Saturday, April 12, 2014


Friend.   Father Figure.   Bandleader.   Elder Stateman of Canadian Jazz.   Devoted Dad.   Loving Husband.    Exciting Drummer.

I first encountered the mastery of Norman Marshall Villeneuve when I heard him on a double live album recorded by Oliver Jones called “Just In Time”.   From the get go I knew that this guy could swing, has a lot of pop, and brings a wealth of excitement and energy into what he plays and so much more.

He has certainly come a long way from the neighbourhood of Place St. Henri, the same neighbourhood that fellow Montrealer and jazz legend Oscar Peterson and Norman’s cousin Oliver Jones grew up.   He got his training and footing in the jazz scene of Montreal before moving on up to Toronto where for 40 years he made his mark as a Canadian jazz legend and a father figure to myself and many other young jazz musicians.    I know he hears this many times, but everytime I hear and encounter Norman Marshall Villeneuve he reminds me of the great jazz drummer and bandleader Art Blakey.    Like Art, Norman plays with such explosive fire and at the same time encourages young, up and coming musicians to play at their hardest and best before they launch into careers of their own.

I am forever indebted for the many chances I got to jam and play with Norman Marshall Villeneuve, working on swing, feeling, rhythm and mastering the concepts of the bebop language.   Not only I had such chances, but I am forever indebted for the many kind words, fatherly advice, and life lessons that I have gleaned just by talking and hanging out with him throughout the years of being a young jazz musician.  

Last year, Norman made the ultimate move of going back to his hometown of Montreal after 40 years in the Toronto Music scene.   He is strongly missed, but in my opinion he has never left Toronto.    This weekend, I was fortunate to catch him twice through three of his only Toronto performances of 2014.   The music swung, the energy was electric, and I was encouraged to find that his performances were packed to capacity, showing that real, unadulterated, swinging acoustic jazz is alive and well, and we need to keep it alive in the 21st century.    There may be a time and place for innovation, but the real meaning of jazz is about swing, history, and blues feeling, which has been embodied in Norman’s philosophy and groups.

To close, I just want to say this to Norm if he reads this: Thank you Norm, for keeping the jazz flame burning after all these years and bringing integrity into music.   I am honored to get to know you and keep on playing, encouraging, and giving for many years to come.


(Norman Marshall Villeneuve and Me)

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Young drummer and post-graduate student Jon Foster has put on a stellar recital performance that married the elements of both the traditional and the modern into a unique, sophisticated voice.  

Employing a sextet using the talents of guitarist Mike McCormick, bassist Connor Walsh, pianist Andrew Slade, trumpeter David Baldry and vocalist Laura Swankey, they explore choice standards, modern jazz, original compositions, and a tune from the popular alternative band Radiohead.   

To get things rolling, Jon and his group go through a very swinging reading of a classic romantic standard, “No Moon At All”.   It was a very spirited romp that swung easily, Jon’s drumming was very light to the touch and not heavy at all, and in addition to melodic solos by David Baldry and Andrew Slade, Jon’s drumming techniques throughout the piece was both colorful and complimented the music effectively.  

The most interesting piece would have to be the group’s take on Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android”, which fused classical elements along with a hard driving groove in 7/4 that pushed the music beyond the limits and into sheer rhythmic and melodic overdrive.   

After the modern detour, it is back to standard repertoire through a groovy, exotic Latin reading of Juan Tizol’s “Caravan”.   This piece started off with great introductory interplay among the piano, bass and drums and climaxed with a tasteful drum solo by Jon that again showed creativity, texture and colour into his drum techniques.

In addition to being a colourful and tasteful drummer, Jon also showed his skills as a very lyrical composer.   On “Soleil De La Mer”, it showed off a picturesque beauty of a lakeside sunset, complimented with a spiritually moving solo by guitarist Mike McCormick.   After a brief improvised piece on the drums featuring the use of tom-tom sticks, he goes right into his own “San Francisco”, employing a 12/8 Latin feel with classical elements thrown in for exotic texture and complexity.    

Laura Swankey, whom I had the pleasure of reviewing recently, provides great vocal readings on “Speak Low” and “From This Moment On”.   Her voice carried a lot of depth and meaning, and her scatting is very musical and uses a whole wide array of syllable choices to make it sound hip and interesting.    No wonder musicians love to work with her, for she is truly a “musician’s singer”.  

Upon attending this recital, I wish nothing more but the best for Jon Foster as he pursues and grows further as a well grounded drummer and composer in the world of jazz and beyond for many years to come.  


(Jon Foster.  Photo by Alexander Ordanis)

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


One of my friends and fellow York Undergrad Alumni Jason Stillman showcased his composition and saxophone chops while performing as part of his doctorate studies at the University of Toronto one fine Saturday afternoon.   

His recital showcased two ensembles that primarily performed a bulk of his original compositions and arrangements of two standard tunes.   The first band, a quartet comprised of pianist Noam Lemish, bassist Alex Lakusta and drummer Evan Cartwright gave the perfect foil for Jason Stillman to showcase his talents as an alto sax stylist.   

In the quartet set, things start of modern through a reading of Jason Stillman’s 
“Hurry Up and Wait”.    The performance married forward thing jazz with intense melodicism that brings a certain element of swing through its rhythmic shifts and turns.    “Tribute” is a composition in 5/4 that starts of as a peaceful ballad but then builds up in intensity until it reaches to a heightened climax.   

Jason’s Reading of “Prelude to a Kiss” evoked elements of the great Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter through a respectful and highly involved reading of the piece that evoked romantic emotions throughout the piece.   “Dizzy Atmosphere”, a Dizzy Gillespie standard, brought the roots of swing and bebop into an otherwise modern affair for the recital, giving a moment to allow the members of the quartet to stretch out and have some playful fun on a very playful piece.  

For the last three tunes, Jason performed all original compositions arranged for a University of Toronto 12tet that comprised of two trumpets, two trombones, two saxes, vibes, guitar, piano, bass and drums.    In this section I heard the various colours and textures that give a new dimension to Jason’s pieces and thus shows his strengths as a great arranger in addition to composing.   The first song, “Tomorrow Maybe” starts off in 5/4 with its ornamental arrangements but then it shifts into 4/4 swing.     Jason solo’s very effectively and very forward thinking in the piece and Mike McCormick’s guitar solo is very mellow and soft toned like a well oiled Jim Hall.

The highlight of the 12tet piece would have to be “Ulysses”, a composition that Jason Stillman plans to “retire” after this performance.   I hope he doesn’t because it happens to be one of his best and strongest compositions and hearing it arranged for a bigger band showcases a whole lot of colour and nuances in the piece.    It also featured a fine solo by Noam Lemish and it was a swinging take on playing in ¾ time.

The 12tet closes the afternoon with a great reading of “Quartet Blues” which is a modern way of taking the blues structure and making it one’s own.   

Jason Stillman has come a long way from when I first met him at York University to pursuing a doctorate in music.   He is a fine musician, composer and arranger and what he displayed that afternoon shows continual career evolution and progress that he can forever take with him in various musical situations.   


Tuesday, April 1, 2014


To cap off a long day in the city filled with good food, writing and music, I decided to catch the last band of the night on a cool Friday spring day.   The band was the Ryan Driver Sextet.

At first glance, the band makeup of piano, guitar, vibes, bass, drums and melodica may bring to mind another classic ensemble noted for its configuration:  The George Shearing Quintet plus Toots Thielemans on harmonica.    The George Shearing Quintet was known for its pristine, unison melodies and lighthearted approach to swing and jazz.   However, in this set up, it straddles on the fence of being a straight ahead jazz band with the grit of avant-gardism that defines their sound.

Ryan Driver doubles as a skillful classically based piano improviser along with his gritty, poring vocals that cross the line between the boy-next-door innocence of Chet Baker and a jazz-influenced Chris Martin from Coldplay.   The way he delivers repertoire from standards such as “The Night We Called It A Day”, “You’ve Changed” to obscurities such as “I Was Telling Her About You” brings a unique element of sexiness that is both raw and romantic at the same time.   

The rest of the band, made up of guitarist Martin Arnold, vibraphonist Michael Davidson, melodist Tania Gill, bassist Rob Clutton and drummer Nick Fraser basically transforms the otherwise straight ahead ballad material into full out avant-garde collective improvisation, filled with displacements, distortions, and playing in and out of time.    The landscape makes it for challenging listening to the listener and risk taking opportunities for the musician.    

With Ryan Driver, at first it may seem like another straight ahead jazz band playing the same old tunes.    But he transforms the material and makes it into a festive adventure that rewards repeated and concentrated listening.   It may at times feel out of place or completely left field, but in the world of jazz and creative music, it is all about taking the past and bringing it forward into the future.  



On a cool Friday evening I decided to catch the future of jazz by checking out a free jazz recital put on by bassist and composer Greg Orlando.

Greg Orlando hails from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and has gotten his degree in music earlier at West Chester University of Philadelphia.   Here in Toronto he decided to do his masters studies by being under the prime tutelage of bassist extraordinaire Dave Young, best known for performing with the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson.   

In his hour-long recital, it is a clever mix of original music with standards and pop material done in a jazz style.   The first piece, simply called “Folk Song”, is a gospel-influenced piece that echoes the recordings of Charlie Haden with Pat Metheny.   Greg played a very moving and soulful opening head and solo to the piece before giving way to guitarist Tim Lemke who shines through on the Pat Metheny influence yet keeping his own style.    

Among the biggest highlights of the piece have to be when vocalist Laura Swankey comes on board to complete the band and provide a musical vocal complement to the music.     On “Can’t Stand Losing You”, it takes a pop hit by the Police and transforms it into a standard jazz number that even Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, or Diana Krall can cover into a jazz masterpiece.   Here With Me is a lilting jazz waltz complete with beautiful lyrics and beautiful playing by all members of the group.

I reviewed earlier Laura’s recital and I have to say that she is a real serious jazz vocalist.   She is very musical, colourful, and a sheer delight to listen to.   Tim Lemke is a very modern guitarist with a voice that has something worthwhile to say.   Mark Ballyk is a very colorful and musical drummer that treats the instrument as a complementary function versus an in-your-face approach to playing the instrument.   Greg Orlando plays great bass lines, is a very moving and very melodic bass soloist, and really has a strong point in arranging popular songs in jazz and composing probing melodies that have both heart and soul.  

Here’s to a long and serious career ahead in music for Greg Orlando as he finishes his studies.