One of the city’s biggest summer music events hands the mic to an eclectic mix of musical pioneers and modern masters. BY CRAIG MOY
The life of a jazz musician must be a somewhat humbling one. On stage, improvising, you’re living on the edge in a way that few other performers do. Professionally you’re dealing with the knowledge that your art form, however vital, now exists largely outside of the zeitgeist (jazz accounted for just two per cent of total North American album sales in 2012).
And yet the music remains all around us, though perhaps not always in its most obvious form. Thankfully, events like the TD Toronto Jazz Festival (running from June 20 to 29) do much to expose both traditional and modern jazz, as well as the genres that have been built on and continue to incorporate jazz’s signal elements—creative spontaneity, harmonic invention, a near-psychic interplay amongst its performers, and an infectious groove.
TOP ARTISTS CARRY THE TORCH
Although “classic” jazz—the blues, swing and bebop–informed music that we identify with masters like Duke Ellington and John Coltrane—is no longer the popular-culture phenomenon it once was, its contemporary practitioners remain Toronto Jazz Fest draws. Arguably the most prominent of these performers is Nikki Yanofsky, the Montreal singer who, despite her youth, knows her way around more than a few American Songbook standards. Another golden-piped vocalist, Gregory Porter evokes equal parts Nat King Cole and Kurt Elling, but his sophisticated compositions have an elliptical style all their own. On the instrumental side of the equation lie a number of local favourites, including saxophonist Mike Murley’s Septet and Cuban-Canadian pianist Hilario Durán and His Latin Jazz Big Band, plus a smattering of international icons like Don Byron, who teams with Canadian stalwarts Michael and Roberto Occhipinti and Barry Romberg for an intimate T.O. show.
NEW APPROACHES TO AN OLD SOUND
Though on this occasion he’s performing as part of a more traditional quartet, Byron has lately been known for taking an eclectic approach, fusing jazz with funk, chamber music, gospel and more to create sounds that are at once familiar and wholly new. You’ll find many such modern alchemists over the jazz festival’s 10 days. Guitarist John McLaughlin, for example, has been a pioneering voice in jazz-rock since his days in Miles Davis’s electric ensemble; now he’s jamming on spacey tunes with his band The 4th Dimension. More subdued but no less creative guitar playing comes to Toronto courtesy of New York City-based Ben Monder, who pairs with saxophonist Noah Preminger for a sonically stimulating set. Some of modern jazz’s top pianists also have space to shine, though in different forums: esteemed for his elegant way with standards and new compositions alike, Fred Hersch comes to Toronto for an arresting solo recital, while the Robert Glasper Experiment stakes a claim to the other side of the stylistic spectrum with its blend of jazz, R&B and hip hop. Perhaps even more promising is the scheduled festival appearance of Jason Moran, who, with renowned bass player and vocalist Meshell Ndegeocello, hosts a Fats Waller Dance Party, breaking down the early 20th-century stride pianist’s tunes and reassembling them into dynamic, danceable post-bop.
SILK AND SWAGGER
The urge to let loose is amply addressed elsewhere at the festival, too, thanks to an abundance of big name acts rooted in rhythm and blues, gospel and soul. Those genres are heralded by a quiet storm, as Smokey Robinson opens the proceedings on the festival’s mainstage. Venerable Hammond organ hero Dr. Lonnie Smith then heads up the groove brigade, while another musical doctor, Dr. John, also makes a much-anticipated appearance—in this case as part of a double bill with legendary soul singer Mavis Staples. The forward momentum continues with Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings reviving the Stax sound by way of Brooklyn, and the Big Easy’s Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue flying the flag for a new generation of high-energy ensembles.
SEPARATE BUT EQUAL
Of course, jazz has long had its share of “out” performers—those who sought freedom from the music’s perceived constraints. So we’d be remiss not to mention the Toronto Jazz Festival’s rather drastic reach outside the genre for two of its headlining acts. Iconic country crooner Willie Nelson rambles into town to play his hits and interpret the timeless tunes of everyone from Hank Williams to Ray Charles to Irving Berlin. And the other end of the schedule, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, along with singer Edie Brickell, offer up a plucking good set that’s, well, steeped in folk and bluegrass traditions.
• The TD Toronto Jazz Festival, various venues, 416-928-2033; torontojazz.com