There were times last night when I thought the Wayne Shorter Quartet, triggered by Brian Blade on drums, would levitate right through the roof of the Royal and soar into the evening sky.
Blade was that astonishing and they were that good.
Before I say more, a caveat: they weren’t for everybody. The guy beside me, who left early with his partner, held his head sometimes as if in pain.
The dude who thought he was at a rock concert and shouted, “Play Birdland!” was probably disappointed.
One avid jazz fan I know spent the concert making up funny show titles to cope. The one she shared with me was brilliant: “What Fresh Hell Is This?”
But I think it’s safe to say that most of the audience, once they abandoned all expectations of conventional harmonic structure and melody, were dumbstruck. Evidence: the spontaneous standing ovation and shouts for more that erupted at the end of the 90-minute set.
(Note: this was not one of those obligatory standing O’s, where a few people get up, and others, self-consciously thinking they should join in, rise slowly from their seats. This was instant, explosive, and sustained enough to bring the group back on stage for an encore after a long delay).
I confess, I was one of the shouters.
What triggered my response?
It was the ability of these great musicians to create in the moment with pure abandon.
To play as if the pages of their charts were filled with questions.
To play as if they were blank.
To experiment and stumble only to rise on a wave of exalted improvisation.
To perform as if they were discovering music for the first time.
To know where they were going but not know.
To play with deep beauty.
To dare to play with chaos.
To be so fully attuned to each other that at times they were one musician not four.
To spin off into four separate worlds and then awake to each other and come together once again.
To play with humour.
To be deeply serious.
To answer the Birdland dude with the most hesitant and unpracticed of beginnings. (I love it that Shorter felt free enough to make the warming up and tuning of his sax part of the music).
To go crazy (witness Blade leaping off his stool and laughing as he drummed like a madman while John Patitucci’s right hand became a blurr on his upright bass).
To be still and silent and play little or nothing at all.
To love what they were doing so much that it didn’t matter what they were doing.
To play until they could play no more.
Watching these guys was like watching a painting come to life:
Danilo Perez on the grand piano stage right peering at the charts and then looking at the others intently as he sent single notes or extended chords their way and waited for a reaction.
Shorter, standing casually beside the piano in his Indian-style kurta, playing one phrase on his soprano sax and then, enough said, putting it down.
Patitucci swaying and twisting with his bass in the wind of Blade’s drumming.
Blade, stage left, exploding into the most impossible of drum riffs and then settling quietly into the tinkling of a few bells.
This was art, not entertainment.
In its own way the Wayne Shorter Quartet did rise into the night sky.
For those who missed it, here’s a taste from a concert in Vienna:
Jazz fans could be excused for thinking they died and went to heaven last night at Alix Goolden Hall.
Two groups took us there in totally different ways.
First up was Montreal’s DBLT, performing a tribute to Bill Evans of such range and beauty that to describe it seems ridiculous. How do you explain perfection?
Volumes could be devoted to the impossible bass playing of Michel Donato, the sublime piano work of Francois Bourassa, the transformative tenor saxophone of Frank Lozano, and the dynamic drumming of Pierre Tanguay.
A few words come to mind – space, light and fire – but the truth is you had to be there, and if you weren’t, the best you can do is sample their musicianship through this clip which will give you a small taste of the sonic banquet they gave us:
Phil Dwyer Sextet featuring Laila Biali
Next up was Vancouver Island’s own Phil Dwyer and his breathtaking compositional tribute to classic Canadian composers like Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell.
On the magical Canadian mystery tour with Dwyer were Jodi Proznick on bass, Rob Piltch on guitar, Vince Mai on trumpet and Davide Direnzo on drums, as well as special guest Laila Biali who, as Sting has recognized, plays piano like a demon and has a voice from the gods.
In an Ottawa Citizen review of this show, Peter Hum suggested that in a fair world Dwyer and Biali would be as famous as the musicians behind the popular songs they were performing.
He’s right, particularly when we’re talking about Dwyer, who last night demonstrated that he is one of our great Canadian composers, albeit in a vein that the majority of music fans will likely never approach or recognize.
Those looking for the familiar melodies and simple chords of the original tunes would be disappointed since Dwyer transformed the songs – among them Robbie Robertson’s Down By the Lazy River, Gordon Lightfoot’s Beautiful and Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds – into sonic landscapes of such beauty and chaos that it was like hearing The Group of Seven transfigured through the musical imaginations of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman.
Crazy, I know, but that’s what heaven sounded like.
Here are some samples, albeit with a septet and slightly different personnel. Make sure you listen to Lightfoot’s Beautiful: Phil Dwyer
Hermann’s was jammed to the rafters last night for guitarist Michael Occhipinti’s Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon. We arrived later than most but managed to grab a table dead centre at the front – a blessing but also a curse since we were right in the line of fire of Occhipinti’s Fender amp, which was cranked. I don’t know how the balance was elsewhere in the club but from that vantage point the guitar was far too loud, often drowning out Elizabeth Shepherd on piano and even Kevin Turcotte on trumpet who was five feet in front of us. Occhipinti played well but it would have been nice to hear guitar levels more akin to those found on the album, which by the way is superb (more on that in a moment).
Despite that complaint, the music was fabulous, particularly on quieter tunes like Across the Universe and Working Class Hero when we could hear all the musicians and fully appreciate Occhipinti’s creative re-imagining of these songs, not to mention (in the case of those two songs) Elizabeth Shepherd’s sublime vocals.
Jazz arrangements of pop songs can go awry, particularly with a songwriter like Lennon and a group like The Beatles, where the musical bar is high and we hear the tunes in a particular way. They can be too saccharine or stray too far from the original, pitfalls Occhipinti has avoided through his choice of musicians and vocalists, his arrangements, and his fine guitar work.
This was a great show and they’ve produced a superb album that I highly recommend. Have a listen courtesy of the CBC:
My wife and I caught three shows yesterday at Jazzfest: the Pablo Cardenas Fusion Project, Nick La Riviere Septet and the Barry Elmes Quintet. The first two were at Centennial Square. The latter at Hermann’s. I’ll start there.
Barry Elmes Quintet
A side note: other jazzers could learn from Elmes’ easy rapport with his audience. First, he uses a mic so folks can actually hear. Second, he takes a moment to connect between songs, introducing each piece with a brief – usually funny – story. Third, he’s just himself – and plays with sophistication and style.
Here they are in Toronto at the Rex:
Cardenas started slow but picked up as the set progressed, although the electric piano and outdoor venue at Centennial Square did little to support his sophisticated playing. I’ve heard him twice before on acoustic piano at Hermann’s with a stellar rhythm section and each time was mightily impressed. This time less so but I blame the venue, instrument and sound for the most part. A couple of tunes worked very well, though, and Cardenas is a great player – just catch him in the right venue on the right instrument.
Nick La Riviere Septet
The Nick La Riviere Septet followed and served up a lively, energetic set, including a surprise guest appearance by Michael Kaeshammer. Again, the outdoor stage and sound-on-the-fly did little to enhance the subtler aspects of La Riviere’s arrangements, particularly the strings, which sounded thin, but his eclectic, cohesive set was a big audience pleaser. This guy knows how to put on a show and moves easily through the genres, playing trombone and conch and even indulging in some vocals, including his take on a Dr. John tune, which was a lot of fun. La Riviere was more than ably supported by a strong rhythm section with Damian Graham on drums, Ryan Tandy on bass, and Karel Roessingh on keys.
The TD Victoria International JazzFest is upon us and if you are like many people, you’re probably only now scrambling to figure out what to see. Here are the shows I’ve put on my list.
In no particular order:
The Barry Elmes Quintet: five of the very best from Toronto, including Reg Schwager, one of the most tasteful jazz guitarists in the country. Hermann’s.
DBLT tribute to Bill Evans/Phil Dwyer sextet featuring Laila Biali: This killer double bill has the potential to be the best show in the fest with a who’s who of great Canadian musicians and a program that goes from Bill Evans to Joni Mitchell. Alix Goolden Hall
Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon: Guitarist Michael Occhipinti’s jazzified re-imagining of John Lennon with a superb septet including his brother Roberto on bass and three Juno-nominated vocalists. Hermann’s
Pablo Cardenas Project Fusion: After Phil Dwyer, who is no slouch himself, heard this guy play piano, he announced that he would just be sticking to sax for the rest of the evening. Say no more. Centennial Square
Caravan featuring Marc Atkinson and Daniel Lapp: expect nothing less than multi-genre fireworks. These guys will burn the Victoria Event Centre down.
Black/White/McRae/Styffe Quartet: crazy name but it speaks to the fact that each of these musicians is a force unto himself. Expect great musicianship and fun. Hermann’s
Wayne Shorter Quartet with Brian Blade on drums: I’d go just to see and hear Blade, one of the consummate drummers on the scene today. Shorter and the rest of the quartet are gravy after that. It’s in the Royal but the jazz will be very outside.
Kelby McNayr Quintet: MacNayr is going from strength to strength, particularly in his choice of personnel and his work in Vancouver and south of the border to cross-fertilize the local scene. Cool lineup this time around including Dan Lapp on trumpet and players from Seattle, Vancouver and Portland. The Office and Centennial Square
Anne Schaefer: One of the most original singer-songwriters in the country who blends, jazz, folk, and world in delightfully melodic, rhythmic off-kilter arrangements of her own songs. So why has VJS put her in Centennial Square?
Monik Nordine and Departure: Nordine is a great sax player backed by a stellar group including Brent Jarvis on piano, Ken Lister on bass and Buff Allen on drums. Wisely they’ve been put in Hermann’s.
That’s ten. I’m going to stop there because I probably won’t get to them all. Of course I also want to see Dianne Reeves, Robert Randolph, and others. Sigh. Anyway, make your own list and enjoy the festival.