jazz, festivals, Canada, reviews
Today’s post features a special article written by guest contributor Carol Sokoloff, a Victoria based jazzed vocalist. Carol recently attended the Art of Jazz Celebration in Toronto and shares her views of the event with us below.
Jazz Legends Shine at Toronto’s Art of Jazz Celebration
by Carol Sokoloff
Toronto’s historic Distillery District was an ideal setting for the second annual Art of Jazz Celebration, May 30 to June 3, featuring legendary giants Jon Hendricks, Carla Bley, Kenny Wheeler, Lee Konitz and surprise guest, Clark Terry. Trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, also scheduled to appear, was forced to cancel due to illness. Three free outdoor stages and one large indoor space for ticketed evening events, showcased diverse elements of jazz: from vocal to dance, from bebop to Cuban, from duo to big band. In addition, intimate educational clinics provided memorable opportunities for learning from the masters while after-hours jam sessions welcomed local and visiting performers.
A relatively new Canadian jazz organization, the Art of Jazz Society was established in 2005 by a small group including soprano sax and flute diva Jane Bunnett and her partner, trumpeter Larry Cramer, with pianist/educator Howard Rees acting as Artistic Director. The organization’s second annual ‘celebration’ was extremely ambitious, but did not fail to deliver on the promise of “a lifetime of memories”. The jazz artist’s need to take musical risks seems to have inspired the organizers to dream big, infusing the five-day event with a spirit of adventure. Thoughtfully-planned programs presented a complementary line-up of performers, but concerts ended with a spontaneous fusion of energies as the evening’s performers took the stage together and a magic alchemy erupted.
Billed as a ‘celebration’ rather than a ‘festival’, Art of Jazz kicked off with an opening night bash on Wednesday, May 30 in the Distillery District’s Fermenting Cellar venue, featuring Jane Bunnett and her Spirits of Havana band paired with versatile baritone, Kevin Mahogany. Bunnett and company started things off with a spicy set, the flavour enhanced by ecstatic Cuban Rhumba dancer Felix ‘Pupy’ Insua. Lifetime Achievement Awards were then presented to vocalist and lyricist Jon Hendricks, of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame (presented by previous recipient, pianist/educator Barry Harris, a kind of godfather to the event) as well as Canadian trumpet and flugelhorn legend and composer, Kenny Wheeler, presented by the previous recipient Canadian multi-instrumentalist and composer Don Thompson. Hendricks, whom Harris called “the word-master,” surprised everyone by performing a few tunes with Harris on the piano. After a break, the deep-voiced Kevin Mahogany took the stage to show how genuinely he deserves the overdue recognition he is currently receiving. Displaying his mastery of ballads (When I Fall in Love), blues and bebop, Mahogany lit a spark with a blistering version of Centrepiece featuring a solo by tuba legend Howard Johnson. Rarely has one heard a tuba sound so light, rich and melodic, as at the hands of this master, who opines the instrument should always be heard in this way.The evening ended with Mahogany, leading that night’s performers in a free jam on Route 66 and Take the A Train – an auspicious beginning for the jazz odyssey ahead.
The next evening the spotlight was on the development of jazz as seen through dance. Emceed by former National Ballet star, Veronica Tennant, the program explored the journey of jazz rhythms from tribal African roots, to Latin-Carribean expression and into mainstream America through tap dance. The evening began with Muna Mingole, a Canadian singer and dancer known as ‘’the blue flame of Cameroon”. Accompanied by Cuban master drummers and singers Roman Oqduardo Diaz Anaya and Jorge ‘Papiosco’ Torres, Muna’s infectious spirit had the crowd singing and moving with her in no time. Next on the bill was Cuban Orisha dancer Felix ‘Pupy’ Insua. Embodying some of the Orishas, or element/deities of the Yoruba traditions of the Caribbean and South America, Insua invoked the powerful forces of life and death in a dramatic and joyful dance, joined by partner Jennifer Donello. It was the evening’s final performer, however, who stole the show. Born in 1927, veteran hoofer Jimmy Slides, is one of the last of the old-time American tap dancers and is recognizable from films like The Cotton Club, Round Midnight and Tap. Tall and elegant in a tan jacket and brown leather tap shoes, Slides performed with artistry and precision as well as the relaxed casualness of a master. Explaining that tap dance is not really about movement, but rather about playing a rhythm with one’s feet, Slide and his young protégée, Rocky Mendez, illustrated the relation of tap to jazz with excitement and love.
Once again, the concert culminated in interactive exuberance as Jon Hendricks stepped up from the audience to offer a version of Ellington’s Come Sunday (“He danced before the lord’’) with Slide and partner outdoing each other. Then all the performers took the stage in a jubilant fusion of cultures and rhythms, with the Cuban and African dancers performing a sensual duet while the tap dancers and a breakdancer from the audience improvized to tribal rhythms. All three dance masters led workshops the following afternoon, introducing participants to African, Cuban and Tap dance forms.
Come Friday evening the celebration was in full swing with three outdoor stages offering local and international talent. In the Fermenting Cellar a full house assembled to pay tribute to trumpet and flugelhorn legend, Kenny Wheeler, in a concert also featuring Lee Konitz on alto sax, Don Thompson on piano and vibes, Dave Holland on bass, Joe La Barbera on drums and British vocalist Norma Winstone. Born and raised in Toronto, Wheeler came to prominence in London in the 1960s and then became a citizen of the world, working and recording with the jazz’s most influential artists. It was wonderful to hear this stellar gathering perform Wheeler compositions as well as standards such as How Deep is the Ocean, featuring the sax and horn. The Wheeler compositions were melodic and atmospheric, with solos by the composer as well as Dave Holland, Don Thompson, Howard Johnson and Lee Konitz. Taking the microphone, singer Norma Winstone added a vocal line that blended beautifully with the horns, in a stunning duet with Wheeler on his Cantor #1. She also demonstrated her free and slightly high-brow approach to improvisation on the Wheeler composition Jigsaw and performed her lyrics to the beautiful Wheeler ballad, Where Do We Go From Here. A bluesy Dave Holland composition was also memorable.
By Saturday morning the crowds descended. All stages were going full tilt from 11 a.m. to evening. In the Fermenting Cellar a 200-voice Toronto children’s jazz choir performed with Barry Harris and Kevin Mahogany. At the Pure Spirits Stage there was a ‘Meet the Composer’ session with Carla Bley. The Trinity Square Stage was devoted to the Cuban beat, while the Green Stage showcased, amongst others, New York vocalist Alexis Cole and Toronto singer Julie Michels with bassist George Koller. The Thompson Landry Gallery featured workshops most of the day, starting with a jazz harmony clinic with Barry Harris, author of several educational kits on jazz theory. Later that afternoon Jon Hendricks and daughter Aria led a clinic on vocal jazz highlighted by an extended jazz-poetry rap by Hendricks on the history of jazz and a blistering version of his Everybody’s Boppin’ during which participants were invited to scat for the master. In the late afternoon Carla Bley thrilled the crowd with her lovely, Latin-inflected compositions performed by the outstanding Art of Jazz Orchestra with guests Steve Swallow (on electric bass) and Howard Johnson on tuba. The day drew to a close with a smokin’ Afro-Cuban dance party in the Fermenting Cellar.
Once again on Sunday the site was crowded and the outdoor stages were alive with sound.
In the afternoon Kevin Mahogany led a workshop for vocalists sharing valuable advice on performance skills. Bud Powell disciple, Barry Harris, played with both trio (with Don Thompson on bass and long time colleague, drummer Leroy Williams) and big band – demonstrating his theories of harmony in very engaging sets. The crowd was left singing a spontaneous composition called Toronto 625, created out of numbers suggested by the audience.
The final concert of the Art of Jazz Festival featured eighty-five year old Jon Hendricks, a founder of the vocalese movement and lyricist of dozens of tunes from the bebop era such as Miles Davis’ Four. Youthful and spirited in performance, Jon was joined by his youngest daughter Aria, an exciting singer in her own right, with Kevin Burke standing in for Dave Lambert. Calling themselves Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Redux, they admirably re-created the sound of that groundbreaking vocal trio on Horace Silver’s Come On Home (with lyrics by Hendricks) and Doodlin’ and the LHR hits, Moanin’, Centrepiece and the lightning-fast Cloudburst. Backed by a New York rhythm section comprised of the excellent Peter Mihelich on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Andy Watson on drums, Hendricks ably demonstrated his mastery of vocalese, the singing of lyrics to originally instrumental solo lines, as well as his unparalleled prowess with scat, especially on Listen to Monk, with its repeated line,“Thelonius Could Do That.” He also shared his talents as a comedian, keeping the audience in stitches with each introduction (particularly when recalling Monk’s predilection for a certain profanity involving motherhood).
A surprise guest of the night was trumpet legend Clark Terry who offered a haunting solo to Hendrick’s performance of This Love of Mine. Playing flawlessly despite advancing years, Terry also sat in on Hendricks’ politically-biting Tell Me the Truth, penned in the days of Richard Nixon. Then Hendricks and Terry shared an unforgettable nonsensical musical conversation, showing the roots of scat in speech. Common phrases such as “I told her,” and “You did?” were interspersed with scatted syllables, spoken or sung. Joined in an encore by Kevin Mahogany, and tap-dancer Jimmy Slides, the evening truly epitomised vocal jazz at its best. Afterwards a local quartet provided some of the more avant-garde music heard over the course of the celebration.
All in all the second annual Art of Jazz Celebration was a dream come true for any jazz fan, providing many never-to-be-forgotten moments. The combination of legendary artists, historic venue and programming based on artistry and devotion made real the claim to celebrate jazz as a living, breathing art form. A true jazz spirit of adventure permeated every aspect of the celebration –– from the innovative concert concepts including ethnic, vocal and dance elements, to the willingness to ‘see what happens’ when living legends come together on stage. One wonders how next year’s celebration could possibly maintain this momentum, but given the dedication of organizers Bunnett, Cramer and Rees and the entire Art of Jazz organization, we can all look forward to another miraculous jazz happening next June. Watch for it and be there!