Toronto Jazz Festival featuring Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Bettye LaVette, Macy Gray Toronto, ON June 25 to July 4

Toronto Jazz Festival featuring Mavis Staples, Taj Mahal, Bettye LaVette, Macy Gray Toronto, ON June 25 to July 4
It may be called the Toronto Jazz Festival, but the fest explored its soulful side this year, beginning with James Hunter, who opened for Taj Mahal in the big tent at Nathan Phillips Square. The Anglo soulman must like Toronto (Hunter's sixth visit in four years), and it's a mutual thing, given the standing ovation at the end of his 75-minute set.

Hunter is something of a one-trick pony musically, but he does it well and with real easygoing charm. His retro vocal style suits the material, such as on covers from the likes of Chuck Berry, Leiber and Stoller, and the "5" Royales, and his melodic guitar work was neatly complemented by his five sidemen (including a two-man horn section). Appropriately, given the G20 chaos that weekend, one of Hunter's tunes was "There's a Riot Going On."

Blues and world music veteran Taj Mahal was accorded a warm welcome. Backed only by a tight rhythm section, the 68-year-old delivered a strong set, spearheaded by his forceful and fluent guitar playing and authoritative vocals. Given that over the course of his 46-year career Mahal has explored calypso, Hawaiian and reggae styles with skill, it was a mite disappointing that he stayed firmly rooted in the blues during his festival appearance. When the form is explored as compellingly as by Taj Mahal, however, there is little cause for complaint.

Also appearing at this year's jazz festival was American soul veteran Bettye LaVette at the Phoenix. At 65, she looked astonishingly fit and trim and certainly didn't lack energy. Much of her set focused on her new album Interpretations, her take on British rock classics. Many of its tunes sounded stronger in performance than on disc, with her passionate version of "Isn't It a Pity" and stirring covers of "The Word" and "Salt of the Earth" being set highlights. Her raspy voice was equally at home on ballads and rockin' R&B tunes, proving LaVette remains a true musical treasure.

As does Allen Toussaint. At 72, he's an elder statesman of New Orleans music, but only really began touring post-Katrina. That ill wind blew some good, for he delivered a wonderfully satisfying 80-minute set, opening for Mavis Staples. A fluent pianist, he possesses a warm and melodic voice, and was ably abetted by an ace band. Toussaint played hits he has written for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, the Pointer Sisters, Robert Palmer and Lee Dorsey (the infectious classic "Workin' in a Coalmine"), plus his own hit, "Southern Nights."

Soul gospel queen Staples delivered a typically soul-stirring set, but it rather lacked the fire of her previous Toronto Jazz Festival gig. Nevertheless, the 70-year-old's voice remains in top shape (she sang one song without a microphone), her energy level was high, and her live band (led by guitarist Rick Holmstrom) and backing vocalists were excellent. An extended mid-set interlude by the band minus Staples rather interrupted the show's momentum, though.

One of the final Toronto Jazz shows, a free concert at Yonge-Dundas Square, was also the largest. Headlined by Chaka Khan and Macy Gray, it drew a full house to the locale. L.A. soulstress Gray charmed the crowd, spending time to draw them in as participants. Always eclectic, she served up a cover of Radiohead's "Creep," sampled a Yes classic and dazzled with a disco medley that included "Don't Ya Think I'm Sexy," all in all helping to put an enjoy end to the Toronto Jazz Festival's 2010 edition.