June 2007

Carla Bley, Steve Swallow & The Art of Jazz Orchestra
Art of Jazz Celebrations
June 2, 2007 Pure Spirits Stage Distillery District Toronto
Report by Paul J. Youngman with photo by Mike Colyer
The composition of the Art of Jazz Orchestra fluctuates but has many consistencies. It is always directed by a great orchestra leader, last year it was John McLeod, this time out the wonderful Carla Bley did a superb job. Terry Clarke, Jane Bunnett and Don Thompson usually play in the orchestra with an 'A-list' of local Canadian performers. The orchestra consistently has great guest artists, this year’s Art of Jazz Orchestra guests included Steve Swallow on electric bass, Howard Johnson on baritone saxophone and George Garzone on tenor saxophone. There was also a tremendous lead trombone player, Gary Valente, from Carla Bley’s big band who took many exciting breaks. The orchestra always has a big grand sound and they always have great arrangements. They always feature excellent soloists and high energy playing by the orchestra as a collective. This performance was no exception.
The concert was one of many free events held over the course of the weekend at The Distillery as part of The Art of Jazz celebration and LuminaTO. LuminaTO is a new initiative that is designed to illuminate the arts in Toronto, for more information please see www.luminato.com. The AOJ Orchestra concert was preceded by a performance featuring the Lee Konitz Trio, an excellent trio performance and a great introduction for the orchestra.

A short break in between the shows and the orchestra took to the stage. Then the first of several technical difficulties occurred; the Hammond B3 organ would not fire up, so organist Dave Restivo was out of a job for the first set. During the intermission, the B3 was repaired and Mr. Restivo was called upon to play a few well-placed notes but my sources inform me that a song featuring the organ was omitted during the show due to the technical glitch.

There seemed to be a few other technical problems but they had no noticeable effect on the sound. The show was recorded by CBC radio for future broadcast, so hopefully if they rebroadcast the show we’ll hear just how good it was. On the other hand, if a DVD was in the works, there may have to be some editing to cover for some of the strange interactions on stage. Jane Bunnett seemed to have a problem with her charts. It appeared she was depending on Howard Johnson, who was sitting next to her to provide direction as to how long a soprano solo was required. Ms. Bunnett’s playing was excellent, any stress or frustration at these technicalities were washed away in the music as she proceeded to produce 32 bars of exceptional playing, not once looking at the sheet music. At one point, Carla Bley directed the trombone section in building a huge crescendo and it seemed the song had climaxed. As cool as jazz, Howard Johnson continued with his direction to Ms. Bunnett — no problem, inspirational lines just kept flowing from the soprano saxophone.

Steve Swallow

Carla Bley
Other little problems occurred, one of the trombone players had what seemed a major component malfunction and made an attempt at acquiring a replacement part, I’m not sure if that ever got sorted out. Terry Clarke, inspired by Steve Swallow’s driving bass, was drumming up a storm and sounding like the epitome of a big band drummer (think Ed Shaughnessy or Louis Bellson) when he broke his oversized bass drum. He took a little extra time between songs to set up a new one. As mentioned, none of these technicalities affected the music. The playing by the soloists was exceptional, Brian O’Kane and Alex Brown took excellent trumpet breaks, Don Thompson played a beautifully phrased vibraphone solo and the trombone section led by the dynamic lead soloist Gary Valente blew strong.

The Carla Bley-conducted orchestra ran through many Bley originals with her signature arrangements; songs like “Awful Coffee”, “Greasy Gravy”, “On The Stage In Cages”, “Los Cosineros” and “Who’ll Rescue You”. "Tijuana Traffic” opened with Ms Bley explaining how lead trumpeter Kevin Turcotte would crash and burn while making a trip from the city to the country hacienda — very sad, but in the end Turcotte is saved. “Lo-Ultimo” was originally arranged for saxophone quartet and featured Jane Bunnett playing some inspiring soprano sax lines. Howard Johnson on baritone sax who also played some incredible lines, as did Andy Ballantyne and George Garzone. The show ended with a Mingus tune, “Good-Bye Pork Pie Hat”, arranged as only Ms. Bley could do it, with equal parts of joy, humour and wit.

Listen to this concert @ CBC Radio 2 – Concerts On Demand.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Paul J. Youngman
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Mike Colyer
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The Live Music Report

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