Fourth IAJE Update from Toronto

The last day of IAJE in Toronto was a time for unexpected pleasures, and for the talents of the event’s Canadian hosts to shine.

NEA Jazz Master Jon Hendricks, 86 years young, put on one of the event’s best shows in an impromptu set with some of the city’s finest jazz musicians, including saxophonist Jane Bunnett, Don Thompson on vibes, and bassist Neal Swainson. Thompson, Swainson and drummer Terry Clarke are the house band for The Art of Jazz, a Toronto nonprofit that offers educational events and concerts. Hendricks knows these musicians well from his visits to the city, including one in June of last year, when he received a lifetime achievement award from the organization.

“You sounded like a twenty-year-old up there!” quipped Dave Mibourne, publisher of the Toronto Jazz newsletter, after the show. “Can you put that in print?” Hendricks shot back, not missing a beat.

For many years, international stars recruited local bands in Toronto, which created a seasoned cadre of musicians, like Thompson and Swainson, who have played with the best of the best in the jazz world. They also teach at Humber College, home to a world-class school of jazz that develops much of the city’s young talent.

The evening’s main concert showcased Canada’s young and irreverent musicians, starting with clarinetist Francois Houle’s octet, a forward-sounding ensemble that sounds like what would happen if Gil Evans hired a brass band for a Balkan wedding. Houle’s virtuosic pallete includes slap-tonguing and other effects rarely heard on the clarinet, and his compositions, such as “Albatross,” an homage to the everpresent cell phone, and the Spanish-tinged “Guarnera,” alternate passages of free improvisation with tightly orchestrated heads.

Montreal’s Les Projectionnistes were up next, offering an entertaining, high-energy mix of Raymond Scott cartoon clowning and rock riffs. The seven musicians, led by trombonist Claude St. Jean, performed cuts from their 2005 CD Vue, with some outstanding work on the Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes by Francois Lafontaine. Don’t be fooled by the comedy, folks, these are serious musicians – but it’s refreshing to learn that Canada’s avant-garde has a refined sense of humor.

Drummer Barry Romberg then led his Random Access Large Ensemble, a fifteen-piece ensemble created by adding to his working septet. Many of Romberg’s compositions share an affinity with Dave Douglas, and cuts such as “Accidental Beef” and “Make Up Your Mind” highlight the musicianship of Toronto instrumentalists in their mastery of multiphonics and advanced harmonics in their solo work.

Whether it’s because of the free health care or the fact that young Canadian musicians, unlike their Stateside peers, don’t start careers saddled with tuition debt, it’s delightful to see so many impeccably trained young people having fun as they experiment with large groups and forms that would be economically unviable in a city like New York.

“Bring down the lights!” said Guido Basso, the Montreal-born flugelhorn player whose quintet closed the show. Past midnight, most listeners succumbed to IAJE fatigue, leaving only a hundred or so diehards, mainly Torontonians, who knew Basso was worth the wait. The lights came down, and Basso rewarded weary fans with the intimacy of a straightahead jazz set that demonstrated that Toronto jazz can be as good as anything you can hear in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris or Milan.

Basso is well known to Canadians from his forty years as a fixture on television and in and was joined by fellow veterans Thompson, Clarke, Rick Wilkins on tenor sax and Dave Young on bass for a shimmering set of standards that included “You’ve Changed,” “Body and Soul,” and “The Nearness of You.”

“Thanks for inviting us to your jazz party,” Basso said, smiling, as he bid farewell to this year’s IAJE. “What a wonderful party it was.” Indeed.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

January 13, 2008 · 1 comment


Third IAJE Update from Toronto

An NEA jazz master is one of a tiny, tiny elite. Only a hundred men and women have ever been chosen by the United States’ top arts organization to receive this honor, less than the number who have climbed Mount Everest or flown into space.

Too many masters of jazz passed on before they could receive this kind of honor: King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday are a few from the hundreds who died before the country of their birth – and indeed, the world - fully recognized the value of their gifts.

As the number of jazz pioneers dwindles, the NEA has accelerated its granting of this honor. At least six have been honored each year since 2004, instead of the three in each of the preceding twenty-one years. Of this hundred, nearly half have passed on. From the six who were honored this year, one – pianist Andrew Hill – died last April, shortly after he received news of the award.

Because of this, a sense of heartfelt camaraderie and gratitude for the gifts of jazz and life permeated this year’s NEA awards at the IAJE, which honored Candido Camero, Andrew Hill, Quincy Jones, Tom McIntosh, Gunther Schuller and Joe Wilder.

“I only had to wait nine months to be born, then 86 years to receive this award!” joked Camero, a conga player who has introduced countless jazz fans to the intricacies of Afro-Cuban rhythm since his arrival in New York from Havana in 1946. Camero, who invented the technique of playing two conga drum at once, has performed and recorded with everyone from Charlie Parket and Tony Bennett to Lionel Hampton, Charles Mingus and Stan Kenton.

85-year-old trumpeter Joe Wilder, one of the first major jazz musicians also to gain acceptance in the world of classical music, shared memories from his years on the road with Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, and reflected on the contributions of jazz to the advancement of equality. “It’s raised our level of social understanding,” he said.

Quincy Jones was visibly moved by his reunion with friends from his early years as a trumpeter and arranger. “I knew these guys before electricity – we used to starve together!” he laughed. Despite the hardships, he recalled his apprenticeships with Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie and others as a time of peak musical experience. “The forties and fifties – I wouldn’t trade that time for anything in the world.”

“The world has chosen jazz and blues as its Esperanto,” Jones remarked on his travels around the world, but he laments the fact that more is not done in the United States to introduce young people to jazz. “They don’t know how to hear it,” Jones said. "When we were young, it was all we knew, because it was all around us.”

Composer Gunther Schuller marveled at how the musical conversation has broadened since the fifties, when he and John Lewis sought to bring improvisation into classical music through the Third Stream movement. ”I got hell from both sides,” recalled Schuller. “But now, so many talented musicians have decided to bring music together.”

McIntosh, the legendary arranger and film composer who Duke Ellington once hoped would replace Billy Strayhorn after his death, summed up the mood of the past and present jazz masters at the evening’s gala ceremony. “The source of life is happiness,” he told the gathered crowd. “And jazz is not the devil’s music: it’s God’s choice.”

The evening concert began with a tribute to Oscar Peterson, played by surviving members of Peterson’s group and Oliver Jones, a Canadian pianist who learned as a child by sitting on the steps of Peterson’s family home in Montreal to listen to him practice.

Jazz Master David Baker then led the Smithsonian’s Jazz Masterworks Orchestra through a number of highlights from Quincy Jones’ career, including “Soul Samba” and “Quintessence."

Vocalist Kurt Elling joined the orchestra for rousing renditions of songs Jones arranged for Frank Sinatra, including “Luck be A Lady Tonight” and “You Make Me Feel So Young,”as well as his own lyric and arrangement to “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

Singing for the audience of assembled jazz masters – which included Jones, Joe Hendricks and Nancy Wilson – was a dream come true for Elling. “Just give me the first three rows,” Elling said, “and I'm happy.”

But the evening’s highlight came after the ceremony, when newly minted Jazz Masters Candido and Joe Wilder, and 2005 master Paquito D’Rivera, came on stage for an impromptu jam session.

“One more time?” Candido asked the audience, beaming, after he brought them out of their seats with his solo. “Yeah!” the crowd answered, on their feet. “One more time?” He asked again, after an even hotter reprise. “Yeah!!” They replied. These Masters are no ways tired, nor are they done with us yet. We are lucky to have them.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

January 12, 2008 · 2 comments


Second IAJE Update from Toronto

The I in IAJE stands for international: it marks the group's change, over time, from a high school bandleaders’ guild into the leading association in the jazz world. Almost any musician who makes a living in jazz is also an educator - supplementing performances with teaching gigs at summer camps, conservatories and clinics - and so is likely to be found at IAJE.

IAJE’s annual winter convention has become the one time of the year that the jazz community gathers under a single roof – usually in New York – to meet and greet, talk up new projects, and find new gigs. Its success has attracted rivals:this May, Jazz Improv Magazine launched its own New York convention, adding a twist by opening their doors to jazz fans, not just pros and their students.

By coming to Toronto, IAJE draws on its strengths – 8,000 members in 42 countries, involved at every level of jazz, of all ages. These aspects are front and center at this year’s IAJE, with an overflow of talented players, young and old, from around the world.

Ear-catchers have included Andy Milne and Gregoire Maret, who cast a spell over an afternoon crowd gathered in the glass atrium of the Intercontinental Hotel with compositions from their new Obliqsound CD, Scenarios. The two met in 1999 when Maret appeared with Milne’s hip-hop tinged ensemble, Dapp Theory. Both were surprised to discover a shared penchant for lyricism, which prompted them to meet in the studio to record a series of improvised compositions over two years.

“In a duo, you're really naked,” said Maret, who was born in Switzerland and has played with everyone from George Benson to Pat Metheny. “But you have a range of colors and textures that are harder to find in an ensemble.”

Milne, a Toronto native who studied with Oscar Peterson at York University before moving to New York in 1991, was pleased to see how many new jazz venues and education programs are now open to young Toronto jazz musicians. “It’s changed a lot since I was coming up,” said Milne, who spent a seven-year apprenticeship in Steve Coleman’s M-Base collective. “Back then, you really had to move to New York to get the challenge you needed. Nowadays, it’s different.”

Indeed, Toronto is bubbling with after-hours jazz activity at downtown clubs like the Rex, the Opal Jazz Lounge and The Trane Studio. There are so many talented young players that one New York bandleader, Darcy James Argue, was able to recruit a an entire eighteen-piece ensemble from local talent to perform his arrangements at IAJE.

Argue’s big band, Secret Society, plays in a style he calls “steampunk,” which sounds like a mash-up of Zappa and Brookmeyer. Argue’s wall of sound does not always shimmer, but it well deserves its many fans amongst jazz musicians, many of whom turned out to cheer the band on at the IAJE’s first evening show.

One standout composition by Argue was "Habeas Corpus," which he wrote about Maher Arar, the 34-year-old Canadian who was seized in 2002 by U.S. authorities while changing planes at JFK and deported to Syria. There, he was tortured and detained for four years before U.S. officials admitted their mistake and cleared him of charges. “I was haunted by his story,” said Argue, whose composition’s repeating death-march figures well evoke the claustrophobic conditions of Arar’s detention in a six-by-three cell. “It’s something everyone should know about.”

Saxophonist Courtney Pine hosted the evening's mainstage showcase of U.K. performers who rarely – if ever – perform in North America. “We are so proud of the positive effect jazz is having in the U.K. for young people,” Pine said, citing his nation’s growing number of jazz clubs, university programs and radio stations.

If the new face of U.K. jazz is Empirical, the first group Pine presented, then it is young, talented, multi-ethnic and outrageously photogenic. “These guys could be out playing with anybody,” Pine said. “Instead, they have chosen jazz - the path of most resistance.”

Since winning the prestigious EBU/North Sea Jazz Festival competition last year, the group has enjoyed heights of acclaim rarely enjoyed by young North American jazz musicians – their first release was voted Album of the Year by Jazzwise and Mojo magazines, highlighting their appeal to both jazz and pop audiences.

Trumpeter Jay Phelps, saxophonist Nathaniel Facey, and drummer Shaney Forbes all contributed compositions that combined a driving beat with a high-mindedness and impeccable musicianship that is reminiscent of Dave Douglas. These included “A Tyrant’s Tale,” which Phelps said he wrote in the aftermath of September 11th.

Up next was affable guitarist Martin Taylor, who mugged for the cameras and offered a glimpse of the U.K.’s trad jazz scene, with his group, Freternity. Taylor, who worked closely with violinist Stephane Grappelli, and has settled into a pleasing style on chestnuts such as Love for Sale and Skylark that falls close to the tree of Grappelli’s alter ego, Django Reinhardt.

Saxophonist Tommy Smith led a youth orchestra of twenty-one young Scottish talents, who played surprisingly engaging versions of Oliver Nelson’s "Hoedown" and other big band standards. One standout soloist was trumpeter Ryan Quigley, who brought the house down with his work on Gillespie’s "A Night in Tunisia." In contrast to Dizzy’s version, Quigley started with slow phrases and saved his pyrotechnics until the end, building the audience’s suspence and enthusiasm.

Trombonist Dennis Rollins’ Badbone & Co closed out the show with a glimpse of future jazz. Their funky set drew equally on Nicholas Payton, Trinidadian carnival, Fela and JamesBrown for inspiration. Rollins ‘ band brought the audience out of their seats with hgh-energy beats and sample loops, reworking pop and jazz classics,

This booty-shaking climax to the evening’s music demonstrated that jazz is united by a funky Afro-Carribbean continuum that stretches all the way from New Orleans’ Ninth Ward to South London, passing through New York on its way up to Toronto.

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

January 11, 2008 · 0 comments


IAJE Update from Toronto editor Tim Wilkins sends the following report from the IAJE convention in Toronto. Check back later in the week, for more updates from IAJE.

Savvy marketers at Air Canada thought their shuttle flights should be called Jazz – a choice I doubt had much, if anything, to do with music. But for once, the name fit – at least based on the number of instruments in overhead compartments and under seats, which turned our Wednesday morning flight to Toronto into a kind of 21st century version of the Basie bus.

On board were jazz pilgrims making their way this year, as every year, to the International Association of Jazz Educators convention. Seated nearby were vocalists Lauren Kinhan and Peter Eldridge from New York Voices, and bassist Ruben Rogers, all scheduled to perform on the first evening.

Mark Patterson, trombonist with Maria Schneider and Convergence, was amazed when the stewardess let the bell end of his case stick out into the aisle throughout the flight. “How often does that happen?” he said. I guess jazz was in the air.

On the ground, we shared a bus downtown with the Clifford Brown/Stan Getz All Stars, a group of exceptional U.S. high school musicians. They pressed against the glass, wondering at “how Canadian” the surroundings looked – that is, often familiar, but with subtle and surprising differences. “What is a P.E.I. potato, anyway?”

Fortunately, predictions of gloomy weather didn’t hold – the sun was bright, temperature in the thirties, not at all what you’d expect from Canada in midwinter. Blue Note guitarist Lionel Loueke, originally from Benin in West Africa, was one of the many relieved by this: “This weather is made for shirt sleeves!” he said, with a big smile.

A number of travelers did face weather delays along the way – including drummer Eric Harland, who endured three canceled flights, two airports and even more runway time on his way from New York. But by seven in the evening, he was primed and ready to make music, and the gathered jazz pilgrims were even more ready to hear him play

Attendance is down from past years in New York, where 7,000 or more attendees and hangers-on cram into hotel ballrooms to hear jazz’s finest musicians play at the top of their game. But so far, this has made IAJE Toronto a listener’s dream. This may change tonight, when tickets to the evening shows go on sale to the public, but at the moment, concerts are comfortably full but not overflowing.

Acoustics in the two theaters of the main music venue, the downtown Convention Centre, are a vast improvement over the New York Hilton, where the convention is most frequently held. Even the atrium of the adjoining Intercontinental Hotel, where smaller shows and jam sessions will be held, sounds great.

Rogers and Parland joined pianist Aaron Goldberg on stage for the evening’s first show, playing cuts from their 2006 Sunnyside CD, Worlds, as well as from Mingus Mouse, jazz recordings Goldberg has made to spark children’s interest in jazz. If Harland was weary from his travel marathon, it didn’t show. He had plenty of tender fire on hand and won over the audience quickly. Harland and Rogers mesh into a tightly symbiotic groove, which at first didn’t seem to connect with Goldberg’s more abstract, Jarrett-inspired patterns. But the trio quickly came together, and Goldberg surfed comfortably over the undulating sounds laid for him by the drummer and bassist.

Of course, IAJE is always a time for hard choices – whether to leave one panel or performance in the hopes of catching an exceptional moment at another venue – and despite their enthusiasm for Goldberg’s trio, half of the audience was out of their seats by his last number and headed upstairs to get a seat for the evening’s gala concert.

The Getz/Brown All-Stars opened the gala show, demonstrating the remarkable level of proficiency many young players can attain already in their teens. They may not yet have the tone, or the unique voice that they ultimately hope to attain, but they’ve got chops to spare. Veteran drummer Carl Allen, who joined the band on numbers that included Dave Liebman’s “Day or Night” and Nicholas Payton’s arrangement of “After You’ve Gone,” clearly relished the opportunity to help these kids swing harder, faster, and better.

New York Voices followed, joined by Paquito D’Rivera on clarinet, who received an IAJE Presidents Award earlier in the evening, along with Canadian Senator (and bandleader) Tommy Banks. Other honorees included record producer George Avakian, who received the IAJE’s Humanitarian Award, and Donald Cantwell, IAJE’s jazz educator of the year.

A nice thing about IAJE is the opportunity to connect with old and new friends, and to track artists at different stages in their career. D’Rivera, now an established virtuoso, is an elder statesman of IAJE, having come a long way from the time when as a relative unknown in North America he shared an IAJE workshop stage with another unknown, a twelve-year-old saxophone prodigy named Chris Potter.

The Voices have matured in their collaboration with D’Rivera, which began with the 2001 album Brazilian Dreams. At that time, they had a winning concept but were not entirely at ease with the foreign repertoire. After seven years together, they have made this repertoire their own, to the delight of the crowd and Avakian, who rightly praised them onstage.

The evening’s final show was well worth the wait: guitarist Loueke performed tracks from his forthcoming debut on Blue Note, as well as reworkings of songs from earlier albums, including “Nonvignon” and “Benny’s Tune,” written for his wife, Benedicte.

Loueke performed with Swedish-Italian bassist Massimo Biolcati and drummer Ferenc (Frank) Nemeth, his collaborators for more than seven years. The trio, which recorded two albums for Obliqsound as Gilfema, has moved into a new space on the Blue Note recording in which Loueke takes the spotlight, without sacrificing any of the trio’s collaborative spirit.

This is especially true of the lightning intereactions between Nemeth and Loueke, who trade percussive riffs with an intuitive grace that can only come from many years of close collaboration. “These guys are family to me,” Loueke said, and you could hear intimacy in every note they play. The crowd was on its feet long before the trio’s last number.

The IAJE’s theme this year is “New Visions for New Times,” which was certainly on display on its opening night. Are these innovative collaborations and cross-cultural pollinations the future of jazz? Who knows. But wherever we're going, it will certainly be an exciting ride!

This blog entry posted by Tim Wilkins

January 10, 2008 · 0 comments


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