This article is part 3 of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

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jazzfest bannerPhoto c/o the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.The 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival celebrated two important birthdays this year. The first: the festival, originally founded in 1987, is now in its 32nd year. The second: 2018 marks the second year that the Jazz Festival has been based in the Bloor-Yorkville area, with, as advertised on the official schedule, “more than 165 free shows and events.” These free events took place both out- (on temporary stages erected throughout Yorkville for the festival) and indoors (at Heliconian Hall, Isabel Bader Theatre, Church of The Redeemer, The Pilot Tavern and Sassafraz Restaurant.) There was also a nightly jam at Proof Vodka Bar in The Intercontinental Hotel (hosted primarily by the Lauren Falls Trio), and ticketed events at Koerner Hall, Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, The ROM, The Danforth Music Hall, The Horseshoe Tavern and The Church of The Redeemer. As for clubs that present jazz year-round (beyond The Pilot), there were only two: The Old Mill, which hosted a four-evening “Heather Bambrick & Friends” series, and The Rex, which presented 3-4 shows daily, with an emphasis on progressive, young-ish acts.

Both the free outdoor shows and the scaled-down club content represent a major shift in the festival’s direction from years past. Until the 2017 festival, outdoor shows were in large tents in Nathan Phillips Square, and were often ticketed, rather than free. There were also a large number of clubs that presented their own content under the auspices of the festival, but, according to artistic director Josh Grossman, that the festival didn’t have input into booking; as such, as of last year, the festival-affiliated club dates were largely removed from the schedule. Beyond the artistic concerns, it also seems like this extended network of restaurants, bars and clubs hosting official Jazz Festival shows presented certain physical challenges; it is hard, after all, to wander from a venue like the late Gate 403 in Roncesvalles to a centrally-located outdoor festival site. The result of the recent changes was, both last year and this year, a festival experience that felt leaner, stronger, and, with echoes of analogous outdoor Jazz Festival spaces in Ottawa and Montreal, efficiently centralized. It also felt – for only the second time, in my experience as an attendee – easy to navigate, comfortably accessible, and, most importantly, festive.

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Some of the things that I overheard at the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Outdoor Grounds, Yorkville, at various points between June 22 and July 1:

“My dad is, like, obsessed with jazz. I think that’s why I like it.”

“I can’t wait to see Herb Hancock!”

“It’s so wonderful to see so many women onstage. And so young, and so talented!”

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The Tara Kannangara Group at the 2018 Festival. Photo c/o the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.I played two shows at the festival this year, both close to the beginning of the schedule. The first, with the Tara Kannangara Group (Tara Kannangara, voice/trumpet; Chris Pruden, piano/keyboards; Julian Anderson-Bowes, bass; Mackenzie Longpré, drums; and myself on guitar), took place on the afternoon of Sunday, June 24 on the OLG Stage on Cumberland; the second, with Collective Order, took place on the evening of Monday, June 25 at The Pilot. Through some happy freak-of-scheduling luck, my playing obligations preceded my responsibilities for The WholeNote, which were to watch and write about Savion Glover and Marcus Gilmore at Koerner Hall on June 26, to watch and write about Starebaby at The Rex on June 28, and, finally, to watch and write about an unspecified number of free shows in Yorkville on June 30 (which follows in this article).

Through another happy freak of luck, I also found myself – both this year and last – living within walking distance of the festival grounds, and watched quite a few other free festival shows throughout the week. On Monday, June 25 I checked out the Teri Parker Quartet (Teri Parker, piano; Luis Deniz, alto saxophone; Mark Godfrey, bass; Mackenzie Longpré, drums), an accomplished group that primarily played Parker’s original modern jazz compositions and arrangements. Singer/ukulelist Lydia Persaud played material from her new Low Light EP – along with additional original material and a few choice covers – to a receptive and appreciative crowd on Tuesday, June 26 (with Dean Drouillard, guitar; Kyla Charter, voice; Robbie Grunwald, bass and keyboard; and Mike Ardagh, drums). Chelsea McBride’s Socialist Night School – a modern big band project helmed by saxophonist/composer McBride – showcased both original compositions and the talents of a number of young Toronto-based musicians on Wednesday, June 27, at the tail-end of their cross-Canada tour. On Thursday, June 28, I caught re.verse (Robb Cappelletto, guitar; Damian Matthew, bass; and Chino de Villa, drums), an excellent trio that specializes in modern interpretations of hip-hop and R&B repertoire (performing with the KeepRockinYou dance collective), and The Carn Davidson 9, a “chordless” ensemble anchored by co-leaders William Carn (trombone) and Tara Davidson (alto saxophone), whose rock-solid arranging skills were on full display, underscored by the strength of the band. Finally, on Friday – as the temperature crept up to 30° in the late afternoon – I heard Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop (Tara Davidson, alto sax; Will Carn, trombone; Joel Frahm, tenor sax; Adrean Farrugia, piano; Dan Loomis, bass; and Ernesto Cervini, drums) which, despite the weather, performed a high-energy show to a large, happy, sweaty crowd.

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Some more things that I overheard:

“If I don’t get out of this sun immediately I’m literally going to die.”

“You know, I didn’t think I liked jazz, but since I had some water and a snack I’m really starting to enjoy myself.”

“So, they’re just, like, making this all up, right?”

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I am typically not much for activewear – a friend once commented, during a shared trip to the gym, that I have “the legs of a scholar” – but, in preparation for my day of outdoor music-watching, I purchased a pair of shorts. According to weather.com (consulted, in research for this piece, after the fact) the high in Toronto on Saturday June 30 was 35°. The heat was not, however, a deterrent to festival attendees. As is so often the case during episodes of mild meteorological oppression, the shared burden had somewhat of a unifying effect on audience and musicians alike: together, we sweat.

The first show of the day was the Allison Au Quartet, with special guests Michael Davidson (vibraphone) and Daniel Fortin (bass) joining bandleader/saxophonist Au and Fabio Ragnelli (drums) on the OLG Stage on Hazelton Ave. at noon. The AAQ were wrapping up a tour of Canadian jazz festivals, and both new material and older compositions sounded fresh and exciting. Au was playing as part of the Junos 365 Acts series, featuring past Juno winners and nominees – as was baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage, who played on the OLG Cumberland stage at 12:30pm with a quartet featuring Nancy Walker (piano), Mike Downes (bass), and Ethan Ardelli (drums). Highlights of Beddage’s set included the gospel-tinged 9/8 ballad The Long Goodbye, complete with key change, and the Giant Steps contrafact Angle of Incidence, with great playing from the whole band. Later, on the same stage (and as part of the same Junos series), bassist/vocalist Brandi Disterheft led her quartet in a bluesy set with Grant Stewart (tenor sax), Alex Minasian (piano) and Mark Hundevad (drums), at the same time as guitarist/singer Luis Mario Ochoa put on a joyful, confident show at the Yorkville Village – The Lane stage (with Jeremy Ledbetter, keyboard, Louis Simão, bass, and Amhed Mitchel, drums).

Andrew Downing.The final show that I watched on Saturday was Andrew Downing’s Otterville, presented in the mercifully air-conditioned Heliconian Hall. Named after the village in Norwich Township, and designed to “evoke the peace, quiet and simplicity of small-town Ontario,” Otterville is probably best characterized as a “chamber jazz” ensemble, with unusual instrumentation (this performance featured Allison Au, alto sax; Michael Davidson, vibraphone; Christine Bougie, lap steel guitar; Mike Smith, bass guitar; Nick Fraser, drums; with bandleader/composer Downing on cello). Downing exudes a quiet charm, reflected both in the group’s music and in his interactions with the audience; he elicited immediate chuckles when, following the medium-slow Fall in Line, he introduced the piece A Pair of Eyes with the caveat that they were going to “slow things down a bit for [the] next song” (which was true). A fellow audience member close to me called the song “a beautiful daydream,” which is an apt description of the show as a whole, although the metaphor fails to capture the careful compositional rigor that seemed to undergird even the most wistful, breezy moments in Downing’s music.

At the end of the day, it seems as though the festival had done well in their choice of local programming, not just in picking acts that are representative of Toronto, but in acts that are representative of the many unique scenes that constitute Toronto jazz/improvised music as a whole. Programming a festival is a fraught business: there are sponsors to please, a limited number of spots, and the feelings of a community at stake. That being the case, it was gratifying to see, in the choices at this year’s Jazz Festival, that a serious effort was made to celebrate the accomplishments of the musicians, curators and venues that contribute so much to Toronto music year-round.

The 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival took place from June 22 to July 1, in various locations throughout 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.

This article is part 2 of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

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Dan Weiss.This is the metal, and this is the jazz. Drink full and descend.  

On Thursday, June 28, Dan Weiss’s Starebaby performed for the second time in a two-night engagement at The Rex as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Fans of The Rex may be surprised to learn that this year marks the first time that The Rex has been an official part of the festival’s programming. In previous years, The Rex has presented its own “Rex Jazz Fest,” running concurrently with the Toronto Jazz Festival; this year, The Rex’s June calendar read “TD Toronto Jazz Festival Co-Curated Concert Series @ The Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar.”

The Rex has always presented a healthy mix of musical acts, both in terms of genre and provenance; it is typical, during any given week, to find trad jazz bands, Toronto jazz veterans, bands led by young musicians from Humber and U of T, and touring out-of-town groups, often based in New York. It was, in fact, at The Rex that I first heard Weiss, playing with the Chris Tarry group, back in 2007. In the past few years, The Rex has been especially proactive in bringing progressive international groups to Toronto, with an emphasis on projects that feature new music from just outside of the modern mainstream scene, although the players who constitute these groups typically have bona fide jazz tradition credentials.

This is certainly the case with Starebaby, which, in addition to leader Weiss (drums), features the talents of Ben Monder (guitar), Craig Taborn (piano and keyboards), Matt Mitchell (piano and keyboards) and Trevor Dunn (bass), any of whom could have headlined at The Rex as leaders of their own bands. Starebaby’s music is composed by Weiss, and is influenced by David Lynch’s TV series Twin Peaks: The Return. This influence is apparent in song titles, including “Badalamenti,” named after series composer (and longtime Lynch collaborator) Angelo Badalamenti, and “Episode 8,” named after a particularly explosive episode; in the intensity of the music (Twin Peaks: The Return is, in many ways, a masterclass in intensity); and in the Black Lodge t-shirt Weiss is wearing in the group’s recent live performance videos on his YouTube channel.  

Before the band adopted the Starebaby moniker (“Starebaby” is also the title of the group’s debut album), they were identified as the Dan Weiss Metal Jazz Quintet, and there are obvious influences from both the metal and jazz traditions in the group’s music. What is compelling about Starebaby, however, is that it is so effective in synthesizing its influences into a new musical language; Weiss’s concept for the group seems to be strong enough that, unlike a lot of new bands, it seems to have emerged more-or-less fully formed.

The show started with "Depredation", a hard-hitting piece that, like many of Starebaby’s songs, juxtaposes pulsing, stripped-down rhythm section parts with an intervallic melody, played, in this case, by Monder and Dunn. The song dissolved into a beautiful solo guitar section by Monder, with heavy overdrive and reverb, which resulted in a sense of both mystery and visceral immediacy that effectively established the tone for the rest of the performance. As the set progressed, it was the attention to textural detail that emerged as one of the most meaningful aspects of the band’s music. “Episode 8” – the final, longest, and most suite-like of the first set (and the album) – featured exciting shifts, and stellar individual and ensemble playing, but it also, much like the Twin Peaks episode for which it is named, asked listeners to examine the depth and nuance found during extended visits to either end of the dynamic spectrum. Beyond the impressive virtuosity of all involved, it was Starebaby’s patience – whether offering a musical rendering of a nuclear blast or a man slowly sweeping an empty bar – that made the show memorable.

Check out the album, watch them live, and also, maybe, watch Twin Peaks.

Starebaby performed on June 28 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, 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.

Peter Oundjian receives applause. Photo credit: Nick Wons.Peter Oundjian closed out his remarkable 14 years as TSO music director with five programs consisting of nine concerts spread over 18 days, June 13 to 30. From Mozart@ and New Creations to the Decades Project, Oundjian has been an innovative programmer who more often than not included stimulating content in what he offered audiences. I was fortunate to attend four of the five last programs (missing only Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare), and was particularly interested to hear Oundjian’s own rationale for why he programmed these last concerts the way he did.

Peter Oundjian conducting Jon Kimura Parker and the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.June 13. He introduced the June 13 evening by reminiscing about his arrival in New York City in 1975 – not quite 20-years-old – to attend Juilliard as a violinist, and getting a call from Leonard Bernstein to appear with him the next morning on the Today show. Hence the inclusion of Bernstein’s Three Dance Variations from Fancy Free, which the orchestra played with an appropriate rhythmic suppleness. Oundjian spoke about the music of George Gershwin being in the air in NYC in the 70s, typified by the lush score to Woody Allen’s Manhattan. Jon Kimura Parker proved to be a most worthy last-minute replacement for Jean-Yves Thibaudet in Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, very comfortable in the composer’s jazz-based idiomatic score. In an encore, Parker showed his jazz chops with a rousing performance of Oscar Peterson’s Blues Etude. An unexpected coincidence: Parker and Oundian graduated one after the other from Juilliard, with Oundjian getting his diploma ten seconds ahead of Parker thanks to the alphabet.

Later in Oundjian’s first year at Juilliard, Herbert von Karajan gave a masterclass, saving the last 20 minutes of it for the student orchestra’s “concertmeister” who was also studying conducting. Karajan stood three feet from Oundjian, and as if that weren’t intimidating enough, covered the score of the slow movement of Brahms’ First Symphony. “You know it, my boy,” he said. That same Brahms symphony completed Oundjian’s trip down memory lane, the French horn statement of the fourth-movement’s main theme reminding us of just how fresh the music of this repertoire standard can be.

June 16. After the focal dystonia that made his position as first violinist of the Tokyo String Quartet untenable, Oundjian accepted an invitation by conductor and pianist André Previn, a chamber music collaborator, to talk conducting in Previn’s home. Previn was artistic advisor to the Caramoor International Music Festival at the time and asked Oundjian to make his professional conducting debut at Caramoor’s 50th anniversary concert in July 1995. The first piece on that program was Glinka’s repertoire staple, the Overture to Ruslan and Lyudmila. Oundjian chose to open the June 16 TSO program with it – and the orchestra, just as they had done with the Brahms, infused it with new life.

Oundjian conducting the TSO and pianist Daniil Trifonov. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.The first concert Oundjian attended in Carnegie Hall (also in that pivotal year, 1975) was Emil Gilels and Eugene Ormandy performing Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.3 in D Minor, Op.30. Who better than the dynamic young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov to fly from Moscow to Toronto for two days, to perform the same work for this special occasion? Trifonov delivered a brilliant, sensitive interpretation, dashing off the technical challenges with ease and upping the audience’s satisfaction quotient with a relaxed version of the second movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No.8 as an encore. Completing the all-Russian program was a stunning performance of Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, included because it was the first piece Oundjian ever recorded with the TSO. The TSO shone in this orchestral showpiece, with each section taking their lead from the trumpet’s opening Promenade as they rose to the occasion with dazzling playing throughout.

Pianist Emanuel Ax with Peter Oundjian and the TSO. Photo credit: Nick Wons.June 20. The evening of June 20 began with Emanuel Ax at the keyboard for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.17 in G Major, K453. Oundjian said that Ax was the first soloist he accompanied with the TSO (in Chopin’s First Piano Concerto) and his presence on June 20 marked him as the final soloist of Oundjian’s time as music director. Ax played with a characterful solidity, a well-defined round, lovely, singing tone geared to the composer’s melodic sensibility. The orchestra was a balanced and transparent collaborator.

Mahler has long been a favourite of Oundjian and so he (appropriately) chose the Symphony No.9 in D Major to mark his departure. Oundjian set up the work by referring to the passion and tenderness of the opening movement, the parody of country life in the second (which Mahler asked to be played in a cumbersome way), and the third movement Burleske, which Oundjian saw as opening the door to the 20th century. The remarkable Adagio, “one of the most extraordinary experiences known to man,” lived up to Oundjian’s words given the TSO’s nakedly emotional, tender performance. The audience, rapt, waited close to a minute to break the spell with a standing ovation.

The TSO with the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists. Photo credit: Nick Wons.June 28-30. The conductor let the music speak for itself on June 28 (and reportedly on June 29 and 30 as well), and wisely so. These last three performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No.9 in D Minor, Op.125 “Choral” needed no words apart from those in its fourth movement. Is there any music more elevating, more soulful than the merger of the heavenly and the earthbound in its inspirational choral finale? Oundjian took a propulsive, no-nonsense approach to the work from its opening: doom, tension, release, tentativeness, foreboding, clarity, its intermittent roiling nature swept up by structural inexorability. The second movement’s rhythmic centrifugal force was delivered with the sensitivity of a chamber musician, while the wild and tuneful trio shimmered in the hands of the oboe and French horn. The Adagio molto e cantabile began with noble strings and horns setting up a graceful theme that moved from violas through violins, unhurriedly spoken by the woodwinds before the fateful announcement in the brass that led into the finale. Intimations of the Ode to Joy appeared before the baritone solo statement that heralded the participation of soprano, mezzo, tenor and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir in the exultant beauty of a piece of music that stands the test of time.

It was a fitting exit for the TSO’s new conductor emeritus.

Peter Oundjian says goodbye. Photo credit: Nick Wons.

Paul Ennis is the managing editor of The WholeNote.

TOJazzFest 2018 Savion Glover and Marcus GilmoreThis article is part of a 3-part series on the 2018 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

On Tuesday, June 26, tap dancer Savion Glover and drummer Marcus Gilmore performed at Koerner Hall as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival. Toronto-based tap dancer Allison Toffan – founder of the Toronto International Tap Dance Festival – introduced Glover as “the best tap dancer in the world.” Since making his Broadway debut at age 11, Glover has earned multiple Tony and Drama Desk awards, made numerous television and film appearances, and has been active as a choreographer, including for the George Miller-directed motion picture Happy Feet. Though Gilmore is almost always introduced as “the grandson of Roy Haynes,” he has developed a unique voice of his own as a leading drummer in modern and avant-garde jazz projects, including work on albums by Chris Potter, Steve Coleman, Mark Turner, Vijay Iyer and Chick Corea. Together – and largely without the use of narrative, harmony, or melody – Glover and Gilmore created an intimate, clattering masterpiece, notable for its humour, for its generous interplay, and for its deep commitment to artistic integrity.

Before continuing, let me clarify that I know very little about tap dancing, and that I make no claim to any tap-specific expertise. What I can say with confidence, however, is that part of the show’s charm was its accessibility for audience members who located themselves at any point on the music-dance spectrum. Glover danced on a large wooden board, elevated approximately twelve inches off of the stage floor, with microphones underneath routed to a small mixing console adjacent to the board and accessible to Glover. Positioned stage left of Glover, Gilmore’s drum kit was set up at a 45-degree angle to the front of the stage, to afford easy eye contact with Glover.

Glover and Gilmore performed two pieces, the second of which functioned as a kind of built-in encore. The first piece – which, at approximately an hour long, constituted the bulk of the performance – began with Glover dancing sparsely, using the outside of the board to create tight, high-pitched tones, as Gilmore joined, using his bass drum and toms to create complementary sounds, before moving to his full kit. The full significance of the performance was not apparent until twenty minutes in, at which point Gilmore triggered a few ambient chords with the aid of a laptop. Until that moment, the show had contained no sounds other than those generated by Glover’s tap shoes and Gilmore’s drums, but had already elicited multiple rounds of spontaneous applause and cheers from the audience. To describe the experience as “stripped-down” or “spare” would do a disservice to the music, which was rich and captivating from beat one, but it seems important to mention that there was no real narrative, very little harmony, and no melody in the traditional sense (with the exception of a few phrases of Mongo Santamaría’s Afro Blue, sung by Glover). In the absence of these elements, the focus was squarely on rhythm and texture, and, with ample acoustic space in which to work, small shifts and subtle interplay between Glover and Gilmore became the most exciting parts of the evening. At one point, when the two were trading, the music felt like modern small-ensemble jazz; at another, when the two were playing longer sections together, the music felt like a Steve Reich composition. During the second piece – which followed a standing ovation, a loudly proclaimed “Thank you!” from a member of the audience, and a brief water break – Glover used a delay effect on his board to create ethereal, percussive sounds, pausing briefly to deadpan “Kids, don’t try this at home.” Leaving the show, it was reassuring to witness that this was not taken seriously, as many members of the audience danced their way out of The Royal Conservatory, responding physically to a show that was one of the highlights of the 2018 festival.

Savion Glover and Marcus Gilmore performed on June 26 as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival, at Koerner 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.

 

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