The International Jazz Safari to The UK: recap

Hitting the London Jazz Festival with two dozen donors doesn’t just look like a good idea on paper – it was an outrageous excursion and we witnessed some truly remarkable concerts!

Our first show took place at The South Bank Centre, an enormous music hall with modern architecture that included a singing elevator! Seeing Guy Barker conduct an orchestra that showcased singers like John Pizzarelli, Kandace Springs and Lizz Wright was a truly impressive start to the night. UK singers we discovered at this gala event included crooner Allan Harris, balladeer Polly Gibbons, teen wunderkind Jacob Collier and an incredible soul trio called LaSharVu. A favourite moment of mine was when British rapper Lady Leshurr did a piece about asking her suitors to brush their teeth over an outrageous John Barry-like arrangement from Guy Barker. Guy told me after the show he’d never heard of Leshurr and that she simply asked him to make the arrangement “epic”. Mission accomplished!

I hit one of my favourite jazz clubs on the planet, Ronnie Scott’s twice during this trip. A handful of donors joined me for a Kurt Elling show on our “night off”. Seeing Elling with Branford Marsalis a few months ago on our safari to Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy didn’t prepare me for the intimate and outrageous club date. He went from singing ballads in Italy to serious bebop and even stand-up comedy in London. Elling is so full of surprises – he even dedicated a beat poem to me from the stage – that everyone who joined me said they would never miss a show whenever he plays Toronto. With Mark Murphy and Mel Torme gone; and John Hendricks retired, he alone carries the bebop vocal torch as far as I’m concerned. The second visit to Ronnie Scott’s was with all our donors and our president and CEO Ross Porter. We enjoyed a terrific meal and marveled at The Great Lady of Soul, Betty LaVette; who at 70 is a human marvel – a powerhouse of jazz, blues and soul. Her entire band was so talented but most impressive was her rhythm section of James Simonson on bass and Darryl Pierce on drums…they were equal parts sparse and tight.

We had a memorable day with Richard (no relation to Ross) Porter who played tour guide for an afternoon, telling us outrageous stories about The Beatles, The Stones and the jazz and blues man who started it all, Chris Barber…with such a charming, thick British accent…I dared not try to impersonate him after the tour. (Truth be told my attempt at a British accent is just a little better than Dick Van Dyke on Mary Poppins.)

We also attended a concert by Jan Garbarek that was completely dreamy. It was an all star band but there is no doubt in my mind that everyone walked out of that theatre feeling like percussionist Trilok Gurtu had shown them something they might never see again. Easily one of the most memorable musical experiences in my life was watching him do a ten minute solo on all forms of percussion; most completely foreign to all of us.

For our grand finale, we attended a concert by Norma Winstone at Cadogan Hall with charts from legendary composer/arranger Vince Mendoza. Saxophonist Klaus Gesing had some serious tricks up his sleeve and the second set feature the full Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra and Big Band. Her encore was “Peacock”, a song I’d been hoping to hear the minute I found out we were going to see her while on our jazz safari to London.

Concerts aside, I loved seeing donors hanging out together, becoming new friends and partying to the wee hours nightly. Over a dozen surprised Kirk MacDonald at his UK gig, and I took them to secret places like an art deco bar inside the mysterious “Zedel Brasserie” and the incredible ambience and amazing cocktails at “Beach Blanket Babylon” in nearby Notting Hill. Donors had free time to tour around on their own and attend art galleries, theatres and shopping.

It was a perfect vacation – with very little sleep – and I hope we offer it again next year!