2008 ART OF JAZZ SPRING CELEBRATION: A REVIEW
From Wednesday, June 4, to Sunday, June 8, Toronto's visionary Art of Jazz organization, for the third consecutive year, transformed their city's picturesque Distillery Historic District into a dynamic "Global Jazz Village " to host its Celebration 2008.
After an opening night jam session, the first major concert of this year's event took place on Thursday evening, a tribute to Canadian jazz icon John Norris, founder of CODA Magazine and Sackville Records, and one of this year's Art of Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award honorees. Highlights included a tasty quartet set led by pianist Wray Downes and featuring Dave Young on bass, state-of-the-art bebop by a quintet fronted by tenor saxophonist-clarinetist Dan Block and trumpeter Jon-Erik Kellso, and master pianist Randy Weston in a stirring solo medley.
Weston returned on Friday night, joined by tenor saxophonist Billy Harper in the first of the festival's three "Duo Series" concerts. Harper and Weston are long-time associates, and their affinity was immediately apparent as they explored three of Weston's blues compositions: "Blues to Africa," "African Village Bedford-Stuyvesant," and "Berkshire Blues." Harper's pure, straight-from-the-soul timbre continued to meld with Weston's deep, dark harmonies on three more of the pianist's works: "Tanjah," "The Beauty of It All," and "African Sunrise." "Music is the best healer," the philosophical Weston instructed the audience. "It is an art form we cannot see, we cannot touch. But it touches us." And he and Harper proceeded to touch and soothe the audience with "The Healers." Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas," the only non-Weston piece of the evening, brought their enthralling performance to a breezy finale
The Duo Series continued on Saturday afternoon, reuniting one-of-a kind singer Sheila Jordan with an old friend, pianist Steve Kuhn. More than a singer and her accompanist, they worked as genuine collaborators, two sensitive artists reacting, interacting, conversing through song. Jordan may have the most pleasant stage presence in all of jazz, and her sunny outlook shone though as she defined the elusive art of jazz singing with tunes by Kuhn ("Gentle Thoughts"), Don Cherry ("Art Deco," with Jordan's lyric), Kenny Dorham ("Fair Weather"), Bobby Timmons ("Dat Dere," which she first sang on her 1962 debut album, Portrait of Sheila), and Sonny Rollins ("Pent-Up House," with a hilarious new lyric). After an engagingly slow "Lady, Be Good," sung in tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Jordan ceded the floor to Kuhn for a terrific set laced with lush film themes ("Emily," "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes," "Smile"), a pair of originals ("Two by Two" and "Poem for Number 15"), and more Rollins ("Airegin"). Jordan returned and was joined, vocally, by Kuhn on his tune, "The Zoo." Her trademark closer, the biographical "Sheila's Blues," ended the show on a witty, appropriately upbeat note.
On Sunday afternoon the third and final Duo Series concert presented two of Canada's most eminent jazz artists, pianist Gene DiNovi and bassist Dave Young, a pair of consummate professionals familiar with each other and totally at ease in this intimate format. Between tunes DiNovi, a natural wit and an accomplished storyteller, delighted the audience - and his partner - with personal anecdotes from his more than six decades in the music. Their set was filled with intuitive treatments of jazz classics and popular standards, plus a charming DiNovi vocal on the jazz waltz, "Brand New Morning." DiNovi also contributed two finely crafted originals, the well-titled "Propulsion" and the Latin-tinged "Nieves," with a complex bass line that would challenge, even confound, many otherwise capable bassists. But not Dave Young.
Saturday and Sunday evenings were devoted to two of Brazil's most prolific and influential artists, Hermeto Pascoal and Egberto Gismonti, both of whom were honored by the Art of Jazz with Lifetime Achievement Awards. These unique instrumentalist-composers personify complementary approaches to post-Jobim, post-bossa nova Brazilian music. Pascoal is folk-rooted, spontaneous, and completely unpredictable, a musical maverick. Gismonti, who possesses a firm grounding in European composition and performance practice, strives to erase the line between written and improvised music. Each in his own way draws together diverse musical threads, creating a personal aesthetic that renders labels like "serious" and "popular" mundane and meaningless.
Pascoal performed with the Art of Jazz Orchestra, ably directed by his former sideman, Jovino Santos Neto. In just three years the Art of Jazz Orchestra has emerged as one of North America's most accomplished jazz ensembles, and they rose to the challenge of handling Pascoal's free-wheeling music. For over three astounding hours, Pascoal - playing keyboards, melodica, flue, bass flute, assorted percussion instruments, a plastic bottle cap, and a glass of red wine - and the orchestra flooded the room with tidal waves of sound and energy. The overall experience was exciting, exhilarating, fun, funny, inspired, and inspiring - make that, awe-inspiring.
The closing Sunday night concert began with Gismonti demonstrating his virtuosity on the piano. The brilliant Penderecki String Quartet, augmented by bassist Jim Vivian, joined him, deftly navigating his elaborate and demanding chamber compositions. The first half ended with a brief duo set spotlighting Gismonti and soprano saxophonist-flutist Jane Bunnett, who displayed her facility with the subtleties and intricacies of Gismonti's music. Two special tributes opened the second half, the first by master Indian percussionist Trichy Sankaran, the second, titled "Egberto," performed by its composer, Don Thompson, on piano, with Bunnett on soprano saxophone and the gifted ten-voice choir from CamagŁey, Cuba, Grupo Vocal Desandann. Gismonti then returned to the stage for a set of solo guitar works that proved to be as rich and dense as his piano pieces. This captivating evening concluded with duet a between Gismonti on guitar and Thompson, this time on bass.
Along with such marquee events as these, the Art of Jazz Celebration 2008 included an Afro-Cuban Dance party, late-night jam sessions, two days of free outdoor concerts on two stages, workshops, clinics, "Jazz for Juniors" lessons on harmonica playing and samba drumming, and more. The Art of Jazz's co-founders - Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer, and Bonnie Lester - staff, volunteers, corporate partners, and audiences should be thanked and congratulated for producing one of the few genuine and integrity-driven jazz festivals left in the world, as well as for their year-round dedication to promoting this vital art form in the fine city of Toronto.
© Bob Bernotas, 2008. All rights reserved. This article may not be reprinted without the author's permission.
Photo: Carol Steuer