Back, and based at Nathan Phillips Square this year, the Toronto Jazz Festival gets underway this Friday. With over 350 performances at over 40 venues, the choices can be overwhelming, but we are here to break down the best of the fest for you.
Best jazz shows for people that don’t think they like jazz
New Orleans native Trombone Shorty brings the kind of energy to the stage that you would expect at an arena rock show. His feet are firmly planted in the jazz tradition, but he brings the sound forward incorporating funk, soul, hip hop, and straight-up rock chords. That he manages to do this and still create a sound that feels completely authentic is a wonder.
Esperanza Spalding is famous for being the first jazz artist to win the Best New Artist Grammy (beating out one Justin Bieber and starting a Twitter war in the process). The singer/composer’s sound is eclectic and mainstream and she plays a killer bass.
Best club sets
The Bobby Sparks Trio lit up the Rex last year as Sparks, League and Thomas. From Texas by way of Brooklyn, these three have street cred to spare (playing with Snarky Puppy and the RH Factor) and will have the place at standing room only, to be sure. Get there early to get a seat.
Snarky Puppy brings a genre-bending funk jazz sensibility to the stage—a stage, which, by the way, is often crowded with as many as 30 musicians. Toronto’s getting a real treat seeing “the fam” at an intimate venue like The Rex. Again, get there early if you want to sit.
The Church of the Holy Trinity isn’t a jazz club, but Benny Green will make you feel like it is. A favourite of Oscar Peterson’s, Green is a hard-swinging jazz musician of the first order.
We’re back in the pews at the Church of the Holy Trinity to see the national treasure that is Phil Dwyer present an evening of Canadian music, featuring the lovely and talented vocalist and pianist Laila Biali. We used to be able to see Laila every weekend at the Pilot but her career is thriving Stateside now, so this an opportunity not to be missed.
Best chance to dance
Soul Rebels Brass Band from New Orleans are going to have you on your feet, believe it.
Best free shows
The multi-talented duo of Sophia Perlman and Adrean Farrugia are set to release a new live recording made this year at the Musideum. Their youthful presence on stage belies their seasoned maturity as musicians. Upping the cute factor: these two happen to be a happily married couple.
Andrew Scott and Jake Wilkinson have been playing together for years in various settings, but it’s going to be a real treat to hear them play as a duo. These guys are two of the best jazz musicians you’re going to find in this city hands down, any time of the year.
Jim Galloway recently retired after over two decades as artistic director of the jazz festival. For just as long, an appearance by Galloway—featuring his Sidney Bechet-style, swinging, growling, melodic curved soprano saxophone—has been a welcome inevitability. Galloway is always joined by some great local musicians and usually a few visiting dignitaries as well. If you’re looking for tunes to make you stomp your feet and put a smile on your face, this is the place to be. This would be a great show to take the kids too as well.
Karrin Allyson just about has the market cornered on emotionally convincing, easy-to-listen-to vocal jazz. But there is a lot of musicianship and a great bandleader underneath that calm, pleasant voice. Allyson doesn’t get to Toronto much, and seeing her in a venue like the Enwave Theatre will be pretty close to perfection.
When you think of Joan Osborne, for heaven’s sake, don’t think about that “One of Us” song; think of her belting out “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted” with the Funk Brothers in the documentary Standing in the Shadows of Motown.
The Bad Plus with Joshua Redman. This is the kind of partnership you’d imagine some hardcore fans dreaming up after last call…and it’s actually happening.
Best returning champions
Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor with Roberta Gambarini. Hargrove has been coming to the Toronto Jazz Festival for close to 20 years and has yet to disappoint. This year, he’s bringing the RH Factor, the funkier cousin to his straight ahead quintet. One thing is for sure when it comes to Hargrove: you’re going to leave feeling good.
Opening is acclaimed Italian vocalist Roberta Gambarini (pictured at right)—think of this one as a double bill.
Best show to take a date
George Benson has been entertaining audiences since he was nine years old. Expect to be serenaded with ballads and blown away by his virtuosity on guitar.
The Canadian Jazz Quartet has a residency at Quotes, bringing their brand of classic, swinging jazz to happy hour most Friday evenings. These shows are always a great hang, with regulars coming back time and again to soak up great, mainstream jazz in a club setting. Having Houston Person’s beautiful tone and soul added to the mix is sure to make for a special evening.
Photos by Tracey Nolan.