Musical excellence

Okay so it might be a bit hard to type today - I'm having trouble keeping still with the Lula All Stars in full swing (er...salsa) on stage for our Lunchtime Concert Series.

We're now at the stage of the festival where there is more music behind us than ahead of us, thanks in large part to what have been a very full couple of days. Day 6 kicked off with a soulful, high-energy set from Dione Taylor and The Backsliderz. I haven't heard Dione perform live for a little while, and she is sounding fantastic - her instrument is rich and full, and she sounded right at home singing a mix of blues, soul and gospel. Her recent compositions are perhaps more reflective in nature, in part exploring her upbringing within (and at times at odds with) the church; I think the audience picked up on the extra emotion imbued in the songs.

I spent the afternoon bouncing around a bit. First to our new stage on the patio of the Second Cup at King and John, then to another new venue - the pool deck at the Hilton Hotel. At Second Cup, Bill McBirnie (flute), Bernie Senensky (keyboard) and Anthony Michelli (snare drum and various hand percussion) sounded fantastic playing through jazz standards. The corner of two busy streets could be a challenging spot to play, but if the musicians were phased at all by their surroundings they did not let it show, and the audience was appreciative of what was some very swinging playing.

Before getting to the Hilton, I made two stops: one at Little Nicky's Coffee Shop to pick up some of their made-to-order mini-donuts (highly recommended) and one at Nathan Phillips Square to say hello to Christian McBride. Christian was on-site for an interview with JAZZ.FM91, and then spent some time at the Kops Vinyl Lounge.

At the Hilton, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a great setup: we had asked that the hotel ensure the musicians were sheltered from the sun, and expected to find a smallish tent. I arrived to find a huge structure, with lots of room for seating and a full bar. It's a comfortable setting in which to enjoy some acoustic music, and I enjoyed hearing yesterday's quartet led by bassist Richard Whiteman (joined by new father Trevor Hogg on tenor sax, Jake Wilkinson on trumpet and Reg Schwager on guitar) as they played through a mix of standards and original compositions. It was a treat to hear Jake Wilkinson play - I haven't heard him for a while, and he's a fantastic trumpet player: great technical facility on the instrument but also a beautifully melodic soloist. I won't lie and say I ran straight home to practice, but I'm always happy to feel inspired to further explore my relationship with my trumpet...

At 5:30 (or so) I joined the reception sponsored by the Toronto Arts Foundation in celebration of the 2016 Emerging Jazz Artist Award, the winner of which was to be announced at 6:30. If you're not familiar with the award, you can learn about it here - thanks to Cheryl and Manuel Buchwald, it will be awarded for at least the next 8 years. At 6:15 we made our way to the Outdoor Stage and, after a brief ceremony, the winner of the 2016 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Jazz Artist Award was announced to be Amanda Tosoff - an outstanding pianist and composer whose release for Words, her most recent album, was also selected for support through the 2016 TD Discovery Series Special Projects initiative. A well-deserved award, but a difficult choice - the other nominees - drummer Ian Wright and bassist Dan Fortin - were also highly deserving (and, thanks to the Buchwald's generosity, did not walk away empty-handed). The rest of the evening went like this:

6:30 pm - Gray Matter, co-led by Justin Gray (winner of the 2015 Emerging Jazz Artist Award) took to the Outdoor stage to perform their funk-infused, long-form compositions. I especially enjoyed hearing the O'Pears in this more arranged setting. That is - usually they perform on their own as an a cappella vocal trio; for yesterday's performance, Justin incorporated their sound into his arrangements. I thought it worked well - the O'Pears sound great when alone, but in this larger ensemble context they added just the right flavour while staying true to their excellent three-part singing.

7:30 pm - I made my way to Koerner Hall in preparation for the Chick Corea Trio. I stayed for the first 30 minutes - which meant two tunes - and those 30 minutes were sublime. I spent the rest of the night (and upon waking up this morning) pondering what it is exactly that elevates musicians like Chick, Christian McBride and Brian Blade to the top of the international jazz world. There are obviously lots of great pianists, bassists and drummers, so what's different about these three? The best I could come up with is the absolute mastery of their respective instruments. For each of the musicians on stage last night, the basics of playing - the technical goings on of each instrument but also their sense of time, swing, etc. - are so fundamental, so ingrained, that they really can do whatever they want: make any sound, play any note, create any mood. And when three musicians as creative as those on stage last night get together, the possibilities really are endless. And that only truly happens with a small percentage of outstanding musicians.

8:40 pm - I was sorry to leave Koerner Hall, but any sort of letdown I might have felt was quickly annulled by the Robert Glasper Experiment performing on the mainstage. The Experiment's music is certainly different than what I had just heard from Chick's trio, but no less masterful. The quartet established infectious grooves; Robert and drummer Mark Colenburg were especially fiery last night, igniting the crowd with exciting and extended solos. I left after about 30 minutes for the next stop of the night, but from all reports the band played on until close to 11 pm.

10:00 pm - I arrived at the Opera House for the very end of the Lemon Bucket Orkestra's set, and they had riled up the crowd (as they usually do) with what I'm sure was a high-energy set. The venue was buzzing and, after a short intermission, Fanfare Ciocarlia and Andrian Raso took the stage to perform music from their Devil's Tale collaboration. This was a slightly different show than we had expected - we had hoped for the full, 12-piece brass band from Romania - but the change in plans did not effect the energy on stage. They played with full bombast from the outset, and I had a blast watching the audience react: the floor in front of the stage was packed with cheering, jumping, dancing fans; those less-inclined to be in the throng stood closer to the back, dancing at their own pace. We would have preferred to sell a few more tickets to the show, but it was a strong house with enough energy to more than fill the room.

11:00 pm - Almost done! We knew when we booked the Eagle Rock Gospel Singers that we were taking a risk. This was to be there first Toronto show and, unfortunately, ticket sales were poor. But if the 5-piece band noticed the small audience, they certainly didn't seem to care: they brought passion and energy to their repertoire of rock-infused gospel music, singing and wailing in four-part harmony. The crowd was appreciative, greeting each tune with enthusiastic applause. Perhaps we'll see this California-based band again in the future.

12:15 am - At a certain point I realized that I hadn't really eaten dinner. So I made my way to The Rex a bit earlier than on past nights to make a solid contribution to my #jazzfestdiet. I'm glad I did - Knower was on again last night, but instead of the 5-piece incarnation I saw on Tuesday night, last night Knower was in duo format - just voice, drums and electronics - enhanced by a huge screen (which, according to Tom at The Rex, fit on stage only by about 1/8 of an inch) and projected animations. I loved it. I enjoy hearing electronic music performed live, and drummer Louis Cole laid down some fantastic beats while Genevieve Artadi's vocals soared overtop. The projections were awesome, quirky, random and so much fun. It's great to see bands move in a more multi-disciplinary direction, incorporating elements like projection into their shows - it creates a unique and compelling experience for the audience. Kudos to The Rex (Neil for the idea, Tom for sealing the deal) on bringing Knower to Toronto.

1:15 am (ish) - After a stage change, the late night jam kicked off. As was the case on Tuesday night, the crowd which was in the house for Knower largely stuck around; with Robert Glasper's band also in attendance, there was a good buzz in the room. The actual jamming featured local players, and it was fun to chat with the various musicians in attendance. I hit my wall a bit after 2 am, and crawled into bed tired but satisfied by a very full day.

Some Day 6 stats:

Number of mini-donuts consumed: by me: 3 (yes actually only 3). Total: 24.
Cash awarded by the Toronto Arts Foundation as part of the Emerging Jazz Artist Award: $10,000 to the winner; $1,000 to each of the two runners-up.
Number of kilometres I covered getting between venues: 15.12 km on foot, transit and cab

It will be another busy day today. We've just wrapped up the Lunchtime Series concerts; there are shows this afternoon at Second Cup, the Hilton Hotel and the Mill Street Beer Hall Patio. Then starting at 6:30 pm, we've got Gwyneth Hebert, Joey Alexander, Ramsey Lewis, Avishai Cohen, Molly Johnson, Jane Bunnett and Robi Botos' Quintet, among many others.

The complete lineup of today's activity is available here; you can get a head start on your Canada Day planning here.

See you on the square!

Josh

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