A musical few weeks and don't judge a book by its cover

Every once in a while I have a particularly busy concert-going itinerary and, after last night's amazing show (more on that later) I realized that over the past few weeks I've seen an interesting and stimulating array of performances. Here's a brief run-down...

September 30 - Oliver Jones Trio at the Old Mill
A great night of swinging music - exactly as promised. Oliver brought his Montreal trio - bassist Eric Legace and drummer Jim Doxas - and played a variety of well-known tunes, some standards and some compositions by Oliver and his good friend Oscar Peterson. Oliver has a great way of engaging the audience, whether on stage or signing CDs after the show, and everyone left in high spirits.

October 3 - Jazz Performance and Education Centre Gala
I've been volunteering with the Jazz Performance and Education Centre (JPEC) for the past few years and on October 3rd JPEC had its second annual gala. This year's event, held in the George Weston Recital Hall at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, featured vocalist Ranee Lee singing with the newly-formed JPEC jazz orchestra, which features some of the top jazz musicians and educators in Canada. The night was a blast, exclusively featuring Canadian arrangements and compositions; I look forward to more great things from this ensemble.

October 4 - Toronto Jazz Orchestra at The Rex Hotel
Seeing as how I'm the founder, Artistic Director and conductor of the Toronto Jazz Orchestra, I suppose I'm a bit biased...I certainly had a good time on October 4! I'm frequently reminded how lucky I am to get to work with these 17 musicians (truly some of the best emerging jazz talent in the city) and this night was no exception. Highlights included a performance of Darcy James Argue's Transit, the world premiere of my new ballad Reflection, and my arrangement of Beyonce's Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it). Yes, really.

October 5 - TorQ at the Enwave Theatre
I've known percussionist Jamie Drake for several years now, having interacted with him in a variety of musical settings. He's a founding member of the outstanding percussion quartet TorQ, which has earned wide acclaim for its performances all over North America and in Europe. Their October 5th presentation - the first time I had actually been to one of their full-length concerts - showed why they are deserving of the acclaim: an interesting variety of repertoire, some written by ensemble members; great use of multimedia; and a proven mastery of the widest array of percussion instruments I may have ever seen on a single stage. The last piece of the night, Jamie's tribute to Toronto, featuring a video and sound clips of various Toronto citizens describing what they love about the city, was especially moving.

October 11 - Melissa Stylianou at The Rex Hotel
I've long had a great deal of respect for vocalist Melissa Stylianou. I met her when she was a waitress at The Rex Hotel many years ago, and singing occasionally on the side. Since then, she's leapt full on into a performance career, first in Toronto and then in the jazz jungle that is New York City. She's continuing to build momentum, with regular gigs at well-known jazz spots such as the 55 Bar, and her October 11 performance showed why she deserves attention: she has the prerequisite beautiful voice, but more than that, she's got confidence on stage, interacting with and giving directions to the other members of her quartet, and I especially like her choice of repertoire - some jazz standards, but also tunes by people like Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. Melissa's raising money right now for a new CD via a Kickstarter campaign - I encourage you to check it out and make a pledge.

October 13 - People Places & Things at The Rex Hotel
Here's chapter one of "Don't judge a book by its cover." Based on the description of drummer Mike Reed's band People Places & Things (originally from Chicago) that Ron Gaskin had sent out, I knew I was in for an ear-opening night of music. But when they launched into their first tune with full-on group improvisation, I wasn't sure how long I would last. My patience paid off, though - what ensued was an exciting two sets of interesting melodies, fiery solos, and outstanding playing. Mike Reed was joined by Gred Ward and Tim Haldeman on saxophones, and Jason Roebke on bass, and a few things impressed me: the complexity of some of the melodies; the tightness of the group (they were playing these tunes with complex melodies and forms all from memory); and the way the group moved so seamlessly from free improvisation to "music on the page". As I've said before, what I look for when listening to more improvised music is still a beginning, middle and end; this ensemble made sure each was there and added dynamic contrast and technical wizardry on top!

October 15 - Bob Mintzer with the Humber College Faculty Big Band
As a student at the University of Toronto (and then with my own big band) I got to play a number of Bob Mintzer's big band arrangements...and enjoyed every one. He has a unique compositional style, with melodies and harmonies all his own, so when I heard he was coming to town this was one show I knew I had to catch. I had recently seen him perform with the Yellowjackets at the Detroit Jazz Festival and he brought the same energy to the show at Humber College. Great tunes - many of which crossed over into an Afro-Cuban feel - and certainly a great band; and Bob was tearing it up on tenor sax too. It was a fun night - I got to see some old U of T classmates and colleagues, and the students in attendance (the concert was free for current Humber College students) were giving off an exciting energy. Always nice to see a younger crowd pumped about good jazz...

October 15 - Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message at The Rex Hotel
And now, chapter two of "Don't judge that book..." After the Bob Mintzer/Humber College Faculty Big Band show wrapped up, I made my way over to The Rex for Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message. Norman has created a sort of modern-day version of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers - a jazz master playing with the next generation of great jazz artists. On this evening he had Jeff King on sax, Russ Macklem on trumpet, Paul Tarussov on trombone, Mark Eisenman on piano, and...oh no...I've forgotten the bass player's name (sorry!!). The place was packed (unfortunately a few too many non-jazz lovers at times drowning out the music with their conversation) and the band played with a ton of energy. The charts were fairly straight-ahead, but just when I thought I knew what came next, Norman started into a drum solo...and kept soloing...and the other musicians left the stage...and Norman kept soloing...and by the end of it (maybe ten minutes?) he had treated us all to an amazing solo, taking us through the full array of sounds and techniques available on a standard drum kit, keeping our attention the whole way through. It was a very cool moment.

October 17 - Trouble at The Trane Studio
I was happy to get out to support local band Trouble's CD release concert at The Trane Studio. Violinist Harvey Cowan is an enthusiastic supporter of jazz in Toronto and Trouble, formed by Harvey and the late saxophonist Doug Richardson back in 2000, plays an interesting variety of music: from complete improvisation to straight-ahead bop to grooving calypso beats. They had a great audience - not an empty seat in the house - and it was a fun evening. A highlight for me was the playing of Alexander Brown - he's a new, young trumpet player from Cuba, now living in Toronto, and he sounds fantastic.

October 19 - Avishai Cohen at the Isabel Bader Theatre
Here endeth the lesson on books, covers and judging. I admit to not being extremely well-versed in Avishai Cohen's music (the bass player, not the trumpeter of the same name) but the music I have heard I have thoroughly enjoyed, and so I had been looking forward to last night's concert for the past six weeks or so. (And hey - people like Danilo Perez and Chick Corea, who have hired Avishai for their groups, can't be wrong...) However, I wasn't sure what to expect with last night's show: on his new album, Aurora, he interprets the music of his faith, his culture and his homeland, and he sings in English, Spanish, Ladino, Hebrew and Yiddish. I admit to being a bit apprehensive, wondering how the bass player I know as a funky, groovy technical wizard would make this repertoire jazzy. Well, he did it by being the same funky and groovy technical wizard, and in doing so put on one of the best shows I seen for some time. I enjoyed the choice of repertoire, I enjoyed the arrangements; I enjoyed the technical mastery of the other musicians; and perhaps most of all I enjoyed the unpredictability of it all: there were no standard forms last night. Every tune took a different turn, with each musician getting a moment (or several) to shine. The audience - a full house - was very enthusiastic, and the standing ovation at the end of the show was met with an encore which somehow ended up in full salsa mode. It was a fantastic night - a book which defied any judgment.

There's more music to come in the next week - I hope to catch some of Catalyst at The Rex tomorrow night; the 50-minute Ring as part of the X Avant Festival at The Music Gallery on Saturday night; John MacLeod's Rex Hotel Orchestra releases its first CD in a black tie event (yes, really) at The Rex on Monday night; and Laila Biali is at The Old Mill on October 28. Ah, fall - great weather, great colours, and great music.

What have you seen recently? Let me know!


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