that had marred the opening concert with Domingo and Radvanovsky.

The  amplification system succeeded, by and large, in turning a tennis stadium into a concert hall. The sound was surprisingly natural, with the winds especially rich in tone. The strings offered some beautiful ensemble playing, especially with the cellos singing out in the third movement. But they suffered most from a general lack of resonance in the sound, and were particularly thin at the top.

The transparent textures conductor Lorin Maazel achieved were delightful, and the lovely details he brought out were a treat. But they were at times overwhelmed by his stately tempos and drawn-out pauses. In fact, at one point in the final movement Maazel lingered so long that members of the audience started clapping, presumably because they thought the piece was over.  This was the slowest Beethoven’s Ninth I’ve ever heard.

BlackCreek’s controversial artistic director Garth Drabinsky once again enlisted Stephen Cera, who had put together the series of concerts at the Ford Centre (now the Toronto Centre for the Arts) for him back in the 1990’s, as programmer. Here they assembled four elite soloists for the final movement of the Beethoven. The big catch was German bass René Pape, making his Canadian debut, who opened the concert in style with the Coronation Scene from Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, an opera he sang last season at the Met. Pape was so good that I was sorry that a concert of opera arias featuring him with Maazel and the LSO had been cancelled by BlackCreek due to poor sales.

Toronto’s own soprano Adrianne Pieczonka and tenor Richard Margison both soared thrillingly, as did Russian mezzo Ekaterina Metlova, though Margison and Maazel didn’t appear to see eye to eye on the tempo for Margison’s dramatic entrance.  The  splendid chorus assembled  by local choral wizard Robert Cooper sang with gusto in both works.

A giant video screen mounted above the stage offered close-ups of the performers from various angles. Maazel’s precise, clear beat was especially interesting to watch. But why not use at least one screen for English translations of Mussorgsky’s own text for Boris, and Schiller’s famous Ode to Joy in the Beethoven -  especially since the texts weren’t included in the program.

Will this troubled but remarkable festival be able to get its act together and continue next year? I’m left hoping it does – especially if it can keep up the high standards in classical programming.



2010_detroit_jazz_festivalJazz fans in the Toronto region shouldn’t despair because the big local jazz festivals are over. There’s still plenty of music within easy reach, especially if you enjoy a little drive or train ride.

The main festival that has caught my eye is the Detroit Jazz Festival on the Labour Day weekend. Although it’s only three-and-a-half days long, the festival packs a huge and varied amount of music and events into that time, with performances on five stages in a relatively compact area

Being vocal- and world-musically inclined, a few of the acts that jumped off the schedule for me are:
- Angelique Kidjo, Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright perform “Sing the Truth” a tribute to a range of pioneering singer-songwriters – Friday, September 2 @ 8:45 p.m.
- Brazilian-American singer Luciana Souza with guitarist Romero Lubambo (who also performs with Kidjo and company) – Saturday, September 3 @ 1:45
- New York-based neo-soul singer Rahsaan Patterson – Sunday, September 4 @ 3:45 p.m.
- The lilting African folk of Regina Carter’s “Reverse Thread” should have a few people on their feet – Sunday, September 4 @ 4:00 p.m.

Other big jazz names include the Dave Holland Octet, Vijay Iyer Trio and Joe Lovano “Us Five.”

All the performances are FREE, but there’s a great VIP pass/hotel package on offer for those who want guaranteed access. The package provides special reserved seating, food and drink, and a good rate at the nearby host hotel, Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Centre. The hotel package rate is time-limited and must be booked before August 25. Check the jazz festival website for details or the hotel website to book.

Later in September, and a little less urban, is the All Canadian Jazz Festival in historic Port Hope, Ontario. From September 23-25, up-and-coming Canadian jazzers share the stage with more experienced players in what’s been called one of the prettiest jazz festivals around.

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