Published Jun 20, 2014Sandwiched between the end of Luminato and NXNE already in full swing, the Toronto Jazz Festival is just one of many events competing for the interests of spoiled music fans this summer in Toronto. Consequently, the crowd at Kool Haus for Chaka Khan's set on the opening night of the festival filled only about half of the Kool Haus, but the devoted in attendance were treated to a powerhouse performance from a legendary vocalist who managed to make the cavernous space into an intimate affair.
Kicking off with her Prince-penned 1982 worldwide hit "I Feel For You," Khan hit the stage in an all-black outfit, matching the attire of most of her eight-piece band, the sequins of her dress being the main differentiator.
Not that Khan was trying to play up being an untouchable presence of any kind. She genuinely comes across as down to earth, so when she pulled up a stool to sing "Angel" and someone in the audience yelled out "Diva in the house!" she wasn't having any of it. She proceeded to hold an extended chat with the audience on how she did not view herself in that manner, describing herself as "just another chick trying to break off mine" while cooling herself down with a hand-held fan. Earlier, underlining her self-effacing presence with tongue firmly in cheek, she said "This is a song I did with Rufus in 1947," introducing the hit "Packed My Bags."
She drew further from her '70s catalogue with Rufus to deliver an exquisite performance of the 1978 track "Destiny," a song the 61-year-old says was one of the first songs she ever wrote. That song's arrangements and the Khan-less intermission in which her band got an opportunity to show off their impressive chops were the most overtly jazzy moments of the show.
Despite her obvious versatility and still-powerful voice, Chaka Khan is known for the funk (her upcoming Joni Mitchell tribute album notwithstanding), so when she picked up the energy of the set's earlier performances of "What 'Cha Gonna Do For Me" and "Sweet Thing" after returning to the stage with her trio of kudos-worthy background singers, the audience was ready. It was slightly disappointing that we didn't get anything beyond the intro of "Stay," but the homestretch of "Tell Me Something Good," "Everlasting Love," "I'm Every Woman" and ultimately "Ain't Nobody" was indicative of her ongoing influence and contribution to much of the best R&B music over the last 40 years.