Jun 17, 2015

Getting Jazzed

photo via
Ella Fitzgerald's voice is my first memory of experiencing jazz; high, lilting, melodious, she sounded like an angel to my young ears. When she went into the scat section of "How High The Moon?" my heart stopped — it was such a new and different thing from the classical sounds I'd been exposed to (and played) as a child. It was so... loose, so free, so beautiful. It was pure poetry.

The free-floating, loose, arms-waving, hips-shaking, head-back-laughing-or-crying nature of jazz music is one that continues to inspire and fascinate. So when the TD Toronto Jazz Festival rolls around every year, it's always cause for celebration in my world. The festival (which kicks off this Thursday, June 18th) has welcomed a range of sounds and styles over the years, with a big uptick in contemporary names rounding out the programming and adding a mass appeal to an art form many (wrongly) consider snooty. Happy memories of seeing Mavis Staples, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Bettye LaVette (whom I also interviewed), and Chaka Khan in recent years complement (nay, shimmy) with those considered more formal jazz artists, ones that hew to the path set out by the likes of Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie.

Recently I had the chance to chat with the fest's Artistic Director Josh Grossman,  and we tossed around that "what is real jazz?" question, as well as the role digital culture has played in opening the ears of musicians and audiences alike.



People have said of the festival's programming choices that  much of it isn't real jazz — "George Clinton isn’t jazz, Morris Day isn't jazz!" What do you say to that?

Ha, that’s my favorite conversation ever! (laughs) Well, there’s the philosophical and the reality. The reality is, obviously, we’re a nonprofit, charitable organization, but we still need to be in the black every year financially and we have to make decisions that make sure the right amount of tickets get sold, so we stay in the black. I wish it was the case now that every single jazz artist out there right now could sell every single ticket, but unfortunately in our experience that’s not the case. It’s not exclusively that jazz artists don’t sell, a good percentage do, but we need to find a way to boost things, so sometimes we’ll look for an act that will do better at the box office to support the others.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
That said, the artistic approach is, jazz as a music has evolved immensely over the past century. Musicians these days are listening, and have much easier access, to an enormous variety of music. All of those styles of music, whether that’s hip-hop or rap or rock or whatever the case may be, are influencing jazz players. A group like Tower of Power, I would say, if you ask any jazz musician, “Has this band played any role in your development?”, I'd wager a very large percentage would say yes. We like to have the strictly jazz musician, the ones who’ve influenced the development of jazz, and the musicians who’ve been influenced by jazz music. We’ve not had Prince on our stage or Stevie Wonder —these are artists who’ve performed in the United States and overseas. But someone like Prince has been so heavily influenced by jazz music, you can hear it in his composition... so I think there’s a place for a diverse variety of musicians in our stages.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
How much of that growing influence has been because of digital culture?

Even before mp3s or CDs, when everything was on vinyl, (musicians) would be in the music store all the time, to find whatever they could get their hands on. It's so much easier now: people can sit at their computer and listen to an enormous variety of music. On the audience side of things, it's helping and hindering. It’s certainly helping introduce people to more music and we hope that once they get a taste of something online, they’ll want to come see us live. The hindering part is that more people are pretty content just listening to it online! Getting people out of their houses and into our space is a challenge.

That, combined with the fact there is so much music now means people are choosing to spend their dollars listening to another live artist that’s not at the jazz festival, so there are challenges that come along with that as well. [...] The challenge is always getting people to cross the threshold. Once they’re in the venue, they have a great time, but people, maybe they’re trying to decide where to spend their money and they don’t know if they like jazz, so we need to make it as easy as possible for them to access things.

It’s inspiring the festival is featuring both Morris Day and a tribute to Oscar Peterson.

Each of these shows does serve a goal and a bit of a different purpose. The opening show... we wanted a big party. In past years, it’s worked out really well. With funding we're able to put on these parties, that is what this show is. The Peterson show is going to be a beautiful if very different experience, but still beautiful, with great musicians.

And we're teaming up with the Regent Park School of Music, and with Manifesto as well (an annual hip-hop festival), featuring an afternoon of artists that will resonate with their audience. We’re trying to reach out to all kinds of different audiences.



What does that mean for the future of jazz in Toronto?

I think it’s a really exciting time for music in the city. The challenge in the city is always to find appropriate venues that can be sustained on a long-term basis. There are a lot of great spaces to play jazz, though they don’t look like they used to. That is a challenge for certain musicians. We’ve lost the kinds of venues where musicians could go play for three or four nights in a row. Those venues aren’t around anymore. The Jazz Bistro and the Rex Hotel, those are the big ones right now, but there are 40 other clubs presenting jazz over the course of the festival, a good percentage of them are committed to presenting jazz round-round.

Photo courtesy Toronto Jazz Festival
The TD Toronto Jazz Festival runs June 18th to 29th.

Jun 6, 2015

L'Amour, La Mort

Photo by Darryl Block
Contradiction equals balance.

That was the phrase I kept returning to at the end of Death & Desire, the latest production from Toronto's Against The Grain Theatre. The group, known for their innovative approach to opera and stagings, were lauded last winter when they staged an unconventional version of Mozart's Don Giovanni, called #UncleJohn, first at the Banff Centre, then in Toronto, at the Great Hall. Turning the opera's libretto upside-down, the audience became part and parcel of the action, implicated in the main character's nefarious deeds but nevertheless seduced by his charm.

With Death & Desire, they had no libretto to work from, but rather, two vastly different song cycles, Schubert's Die schöne Müllerin, and Messaien's Harawi, each of which alternate throughout the work. The former, sung from the point of view of a lovelorn man, and the second, from a woman, sharply contrast in both style and content. Yet Director Joel Ivany and Music Director Topher Mokrzewski find the threads of connection that lay bare the bold, bald, frequently painful beauty within. Set within the intimate space of the Neubacher Shor Contemporary gallery, in the west end of Toronto, a world where clashes and conflict equal grace and harmony is laid out, asking us to consider contrast as a means for deeper exploration of both theatrical possibilities as well as emotional ones. It's as if Ivany and Mokrzewski want to jar us on-purpose, swinging from Schubert's sing-song melodies to Messaien's jagged tunes, in order to keep hammering home the balance that is, inevitably, happening before our very eyes and ears.

Photo by Darryl Block
As realized by baritone Stephen Hegedus and Krisztina Szabo, Death & Desire takes on range of hues that far exceeds those outlined by the intentions of its original composers. Schubert's melodies are given a range of deeply felt experiences that move beyond mere Werther-like sulkiness by the work's end, while Messaien's work becomes less a surreal collection of abstractions than a dogged look at the underbelly of that experience, a shadow-self to the Schubert that is needed in order to provide the sour flavor that turns to a smooth, tasty libation by the piece's end. When Szabo rips away bunches of calla lilies, we're horrified by the destruction, even as we note the bizarrely beautiful pattern the white petals create on the shiny black floor. When she sings, at one point in the text, in Quencha, we note the rhythmic nature of the words that slap up against the melodious smoothness of the Schubert he's just sung. Hegedus and Szabo are less "man" and "woman," respectively, than they are representative of different worldviews, contrasting ideas being played out (or rather, sung out) live within an intimate cozy, sometimes suffocating, sometimes deep, dark space. Death & Desire is less about romance than it is about trying to communicate past the ego notions we're expected to identify with; thus does the "desire" bit keep falling away to reveal death, and, simultaneously, a deep kind of love that transcends the physical. "L'Amour, la mort" indeed.

Photo by Darryl Block
Frustrating at times to listen to, Harawi works in this setting precisely because of the intimacy afforded it —via the venue, the careful direction, the loving performance by Szabo, and the stellar chemistry between she and Hegedus, who, himself, brings a heartbreakingly beautiful energy. He might be an idea, but he's one you want to embrace, one you can't help but recognize and feel for, and his strong, gorgeous baritone is perfectly modulated to encompass a range of emotions. Szabo's steely soprano beautifully captures the chaos of the work, as well as its stillness — no small feat. Each performer has such a different feel and sound for the work, but one never overpowers or over-compensates; rather, it's a lovely give-and-take energy that is highly supported by Mokrzewski's fantastic piano playing, and utterly complemented by Jason Hand's keen use of lighting. At one point, Hegedus is bathed in a sickly tomato-red light, at other, tender moments, he and Szabo walk around the perimeter of the performance area with a rich indigo-backdrop and gentle, warm lighting; less a case of obvious indication, the lighting, like Michael Gianfrancesco's elegantly spartan set, serves to highlight the varying viewpoints, ideas, and experiences at play between the characters, to sharpen, and then soften differences — ones that eventually melt away by the end of the work. At no point does Ivany dictate to his audience how we should feel (there's a nice feeling he trusts us enough to avoid the spoonfeeding), a quality in short supply within the opera/theatre worlds, to be sure. I'll be curious to see how he much of that he carries over to his directorial debut of Bizet's Carmen for the Canadian Opera Company next season.

Photo by Darryl Block
In the meantime, Death & Desire is a work for our times — and all times — asking us to consider how much we can stand our views being challenged, and how much peace we can make with that reality. Can we move gracefully to a place of love and acceptance? Maybe. It'll take a bit of work, though -- and more than a few broken petals along the way. That's a good thing. There's beauty in destruction, and balance in contradiction, too. Finding it is painful, but so very rewarding.