The Royal Conservatory of Music launched a 5-concert series of trio concerts last night in Koerner Hall, sponsored by TD Bank Group and Tom's Place with media partners NOW  and JazzFM91 and what a night of spectacular jazz music it was. The sold-out concert featured pianists Robi Botos and Kenny Barron and their trios, and the audience could not have been more appreciative of the brilliant performances of both groups.


As Executive Director of Performing Arts Mervon Mehta pointed out in his introduction, the format of the series brings together two trios on each night, one Canadian-based and the other international. So the format invites comparisons, giving the audience a rare opportunity to witness the magic of that most elemental of jazz configurations – the trio – twice in one night in a concert hall setting.

Hungarian-born and Toronto-based Botos, acknowledged current star of the Canadian jazz scene and the younger of the two pianists, led off the evening with a rousing version of Eurorleans, a fitting tribute to the international aspect of this trio pairing from Botos’ 2016 Juno-award winning album Moving Forward. Robi and the bright sounding Yamaha Grand was backed up on this night by Toronto bassist Mike Downes and Snarky Puppy drummer Larnell Lewis, also from Toronto. Right from the opening shuffle, this trio found its groove, combining Botos’ exquisitely harmonic and melodic statements with technically outstanding but sensitive rhythmic support. The entire trio played with what I would call “introspective exuberance”, where regardless of whether they were playing a Botos original ballad like Violet or a funky version of Close to You, the virtuosity of the individuals never masked the musicality of the group.

Although I’m not a fan of the obligatory bass or drum solo, Downes’ solos were honestly expressive and listenable, and at one point he threw in a little excerpt from Get Happy to lighten up the moment. Lewis’s solos were skillfully understated, and it is obvious why he was a past winner of Humber College’s prestigious Oscar Peterson Award for Outstanding Achievement in Music. Where they really shone was in their ability to not just support Botos’ dynamic improvisations but to exchange ideas with great clarity and understanding. As with all great trios, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

The Philadephia-born Barron led off the second-half with a meditative introduction to an original composition called Lullabye, characterized by his trademark lyrical touch, reinforced by the mellow tone of the Steinway grand. As the piece shifted gears, the veteran was joined by drummer Johnathan Blake, also of Philadelphia, and bassist Kiyoshi Kitagawa from Osaka, further highlighting the international flavour of the trio.  During the hour-long set that followed, this trio performed a number of hard-driving, be-bop influenced selections that were at times both exhilarating and meandering. An original composition by Barron, called New York Attitude, was a tour de force, unrelenting in its pace and energy.

Unfortunately, if comparisons are to be made, one would have to say that the work of the prodigiously talented Kitagawa and Blake tended to overpower the playing of Barron. The individual members often seemed to be fighting each other, which resulted in music that sounded heavy-handed and at times muddy. The highlight for this listener actually occurred when Barron performed a piece for solo piano entitled Song for Abdullah, a tribute to piano great Abdullah Ibrahim.  On this occasion, Barron’s wonderfully sensitive playing could be heard and appreciated for its stunning depth of feeling, reminding us that Barron is a 6-time recipient of the Jazz Journalist’s Association Best Pianist Award. The night ended with the trio finding its best form with Cook’s Bay, which featured the kind of in-sync communication between the players that never left the listener wondering where the improvisational inspiration originated from.

Both pianists spoke with great sincerity to the audience, with Botos saying that performing for a live audience in a beautiful concert venue like Koerner Hall was “as close as you get to a gig in heaven”. Barron, in turn, praised Toronto for its civility and reminisced about his days in the early ‘60s playing the Colonial Tavern on Yonge St. with Dizzy Gillespie. Botos paid homage to the master whom he idolized growing up, saying that it was an “honour to share the stage with Kenny Barron”. And so here was another duality – the young lion and the wily veteran – similar players in many ways, but one representing where jazz has been, the other where it’s going.

The next concert in the series will feature trios led by Italian pianist Stefano Bollani and Canadian bassist Roberto Occhipinti on Friday, November 18th.

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Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON October 30th 2016

TD Jazz Trio Series a study in dualities

Robi Botos​

Kenny Barron; Photo credit: Philippe Levy-Stab​

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