This one time at jazz fest...

As I write this post, the Brian Barlow Big Band is absolutely swinging away on the Lunchtime Series stage. So if I'm a bit distracted, it's because Alex Dean is taking a fiery solo or Jason Logue is pasting yet another high z...

Yesterday ended up being a bit busier than I had planned, but it was worth it - another day of excellent music. It all started with the Toronto Mass Choir (TMC) at 12:30 on the mainstage. TMC has become an annual habit for the festival, with good reason - from beginning to end, their set is high-energy and packs an emotional punch. Even if the spiritual message of the music doesn't resonate with you, I think it's hard to not be moved by the passion with which they perform. They had the audience moving and grooving to their mix of "happy clappies" and more contemporary gospel tunes.

At 2:00 pm, Groove and Graffiti took over the patio and Outdoor Stage. While students from Central Tech's Graffiti Club - under the guidance of aerosol artists Mediah and Elicser - created an aerosol art mural, local soul songstress Tanika Charles demonstrated why she's been acclaimed as an important voice on the local R&B scene (she was even recently named to the Polaris Prize long list). At the end of the hour, the Graffiti Club students had created an excellent piece of art, and the audience had been throughly entertained. Our thanks go to Groove and Graffiti collaborators Manifesto for their help in putting it all together.

I then took some personal time in the form of a rehearsal with my big band. We're preparing for our annual Radiohead Jazz Project (July 3, 8 pm at The Rex Hotel) and, as is the case every year, a rehearsal during the festival was required. It was nice to switch hats for a couple of hours, and such a pleasure to be in front of 19 outstanding musicians. Making music is fun. (Understatement of the year, perhaps?)

After rehearsal I made my way back to the square to catch the Toronto debut of Jamison Ross. I saw Jamison at Richard Bona's club in New York back in January and was knocked out - he's a fantastic drummer, but has also developed a unique singing voice. (He was even nominated for a Grammy Award in 2015 for Best Vocal Jazz Album.) Yesterday afternoon he delivered a great show with his mix of jazz, soul and pop. Like many of his contemporaries, his music is heavily influenced by current social and political events; he reflected on recent world events from the stage, inviting the audience to work towards freedom for all - a meaningful and important message.

I slipped away from the square before Jamison wrapped up to catch the last part of Blue Moon Marquee's set on the Patio of the Mill Street Beer Hall in the Distillery. They had to overcome some technical challenges earlier in the set but if they were hindered at all in their music-making, I couldn't tell - the duo of A.W. Cardinal (guitar, voice) and Jasmine Colette (acoustic bass, bass drum, snare drum) sounded fantastic. They perform a mix of blues and hot swing; A.W.'s gravelly voice is compelling, while Jasmine's ability to hold down the bass line while simultaneously playing drums with her feet is impressive technically but also really swinging. It took some doing, but I was glad we were able to present them as part of their impressive ten-festival, cross-Canada tour.

My next stop was Nathan Phillips Square for the double-bill of Lee Fields and Allen Stone. Lee's backup band wasted no time in setting the funky groove; when Lee took the stage he was essentially unstoppable for 60 minutes. After more than 40 years in the music business he still sounds awesome, pushing his voice to the limits and whooping up the crowd. I could see why he's earned the nickname of "Little JB" (i.e. Little James Brown) and the crowd gave him a rousing ovation at the end of his set.

While the stage re-set for Allen Stone, I made my way over to the Jazz Bistro to catch some of Laila Bilali's second set - she was on stage with Ross MacIntyre on bass, her husband Ben Wittman on drums and special guest Phil Dwyer on sax. Now, lots of people claim to be singers, and some are even good singers. But there aren't a lot of great singers. (That's my opinion, but I also think I'm right. So there.) Every time I hear Laila sing, I'm knocked out by the way she interprets melody: playing with the lyrics and time, hanging onto notes here and there, changing up the phrasing - she truly makes each tune, whether standard or original, her own. The rest of the band, well they're pretty okay too. (Oh wait - maybe that's the understatement of the year?) Ben I know less well, but Ross has long been one of my favourite bass players, ever since we were in school together at U of T; Phil can essentially set fire to any tune he plays - he's one of Canada's most exciting saxophonists. Laila's now based in Toronto, so we'll likely see more of her, and I bet it will be a treat every time.

Next came the big disappointment of the evening - rain. We specifically requested no rain for the festival. But there it was, waiting for me as I left the Bistro and made my way back to the square. We have re-submitted the request, and hopefully we're in the clear for the rest of the week.

So needless to say I was a bit drenched by the time I got back to the square. The music coming from the mainstage - and the crowd's reaction - ensured though that if I was grumpy at all from being soaked, I wasn't grumpy for long. I caught the last 30 minutes of Allen's set and the audience was on their feet the whole time. If Lee Fields, earlier in the evening, roused us with his powerhouse voice, Allen's was set more to "slow burn" - his voice was always controlled while displaying an impressive range and a contagious groove. The five-piece ensemble was right in the pocket, and his message of love through music was happily received by the crowd. They all seemed to be having a blast on stage, and the crowd gave them a huge ovation at the end of the night. Following the show, band members spent time with the small gathering of fans backstage; when Allen eventually emerged from his dressing room, he took time to greet each person with a hug and a photo op - so a great voice and a classy guy. A good night on the mainstage.

As it has been throughout the festival so far, The Rex was my final destination last night.

(OH MAN - ALEX DEAN IS ON FIRE WITH THIS TENOR SOLO ON DIMINUENDO AND CRESCENDO IN BLUE...)

It wasn't a huge turnout for the jam last night, but there were a disproportionate number of drummers in the house - maybe a memo went out? By the time Jamison Ross showed up along with the drummer from Allen Stone's band, I counted no less than six drummers including locals Jeff Halischuk, Morgan Childs and Larnell Lewis. Jamison sat in on a couple of tunes, and...

(OKAY ALEX DEAN JUST GOT A STANDING OVATION FOR HIS SOLO. HOW OFTEN DOES THAT HAPPEN?!)

...fortified by wine and sweet potato fries, I decided I would sit it on "Stella by Starlight". That was pretty fun. And that's what's so great about jam sessions - you never who will show up, who will sit in, and who you'll meet at the bar.

So yeah - a full day. Some quick stats:

Number of sweet potato consumed at an inappropriate hour: Half an order
My accuracy percentage on stage last night at The Rex: Actual: maybe .750. But if you believe "there are no wrong notes in jazz", closer to .950. (There actually really are some wrong notes.)
Number of raindrops by which I was drenched between the Bistro and the mainstage: I read somewhere that a 1-inch rainstorm deposits 27,154 gallons on one acre, so if you consider the number of raindrops in a gallon...well, math is hard, so let's say at least 16.

Today is a much quieter day at the festival, but there should still be something to whet your appetite. The full listing is here, and you can read up on tomorrow's activity here.

See you on the square!

Josh

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