I hope Karen Burke, Director of the Toronto Mass Choir, doesn’t mind my incorporating her words into the title of this post. The Choir just kicked off their Lunchtime Series concert at Nathan Phillips Square and I gotta tell you – any day that starts with this choir is, indeed, a good day…
Okay now. Yesterday. What happened yesterday? Oh yes!
We started at 12:30 pm with Bill King’s Rhythm Express lighting up the stage at Nathan Phillips Square. The band explores a variety of styles, often incorporating blues, funk, soul and reggae; their recent explorations have been much more in the classic soul vein. And yesterday they were a tight, soulful unit. I don’t like choosing favourites but I was especially glad to hear Maiko Watson – she made a festival submission years ago but then I kind of lost track of her. A treat to discover she’s now living in Toronto! I’m sure you’ll be hearing more from her.
I slipped out of the tent a few minutes before Bill wrapped up for a CFRB phone interview, then it was time for Regent Park School of Music (RPSM) to take over the Outdoor Stage. Now, young kids have an automatic cute factor; but it was pretty fantastic to see these young musicians – all pre-teen, I’m sure – performing in the RPSM percussion, woodwind and nonsense ensembles. They seemed to be having a ball, and the audience gave them great support. Towards the end of the hour, Dave Clark and the Woodshed Orchestra joined in, leading the students in impromptu improvisations of Woodshed tunes; he then invited the audience to join in on a musical march around the square. The Woodshed is a great, wacky collective of musicians and they are fantastic at what they do: spreading love through music, inviting everyone to participate, and especially getting kids involved. Another very satisfying collaboration.
My next stop was Holt Renfrew for the latter part of Joe Sealy’s set. He played a mix of standards and original compositions, and the piano was in very good hands. Joe is truly a gem: his touch on the piano in wonderful, his soloing melodic and creative. It was a treat to see him in action, and the capacity crowd was certainly appreciative.
I then made my way down to the Distillery – we had two bands on the go: the Slocan Ramblers in roving format, and the Bob Brough Trio on the Mill Street Beer Hall patio. If you haven’t ever heard the Slocan Ramblers, please check them out – they are an outstanding four-piece bluegrass group who sing in tight harmony and whose fingers fly on their respective instruments (mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass). The sun was hot, but they had found a section of shade (as had the audience) and they held nothing back. I had then intended to enjoy a meal (and, um, some liquid refreshment) at the Beer Hall, but I clearly wasn’t the only one with that idea – a long lineup meant I had to make other dinner plans. I watched a couple of tunes of Bob Brough’s trio (Bob on tenor, Adrean Farrugia on piano and Artie Roth on bass); I don’t see Bob play often so it was a pleasure to hear his huge tenor sound in what is essentially an acoustic setting.
I picked up some pizza (meh) on my way back to the square, where I was on tap to introduce Jarrod Lawson. From Portland, Oregon, Jarrod has already made a name for himself in the UK; we were pleased to yesterday present his Canadian debut! I had checked out some of his music online, but I was glad to hear him live – I think he sounds even better in person. His mix of jazz, soul and pop resonated with the audience; his playing and singing were equally impressive.
By the time Jarrod wrapped up his set, the crowd was filling in with ticket-holders for the evening’s headliner – the one and only Sharon Jones. The excitement was palpable – Sharon last played the jazz festival in 2009, and since then she has been in an out of the spotlight with well-documented battles (plural, unfortunately) with cancer. From the very first note from the Dap Kings last night, we knew we were in for a treat. The band sounds so good. There’s nothing particularly complicated about the music they play; but it takes excellent musicians to truly nail the feel, and every tune they played sounded – and felt – incredible. The near-capacity crowd gave a rousing ovation to Saun and Starr – Sharon’s backup singers but also a great act on their own – for their mini-set, and by the time Sharon took the stage the crowd was on their feet. She wasted little time spreading the love and joy with which she performs; in short order she had members of the audience on stage dancing. About halfway through her set, she told us that since her most recent diagnosis, she was feeling low in energy…but said she was finding the energy on stage. And if she was any less than 100%, I don’t think any of us could tell. The medications and treatments may cure the disease, but the therapy was very much on stage last night.
I left after about an hour of high-energy soul to get to the Jazz Bistro – I wanted to be sure to catch the last set from Bill Charlap (piano), Peter Washington (bass) and Kenny Washington (drums). It turns out I didn’t have to rush – the first set ended late, and the second set started late. In any case, it was worth the wait – the trio has been working together for 25 or so years, and the communication between the three musicians is seamless. I wouldn’t call Bill’s playing flashy – although he flew on a couple of very up-tempo tunes – instead focussing on a fantastic touch and creative melody-making when soloing. The Washingtons (they’re not related) sounded fantastic – Peter’s big, gorgeous tone; Kenny’s brushes and irrepressible press rolls – and they were perfectly in sync, the sign of a top-notch rhythm section. There’s a lot of different jazz at the jazz festival; this trio felt like a direct line back to the great piano trios of the 50s and 60s.
My final stop of the night was The Rex for the late night jam. Mike Murley’s Septet had just recently wrapped up, and there was a still a buzz in the club. The jam didn’t produce any out-of-town collaboration last night (or at least while I was there), but a nice selection of local musicians ensured a rotating cast of characters on stage.
This morning I welcomed a few minutes of family of time at home (though some mornings with an almost-five and a two year old feel slightly more rangy than others), and now here I am thoroughly enjoying the Toronto Mass Choir.
Some quick facts from yesterday’s activity:
Number of men’s accessories purchased by me: zero
Number of pregnant friends who visited my on the square: one
Number of recorders given out courtesy of Yamaha: 25
Number of shakers given out courtesy of Long & McQuade: 24
Amount of sweat sweated in the sweaty weather: it was hot!
I’ll be bouncing around a bit today – including a rehearsal of my own this afternoon – but I look forward to Tanika Charles as part of Groove and Graffiti; the Toronto debut of Jamison Ross on the Outdoor Stage at 6:30 pm; the double-bill of Lee Fields and Allen Stone on the mainstage tonight at 8:30 pm; Laila Biali’s trio with Phil Dwyer at Jazz Bistro starting at 8 pm; and more!
See you on the square!