June 2007

An Overview of The Art of Jazz Celebrations
May 30 – June 3, 2007 The Distillery District Toronto
Blessed Be The Art of Jazz Spring Celebration
by Paul J. Youngman with photos by Roger Humbert
One of the many icons of jazz who paid a visit to Toronto to partake in the festivities of this, the second annual Art Of Jazz Celebrations, must have lifted a mighty hand and blessed the proceedings. From sold out shows to picture perfect balmy weather, this year’s show had all the elements of a rite of spring festival to rival any of the summer jazz festivals. I attended all five days of the festival, taking in as many musical performances and educational workshops as I could manage. Many of the shows were held outside in open air tents, with the roofs rolled back to let the patrons soak up the sun, the sound and the incredible ambiance of the historic distillery district.

This year’s version of the festival was moved to a later date, from the Victoria Day long weekend to about a week later. You might think this makes all of the difference as far as the weather goes, I did. As I write this report a couple of days have passed since the grand finale and the temperature has plummeted to just above freezing, and we have had torrential rain fall in sporadic bursts since the end of the final concert June 3rd.

The festival suffered only one cancellation, trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who was reportedly suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Of course this caused some rescheduling but minimal apparent disruption. Best wishes go out to Mr. Brookmeyer for a speedy recovery. Hopefully he will be performing again soon and making an appearance at next year’s Art of Jazz festival.

The organizers of the event — Jane Bunnett, Bonnie Lester, Larry Cramer, Lenny Binder and Howard Rees — put together another great show. Icons of the jazz world shared their talent and passion with the attendees and put on performances that were truly inspirational for the audiences. Among the legends who played their hearts out were this year’s Art of Jazz Lifetime Achievement Award recipients, Canadian Kenny Wheeler and American Jon Hendricks, last years honourees Barry Harris and Don Thompson and musicians such as Clark Terry, Carla Bley, Lee Konitz, Steve Swallow, Joe LaBarbera and Dave Holland. Future legends of the art of jazz, Kevin Mahogany, Aria Hendricks, Kevin Burke, Francisco Mela, George Garzone, David Virelles, Osmany Peredes and John Benitez to name a few, displayed their talent throughout the festival. All of the participating musicians joined in the spirit of creating memorable performances, educational workshops and cultivating a new generation of jazz enthusiasts. This is the essence of what the Art of Jazz founders envision for the event and without a doubt they have achieved that goal.

Barry Harris
Day 1 – The Art of Jazz started off in fine form with an opening night party, it was staged at the cavernous and historic Fermenting Cellar, where the sound likes to bounce around quite a bit before settling somewhere in the rafters about thirty feet above floor level and then gently cascade down to ear level in billowing muffled swells of sound waves. The headline act was Art of Jazz founder Jane Bunnett and her band The Spirits of Havana with special guest Kevin Mahogany. The opening act featured Don Thompson playing vibes, Osmany Peredes on piano, Kieran Overs on bass and Frank Durand playing drums. The highlights of the evening were the various groups of players who participated with Jane Bunnett and The Spirits of Havana. Barry Harris took a turn on piano, Archie Alleyne on drums, Don Thompson on bass and Howard Johnson on trombone. Jon Hendricks and Kevin Mahogany took turns singing classics like “Little Butterfly,” “When I Fall In Love,” “Route 66” and “Take The A-Train.”
Day 2 – The next night, May 31st, was a thoroughly enjoyable and educational performance, Footprints – A Journey in Dance and Drums, hosted by Veronica Tennant, famed principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. The evening of dance and music warmed the hearts of the audience starting with the Blue Flame of Cameroon, Muna Mingole, and travelling to Cuba where the fiery spirit of Felix “Pupy” Insua could barely be contained as he incorporated the natural elements into his dancing and moved to the hand drummers beat as a man possessed, very spiritual and primal. The next stop in the journey of dance took us to New York and Doctor Jimmy Slyde, known as the “King of Slides”. The packed house was in for a super treat with this hoofers’ return engagement. At last year’s show, Dr. Slyde performed with Dr. Barry Harris and his trio. It was an exceptional performance and it was a shame that more young people were not there to witness this phenom. The publicity strategy for this year’s event worked. There was a great crowd on hand and all different age groups were represented in the audience. Many young tap dancers, jazz dancers and world dancers attended, some of them joining the dancers on stage for the grand finale.
Felix "Pupy" Insua & Jennifer Donello
Day 3 – A Friday and the first day of June, set up the weekend with a sold-out show at the Fermenting Cellar for famed Canadian trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler. Mr. Wheeler was joined by Dave Holland, Lee Konitz, Joe LaBarbera, Don Thompson and vocalist Norma Winstone. The septet would flow through two sets with inspirational playing and singing of songs such as “Of Smiles Remembered”, “Canter No. 1” and the ballad “Where Do We Go From Here” in which Kenny Wheeler took the first break on flugelhorn, playing memorable lyrical lines that were followed by Lee Konitz with smooth melodically fluid runs. Other songs performed included, “Foxhound,” “How it Was Then,” and, as introduced by Kenny Wheeler, a “Slow Blues Dedicated To Mingus, I’d love to tell you what the name is but it doesn’t have one”. The rhythm section, one of the best ever — Dave Holland, Joe LaBarbera and Don Thompson — were grooving in first-rate accompaniment form with moments of brilliance mixed in on every potential opening for communicating their collective joy at working together whenever the chance allows.
Day 4 Saturday June 2nd, my day of rest was a very busy musical day that turned into an amazing musical evening and a day that I will mark down as one of the most memorable. All of the outdoor events were free, the weather was excellent, the place was packed, it seemed like everybody was on their way to this celebration, traffic was extreme coming into town. My intentions were to arrive at noon and take in the Shuffle Demons, a great joyous saxophone quintet that features saxophonists Richard Underhill, Kelley Jefferson and Perry White, bassist George Koller and drummer Stich Wynston. Unfortunately, I missed them this time out, but I heard the event was well attended and all participants had a marvellous time with these wacky demons of jazz frivolity.

I arrived in time to catch the Canadian Jazz Quartet playing in one of the three outdoor venues, for some unknown reason dubbed The Green Stage. This fine quartet plays straight ahead mainstream jazz in a fresh and vibrant manner. Gary Benson, one of the founders of the band, plays very pleasing melodic jazz guitar. The other original members are vibraphonist Frank Wright and drummer Don Vickery. Bassist Pat Collins fills out the quintet.

Stich Wynston
The song “I Hear A Rhapsody” had Don Vickery swinging on drums and Frank Wright laying down lyrical, fluid vibe fills, so pure and mesmerizing that people seemed to be in suspended animation. Gary Benson had to shake the audience up with his melodically pleasing guitar break, disrupting the crowd’s cool reverie and creating some applause of gratitude.

The Lee Konitz trio was scheduled to play in another open-air forum, known as the Pure Spirits Stage. This was one of a couple of must see trios for me. Joe LaBarbera drumming and Kieran Overs on acoustic bass. The show started on time at 3:30 pm. Konitz opened the show with a saxophone introduction, followed by the bassist responding with a breakout solo of his own. LaBarbera was setting up an ambiance by using his brushes on the cymbals. Quickly, the song shifted to a swinging groove and LaBarbera switched to sticks. Konitz laid down some melodic lines while working solidly in the swing groove. The band continued in a hard bop groove and played five songs that were all equally pleasing. Drummer LaBarbera played a wonderfully inspired hand drumming solo. Both he and bassist Kieran Overs appeared to be in great spirits as they comped and traded off against the inspired playing of Lee Konitz.

Moving right along and performing under the same tent was the Carla Bley, Steve Swallow and the Art of Jazz Orchestra. The orchestra also featured a star studded cast of supporting players, names such as George Garzone, Jane Bunnett, Don Thompson, Terry Clarke, Howard Johnson, Quinsin Nachoff, Kevin Turcotte, Brian O’Kane, William Carn, Alex Brown, Andy Ballantyne... There were inspiring moments from some exceptional players. The rhythm section of Swallow and Clarke were driving the orchestra with exacting precision and sounded like they had been playing together for a long time. The horn sections arrangements were great with lots of excitement and energy that had to be constrained. The show was recorded by CBC radio for future broadcast. I am looking forward to a repeat performance. Hopefully the CBC will release these tapes sooner than the recordings from the 2006 Art of Jazz Celebration — yet to be released and with no projected release date.

The next act was the highlight. I didn’t think anything could top the AOJ Orchestra but The Francisco Mela Quartet featuring Mela on drums and percussion, Davide Virelles playing piano, George Garzone playing saxophone and John Benitez playing acoustic bass put on a show that for all intents and purposes was the most energetic and spiritual of the five day event. Mela was in a take no prisoners frame of mind. He was so connected to the music that he had every single person completely entranced, young and old were seemingly spellbound at the display of musical communication that this quartet produced, an incredible five star performance.

Day 5 – Sunday, another busy day of rest starting with two workshops, a Mela percussion (I wanted to find out the secrets of this powerhouse drummer) followed by a John Benitez Ensemble workshop. This was all very cool, informative and educational. The rest of the day was spent checking out the various local acts. A fine group of Cuban ex-pats who now reside in Toronto were pounding out Latin sounds on the Club Cubana stage at Trinity Square, with Alberto Alberto singing and a few blocks away songstress Heather Bambrick was singing up a storm on the Green Stage. The feature afternoon show was another must see trio; Barry Harris, Leroy Williams and Don Thompson playing acoustic bass with added special bonus Howard Johnson in the second set. One of the finest jazz trios glided through great jazz standards and included the audience in “Nascimento”.

Francisco Mela

Jon Hendricks
The evening event featured the great Jon Hendricks with Lambert, Hendricks and Ross Redux, the performance of the group was excellent, a fine and fitting ending to a wonderful jazz celebration with a promise of great things to come. The audience thoroughly enjoyed themselves, the artists also seemed to genuinely enjoy themselves, this Art of Jazz Celebrations is a very special event, an opportunity for artists, students, fans and all attendees to share in the spirit of the art of jazz, a celebration of great music. A not to be missed blessed event.
We welcome your comments and feedback
Paul J. Youngman
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Roger Humbert
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