One of my final picks from the Toronto Jazz Festival had to be Oliver Jones, a Canadian jazz legend of the piano. Spending a night with him and his trio was an experience of piano mastery at its highest order, bringing forth strong emotions and high command of piano technique with his playing, arrangements, and choice of material.
Opening the night was a stellar take of the classic jazz standard “Tenderly”, starting off with a classic rubato before switching gears into driving swing. Through this performance I could clearly hear the influence of Oscar Peterson, captivating the audience through every note played and swung to set off the night.
Jones displayed his creative take on classical technique when he interplayed with bassist Eric Lagace on tunes such as “You Look Good To Me” and “Up Jumped Spring”. These performances echoed the counterpoint employed by Bach and gave a more refined edge to his jazz sound.
Not only is Jones a great interpreter and clever arranger of music, he is also a fine composer who can compose everything from a rousing blues selection such as “Something For Chuck”, a refined elegant waltz in “Dance Again Diana”, or a spritely be-bop in “Dizzy’s Nest”. His compositions are not too complex, allowing the pianist to display various aspects of his playing and writing.
A word about the drummer of the trio, Jim Doxas: He is one of the most talented and creative young drummers to come out of Canada, showing great empathy and technique when needed. In Jones’ composition “Sam Patrick”, he played a great calypso drum solo that echoed Max Roach’s performance on Sonny Rollins’ classic “St. Thomas”.
Jones played a lot of medleys and requests, showing his wealth of knowledge of repertory material, familiarizing the audience with popular, timeless material. In the first set, he played a medley of songs connected with his favourite entertainer, Nat King Cole, to the wealth of music composed by the great George Gershwin. In the second set, he played a ballad medley consisting of songs from West Side Story, classical Chopin and the great classic “Over the Rainbow”, concluding the evening with a medley dedicated to Duke Ellington.
The most enduring influence on Jones’ playing has got to be the black church, and it was shown that night through his soulful take on “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and the Oscar Peterson classic, “Hymn to Freedom”. His performance was like going to heaven and wanting to stay there for a long while, basking in the glory and presence of God.
Overall, it was a great evening of piano trio music by one of the great living Canadian jazz legends of our time. The concert was a stellar way to celebrate his upcoming 80th birthday in September with fans and patrons of jazz in Toronto.
– Conrad Gayle
On a nice summer night last Wednesday, Keith Jarrett made a commanding appearance at the Toronto Jazz Festival by putting on a very rare solo piano concert of completely improvised music to an appreciative and attentive audience. It is through his improvised concerts that have made him a jazz legend with audiences awed and inspired as to how much music can come out of one man, which was never before planned or never been rehearsed.
A big difference from the improvised concerts of the past versus the later improvised concerts of today is that instead of marathon sets lasting 30 to 60 minutes, the improvisations are like shorter songs lasting from 5 to 8 minutes. For both Jarrett and the audience, I feel that the shorter improvisations allow the music to breathe and at the same time allow him to mentally prepare himself for whatever comes next.
Jarrett’s improvisations consisted of a wide range of styles and influences ranging from contemporary classical, folk, boogie woogie jazz and even gospel influences, while all sounding fresh, invigorating and always looking forward to the future. Although his work is completely free and improvised, he has the uncanny ability to make it sound like complete compositions that took a long time to put on paper.
During the concert, Jarrett was having fun with the audience, and commented about some issues with the piano and the bench he was sitting on. But nothing deterred him from putting on a concert that was nothing short of pure, God-given genius at work. The very appreciative audience was even treated to three encores at the end of the concert, capping off an evening of music that was simply heaven on earth.
– Conrad Gayle
Last year, Kurt Vile released his critically acclaimed fifth album Wakin on a Pretty Daze, which was comprised of his most expansive work to date and some of the best back-to-basics guitar rock heard in a long time. However, the song that really ignited the most conversation was the tail end track “Snowflakes Are Dancing”, its most infamous line being “Snowflakes are dancing/disc man is pumping/headphones are loud/chilling on a pillowy cloud.” While the song is instrumentally stunning and takes its time to let the melodies swirl around, it’s difficult to imagine any other musician who could get away with a line like that without it seeming sardonic. Vile’s perpetually laid back vocals and equally relaxed lyrics manage to pull this off. However, that is exactly what Vile’s most remarkable feat as an artist has always been; a high level of technical skill complemented by his acutely self-aware, unabashed earnestness.
More than a year after Vile played 2013’s Toronto Urban Roots Festival, he arrived at the Phoenix as part of an extended world tour. The show opened with Steve Gunn, the quietly prolific and occasional guitarist in Vile’s The Violators. Gunn’s music has a penchant for sprawling instrumentation, and on stage those qualities only become more predominant. With his backing band often venturing into extended jams, his composition seemed to invite improvisation and create an effortlessly relaxed, honey-soaked atmosphere. An unsung hero of Gunn’s backing band was drummer John Truscinski, who maintained a confidant, crisp rhythm that gave him the freedom to play around. Truscinski received rampant applause from the crowd when Gunn introduced him to the stage.
As the crowd grew with people spilling out onto the edges of the venue – it was one of the most packed sets I’ve seen at The Phoenix in quite some time – the anticipation for Vile grew along with it. Emerging in front of an enormous backdrop baring his name, and behind his signature long, brown hair, he began with the title track off Wakin on a Pretty Daze, the very similarly named “Wakin on a Pretty Day”. As a musician who has made his career on rules he’s invented himself, from the extravagant production that went into the artwork for his most recent album to publicly outing Patrick Stickles of Titus Andronicus for accusing him of selling out, his live show has the same type of free-flowing attitude.
Playing a nearly two-and-a-half-hour set, several songs have clearly evolved since their creation such as “Girl Called Alex” and “Goldtone”, which saw Vile indulging in longer guitar sections that seem to have been added organically. “Jesus Fever” went down like a warm glass of milk as it put the spotlight on his exceptional finger-picking style while removed from its scuzzy lo-fi production on 2009’s Childish Prodigy. “Freak Train” morphed into a much louder, heavier and denser alt-rock beast, possibly indicating a new direction on upcoming releases. Despite the relaxed demeanor of his music, Vile is an unintentionally dramatic front man, whipping his sweater off wildly after the first song and nearly throwing his guitar to the side between songs. The audience ceased to exist around him as Vile sank to his knees and turned his back to the crowd, completely absorbed and enamoured with his own music. In the middle of his set he launched into “On Tour” where he drawled “I’m just playin’/I got it made/most of the time.” Judging from the success he’s experienced and how evidently he appreciates being on stage, there is nothing fabricated about those lyrics.
– Melissa Vincent (Twitter @MellVincent)
To cap off a stellar jazz season celebrating the 90th birthdays of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington, the organizers at Koerner Hall managed to bring together two top male vocalists who excel at the top of their game. The vocalists are fellow Canadian superstar Denzal Sinclaire and beloved American superstar Kurt Elling.
As Sinclaire opened the first set, he showed both his strengths as a Nat King Cole influenced singer and an all around complete musician playing guitar, melodica, piano and even drums. For instance, his take on the opening “All of Me” displayed his caressing vocals and his swinging prowess on the brush kit. After a bit of swinging jazz, he switched to acoustic guitar as he delved into R&B repertoire courtesy of the Dinah Washington classic “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” and the folk pop inflections of the piece “I’m Getting Ready”. Those performances effectively showed his contemporary side and adaptability toward other styles of music other than jazz.
Sinclaire captivated the audience again with a funky take on the Gershwin classic “I Got Rhythm”, doubling on piano as well as voice. Bringing a Mediterranean/Latin vibe to “You And the Night and the Music”, his use of the melodica brought a certain exotic flair to the performance along with his backup band. He capped off the night performing the original composition “You Treat Me So Good”. It was funky jazz at its swinging best and it showed that he should be composing more songs in a similar vein.
After Sinclaire’s set, Elling brought on a captivating performance that showed why he is consistently ranked as the top male vocalist of his generation. Through the straight opening take on “Come Fly With Me” he brought in a lot of soul, soaring vocal prowess and new life into a classic standard made popular by Frank Sinatra. Among the other highlights of his great set is a funky take on “You Send Me”, the interplay of vocal and rhythm on their version of “On Broadway”, and a swinging, scat-infused take on the classic “I’m Satisfied”.
Elling is also a vocalist who is a complete musician, but primarily uses his voice to achieve such musical effects. For instance, he sees himself as part of the band ensemble when he does vocal effects and interacts with the musicians during the “On Broadway” performance. Elling’s voice was like a well tuned and a well-executed instrument when he caressed vocally in performances such as “Skylark” and when he brought high-octane scat and energy into performances such as “I’m Satisfied”.
Both Sinclaire and Elling honoured the legacies of Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington perfectly with captivating vocal performances of their own that showed the heart and soul of singing at its best. Overall, it was a stellar concert put on by two great vocalists who do a whole lot more than just sing lyrics; they interpret and treat it musically as their very own.
– Conrad Gayle
Sean Kelly’s love of the Canadian hard rock and heavy metal heroes who inspired his own successful music career were his inspiration for his book “Metal on Ice: Tales from Canada’s Hard Rock and Heavy Metal Heroes.” An accompanying CD project was also released and received high praise including this previously published review by The Spill.
A slot in the esteemed roster of shows featured at Canadian Music Week 2014 was the next natural step in honouring the influence of Canada’s metal scene. The concert was at Toronto’s The Opera House and featured Sean Kelly on the axe accompanied by his Metal on Ice band and a few of the rock legends themselves: Brian Vollmer (Helix), Carl Dixon (Coney Hatch), Darby Mills (Headpins), Lee Aaron and Nick Walsh (Slik Toxik) who performed new versions of classic songs from the ‘80s.
Earplugs were necessary as these rawk legends tore the place apart. Age did not seem to be an obstacle for any of these performers; they brought it and delivered the goods. Vollmer entertained with the classic “Heavy Metal Love” and brought the audience to a frenzy with the crowd-pleasing “Rock You”; a great audience participation number. (Gimme an R! “R!” O! “O!” C! “C!” K! “K!” Whatcha got!? “Rock !” And watcha gonna do!? “Rock you!”) This song is considered an ‘80s metal anthem amongst other adrenaline jolters like Quiet Riot’s “Metal Health (Bang Your Head)”, Motley Crue’s “Shout at the Devil” and Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock”.
Darby Mills equally satisfied with two Headpins’ classics, “Don’t It Make You Feel” and “Turn it Loud”. The beautiful and very talented Lee Aaron absolutely levelled the place with her songs “Metal Queen” and “Whatcha Do to My Body”. Carl Dixon amazed with his guitar prowess on Coney Hatch’s “Hey Operator”. Nick Walsh proved that as a showman, he’s in the same league as Sebastian Bach of Skid Row and David Lee Roth (in his prime) of Van Halen. His stage presence, swagger, incredible vocal range and audience-engagement are second to none. Walsh belted out Kick Axes’s classic “On the Road to Rock” as well as a tune from his former band, Slik Toxik, “Helluva Time”.
Okay, we’re blown away. Now what’s next for the Metal on Ice project? A movie, perhaps? We hope so. With a music scene seemingly stuck on low-fi indie snoozers and dancing auto-tune fakers, this show reminded us that the world needs a rock revival. Kelly’s efforts could be a lynchpin in bringing this about.
– Michael Filonienko
(photography by Anita Shuper)
David Gray, along with his seven piece band, which included the evening’s opening performer David Kitt, was greeted with a warm welcome as he took the stage at the Danforth Music Hall. His stop in Toronto was a sold out performance, and is his fourth stop on a mini cross continent tour celebrating the release of his eleventh album, Mutineers (available June 17).
“This is what it feels like to be a mutineer...”
With those words, David Gray began an evening that included the performance of the complete Mutineers album.
The stage was simple and the music was extraordinary.
There were no gimmicks this evening, as both the stage and the performance was beautifully clean. Clearly the focus was on the music and the haunting voice of David Gray, a beacon of light for his fans. It is hard to believe that he has been making recorded music for three decades.
Based on response of the audience to the new album, it should be very well received this summer. Perhaps not critically because who knows what popular culture hungers and thirsts for, but certainly in the hearts of the fans. The song the Incredible is only one example why. It is a deeply moving song, inspired by a short story written by a Norwegian author. A single line from the story haunted David Gray so much that it because the source of inspiration. The lyrics were deep, by the memory is weak. Without the official release of the album, it is difficult to share with you some of the deeply meaningful verses.
The Incredible was followed by Cake and Eat It, a delightful song about desire.
“I hear you have a mayor here who lives like that as well”.
It seems everyone loves the Mayor of Toronto. He is an international sensation and casts a deep shadow on the world.
Strangely, the audience remained seated through the whole performance. A true rarity today. They listened. They bobbed their heads up and down. They held hands. They exchanged glances. Some tapped their feet.
They were all listening!
They were actually listening!
Neil Young would be proud, even though the night still brought out some catalog hecklers, who shouted out song titles, like they were at a drive through window. Their quips were met with a smile and a bit of healthy sarcasm. "Shhhh... we are trying to talk. We are working here..."
The Mutineers set ended with Birds of the High Arctic, an incredible song which led to the departure of the band, leaving David Gray in truly intimate setting. It doesn't get better than this.
He took centre stage, seated himself quietly, checked the microphone, strummed the guitar and looked into the audience. After a moment he began to play Shine.
After the song he explained to the enamoured crowd that this moment reminded him of his El Mocambo days. The crowd agreed with a loud cheer.
David Kitt, who opened the evening, was excellent in his own right. He brought his Irish humour and more importantly his Irish thirst to the beautiful city of Toronto. He sang folk songs of love and loss, and told the crowd how eternally grateful he was for the opportunity to play live.
The evening ended with a standing ovation for David Gray. No one wanted to see him stop. At one point, a few brave or perhaps intoxicated women ran to the front of the stage to exercise their freedom to dance, like the days of Babylon, but that was not to be. They were quickly ushered out, and no one else dared to try again.
This two and a half hour performance was perhaps meant as a warm up for David Gray, getting ready for the official tour in support of Mutineers. If it was, it certainly didn't seem like it. David Gray and his band of musicians delivered a unforgettable performance that needs desperately to return, hopefully sooner than later.
– Greg Kieszkowski (Twitter @GregK72)
(photography by Greg Kieszkowski)
Mounting an overwhelming mixed media assault on the Sony Centre, Kraftwerk benefited from their eerily prophetic influence over the modern fascination with retro futurism. With spectators bedecked in 3D glasses, made to look like droids themselves, the quartet activated their entertainment machine with the seminal “Robots”. It was a dramatic intro for the night and it stood out as a true statement of intent for the rest of the show. The band, dressed in reflective hieratic costumes, stood in perfect alignment on stage delivering just what one would expect of a concert put on by humanoid robots (complete with vocoders and 3D technology). That might not seem like an endorsement, in fact it’s quite the opposite, since Kraftwerk’s strength lies in their stark presentation of the minimalist audio-visual art form: they’re a fruitful merger of music and technology.
Playing song after song from their last eight albums, Kraftwerk travelled through their back catalogue highlighting popular themes. With “Numbers”, the screen spat out endless figures over the audience’s heads, reminiscent of ‘80s desktop images. In “Computer World”, an old school PC floated by as the crowd roared with their nostalgic approval. A futuristic melancholy was apparent in their choice of images that made the band seem more prescient now in retrospect. “Spacelab” was definitely the highlight of the show; the accompanying projections transformed the venue into a giant spacecraft zooming through the stratosphere, soaring with the UFOs and finally landing by the CN Tower, much to the enthusiasm of the crowd. “Das Model” was beautifully executed with kitschy ‘50s vintage footage, while “Radioactivity” provided a disturbing spin with a quick reference to the Fukushima disaster. They played an extended version of “Tour de France” from their Vitamin album at the median, which felt more like an ode to avid cyclist Ralf Hütter. “Autobahn” was the crowd favourite, but it may have been the only weakness in the set; its extended version didn’t provide anything different to its music video version. Nonetheless, the synthpop love was clearly felt as Kraftwerk looped through familiar beats and fully took advantage of the crystal clear sound system of the venue.
As “Music Non Stop” closed the concert, individual members took turns to show off their synthesizer prowess, leaving Hütter, sole survivor of the original outfit, alone on stage. Some audience members, barely able to sit still, got up to dance. One girl even managed to jump the stage and hug the band before security whisked her away. Kraftwerk had “worked” the crowd without budging from their android-like exteriors.
For four decades Kraftwerk has changed the history of pop as pioneers of electronic music, and can still put on an electrifying show. While the band barely interacted with the crowd, the images that projected in the centre created intimate and indelible impressions. If Kraftwerk were a thesis of impending concert entertainment, the possibilities of what might come next are as exciting as they are palpable. The future is definitely now.
– Jacqueline Valencia
On what would be the 180th birthday of the city of Toronto, I decided to end the night going to a musical extravaganza – the CD release party for Brasstronomical.
At Lula Lounge, both The Heavyweights Brass Band and Street Brass treated a packed audience to a rousing Mardi Gras party, transporting you to the hot shores of Brazil or the French Quarter of New Orleans. It was a night of feel good music that made you want to dance, shake your thang and sing along to a groovy beat.
Street Brass opened the set by marching to a tune of “When the Saints Go Marching In”, which resembled a cross between Salvation Army organized horns and Pentecostal/Black Baptist church fervor. After the opening, they broke into another New Orleans’ staple, “Do What You Wanna”, before delving the rest of the repertoire into the Latin American ideologies of Brazil and Colombia. I really liked the Latin American music since it was fresh, exotic, danceable, and intellectually stimulating.
The main event was the Heavyweights Brass Band – a mix of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy, Trombone Shorty, and Preservation Hall Jazz Band cooked up into one hearty, spicy gumbo. Playing the entire CD set, we were treated to special guests such as soul R&B vocalist and fellow Jamaican Jay Douglas, soprano saxophonist and Spirits of Havana advocate Jane Bunnett, and percussionist Luisito Orbegoso. Throughout the set I was dancing, getting my groove on and reliving a part of my youth over and over again.
If the Heavyweights Brass Band doesn’t get a Juno (or even a Grammy) for their stellar, original work on New Orleans jazz, then there must be something royally wrong with the judges (or I should become a judge myself). Not only are they one of the best – and my favourite – local bands to ever come across the scene in Toronto (with most of the members being born in Winnipeg and Vancouver), but they also do a great job of authentically channeling black soul as well as the history of the music they play. Again, one of the best concerts of 2014 to kick off the release of one of the best CD’s to begin the year, Brasstronomical.
– Conrad Gayle
The Chicago stop of Skinny Puppy’s ‘Shapes for Arms’ tour is a night that ought to go down in industrial history, as the legendary band pulled out all the stops and performed an amazing set (as usual).
Openers Army of the Universe did a great job setting the stage with their brand of industrial dance music. As the opening band for most of February, they entertained the crowd with a sound somewhere between ‘80s metal and ‘90s industrial. Opening their set with “Acid Flows”, a previously unreleased track, they continued through 10 more songs and ended with “Hollywood Drama”.
Skinny Puppy, about halfway through their 29-date journey across North America, opened the show with a dark stage. Drummer Justin Bennett and founder cEvin Key came out first in front of a screen glowing with images reminiscent of Star Wars, which soon switched over to what looked like illuminated maps of a computer’s insides. Beginning with “Choralone”, vocalist Nivek Ogre took the stage wearing a hooded outfit and toting an umbrella (which he didn’t hold onto for very long). He flawlessly began to sing “illiSit”, the second track off of their new album Weapon. His voice sounded just as it does in the recording; the accompanying music by Key and Bennett was perfection.
Ditching the umbrella, the band powered through tracks including “Wornin’”, which was visualized with an on the large screen behind the stage of a helicopter-like blade that switched to a series of images of faces (most likely of politicians knowing Skinny Puppy’s interest in making a message). The images projected on the screen behind the stage as well as the numerous “television-like” screens on the stage were mainly controlled by Ogre. The screens flashed with different images throughout the performance, sometimes with close-ups of the musicians (which I believe were live, but I’m not entirely sure). The rest of their set list included “Warlock”, “Hexonxonx”, and “Solvent” among others.
Encore number one brought Ogre back sans the mask he’d worn during the show. Thanking the audience for staying, he welcomed us to the event and made a pointed comment impressing the danger of our chemical society, after which he launched into “Far Too Frail”. The songs “Glass Houses” and “Smothered Hope” were among the others played, after which the band again departed to a static-filled screen behind the stage, and a “thank you, Chicago!” could be heard from Ogre.
Realizing we weren’t about to leave just yet, their last encore consisted of (my personal favourite) “Assimilate”, during which the screen behind the stage was filled with images shaped like stars and stripes.
Overall, I was immensely impressed as I always have been with them. Since they began in 1982, they have achieved a legendary status, and rightly so. Their energy and willingness to do so much for their fans is immensely respectable.
– Kathleen Nichols