Harley Card.On Thursday, March 1, jazz guitarist Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble played at Lula Lounge, presenting two sets of freshly-arranged music. The performance was one of four special projects supported by the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s 2018 Discovery Series, and was the second public performance for the Sunset Ensemble, which played a smaller-scale show at The Tranzac in early January. By foregrounding interactivity and dynamics, the Sunset Ensemble delivered an engaging, thoughtful listening experience that both expanded upon Card’s body of work and distilled his aesthetic sensibilities into something potent and new.

This particular project grew out of a relatively straightforward concept: take compositions from Card’s previous albums and adapt them for octet. Card has been an active member of the Canadian jazz scene for well over a decade, both as a leader and as a sideperson, and much of the Sunset Ensemble’s material is drawn from his albums Non-Fiction (2008), Hedgerow (2013), and The Greatest Invention (2017), in addition to new compositions from Card and other band members. Although helmed by Card, special mention must be made of the contributions of David French – saxophonist on Hedgerow and The Greatest Invention, and longtime colleague of Card’s – who collaborated on many of the evening’s arrangements.

“Sophomore,” the first song of the night, began with careful purpose, building into an atmospheric solo from tenor saxophonist Perry White. The backbeat-driven “Enclosure,” from The Greatest Invention, followed, with impressive playing from drummer Lorenzo Castelli, who was able, both in this song and throughout the entire show, to be exciting and propulsive without overwhelming the rest of the band. Ted Crosby’s slow, eerie “Primordial Valley” was juxtaposed with “Right Arm,” a swinging, medium-up song, which was the closest that the band came to conventional large-ensemble jazz playing. One of the high points of the first sets was “A Distant Bell,” on which Card took a compelling solo, playing mature, articulate phrases with subtly powerful rhythmic confidence.

Card is particularly good in dialogue with other musicians, both while soloing and while comping, and, though a technically accomplished guitarist, his instincts always seem to guide him to choose musicality over flash. It was a pleasant surprise to learn that these artistic principles carried over, in a substantive way, to his role as arranger and bandleader. Given the project’s description, it would not have been unreasonable for an audience member to expect an expanded version of Card’s quintet, in which additional horns would add extra colour to music that is still, essentially, in a small-ensemble format, as in guitarist John Scofield’s 2007 album This Meets That. What emerged over the course of the Sunset Ensemble’s performance, however, was a commitment to a very different approach: rather than flattening the material at hand to facilitate opportunities for individual instrumental heroism, Card and company’s arrangements focused on dynamic group playing, with an emphasis on tone, texture and melody that fixed the audience’s focus squarely on the music.

The second set continued this trend, with excellent playing from all members of the group. Highlights included French’s arrangement of the title track from The Greatest Invention, bassist Daniel Fortin’s “Don’t You Think,” which was one of a few charts that featured upright bass in unison with Crosby’s bass clarinet, and “Laurentia,” a short, delicate ensemble piece that had its premiere at Lula Lounge. Sunset Ensemble’s performance ended with “Albany,” a song from Non-Fiction, and, as Card informed the audience, “maybe the second tune [his] group ever played.” Ending with “Albany” was an apposite choice, as it neatly encapsulated Card’s accomplishment: by looking to the past, he has created an exciting new ensemble with a life of its own that can move confidently into the future.

Harley Card’s Sunset Ensemble – featuring Alexander Brown (trumpet & flugelhorn), Perry White (tenor sax), Ted Crosby (bass clarinet & clarinet), Karl Silveira (trombone), Harley Card (guitar), Matt Newton (Rhodes piano), Dan Fortin (bass) and Lorenzo Castelli (drums) – took place at Lula Lounge in Toronto on March 1, as part of the TD Toronto Jazz Festival’s Discovery Series.

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

forq crop bannerForq.On Wednesday, February 21, the American quartet Forq played their second show of a two-night engagement at The Rex. Forq is currently on tour, and their Toronto shows came near the end of a two-week journey that started on February 11 at the GroundUP Music Festival in Miami Beach, Florida (GroundUP is the label for whom the band records, and is helmed by Snarky Puppy’s Michael League, who, along with keyboardist Henry Hey, co-founded Forq). GroundUP artists – including Forq, Snarky Puppy and Becca Stevens – have made a number of successful appearances at The Rex over the past few years, and their shows tend to bring in a diverse range of live-music patrons. Hey remarked early on in the first set that The Rex is probably Forq’s favourite place to play, and the affection evidently runs both ways: the strong connection between the GroundUP family and The Rex is such that members of The Rex staff – including music manager Tom Tytel – made the trip down to Miami Beach for the aforementioned festival, in order to scout potential acts for the Rex’s 2018 Jazz Festival.

The current iteration of Forq includes keyboardist Hey, guitarist Chris McQueen, drummer Jason Thomas and bassist Kevin Scott, all four of whom were in top form at The Rex on Wednesday. Forq is described on its website as a band with “an aggressive sound,” but the description seems to do a disservice to the intelligent, nuanced approach to music-making that they took throughout the evening. While the highs were certainly high, much of Forq’s best playing was found in dynamic interplay between band members during quieter sections, and, though the show didn't lack in bombast, the prevailing mood was thoughtful, patient and communicative.  

After a short piece at the beginning of the first set, the band launched into the McQueen original “Lymaks,” a funky, medium-tempo song anchored throughout the melody by Thomas’s excellent tambourine playing. “Lymaks” featured a powerful solo from Hey that set the tone for the rest of the evening: melodic, rhythmically interesting, and with a keen attention to textural detail. Thomas’s “635 South” saw Hey taking another compelling solo, this time using his keyboard’s organ sound, as well as a great solo from Scott. Although it started with a swung 16th-note feel, it transitioned into a straighter feel after soloing to accommodate a beautiful melody, reminiscent of D’Angelo’s “Africa.”

One of the show’s most winning moments came at the beginning of “Cowabunghole,” another McQueen original, that was named, as Hey apprised the audience, by fellow GroundUP artist Becca Stevens during a visit to the studio where Hey and McQueen were mixing the band’s most recent album. The piece starts with an energetic, surf-y guitar riff, played with great enthusiasm by McQueen – so much so, in this particular case, that he broke a string. Hey quoted “Think!” as McQueen performed a quick string change, and, without a break in the music, the band transitioned directly back into the opening riff of “Cowabunghole.”

The second set brought many of the same pleasures of the first, including another excellent solo from Hey in the first song, a beautifully-paced solo from Thomas over a 13/8 vamp in the third song, and solid playing from the whole ensemble on Hey’s “Grout,” the final piece of the evening. It is a testament both to Forq and to the special relationship that the band has with The Rex that the audience was attentive, focused, and, let it be said, quiet, for much of the show – although, as was only appropriate, not during Thomas’s masterful drum solo at the end of “Grout.”

American quartet Forq performed, as part of their February tour, on February 20 and 21 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.

The organ of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, built in 1906 by Breckels and Matthews. Healey Willan, 1918.The Church of St. Mary Magdalene is one of Toronto’s hidden gems, a bastion of Anglo-Catholicism tucked away in the Annex near Bathurst and Harbord streets. A strikingly attractive yet plain building, St. Mary Magdalene’s barren white walls, abundance of natural light, pervasive scent of incense and extraordinary acoustic give this church an atmosphere unlike any other. The building itself has remained largely unchanged over the decades, a physical link to the past preserved along with the rites and rituals contained therein, and a testament to the rich heritage of this unique space.

One of the pivotal figures in the history of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene is Healey Willan, the ‘Dean of Canadian Composers’, who served as Precentor (director of music) from 1921 until his death in 1968. Over this span of almost 50 years, Willan wrote a tremendous amount of choral music for use in the church’s services, as well as concert works –  including organ music, a piano concerto, two operas, and numerous large-scale choral pieces – all while raising the standard of local choral and organ performance to a previously-unheard level. In the years since Willan’s death, his legacy has provided a source of guidance and inspiration for those who assume the director of music role at the church. The tradition of performing unaccompanied choral repertoire, established during Willan’s tenure through equal parts practicality and preference, is upheld to this day and is a unique facet of St. Mary Magdalene’s weekly musical offerings.

In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of Healey Willan and in celebration of his immeasurable contributions to the development of music, not only at St. Mary Magdalene’s but also across Canada, on February 16 the choirs of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and St. Thomas’s Huron Street presented “Willan 50,” a joint concert featuring the best of Willan’s choral and organ music. The program was immense: three monumental organ works, including the legendary Introduction, Passacaglia, and Fugue; accompanied and unaccompanied choral works including Behold, the Tabernacle and Gloria Deo per immensa saecula; as well as plainchant selections, an Introit and Gradual. Distributed throughout the concert, the plainchant excerpts were particularly intelligent programming, the monophony providing a welcome change in timbre and texture from the contrapuntal complexity that is so prevalent in Willan’s work as well as demonstrating one of Willan’s favourite genres and chief musical influences.

This intensive focus on Willan’s choral and organ music worked well, in large part due to a well-crafted and balanced program that provided wonderful opportunities to hear superb singing from the massed choir as well as the lush tones of St. Mary Magdalene’s fine Breckels & Matthews pipe organ. The choir, led by St. Thomas’s director of music Matthew Larkin, was in fine form, realizing Willan’s dual natures in a sensitive and sympathetic way: the moments of complex and cerebral counterpoint were clear but never academic, while the more emotive moments (Willan was an enthusiastic proponent of Wagnerian chromaticism at times) were never overdone or superfluously sappy.

The organ of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, built in 1906 by Breckels and Matthews.The Breckels & Matthews organ, located in the choir loft at St. Mary Magdalene’s, is the same instrument Willan himself played and improvised upon, a thread connecting the present and future of the church with its past. After some much-needed renovation and repair, the organ is in wonderful condition and sounds marvelous, its rich and well-balanced tone combining with the acoustic to produce a sound that is robust and full but never too loud, strident, or overpowering. Organists Andrew Adair, Matthew Larkin and Simon Walker each handled the instrument very well, extracting its best features in their readings of Willan’s most fiendishly difficult compositions. The use of a camera and screen to relay the performer’s physical movements from the out-of-sight gallery was undoubtedly informative and entertaining for many in the audience.

A delightful retrospective of one of Canada’s revered and renowned musical characters, “Willan 50” was a fulfilling and encouraging concert. The performances from the chorus and organists were excellent, and it was inspiring to see the talent and enthusiasm for and within Toronto’s Anglo-Catholic tradition. While the Dean of Canadian Composers is no longer with us in person, his legacy lives on through events such as these, as well as through the weekly offerings of the Church of St. Mary Magdalene and its fellow institutions.

“Willan 50” was presented on February 26, at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Toronto.

Matthew Whitfield is a Toronto-based harpsichordist and organist.

The cast of Come From Away (Canadian Company). Photo credit: Matthew Murphy.The new Canadian company of Come From Away officially opened its run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre on February 18, to cheers and an immediate, complete, and vociferous standing ovation. It rarely happens that a show coming into town with such high praise and raves from everywhere (including here in the fall of 2016) can meet the resulting high expectations. This show does and then some.

Come From Away is such an inspiring and intoxicating mix of music, story, character, direction, choreography and design that it seems to be an inevitable smash hit, so perfectly do all the elements interweave and mesh together. Add to that the fact that the story is Canadian, and true, and that it highlights the joys of generosity and compassion at a time of international tragedy, and the result is unbeatable. That is not to say that the darker and sadder aspects of the story are avoided – not at all. Rather, they are there in full force, which only makes the world onstage more complete and the joys and laughter that much more potent.

How has this phenomenon come to be? Many probably know by now that Come From Away is created from and based on the true story from 9/11 when 38 planes were forced to land at the airport in Gander, Newfoundland. The people of Gander opened their homes and hearts to the 7000 – 7000! – stranded passengers from around the world for five days, finding that by the last day – as the Mayor of Gander said from the stage of the Royal Alex today – they were saying goodbye to friends who felt like family.

The genius of the writing of the book and music is that it takes us there and puts us into the shoes of both the inhabitants of Gander and those unexpectedly stranded in this isolated place with at first no idea of why or for how long. From the opening song “Welcome to the Rock,”  where we are introduced to the people of Gander and Newfoundland on the morning of 9/11, to “38 Planes,” as the events of the day unfold, to “Blankets and Bedding,” as the community rallies and everyone jumps in to help, we are swept along through the course of five days, words and music encompassing individual stories and the increasingly intersecting lives of hosts and guests. Brilliantly, the story does not end as the planes take off again, but takes us powerfully through the return of some of the passengers to New York and the renewed realization of tragedy, but also to a new sense of gratitude for the incredible interlude experienced on the edge of Newfoundland – and then to a reunion of Newfoundlanders and “Come From Aways,” 10 years later in Gander.

The journey we are taken on is rich and satisfying, buoyed on a tide of Celtic-based music, and yet the design and direction is deceptively simple – just two tables and 12 chairs on a revolve and 12 actors playing about 36 different characters, changing dialect and origin so swiftly and deftly that there is never any question of not believing wholly in who they are at any given moment. Christopher Ashley rightfully won the Best Director Tony Award for the Broadway production last spring.

This almost-all-Canadian cast is superb. I didn’t get to see the original production (like many, I couldn’t get a ticket) but I can’t imagine anyone being better than this group, and the accents to my critical ear sound completely authentic. Every character is essential, though three are the main anchors of the story: George Masswohl, with his strong, jovial presence, is at the centre as the Mayor of Gander; Lisa Horner exudes a welcoming warmth and electricity onstage as teacher Beulah, one of the leaders of the response team; and Eliza Jane Scott impresses with the authority and depth of feeling she gives American Airlines pilot Captain Beverley.

Everyone in the company impresses with their vocal and acting strength and versatility: Ali Momen switching from the rather unsympathetic half of gay couple Kevin and Kevin, to sympathetic Egyptian master chef Ali; Kevin Vidal as a New Yorker who goes through a real arc of discovery while in Gander (as well as playing the romantic airline pilot), Kristen Pierce as Bonnie of the SPCA, garnering our sympathy and laughs through her concern for the plight of the animals aboard the planes; Sacha Dennis with her heartbreaking song “I am Here”; Cory O’Brien as genial constable Oz; and Barbara Fulton as Diane, who unexpectedly finds romance.

So real do all the characters seem that it is a shock to walk outside the theatre and find oneself no longer in Gander. At the end of the opening performance we did have the added treat, though, of meeting the real people on whom the characters were based, as they joined the cast onstage. Performances continue through October at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

Mirvish’s production of Come From Away, directed by Christopher Ashley (with book, music and lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein), runs from February 18 to October 21 at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Back to top