Music reviews of the finest concerts in Toronto:
symphonic, choral, opera, chamber, jazz and period music
TD Jazz Trio Series - Sound Explorations
The Royal Conservatory of Music continued its 5-concert TD Jazz: The Art of the Trio series Saturday night at Koerner Hall, sponsored by TD Bank Group and Tom’s Place, with media partners NOW and JazzFM91. The concert was a curious mix of populist and perhaps more niche-oriented jazz music. The latter was represented by the all-Canadian trio made up of saxophonist Christine Jensen, pianist Dave Restivo and bassist Jim Vivian, while the former was the Philadelphia-based Joey DeFrancesco Trio. Both trios in their own way presented the audience with compelling explorations of vastly different soundscapes. Mark Wigmore, host of JazzFM91’s Arts Toronto program, introduced the Jensen/Restivo/Vivian Trio (JRV) as “Canadian super heros”. Indeed, the strength of each individual may have distracted a bit from the idea of the trio, whereas, as Wigmore said, the Joey DeFrancesco Trio “makes you feel good”.
The JRV Trio opened the concert, and it was appropriate that the veteran Vivian introduced the first piece, called Margareta, from Jensen’s latest CD entitled Infinitude. The work has a tender, beautifully melodic opening, to which Jensen quietly added her soprano sax, followed by Restivo’s sensitive piano. Thereafter followed some delicate and nimble interplay between all three, which gradually moved into an easy, lilting swing. From there, the improvisations, particularly by Restivo and Jensen, became ever-more complex, with each voice soaring simultaneously and imaginatively. This became the pattern of the complete set, whereby a thoughtful melodic hook would expand into the stratosphere in a furious conflagration of notes that felt more like a debate of Herculean proportion rather than a dialogue. Without percussion, Vivian had the unenviable task of trying to support both while making his own voice heard from time-to-time; this was heroic in its own right.
Jensen paid homage to her RCM roots with the second selection, entitled Garden Hour. The chorale-like opening saw Jensen making a clear, bold statement on the alto sax, played at its throaty finest in tandem with Vivian’s sensitive high-register playing. The soft touch of Restivo added to the mix, with each voice making its presence felt in fugue-like fashion. The only standard in the set was Gershwin’s I Loves You Porgy, which moved from a spell-binding piano intro into a harmonious statement of the famous melody before devolving into a rollicking jam that, to this listener, seemed to meander and lose the original improvisational inspiration. It was as if Jensen and Restivo were having an argument about who loved Porgy more. The final number, the aptly titled Blue Yonder, a Jensen original, featured virtuosic playing by all members as each soared into a sound space very much “out there”.
The incomparable and always effervescent Joey DeFrancesco did not disappoint in his first visit to Koerner Hall, which he clearly admired. At just 45 years of age, Joey has already enjoyed a long and storied career, having played with Miles Davis as a mere 16-year-old. Now, with over thirty albums to his credit, the newest being Trip Mode, and already a member of the Hammond Organ Hall of Fame, he is a master of his craft and knows how to engage and entertain his audience while delivering inspiring and creative jazz music.
To open his set, DeFrancesco launched into a spirited rendition of Baby It’s Cold Outside, trading licks with his astounding guitar sideman Dan Wilson, who hails from Akron, Ohio. Those familiar with DeFrancesco got all the Hammond B-3 organ they could ask for, and nobody plays that instrument as well as DeFrancesco since the late, great Jimmy Smith. The trio was supported by the fabulous drumming of Jason Brown, from New York City, who was rock-solid and every bit as engaging as Joey himself. Jason can be aggressive yet understated, powerful yet light, and, as his brush work showed, plain fun. The band continued with another festive selection - O Little Town of Bethlehem from Joey’s Home for the Holidays CD - a beautiful arrangement that featured Wilson’s lyrical guitar playing and which demonstrated Joey’s deft and textured skills as an accompanist. He also punctuated his own Fender Rhodes solo with humorous riffs from Do You Hear What I Hear and Silver Bells.
Having gotten the audience into the palm of his hand, Joey followed with a Wilson original from the Trip Mode CD called Who Shot John, a latin-esque number with a real rhythmic kick to it. This trio is unusual for not having a conventional string bass player, but Joey was at his toe-tapping best here providing the bass with the organ pedals. The trio followed with a slow blues version of Around the World that put Joey’s vocal and trumpeting skills on display. With the Harmon mute, Joey certainly conjures up images of Miles, but I don’t think that Miles ever played organ foot pedals at the same time. And Joey’s scat singing while soloing on the organ would remind anyone of George Benson. Another blues number from Trip Mode followed, called Cuz U No. This trio is truly at its absolute best when it finds a fabulous blues groove. The Joey DeFrancesco Trio finished up with a swinging version of Canadian Sunset. By the end of the concert, the audience was on its feet calling for an encore. Once again, Defrancesco did not disappoint.
The JRV trio as a whole challenged the aural imagination of the audience in a way reminiscent of what Moe Koffman once tried to do on his Solar Explorations album from the mid-‘70s. I’m not sure, however, that the audience was prepared to fully embrace this approach. JRV is a relatively new trio collaboration, and Jensen suggested that a CD might follow, as she believes they have more to say. In terms of sheer volume of notes played, that’s hard to imagine, and judging by the tepid response of the audience, one hopes that they come back to earth a bit and find a way, as heroes, to relate to the common folk. The Joey DeFrancesco Trio, on the other hand, invites the listener along for the ride; last night, everyone was certainly on board.
The next concert in the series will feature Jason Moran and the Bandwagon & the Alexander Brown Trio in Koerner Hall on Saturday, April 1, 2017.
Photo credit: Randy Cole
Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 11th 2016