Thursday, July 12, 2012

Blainletter 54, July 12, 2012

Music On At The Moment: Sugar Camp Music with Steve Fruitman. This was a live-in-studio session we recorded last month at CIUT. My oldest musical buddy, Allan Fraser was Steve Fruitman’s special guest on this one-hour special. They talked about Fraser & DeBolt and they sure talkied a lot about me… then Allan played a batch of tunes in the sweltering Map Room of Hart House at the University of Toronto accompanied by guitarist Bob Cohen, Joel Axler on piano and myself on bass. You can listen to the archived show here:

Great to see (er, hear) live music sessions on the radio – last night I heard Danny Marks with Rita Chiarelli and Donnie Walsh live from the performance space. I don’t think Mother CBC is going to be doing as much live music recording with their budget cuts so it’s good that private and community radio are prepared to take the extra trouble of bringing real live musicians into the studio and letting them play.

When the Sugar Camp ended I heard Suzie Vinnick’s new CD on John Valenteyn’s radio show and it sounded great – in fact her little guitar, Mabel, never sounded so good. And it’s just her. If you’re reading this in Thurs 12 July, her CD launch is TONITE at Hugh’s Room. That’s where I’m headed later tonight.

Last weekend I did a lot of walking as Afrofest was in my neighbourhood and simultaneously the Festival of South Asia was in full flight at the foot of my street. Maybe there were some outstanding artists from the mother country but all I saw was more like a fashion show or Bollywood dancer exercises. And even Afrofest, where I usually discover some phenomenal music, was musically not to my liking – Mind you the stage caught fire when Madagascar Slim (as part of the African Guitar Summit) tore up the Woodbine Park with some searing blues guitar solos. That’s right, it wasn’t at Queen’s Park this year, and though they’ll never admit it, Woodbine might be a better home for this growing festival. It’s the first time I’ve seen this park working at capacity. It’s quite pathetic looking when there’s only a few hundred people in front of the stage.

Jazzfest redux: I already posted some daily blogs during the Toronto Jazz Festival but in case you don’t check in regularly at, I’ll work my way backwards from the closing night with Tower of Power. They get the “blew my mind and I never expected” prize. I didn’t know much about the band but recently had seen a DVD on them. And also around the same time, I received the Tedechi-Trucks live double CD and I listened once but was not affected anywhere near what I experienced live with both of those bands. Tower of Power so tight because they’ve been together 42 years and the Tedeschi-Trucks because they put together a dream band of players who are all equal in virtuosity to the phenomenal Derek Trucks. The ticket price bore witness to the high cost of A-list sidemen and extra rehearsal time (I’m assuming). They have mastered the flow of energy from song to song just as every Derek Trucks solo builds and builds to the point where he’s got everybody on their feet.

In contrast with Tedeschi-Trucks who arrived with two tour buses and 2 semi-trailers of gear (which couldn’t even turn onto Nathan Phillips Square), next day Canadian blues buzz-act Matt Andersen arrived on the site by himself with his guitar and a Long & McQuade plastic bag with a set of strings and a Boss tuner. He then proceeded to change his strings 20-minutes before showtime – yikes! That’s something most of us guitar players would be very reluctant to do. He must have stretched them out pretty good because he didn’t have any tuning trouble and he tore through a great set for maybe 500 fans. He’s still a gentle, unassuming character for someone who’s now in the big leagues. Joan Osborne played first and did her hit (what if God….) but I didn’t really feel a connection with her music. Mind you, I loved what she did with the Funk Brothers.

I wanted to go back up to the Orbit Room to hear Donna Grantis. The previous night I went up with Clayton and Colleen Allen was the special guest. Colleen was playing great, with lots of sax/guitar doubling. Clay sat in for a tune and I tried to corner the very-busy Colleen for a recording session. Saida Baba Talibah and her other guitarist, Hill, arrived to jam but I just had to head home.

I was thrilled to hear Trombone Shorty again, since the last time they came to town (a show that Downtown Jazz presented at the Opera House) there was such a crowd in the place there was no oxygen and then after imbibing a little too much (and it doesn’t take much imbibing to get me over the edge) I felt the need to sit down and there were no chairs anywhere. I stepped outside and “when I regained consiousness…” I must have written about this in a previous blog, but the joke around the festival HQ now was that they brought back Shorty so I could get a chance to see the show. I’m sure there were some other factors...

Saida Baba Talibah did the opening set – I caught only the last couple of tunes (though I could hear the rumble from the media trailer). Turns out a lot of the low-end was coming from Tuba Joe, from NYC. We had a nice chat after and he was explaining his rig – how he gets a tuba to sound like a punchy Fender bass. We got talking so much that I never made it over to the Spectrum Road show at the Sound Academy. I heard that show rocked, though I must say that Jack Bruce is not a bass hero (at least not to other bass players). On the other hand, the glamorous, gorgeous and super-talented Esperanza Spalding would qualify as today’s bass “goddess.” Two of the top players in town were certainly entranced and I don’t think they would mind if I named them: David Woodhead and Henry Heilig. I found that Esperanza’s music kinda went over my head as did her opening artist Gretchen Palato (sp?). Her spontaneous duet with Esperanza at the encore was the highlight but her music also escaped me. I will remember her more for the delicious cookies she left behind in the media trailer

I caught some of the 5-o’clock show and it was a loving tribute to George Shearing played by some local musos who played with George a lot, Reg Schwager, Don Thomson, and Neil Swainson. The played perfect recreations of the “Shearing sound” with piano and vibes playing the same lines.

George Benson played amazing guitar and was positively chatty with the crowd, finally stopping himself “hey, I came here to play guitar!” I made my way out halfway through his set, but ended up talking with the Treasa Levasseur gang outside the tent (she opened the show) so I heard him changing gears into a more acoustic sound but I was trying to get down to the Opera House for Soul Rebels, a New Orleans horn band produced by my friend Scott Billington. They did great and made lots of new fans in Toronto. They’re getting the big push so you’ll be hearing more of them. Before Benson I was at the sold out show for guitar god Bill Frisell at Harbourfront and what grabbed my attention right away was the immense respect for him that the audience was radiating. Almost religious. Everybody felt like it was a privilege for them to be in this space about to be transported into another realm, and they were. It started out with spacey guitar sounds and special effects – not unlike some new-age mood music that jazz fans would typically dismiss – but then a Beatles melody would appear in the mix and he would take it to another place and of course the guitar playing was exquisite. Many years ago I walked out of a Bill Frisell show because it was just so atonal (and so loud) that I couldn’t take it. All is forgiven now, Bill.

I won’t dwell on Monday (aka Black Monday) when many artists who were supposed to be playing in Toronto were stranded at the airport in New York including the guitarist from Los Amigos Invisibles, Roberta Gambarini’s pianist (the amazing Dave Restivo filled in and saved the day) and Natalie Cole and her band (nobody could sub for her!). I had never heard of Los Amigos Invisibles, or Robert Glasper who played later that night but both shows were sold out (Glasper had a second show added and that was a good example of social media in action – they packed the house for a last-minute midnight show at the Wrongbar). And then there was my man, Roy Hargrove. He couldn’t give a bad show if he tried (and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s tried on occasion). I was standing right next to him as he was getting his horns out of the case to jump on stage and I wanted to say “Hey remember the time we jammed the blues together at the Rex?” but I restrained myself. He is always amazing and surrounds himself with the top players on the planet.

I dropped in to the after hours jam at the Now Lounge with organist Clayton Doley but there was no one there except myself, Clayton, one other table with two guys, and host Ken Skinner. Ken and bass player did a few tunes and then got the two fellows that were sitting there to play a couple of tunes. I asked the piano player his name but of course I’ve forgotten it – Patrick Hewen, maybe. I think they were from Montreal and they played some pretty “official” jazz. Ken is a helluva player – I hadn’t seen him play in a long time. He invited me to come back with my guitar and I did put my guitar in the car next day but never mad it back.

Somebody I didn’t want to miss was the extraordinary pianist Hiromi. Last time I saw her she was with bass guru Stanley Clarke and I remember him walking over to the piano with his electric bass guitar and trading riffs with her with their faces just inches apart. The intensity was unbelievable. The energy was still there this time, but did not get to the level I remember with Stanley (mind you, she had a wonderful 6-string bassist this time). I skipped out of Bad Plus to see nearly a whole show of Mike Stern – I’d only seen a song here and there and I was determined to get the whole experience this time. I was not disappointed – he is a guitar wizard, and like so many bands I’ve seen this week, he had a drummer that was phenomenal. I usually make my exit when there’s a long drum solo – you know it’s going to be a long one when all the other players leave the stage – but these drummers this week are so musical, you are captivated. You can’t go anywhere.

I started the day with a couple of matinees in clubs up north. Saw my old bandmate Roberta Hunt doing a great New Orleans tribute (with my new favourite female sax player, Alison Young) then up to Chalkers to hear Fern Linzdon, who I have met a couple of times but never seen. Rob Fogle was in the audience and said “don’t you get a nosebleed coming this far north?” It’s true, I don’t make my way past Eglinton very often).

The kick off concert with Janelle Monae was amazing - people loved it but it was a real torture test for the sound system. I never heard so much kick drum coming out of those speakers. Lots of bass (just the way my son the DJ likes it) - I went for ear plugs, which I rarely do (I rarely remember to bring them) - but this time I needed them if I was going to be standing in front of those speakers. She had her own guy doing the sound and he loved his kick drum. He made it the centerpiece of the sound. I think I saw a slightly pained look on Brad, our long-time front-of-house engineer. The jazz festival tent has always been renowned for a “natural” sound. The piano sounds like a big piano in a big living room. Vocals are clear and you never hear “the box.” Still, Janelle is a great artist – and she proved it (literally) when she did an instant canvas live on stage…I captured a little bit on my video camera (hope I don’t get in trouble). I wondered what an easel was doing in the production trailer... At the end of the show she asked who was having a birthday and when a young woman's ID was verified she became the proud and delighted owner of a Janelle Monae canvas. Now that's how you nurture fans!

The festival started with this (barely)managing editor and intermittent IT guy trying to get all these computers online. This time it was exasperated by the fact that all the logins and passwords started with the same name and the provider dropped the "i" in one of the logins but you had to look real carefully to see that an "i" was missing (between a "t" and a "1"). Anyway I finally noticed that, typed it in that way and "Halleluya!" the Box Office was open for business (and great business was done). In addition, the website crashed from more volume than it was used to and we had to get that back online. But when not putting out the occasional fire, I got to hear music played at the highest level – jaw dropping talent. Enough to make you want to put away your guitar for good (but I won’t). Some noticed that I didn’t get a play in the festival this year, but nobody can expect to play a festival every year – even when they work there!

On this day I think it cost me cost me more than the paying customers. I arrived in the morning with the intention of getting a printer up and running and put $3.50 in the meter (for 1 hour!) and of course, things took longer than I expected so when I got back to the car I had a ticket. So I figured I might as well leave the car where it is and wouldn't you know I get a second ticket three hours later. Then I put the car in the parking lot. Between the tickets and the paid parking it's nearly 80 bucks. Painful.