Every year, JAZZ.FM91 holds a grand celebration of the best and brightest in jazz with our signature JAZZ LIVES concert.
Well, almost every year.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we were forced to cancel the latest edition of our marquee concert series at Koerner Hall. But while we can’t be together in person, we’re always together in spirit.
As such, we’re looking back on some of the most memorable JAZZ LIVES performances at Koerner Hall.
“Some of the fondest memories of my whole career have happened at Koerner Hall, directing JAZZ LIVES,” says Gemini Award-winning musical director Lou Pomanti.
From its beginnings in 2004, to its move to its current home at Koerner Hall in 2012, to last year’s milestone 15th edition, there’s certainly 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 a few standouts from the ongoing JAZZ LIVES legacy.
Benny Golson (2015)
This edition featured the talents of Pat Metheny (in his second JAZZ LIVES appearance), 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 humour 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.”
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. 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.”
Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny (2013)
The previous 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.”
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 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 Pick 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.
John Scofield (2012)
John Scofield has had an incredible career, from his work with Gary Burton and Miles Davis to his lasting influence on countless guitar players over the past 40 years and counting. There was a real sense of anticipation around his performance this year.
“I remember our house guitarist Mike Francis being especially excited to see and hear John at rehearsal and in the show,” says Barker. “Mike later told me John couldn’t have been nicer in sound check and he was able to swap many guitar stories with the legend.”
That night, Scofield was on fire. He and the house band launched into their set, and it was loose and free. The sound of his guitar was remarkable, and his clear enjoyment of playing music with others was visible. The audience took it all in.
“Sco’ came to play, and play he did,” says Barker.