November 2008

Justin Gray Project
November 9, 2008 Trane Studio Toronto
Report by Christopher Butcher with photo by Roger Humbert
Justin Gray, a recent graduate of Humber College’s music program has been making a name for himself as an up-and-coming bass player, composer and bandleader in the Toronto scene. Having had the opportunity to hear an interesting band he co-leads called Monsoon, a band that makes beautiful music on the common ground that jazz and Indian music share, I jumped at the chance to review and hear his other band, The Justin Gray Project.

Gray just finished a month-long engagement hosting The Classic Rex Jazz Jam. For four consecutive Tuesdays he surrounded himself with the finest jazz musicians in Toronto, both young and old. His engagement at the Trane was no different, playing with Humber student Jon Challoner, recent graduate Adam Teixera and two well established musicians on the scene, Quinsin Nachoff and Adrean Farrugia.

With the exception of one tune apiece by Monk and Dave Holland, plus the seemingly obligatory Radiohead cover, all the music played was Gray’s original material. Judged solely on composition Gray has a very strong voice. He uses odd meters very musically and his band plays them nearly as comfortably as straight four. The tunes have some aspect of being through composed, avoiding the feeling of a never ending “merry go round” that tin-pan alley has plagued mediocre jazz composers/performers with. The melodies of Gray’s tunes are catchy; some even hint at traditional folk songs. There is a sense of structure and pacing even if it is in something as simple as a written trumpet background during the tenor saxophone solo. More importantly than that, for the most part everything felt good, it grooved hard, really hard.

Before the show started, Gray alluded that the show was going to be very groove oriented. He stuck to his guns and his electric bass the whole night, a surprise to me knowing him as an equally strong upright bassist. It likely had something to do with the fact his instrument was a recent acquisition, custom made, and purchased for him by his Grandmother. As a way of saying thanks he wrote the tune “For Grandma” which he performed on this night. Gray gets a singing tone out of the electric and he soloed very melodically on the dedicated tune. His playing is certainly reminiscent of his former teacher Toronto electric bassist Rich Brown.

Back for his first gig in Toronto since moving to New York on an Ontario Arts Council fellowship, Quinsin Nachoff played tenor sax with an exceptionally high level of both feeling and intelligence. His highly developed technique allows him to easily switch from serpentine lines in the altissimo register to staccato outbursts reminiscent of Sonny Rollins. Occasionally, by the end of his solos he would be in danger of getting drowned out by the volume of the rhythm section. This could have been due to the enthusiasm they were approaching the music with but could have been easily corrected had someone been manning the sound board.

Justin Gray
Sharing the front line with Nachoff was trumpet phenom Jon Challoner. Jon would switch between harmonically complex Woody Shaw-style lines and some of the most soulful bluesy phrases I have ever heard. He has the rare ability to wash your thoughts away and command the listener’s ears to follow him almost exclusively on the strength of his phrasing.

The band started the second set with a duo of covers, “Prime Directive” a contrapuntal masterpiece by Dave Holland and “Everything in it’s Right Place” by Radiohead. It could have been due to the comfort factor of the second set but the band seemed to dig in and groove on a different level then before on these two tunes. Adrean Farrugia built a wonderful solo on the Radiohead tune from a small melodic kernel to a climactic ending. Unfortunately, by the end the keyboard cut and sounded brittle, that effect I’m sure would have been avoided had he been playing an acoustic piano, unfortunately the Trane Studio doesn’t have one.

Grey and Adam Teixera did a great job of playing as a team to construct the tunes and support the soloists. It was obvious that they must play together a lot. Grey builds his lines to propel a soloist, picking up on their rhythms and feel, while Teixera shapes the tune and interjects strongly when appropriate. There is a sense of trust between the two players, Grey will lay things down while Teixera consistently places a back beat dangerously behind the beat adding tension to the music. This kind of connection is rare and it will surely only get stronger as The Justin Gray Project plays again.

The musicians
Justin Gray – electric bass
Quinsin Nachoff – tenor saxophone
Adrean Farrugia – keyboard
Jonathan Challoner – trumpet and flugelhorn
Adam Teixeria – drums


We welcome your comments and feedback
Christopher Butcher
• • • • • •
Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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