Renee Rosnes Quartet at Jazz Bistro: Echoes of Toronto’s Jazz Past

Used to be that Toronto was known as a jazz town.

Years ago there was the Town Tavern and the Colonial Tavern – clubs that regularly presented the world’s greatest jazz musicians. As a teenager I heard Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Hines, the Modern Jazz Quartet – the list goes on and on – from my balcony seat overlooking the stage. And they came with their whole bands, and stayed for a whole week.

Yes, it was another era, but after that there were other clubs, like Bourbon Street and the Montreal Bistro, that would mostly bring in headliners to play with a (terrific) local rhythm section. But the last club to bring in a full band on a semi-regular basis was Top O’ the Senator. It was a sad day when, after 15 years, it closed in 2005.

So in January of this year, when Jazz Bistro opened on the same site as Top O’ the Senator, and with the Senator’s old manager, Sybil Walker, at the helm, it looked like Toronto finally had a club that would aspire to the glory days of the city’s jazz past.

Since opening in January, 2013, Jazz Bistro has brought a number of great musicians to town – not to mention its having served as a prime performance venue for the best in Toronto’s own jazz community.

But this week, from Nov. 14-16, the Bistro takes another step forward when it presents not only Renee Rosnes – one of the premiere jazz pianists of the day – but her full New York-based quartet. And what a quartet this is. With Ms. Rosnes on piano, Peter Washington on bass, Lewis Nash on drums and Jimmy Greene on saxophone, it happens to be made-up of all-stars. It can’t be easy (read cheap) bringing a band like this to town. Kudos to Jazz Bistro.

For an old guy like me, it brings back memories of afternoons and evenings spent at the Colonial Tavern forty, forty-five years ago. I encourage anyone who loves music to get out to hear this stellar band.

We’ve got the club now. Add an enthusiastic audience and maybe Toronto can once again call itself a jazz town.

The Jazz Bistro www.jazzbistro.com is at 251 Victoria Street in Toronto
For reservations, call 416-363-5299

At The University of Delaware: a Jazz Vibes – Ragtime Xylophone Summit

I recently paid a visit to the University of Delaware where Harvey Price, the university’s head of percussion, played host to a pair of extraordinary, week-long series of workshops: the first ever University of Delaware Jazz Vibes Workshop, led by vibist Tony Miceli with guest David Friedman, and the Bob Becker Ragtime Xylophone Institute, which was celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Both programs accommodated about ten to fifteen participants, all lured by the prospect of total immersion in the performance of their instrument (practising ended when the buildings were locked up at midnight; I imagine some of the participants were dragged out screaming and kicking). Under the guidance of the best performers/teachers around and taking place in a hip university town, it’s a dream scenario – a chance to “follow your bliss” far from the responsibilities that persistently thwart your efforts to do so at home.

On a personal note, the pilgrimage to Delaware provided me the opportunity to reconnect with David Friedman, my vibes teacher many years ago, who has had a major impact on my musical life and whom I hadn’t seen for over thirty years.

Now the head of the jazz department at Berlin’s Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts), David is a masterful technician with a powerfully creative musical mind. His earlier recordings included Chet Baker’s Peace and Horace Silver’s In Pursuit of the 27th Man, but from the early ’90s on he has released a number of wonderful CDs under his own name (watch for my review of his latest, Rodney’s Parallel Universe) .

Having attended David’s Delaware workshops, I remain as awestruck as ever. Nothing is more energizing than watching a master perform on his or her instrument – and there was lots of that as David demonstrated points and played through entire tunes, dazzling both technically and musically. Then too, there were the tidbits that offer insights into a musical mind, as when David suggested the “emotional power” brought to a particular chord and scale by altering a note by a semitone (in this case, the 9th in a half-diminished chord/scale). Sure, I was familiar with the material, and was aware of the differences in sound. But never had I consciously considered it in terms of “emotional power”. Aha. . . (Here’s David playing with his band Tambour.)

Bob Becker, a founding member of the famed percussion ensemble Nexus, is a wizard on the xylophone. For the past ten years, his annual Ragtime Xylophone Institute has attracted students from all over North America and beyond (one student this year came from Japan). I wasn’t able to spend as much time at his classes, but heard some wonderful playing from the participants. You can get an idea of what it was like from this clip, filmed in an earlier season. Bob happens to be the soloist in this performance of George Hamilton Green’s Valse Brilliante. He may be the only xylophonist on the planet that can make the instrument sound sensual.

I didn’t get to see any of Tony Miceli’s classes; he was teaching before I arrived. But Tony is a masterful vibraphonist in his own right, and a dedicated and generous teacher to boot. His efforts in Delaware were tireless. When he wasn’t teaching, he was setting up, recording or broadcasting live Webcasts through his Vibes Workshop Website – an endeavour, by the way, that deserves the enthusiastic support of every aspiring or pro vibist. (A brief introduction to the site. . . With Vibesworkshop.com, Tony has succeeded brilliantly in developing an online community of vibraphonists that boasts hundreds of video and audio lessons on performance techniques and improvisation submitted by the likes of Tony, David Friedman, Joe Locke and others. I strongly recommend that every vibraphonist or aspiring vibraphonist go there immediately and join.)

Congratulations to Harvey, Tony and Bob for creating what amounts to a mallet player’s Shangri-La at the University of Delaware.

Remembering John Wyre

On March 25th a memorial concert for percussionist John Wyre was held at Toronto’s Music Gallery. John was a remarkable person and a unique artist who I feel honoured to have known since I was a young percussion student. He passed away on October 31 at the age of 65 in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

For most of his adult life John, who was born in Philadelphia, lived in Toronto where he’d moved to assume the timpani chair of the TSO in 1966. He was a wonderful timpanist, who drew a warm, dark sound from the instrument. Seiji Ozawa prized his talents so highly that he enlisted him to perform with the Boston Symphony whenever he could.

He played for the TSO for eleven years, and anyone that attended concerts in those days surely won’t have forgotten him: tall and slim, with a long, flowing beard and shoulder-length hair, he was a doppelganger for Jesus Christ himself. And many young percussionists, myself included, were followers.

He was 1960s hip, and his downtown apartment, above a hairdresser on Yonge Street south of St.Clair, was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

I remember the thrill I felt walking up the narrow staircase and into a room filled with exotic instruments: Balinese nipple gongs, assorted African and Chinese drums, cymbals of all shapes and sizes, and bells hanging everywhere. He collected flower pots too, which he’d suspended from the ceiling and would play with yarn mallets. He was in love with sound in its purist form.

He also had brake drums (yes, the ones from cars; strike them and they produce a resonant “ping”) so I paid a visit to a wrecker for a set of my own. They were proudly displayed in my bedroom, and when I hit them with a mallet, bits of rust would spill onto the floor. I also collected some bells and picked up a dholak – a North Indian hand drum that I never learned to play.

In 1971 John co-founded the renowned percussion group Nexus. Each member of this remarkable ensemble brought something unique to the whole, but I can’t help thinking that within John, more than anyone, rested its soul.

In the early 1980s John began producing and directing a series of monumental World Drum festivals. He pulled together 250 drummers for Vancouver’s Expo ’86 – including tribal drummers from Africa and Indonesian gamelan orchestras. Rhombus Media documented the event in the film World Drums.

He retired from Nexus in 2002 and, with his wife Jean Donelson, moved to St. John’s Newfoundland in order to focus on music composition. He had already distinguished himself as a composer, with his Connexus having been performed by the TSO as well as the Cleveland Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic. I only saw him once after that, at a concert in Toronto. He’d written a book, his memoirs, which I bought and had him inscribe. I spoke to him briefly over the phone when I heard that he was struggling with cancer of the jaw. It came as a shock, though, when I heard that it had taken his life.

The memorial concert brought together musicians that had been close to John. Several of his compositions were performed, as were pieces from Africa, Brazil, Georgia and the Middle East. An old interview was broadcast. Bill Cahn, of Nexus, and percussionist Sal Ferreras shared reminiscences. Though most that attended were personally touched by John’s passing, the tone was upbeat – a celebration of a profoundly rich and rewarding life. But when Nexus performed the final work, a traditional Zimbabwean piece called Tongues, I choked up a little.

The lead instrument of the piece is the mbira, also known as a thumb piano. It’s mounted within a gourd topped with beads that buzz ever so lightly when the tongues of the instrument are plucked. The sound it creates is clear and gentle. The music itself has a haunting beauty; simple and direct, it has a lilt to it that produces a calming effect. It wasn’t until I began writing this piece that I looked up Tongues on Nexus Percussion, where I read: “In the Shona culture of Zimbabwe, the mbira is strongly associated with memories of departed ancestors and with the experience of remembering in general.”

Mbira is also the name of the mystical music the instrument produces. John himself was a spiritual man, and I discovered that this was his favourite piece. Not surprisingly, I heard a lot of John in this music.

He will be remembered by his colleagues and friends as a unique musical voice and a beautiful human being.

Klimt – a film review

If life seems to be rushing by in a flash, if weeks appear to pass in an instant and you wish everything would just slow down a little, then take in a screening of Klimt, where you’ll spend an hour and thirty-seven minutes that feel like an eternity.

The film is written and directed by Raoul Ruiz and stars John Malkovich as the great Viennese painter, and right from the top, as the opening credits roll above a musical score composed by Jorge Arriagada, you know that something is terribly wrong.

The music is faux-Mahler, with Arriagada creating a pastiche of Mahleresque orchestration, phrasing and sudden shifts of mood and tempo without, needless to say, any of that composer’s genius. Later on you hear snippets of Berg’s Violin Concerto – specifically the open 5ths from the beginning of that work – accompanied by cheap, faux-Berg. If Ruiz was so intent on incorporating the musical sounds of the era, perhaps he should have used original compositions, as Visconti did so evocatively with Mahler’s Fifth Symphony Adagietto for the Death in Venice soundtrack. But that might have created an equally serious problem for Mr. Ruiz: a brilliant musical score overwhelming a tedious, disjointed and incoherent film.

There is no plot line, which is not necessarily a bad thing. But the film tells us little about Klimt himself, and unlike the great art films – and this film is trying its hardest to be an art film – it sheds no real light on the human condition.

The film opens with Klimt, the victim of syphilis, on his deathbed, and the “story” unfolds as a hallucinatory dream. Characters inexplicably weave in and out of the narrative. There is the requisite discussion of art, and the viewer learns too that Klimt really liked sex, and had lots of children for whom he took no responsibility. Malkovich sleepwalks through the role.

Klimt is such a huge disappointment because, with the rich material it had to draw from and the talent involved in making it, it should have been much better.

Great works of art often present demands on the public. Just like the film’s musical score, with its veneer of Mahler and Berg, Klimt has the aspirations and veneer of great art without being art. It looks intellectual, and is difficult to understand – but dig into it and you find there just ain’t much there.