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.

 

Christopher Plummer with the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.The moment Christopher Plummer walked out through the orchestra onto the stage of Roy Thomson Hall on June 26 calling out “How now my hearts, where are these lads?” this concert was everything I had hoped it would be: a heavenly blend of Shakespearean soliloquies and sonnets with music inspired by the plays, filled with what felt like a magnetic spur-of-the-moment connection between actor, conductor, orchestra, and audience.

This is the way a “words and music” concert should be – alive and organically structured, with an arc from beginning to end, and with Peter Oundjian not only a superb conductor and the TSO an excellent orchestra with the music in their bones, but a superb actor with the music in his bones equally to the Shakespearean text. Unusually, this show was created by its star, Christopher Plummer, about seven years ago with Julian Armour, artistic director of Ottawa’s Music and Beyond festival. Over this past year, Plummer revised and reworked the show slightly with Oundjian to suit the scale of a full classical orchestra onstage.

With the text almost entirely memorized, Plummer moved around the stage, establishing a partnership with the conductor and orchestra and talking to us directly – in character or as himself to introduce a new section of words and music.

The selection of words was both expected and unusual: after Hamlet came both Oberon and Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with excerpts from Mendelssohn’s famous Dream music, but then Plummer turned to us to introduce those two rather un-feminist and frustrated scoundrels Benedict from Much Ado About Nothing and Petruchio from The Taming of the Shrew, interspersed with some of Nino Rota’s music for the film of Shrew, before sending us off to intermission with a short quote from the loveable “Bully Bottom” from Dream.

After the intermission the really big guns came out. Plummer began with, perhaps, his most famous Shakespeare part – Henry V – followed by the equally famous music created by William Walton for Laurence Olivier’s film of the play. This was particularly glorious to watch, as Plummer clearly knows and loves this character and the music, moving freely and energetically declaiming the speeches to us and to those onstage. Watching this, it is no wonder he has famously performed a full program of Henry V with Walton’s music with orchestras around the world (including here with Oundjian and the TSO in 2011).

Also expected on the program was Romeo and Juliet, which came next, but unexpected was Plummer’s intro note that, although he had performed both Romeo and Mercutio in the past, now that he is “grown up” he was going to take on Juliet who has (as I recall him saying) “some of the best poetry ever written about the beauties and agonies of love.” He launched into a heartfelt, lovely rendition of Juliet’s soliloquy “Gallop apace you fiery footed steeds.” Prokofiev’s dramatic Romeo and Juliet music was interwoven perfectly through this section. Next were excerpts spoken and musical from Cymbeline and then, again an expected inclusion, Prospero from The Tempest, a play believed by most scholars to be Shakespeare’s own farewell to the theatre and a part that Plummer played to acclaim at the Stratford Festival not long ago.  Unexpected to finish was a happy, short quote from Much Ado About Nothing: a cheerful, upbeat note to finish a magical evening of superbly interwoven words and music.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented “Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare” on June 26 at Roy Thomson Hall, 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.

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