This one time…at the jazz festival…

It's a bit hard to believe, but the 2013 TD Toronto Jazz Festival wrapped up nearly one month ago. Over the past several weeks, I've enjoyed some downtime, and have had a chance to process various aspects of this year's festival. We had our official internal post-festival review last week, and it helped to distill some of my thoughts even further. There is lots to discuss…so rather than tackle it all in one post, I'll start today with two topics.

Classy musicians
Overall, we enjoyed working with all of the musicians who performed at this year's festival. We encountered a few bumps, but nothing insurmountable. Two musicians in particular stood out for me this year as going above and beyond in the "class" department.

As you may know, I became a twit just prior to the festival. That is, I started using Twitter. If you followed my tweets, you know that they were mostly cheery, detailing the shows I was enjoying, the food I was ingesting, and some random thoughts about the weather. After Jason Moran's show at the Horseshoe Tavern - which was one of the festival's highlights for me - I had a chance to say a brief hello to Jason and thank him for the performance. I have a great deal of respect for Jason not just as a performing artist but as a thinker - as Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center, he's spent a lot of time mulling over some of the challenges involved in promoting jazz to the general public…and he's got some pretty interesting ideas. And so, I figured I'd send him a Tweet, wondering if he'd have time the day after his performance for a coffee and a chat. We had just met for the first time, so I wasn't really expecting a response…I was pleasantly surprised to receive a gracious note only a short time later. He wouldn't have time to meet - they were leaving early the next day - but he would be happy to chat anytime. Classy.

Earlier that day (June 26), my big band performed on the main stage as part of the Big Band Series. We performed a tribute to Phil Nimmons, and gave the world premiere of a suite I had written for the show, and dedicated to Phil. The performance was very special to me, and it went very well. After the show, Phil was so appreciative of the music, so humble. I presented him with a copy of the score of the suite, and he asked if the musicians would all sign it for him. Heartwarming! But he was saving the classiest move for a couple of weeks later. After a short time out of the office, I returned to find an envelope in my inbox emblazoned with the unmistakable Phil Nimmons (Nimmons N' Nine Music) logo. Inside was a personal letter from Phil thanking me once again for the performance. It was typed (previous correspondence was usually hand-written) but it was definitely Phil - who else uses so many exclamation and questions marks???????!!!!!!! Phil has always been an inspiration to me - as a musician and as a human being - and this most recent experience has reinforced that feeling.

Keeping it clean vs. getting down and dirty
As I've mentioned many times before, programming a major jazz festival is tricky business. There are many (and at times conflicting) needs to be met - artistic, financial, audience-based and more. As Artistic Director it's my responsibility to present programming ideas which I feel are vital, interesting and important. Ultimately, programming is done by committee, and so sometimes some of the acts which get booked are less exciting to me than others. (And that's about as much as you'll get out of me in this forum. If you want me to start naming names, you'll need to buy me an off-the-record beer. Well, the beer can be on-the-record. The naming names part, not so much.) There is a fundamental difference, I think, between the acts which were more exciting to me this year and those acts which I found less exciting, and it has to do with the sub-title above. This is not a comment on the quality of the performers themselves - all of whom, for the most part, were top notch - but a comment on the quality of the performances.

Without exception, the performances which I found less interesting this year were very neat and tidy. Each very carefully arranged tune started, there was perhaps a very short solo section, and then the tune ended exactly as it did in rehearsal, and exactly as it likely did in every other performance on the tour. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this style of performance - these shows were nearly all sold out, the audience had a great time, and the compactness of the tunes meant lots of music was played over the course of the show.

But for me, jazz is a bit messier than that. I don't mean that the performers are supposed to be any less technically proficient, or that the tunes should be sloppily or poorly performed. I mean that for me, the music should feel less predictable. How long will this vamping section last? How exactly will the tune end? How long will this solo be? My appetite for this style of playing was especially whetted at our Horseshoe Tavern shows - with Robert Glasper's Experiment I never knew where they would go next; with Jason Moran's Dance Party I never knew how the next tune would be re-imagined; and with Dr. Lonnie Smith's Trio I never knew how the bubbling, grooving tension would be resolved. And the tension - the sense of adventure - was incredibly exciting. I didn't need a nice clean resolution; I was just happy to go along for the ride.

The challenge, of course, is that not everyone feels the same way. As much as I think I'm always right, I know I'm not (of which my wife reminds me with some regularity). And 2013 ticket sales show that this year, perhaps, more people were craving something a bit more predictable. I say again - there's nothing wrong with that, and I wouldn't want us to stop presenting those types of concerts. But if we are to properly play what I feel is our role in moving jazz into the future, I want to make sure that we also present music which is less tied up with a bow and more held together with the most exciting varieties of string and duct tape.

Huh. That's a lot of words for only two topics. This could take a while…Next up: audience demographics, making music accessible (or not) and maybe some festival math.

As always, your comments are welcome.


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