How I listen to live music has changed a lot since I moved to New York. In this city, there are world-class musicians playing every night. The line between neighborhood favorite and international superstar is blurred to the fullest. Every week, I go and see any number of musicians whose coming to Cleveland or Toronto was a celebrated annual event(if we were lucky enough for them to come that often). Of course, I’m glad that I’ve seen Roy Haynes, taken a master class with Barry Harris, and seen David Binney all in one night (and that wasn’t even that rare of an occurrence…), but part of me will miss the joy of seeing that one show that rises above the locals, or that show that makes you realize that the locals are a little bit more than just locals(I’m looking at you, David Virelles…).
Imagine what I would have felt seeing Tony Malaby play with three of my favorite Toronto musicians at the smallest club available, the Tranzac. I’ve been seeing only NYC shows for the last 6 months, and this one could hold up to any I saw in the city. The toll that their musicality and feeling took on me was lessened some by the fact that I’ve been fed nothing but world-class musicians lately, but they were still incredibly enjoyable.
Seeing contemporary music in New York, there are a few patterns that emerge in the way I listen to people. There are the people that are playing extremely well but are boring(no names, now…). There are people who are playing interesting music that one can learn something from; like how I felt about Vijay Iyer, the band is tight, the music has elements that I’m not familiar with that I would like to learn about or put into my own playing, although I don’t dig it enough to (these are the gigs where I’m trying to figure out the tunes or where the performer is coming from, analyzing rhythmic devices or absorbing the sound of an unfamiliar harmony. They’re also where I place musical athletes, people whose gig you see just to watch the technical fireworks). Of course, there are gigs that you just don’t dig(no fault to the players’ ability), which I usually spend trying to salvage some kind of lesson, or figuring out what about the gig I don’t like so that I can isolate and avoid it, or figuring out what the performer is doing right. There are also plain bad gigs, of course.
Then there are the gigs where you aren’t thinking, the gigs where you’re in tears at the edge of your seat. In my experience, this can be because of a combination of athleticism and interesting musicality, as was the case with my seeing Eric Harland, or because of someone speaking your language and putting their own mark on it, as is the case with Aaron Diehl or Randy Weston. There are instances where the musicality is at an extremely high level, people interacting and listening with intense focus, as was with Jeff Williams or the Billy Hart Quartet. Of course, sometimes you’ll hit a band that has a mix of all of this, and the more the marrier, like the Dan Weiss Trio or the Bandwagon. Taste comes into it of course; If a band is merely swinging like hell, it becomes one of these gigs for me.
Obviously, the above is EXTREMELY reductionist. If you like the music then you listen to the music, dammit! It’s far too complex to write down, and why would you really want to anyway? These are just some of the elements that I think of when I think of an amazing show where I forget all about learning and criticizing and just enjoy the experience. The magnitudes can vary considerably.
Before I get taken over by one of the greatest of Jazz-nerd conversations(What is the perfect concert?), I want to get back to Nick Fraser, Rob Clutton, Andrew Downing, and Tony Malaby, the musicians who made me feel this way most recently, and somewhat unexpectedly.
This gig was definitely the kind that kept me on the edge of my seat. The most apparent thing was the musicians’ musicality and focus. All three Toronto musicians always play well, but I’ve never seen them as focused as they were this evening. Everyone was listening so unbelievably hard and you could cut the overall sense of awareness with a knife (the musicians said afterward that although they knew that they were focusing extremely hard, that it was easy to do with these musicians). During the set, I figured that this was the only treat I was in for, until the end of the first set, where they went into what is definitely a contender for the most powerful swing I’ve ever heard Canadians play.
Nick is my favorite drummer under 60 in Toronto by quite a large margin. He’s the full package: open, knowledgeable, a good composer, a good bandleader, sensitive, swinging, humorous, and visceral. On top of that, he has the extremely rare quality(especially in Canada, and especially in Toronto) of being pan-generational in who he hires, and not just for the next big prodigy, or the S-Class of a generation. He hired me to play with him just before I left Toronto when I really had no business doing so. On top of that, he’s a nice guy and a strong Jazz thinker, which is also an element usually absent from established Toronto Jazz musicians.
Rob Clutton may be my favorite bassist in Toronto, the guy I would call to hire to play my music with me. He’s the only person in Toronto I’ve seen that uses the bass in a truly conversational role with a strong sense of my brands of swing(almost of them, interestingly). It’s a shame that I didn’t discover him until my final year in Toronto, or I would have been plugging him every chance I got.
Andrew Downing is one of the most unique musicians in Toronto. He played this evening on cello, although he is an accomplished bassist as well. Although he has only played cello for five or six years, his ability on the instrument has skyrocketed. Four years ago, it was interesting to see that this bassist was working on playing the cello. This time, it was interesting to ask how the hell he has enough time to get that good at the cello. Unlike Rob and Nick, I wouldn’t say that Andrew was completely in his element at this gig. His time is probably about 50% spent on this kind of music, and 50% on things more aligned with his original music, which has a different flavor. Seeing what he brings from his original music into this arena is always fascinating, though.
And don’t let that little observation fool you about Andrew’s ability to play this music. As I said, at the end of the first set, the music had one of those moments where it lifts you up with the musicians. The sets were about five tunes long apiece, with mostly textural things going on, so there was a sense of being absorbed by the music, listening to the whole picture, not the soloist or the rhythm section per se. During shows like this, I go into zen mode and just let the music take me where it wants to. In the middle of a particularly Floating section, the band went into fast swing with no warning, with the bass and cello walking a double line directly into Nick’s ride cymbal. Immediately my friend sitting next to me and I sat up and gave a gasp of amazement at the same time. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as straight as they ever have. The only time I’ve had a Canadian swing experience like that was hearing a particularly inspired Dave Young/Terry Clarke hook up. (For those that don’t know me, I’m extremely picky about my swing feels. There are many that will make me happy, but one usually doesn’t find musicians who are committed enough to swing to excite me in Toronto. Even in New York I have reservations about some people’s feels, some of whom are legendary musicians.)
And weaving in and out of this hyper-focused band was “The Irish-Mexican terror himself ”, Tony Malaby. Let’s just forget about the fact that I’ve been in New York for half a year and was seeing Malaby for the first time in Toronto. He is a force. Huge ears, huge tone, you want it, you got it. He also sounded extremely at home during the inferno of swing I was telling you about.
However, the thing in my mind that sets him apart is the unbelievable control he has over his instrument. His extended techniques are as developed as anyone else’s, but he has the ability to translate those techniques into these perfectly crafted melodic statements that don’t let the listener forget that they’re listening to the tenor. His judgment in using these statements is so apt that one just hears them as pure emotional extensions of what most would hear as his “standard playing”. His affectations were outlandish technically, but musically, they would not offend a more mainstream exposed listener, but come off as an accepted affectation taken one step further than normal. I would describe it to you, but I am no tenor player, and one should really just hear it for themselves.
That is one problem in reviewing this concert, I can’t really describe it without taking up another thousand words. Fortunately for the world, this band recorded that very same weekend. It will be due out later this year, hopefully. I hope some other Canadians are putting in some serious work, because if they’re not, this is my maple leaf album of the year without a doubt. Please buy it, for Nick, for Toronto Jazz, for music in general, and for your own enjoyment.
It would seem that after not writing for a while, I write massive posts. I touched on a lot of things here, and all four of these musicians deserve their own posts, if not multiple. Another subject I didn’t touch on, opening for Nick, was the ever amazing Tania Gill, who is for my money the most interesting pianist in Canada right now. Soon, I will write more extensively about these musicians, but in the near future, there are some transcriptions coming up, along with a short piece on Dave Liebman and Richie Beirach duo. Interesting shows coming up include many a Brooklyn show, Jacob Sacks, Eivind Opsvik, Vinnie Sperazza, a run of the Billy Hart Quartet at Birdland, and Jason Moran with Bill Frisell. Just keeps getting better and better…
When I listen to something and think it’s fresh, really fresh, I put on an Art Tatum record just to make sure. Ben Webster used to do the same thing.” —Milt Hinton