I’m not a fan of unnecessary capitalization, but I believe Day 5 was what we call a Good Day – despite a someone harried beginning. Despite my best efforts, I managed do set my alarm incorrectly so woke up 15 minutes later than I had hoped. It was only 15 minutes, but with a TV interview scheduled for just after noon, I didn’t have any time to waste. Nor did I have time for a coffee. But I found a way, somehow, to persevere.
So here’s the thing about TV interviews. (Or, at least, a thing about TV interviews.) When the host asks if you have any b roll available, and your publicist says “no b roll available” but then the host says “oh we found some”, MAKE SURE YOU SEE THE B ROLL BEFORE IT GOES ON THE AIR. Just in case, you know, THE B ROLL IS FOR THE WRONG FRIGGIN’ FESTIVAL. Sigh. Otherwise the interview went just fine.
My first official stop of the day was at The Rex for the annual Big Band Slam. I say this every year, and I mean it every time: the Slam is one of my favourite events of the festival. Over three hours, around 80 students from four different Greater Toronto Area high schools performed on stage at The Rex with guest artist Colleen Allen. This is not a competition; it’s simply an opportunity to celebrate young musicians playing jazz – and the teachers helping them learn the music. The Rex was absolutely packed, the students cheered for each other – whether they knew each other or not – and the vibe was positive all afternoon. If what we heard yesterday was any indication, jazz is in very good hands, and it’s also evolving – present were big band classics, but also arrangements of Snarky Puppy, Astor Piazzolla and more. A great afternoon. (It meant unfortunately missing Michael Occhipinti’s Sicilian Jazz Project lunchtime concert on the mainstage, but by all reports it was a great show.)
Next up was an unofficial festival event – dinner with a long-time friend. A nice break from the festival pace, an a welcome opportunity to catch up. Then things got a bit blurry schedule-wise:
6:30 pm – I caught the first half-hour or so of Mark McLean’s Playground on the Outdoor Stage. Mark’s writing incorporates jazz and almost every jazz-related genre you could name, and the musicians on stage sounded fantastic. It’s always a treat to hear Mark play – while he has family here, he’s not back here often – and Ted Quinlan’s playing is always exciting.
7:30 pm – I took the opportunity to walk the 20 minutes or so from Nathan Phillips Square to Jane Mallett Theatre – I wanted to be sure to say hello to Oliver Jones before what was likely his final official concert in Toronto. He’s calling this his farewell tour and, while he’s threatened to retire a few times in the past, I think this time he really means it. Oliver is a gem in the jazz world: outstanding on the piano, a committed educator, and an absolute gentleman. After saying hello backstage I took my seat in the hall. Celine Peterson introduced Oliver (she calls him “Ollie”) with a wonderful and touching tribute, and Oliver received a standing ovation before playing a single note. I felt some sort of magic in the air – I think everyone understood this was to be a special performance. I could stay only for the first few tunes, but on display almost immediately were the sense of swing and playfulness, and the digital dexterity, which I’ve enjoyed in Oliver’s playing for many years. Eric Lagac√© was on bass and Jim Doxas on drums; together with Oliver they worked seamlessly – clearly having fun along the way – as only a seasoned trio can do.
9:00 pm – I arrived at Koerner Hall shortly before 9 pm to catch the end of the Wynton Marsalis with Jazz at Lincoln Centre Orchestra show. Working out logistics for a post-concert reception meant I wasn’t in the hall as long as I would have liked, but thanks to speakers throughout the lobbies I could still hear what was happening on stage – namely, fantastic, swinging playing. The official program ended with a piece, inspired by the painter Jackson Pollock, by saxophonist Ted Nash, taken from his Portrait in Seven Shades suite. It was a more contemporary piece than I’ve heard the band play live, and I enjoyed it – Wynton took an exciting solo, there were moments of (intentional) rhythmic ambiguity, and the band was focussed differently than when they play, for example, Duke Ellington tunes (not less focussed, just differently focussed). I felt the writing and playing accurately reflected its painter subject. The encore featured just the quartet of piano, bass, drums and Wynton on trumpet in an easy, medium swing tune with Wynton using a bowler hat to great effect. Even in this less flashy setting, his playing was impressive – professional musicians at the top of their game are absolute technical masters: they can do with their instrument whatever they want. So even if, in this encore setting, he wasn’t playing long complicated lines, his control on the instrument – the way he played in the full range of the horn, manipulating the sound as he pleased…well, as a trumpet player, I was inspired. Following the show, Wynton demonstrated his grace backstage, taking time to greet guests, and in the official post-concert reception planned for our supporters at TD, he took time to shake everyone’s hand and take a photo with everyone in the room.
10:30 pm – I was glad to catch the last 30 minutes or so of an outstanding performance by Gregory Porter. I’ve seen him live a couple of times so I knew roughly what to expect, but I’m amazed every time I see him perform at how he’s able to make everyone in the room feel welcome. I think we all felt he was singing just to us, and the emotion in his singing was palpable. The capacity crowd was hanging on every note; he ended the set with “1960 What?” and he got a standing ovation. His encore performance of “Be Good” I’m sure moved some to tears.
After Gregory Porter wrapped up we had some time to hang out in our backstage compound (pizza and wings always help). I enjoyed chatting with Gregory’s road manager; after spending a long time greeting fans, Gregory himself soon joined us, and there were seven of us who spent the next 30 minutes or so casually chatting. Then it was time to head to The Rex.
Okay so it was a bit of a juxtaposition to go from Gregory Porter on the mainstage to Knower on stage at The Rex, but holy smokes was it ever fun. Knower is typically a duo based in Los Angeles; last night (this morning?) they were playing as a quintet – led by drums and vocals, plus keys, guitar and bass. I’m not sure exactly how to describe their music – electro-jazz-funk-punk-fusion? Nutso-drum/bass/voice-post-apocalytic-ridiculousness? Whatever – The Rex had cleared out the tables and chairs in front of the stage, and the crowd was packed in tight, jumping and dancing to the high-energy beats coming from the stage. The music provided a great release after a full day. Kudos go especially to locals Thom Gill (guitar) and Josh Cole (bass) who were performing with Knower on what I believe was a total of zero rehearsal time – they sounded right at home on stage.
Knower played a bit later than expected, but that actually worked well for the late night jam – much of the crowd stuck around, and most of Gregory Porter’s band (including Gregory) were in the house. The music was swinging and then suddenly it was 3 am and it was time to go home. When we left, Gregory and band were still there. I’m not sure if Gregory made it to the stage, but here again was a great display of a graceful artist – he engaged fully with the audience, taking time to chat and absorb his surroundings. A great end to an excellent day at the festival.
Some day 5 stats:
Number of years taken off my appearance by pre-TV-interview powder: 5 or so
Number of audience members at the various sold out shows last night: close to 3000
Number of birds chirping when I got home at 3:30 am: one, but he/she was really loud
We’re in the midst on a very busy few days at the festival. On tap today are Dione Taylor (just wrapping up her enjoyable southern-rock/blues/gospel lunchtime set as I type), shows at Second Cup and the Hilton Hotel, Chick Corea’s Trio, Robert Glasper Experiment, Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Fanfare Ciocarlia, The O’Pears and Eagle Rock Gospel Singers. And at 6:15 on the Outdoor Stage, join us for the announcement of the winner of the 2016 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Jazz Artist Award, immediately followed by a performance by Gray Matter, headed by Justing Gray – the winner of the award in 2015.
See you on the square!