The 25th Toronto Jazz Festival marked the milestone with an impressive and musically eclectic lineup.
The Mario Romano Quartet, opening up for Dee Dee Bridgewater, played at Koerner Hall in the fest. Their lineup comprises internationally acclaimed bassist Roberto Occhipinti and saxophonist Pat LaBarbera, drummer Mark Kelso and pianist/composer Romano. On material from debut album Valentina, the group skillfully mixed moods and tempos, ranging from rhythmic hard bop to lyrical ballads. Romano's playing was consistently fluent, and an inspired reworking of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" was a set highlight. Veteran Bridgewater then delighted the crowd with a winning combination of a vibrant personality and vocal virtuosity. As expected, she primarily presented tunes from her recent Grammy-winning tribute to Billie Holiday, though a version of Ella Fitzgerald tune "Undecided" was a hit with the crowd. An 18-piece orchestra of top Toronto players provided able accompaniment, while Bridgewater's scatting impersonation of instrumental sounds drew applause, as did her flirtatious between-song banter.
Over at David Pecaut Square, veteran drummer Archie Alleyne put local hard bop sextet Kollage through their paces, with lyrical ballad "Beatrice" standing out. The adjacent big tent main stage hosted a pairing of Los Lonely Boys and Los Lobos later that evening. The former comprise three Texan borthers (the Garzas), and they have an understandably tight blues rock sound. Reference points would include the likes of fellow Texans Stevie Ray Vaughan and Arc Angels, but they lack the strong songwriting chops of those artists. It was telling that an admittedly fine cover of "I'm a Man" drew some of their set's biggest applause, along with their one smash hit single "Heaven."
Still going strong after 35 years and arguably the best American roots band around, Los Lobos delivered another typically versatile performance. Songs from their latest album, Tin Can Trust, sounded promising, but it was earlier tunes like "The Neighborhood" and the gorgeous "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" that registered more with the crowd. In fact, more tunes from their acknowledged masterpiece Kiko would have been welcome. David Hidalgo was in fine vocal form, while Cesar Rosas took the lead on most of the mid-set Spanish songs. This show did lack the momentum and fire of other gigs here (people are still talking about a Harbourfront show from years ago), but Los Lobos couldn't deliver a poor performance if they tried.
One definite TJF highlight was the Toronto debut of Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. Led by Vancouver-born composer Argue, they have become darlings of the New York scene, and their simply stunning 90-minute performance showed why. The black-clad Argue looked every inch the Brooklyn bohemian (he's based there now), while his horn-heavy 18-piece band comprises top players from both sides of the border. Canadians acquitting themselves well included trumpet ace Ingrid Jensen (she shone on "Transit"), David Smith, Gordon Webster and Mike Fahie.
You could call Secret Society a big band for the post-rock crowd. No jazz clichés here, but on some songs, a Radiohead-like ambience sparked by guitarist Sebastian Noelle was audible. Their sound ebbed and flowed with real dynamic power and tension, while Argue eloquently explained his inspirations for the compositions. These ranged from Buckminster Fuller to Blackwater to sleep deprivation (as on the suitably fuzzy "Red Eye"). Most numbers came from Secret Society's debut, Infernal Machines, while one lyrical new song came from work in progress Brooklyn Babylon. A standing ovation provided a fitting conclusion to Argue's first Canadian tour.
Toronto quartet 5 After 4 won fans opening for Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. Led by powerhouse drummer/composer Vito Rezza, 5 After 4 feature keyboardist Matt Horner, bassist Peter Cardinali and saxophonist Vernon Dorge (subbing for John Johnston). Their set focused on material from just-released album Rome in a Day, with the jaunty "Top Hat" especially impressing. The legion of Fleckheads in attendance greeted their heroes with loud cheers, clearly excited at the reunion of the original Flecktones lineup, including bassist Victor Wooten, the colorful Roy 'Future Man' Wooten, and harmonica player/keyboardist Howard Levy. Tunes from new album Rocket Science and older favourites were played with typical dexterity. Here's a band that can, and does, switch from bluegrass to funk to jazz in the blink of an eye. Situated centre stage, Bela Fleck played virtuoso banjo with a smile throughout, clearly pleased at the positive vibe emanating from and towards the stage.