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The Royal Conservatory of Music continued its 5-concert TD Jazz: The Art of the Trio series Friday night at Koerner Hall, sponsored by TD Bank Group and Tom’s Place, with media partners NOW and JazzFM91, and it was an extraordinary evening of hard-driving, high-voltage jazz with enough energy to light the downtown core. The concert featured trios led by the incomparable Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and Toronto’s own Roberto Occhipinti

The Occhipinti Trio led off the evening with a composition dedicated to Keith Jarrett called Umbria, and it didn’t take long for the trio to establish a strong samba pulse supported by Occhipinti’s percussive bass playing, which reminded one of the great Miroslav Vitous. Two Cuban-American musicians - drummer Dafnis Prieto and pianist Manuel Valera - united with Occhipinti to form a power trio that could push the limits of rhythmic intensity without ever losing its sense of direction. The trio’s second number was a North African influenced composition called Tuareg, which is the opening track on Occhipinti’s just released new album entitled Stabilmento, and it was here that one got a sense of the piano as another percussion instrument, with Valera playing a in a manner that reminded this listener of Chick Corea and McCoy Tyner combined. Always, the trio as a whole seemed to perform as one cohesive, rhythmic voice, regardless of who may have been soloing at any given moment.

A beautiful change of pace featured some marvellously sensitive piano playing by Valera on a tune called Dom de Illidir (“Gift of Delusion”), written by Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso and heavily influenced by a version that Occhipinti “borrowed” from a Bollani recording. Here, the members of the trio played with great sensitivity, allowing the lovely melodic quality of the piece to soar. They finished the set with a piece from the new album called Que Bolla, a dynamic timba in which each member of the trio displayed the full range of their considerable skills. Yet even the solos tended to support and be supported by the rhythmic foundation that defined this trio.

Fresh off a performance on Thursday night of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the unstoppable force that is Stefano Bollani shifted gears overnight to bring Koerner Hall patrons a truly jaw-dropping set of piano virtuosity in a jazz idiom part Afro-Cuban, part Brazilian and part Bollani. Backed up by Danes Jesper Bodilsen on bass and Morten Lund on drums, Bollani opened his set with a meditative solo that immediately revealed his ability to weave a classical virtuoso’s performance technique into the idiom of jazz, with the right and left hands equally involved in a lyrical dialogue rarely seen with jazz pianists. Lund’s brush work was a stunning complement to the mystical feel that Bollani created, and Bodilsen’s solo in this selection, and indeed throughout the evening, featured the purest and most distinct bass sound that I have ever heard. As the piece evolved in to a more up-tempo groove, Bollani could be seen conducting himself at the piano and often standing, crouching or sitting with one leg tucked under as the inspiration of the moment struck him. He finished the opening number with an improvised cadenza worthy of the any of the greatest concerti ever written.

The remainder of Bollani’s set was a mesmerizing array of Latin-flavoured music with occasional nods to old-time barrelhouse and stride playing. His other-worldly and incredibly complex two-fisted improvisations sometimes seemed to leave his trio mates guessing where he would go, but as my friend said, you can get away with a lot when you’ve got the chops, and no matter where Bollani soared, the group always made it work. They finished the set with an untitled composition written just a few days before by Bollani and which he offered to name Toronto if the audience thought it good enough. Judging by the audience’s response and call for an encore, I would say that the piece is now well-named.

Hearing both of these trios back-to- back highlighted the difference, at least on this occasion, between a trio led by a bassist versus a pianist. The former came across as a tight-knit group in which the individual players, including Occhipinti, were completely committed to a concept of one-for- all, whereas the latter trio had more of an all-for-one vibe, notwithstanding the brilliance of Bollani’s sidemen. In the world of jazz, both approaches are equally valid, and both made for an evening of incredibly compelling jazz music. Roberto commented on what an honour it was to perform at Koerner Hall again, next door to the school he once attended, U of T. It was Bollani’s first performance at Koerner Hall, and one can only hope that he returns again soon.

The next concert in the series takes place at Koerner Hall on December 10th, with an American trio led by master Hammond organist Joey DeFrancesco, as well as the Jensen/Restivo/Vivian Trio, featuring Canadians Christine Jensen on saxophone, pianist David Restivo and bassist Jim Vivian.

Toronto Concert Reviews in Toronto

Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON November 20th 2016

TD Jazz Deals Up Another Pair of Threes

Roberto Occhipinti

Stefano Bollani