This year’s edition of JAZZ LIVES is shaping up to be a night to remember.
The 15th edition will feature jazz stalwarts who have been playing tirelessly for decades, contemporary performers thriving in the moment, and young apprentices honing their craft to become the big stars of years to come.
Kellylee Evans headlines the show as her comeback continues after a long recovery from a brain injury. Neil Swainson, Brian Dickinson, Ethan Ardelli and Kelly Jefferson come together to form the JAZZ.FM91 Jazz Masters. Barbra Lica, June Garber, David Clayton-Thomas, Jay Douglas and John Finley also join the fun as the featured vocalists of the evening. The JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band makes its annual appearance, of course, but the show will also feature the JAZZ.FM91 Emerging Artists Combo, a collection of young artists who have come up through the ranks and are heading for even bigger and better things to come.
That’s where we are now, and what we have to look forward to on April 10. But in keeping with this year’s JAZZ LIVES theme of the past, present and future, we’re looking back on some of the most memorable moments from the past 14 years of our signature concert series and fundraising event.
“Some of the fondest memories of my whole career have happened at Koerner Hall, music directing JAZZ LIVES,” says Lou Pomanti, who returns as music director for this year’s show.
From its beginnings at Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto, to the move to Koerner Hall in 2012, to last year’s celebration of Nat “King” Cole’s centenary, there’s been no shortage of thrilling JAZZ LIVES performances.
“The sense of team and camaraderie with my colleagues and friends — including those in the audience — is what makes these events special,” says Dinner Jazz host John Devenish.
“One of my favourite things about JAZZ LIVES, believe it or not, is the intermission,” says broadcaster Jaymz Bee. “When you walk through the lobby area and go to the bar, and you see nothing but friends and people you’ve known for years, and some of them introduce you to their friends who are new to the station, it’s the closest thing to a family reunion.”
Here are just six standouts from the ongoing JAZZ LIVES legacy.
Patricia Barber (2008)
This was still in the early years of JAZZ LIVES, back when it was held at Convocation Hall. JAZZ.FM91 music director Brad Barker looks back fondly on seeing one of his favourite vocalists and pianists take the stage and tell the audience that she was going to play a song she had only just written and had never performed before. That song was Snow, a moody, slow-burning tune that ended up being one of the few original songs on The Cole Porter Mix, an album of mostly jazz standards that was released by Blue Note later that year. “You could hear a pin drop,” Barker says.
Al Jarreau (2011)
While Randy Brecker headlined the 2011 edition of JAZZ LIVES, he was far from the only big star to take the stage that year.
There was certainly an air of uncertainty around Al Jarreau’s well-being in the period leading up to his appearance at Convocation Hall. The previous summer, the multiple Grammy-winning singer — who had turned 70 that year — became critically ill after a performance and spent about a week in an intensive care unit in France being treated for respiratory problems and cardiac arrhythmias. Then, a week before he was to perform in Toronto, there were rumours he had died.
That turned out to be a Wikipedia prank (Jarreau lived another six years before passing away in 2017 at age 76), and he wrote on his website that “rumours of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” He went on to deliver a memorable performance that his backing band, in particular, will likely never forget.
“I love Al and it was very exciting to have him at the show, but an even better part was watching the Toronto musicians who were backing him up,” says Barker. “Robi Botos had told me he was a huge fan of Al’s and had listened to his music for years. The look on Robi’s face as Al turned around and sung to him as he played piano was pure joy.”
Ramsey Lewis and Tom Scott (2012)
Iconic pianist Ramsey Lewis commanded the crowd’s attention from the moment he stepped on stage back in 2012. The prolific recording artist and three-time Grammy winner sat at a beautiful Steinway concert grand piano and played a stunning set that ranged from Art Tatum-style stride to almost Debussy-esque re-harmonizations.
“He is charming, unsympathetically demanding as a pillar of the music he plays, and a jazz legend,” says John Devenish. “Watching other standout performers that evening watch Lewis play, and being as transfixed as I was, it was a thrill.”
Earlier in the show, Tom Scott tore the house down with power and virtuosity. The former Blues Brothers saxophonist and L.A. Express leader played an electrifying set with Heavyweights Brass Band trumpeter Jon Challoner.
“Tom Scott has always been a hero of mine — a king of the session scene,” Pomanti says. “And not only that, but his own records and his own groups, all that kind of stuff.”
For the finale, almost all the performers of the night banded together for an energetic version of the Average White Band’s Picking Up the Pieces. Pomanti has a special memory of watching his then 16-year-old son in the JAZZ.FM91 Youth Big Band join the rest of the performers for the big encore.
Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny (2013)
The next year’s show featured six-time Grammy winner Terence Blanchard, who played a set full of Miles Davis standards that captured the classic trumpeter’s spirit without trying to imitate him. Yet he wasn’t even the one who picked the songs.
“When Terence came on the show, I said to him, ‘So what do you want to play, Terence?'” Pomanti recalls. “And he said, ‘Ah, let’s just do three Miles tunes.’ And I said which ones? He said, ‘You pick.’ And I’m like, I’ve got to pick? So I picked three Miles tunes. And he plays so beautifully and so strongly. He’s one of those guys where when he starts playing, it all becomes simple, because he’s leading you so strongly.”
After that, Pat Metheny closed the show alongside Larry Grenadier. The king of jazz guitar is known for being not only a prolific, seasoned player but also a cutting-edge innovator, incorporating MIDI processing, alternate tuning, specialty guitars and even a guitar-controlled automated orchestra into his music. But the JAZZ LIVES audience was treated to a bare-bones version of Metheny, which only made his raw skill and smarts more apparent in a captivating, gracious performance.
“It’s no secret Pat Metheny has been a favourite musician of mine since I was 13,” says Barker. “The fact that he was playing JAZZ LIVES was a dream come true. I had a chance to interview him earlier in the day on the air and I was still buzzing when he and Larry Grenadier took the stage to close the show that night — unbelievable.”
Gregory Porter and Lisa Fischer (2014)
Jaymz Bee says many people told him at the time that the 10th edition of JAZZ LIVES was the best of them all — and house band guitarist Mike Francis even said it was the best concert of his life. The 2014 concert featured Cuban pianist Harold López-Nussa and his percussionist brother Rai, guitarist Earl Klugh, Canadian feel-good horn-blowers The Heavyweights Brass Band, multiple Grammy winner Gary Burton and the indescribably magical Lisa Fischer. And both the audience and the house band was ecstatic when our very special surprise guest Gregory Porter took the stage alongside Fischer to close the show with some of his biggest hits.
“As Gregory Porter passed by Jay Douglas, he said, ‘You’re an amazing singer, you’ve got to come out and sing with us,'” Bee recalls. “And to see Jay Douglas beaming onstage with his hero … just goes to show that jazz people are really open-minded and super friendly and inclusive. That was an amazing encore.”
Benny Golson (2015)
This edition marked another appearance for Pat Metheny, along with the talents of Kat Edmonson, Robi Botos, Turbo Street Funk and more, headlined by none other than bebop legend Benny Golson.
“Golson is a true gentleman,” says Devenish. “A great storyteller both in the captivating stories of his younger days and in the way he plays. Lyrical, with humor and wit and sophistication. He wrote so much of the music others play. It was like being in the presence of history, alive before my eyes and my ears.”
Pomanti says that night stands out to him perhaps among all the rest because of a once-in-a-lifetime photo a friend snapped of the occasion.
“We were playing Killer Joe, which Benny wrote, of course,” he recounts. “After my solo in Killer Joe … he walks over in the middle of the tune and he kisses my hand. It just so happened that a buddy of mine was in the balcony, and he got a picture of it. So that’s a beautiful memory.”
JAZZ LIVES: A Tribute to JAZZ.FM91 will be a celebration of the tremendous musical talent without whom JAZZ.FM91 would not exist. The evening will feature a mixture of long-established performers, those whose careers have grown in parallel with the growth of JAZZ.FM91, and the emerging talents who will be the jazz stars of tomorrow.