Sunday, March 22, 2015


On what would be the last leg of a 10 day tour, a modern jazz quintet named “Gray Matter” made a two day stop to Toronto to perform their genre-bending, forward thinking jazz to a very enthusiastic audience.   What is even more special is that throughout this tour they are promoting a brand new CD of original compositions that is a pot-pourri of funk, hip hop, and modern jazz that gives the band a unique identity of its own.

The “Gray” in this band is named after drummer Derek Gray and bassist Justin Gray, brothers and fine musicians who compose, perform, and provide rhythmic support for the ensemble.   Rounding out the quintet is pianist Todd Pentney, Vancouver saxophonist Eli Bennett and New York-based trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.   Through this potent lineup, they really cooked up some engaging music that points to the future of jazz and beyond while staying grounded in the fundamentals of groove, rhythm, and improvisation.

The first set opened with a medley of songs, “Footprints” and “Today is the Day”.   Footprints is an intriguing number which shifted between 4/4 and 7/4 time while keeping a steady funky beat throughout the piece.   Todd in this opening melody shows his funky and groovy side in his solo passage on the electronic Hammond B3 organ while the groove is supplied strongly by the Gray brothers during the solo passage.     Ingrid’s solo on the trumpet brings a high energy that echoes the later works of Freddie Hubbard at times.    After a moving piano interlude by Todd, the ensemble breaks into “Today is the Day” which slows down in pace but picks up in intensity and groove when Eli solos to the point of achieving “sheets of sound”.

“One By One” delves into the ambient/trance vibe through Derek’s rhythmic setup on the drums, leading into Justin’s solo that has a horn-like sensibility applied to the electric bass.   Eli’s saxophone playing becomes more intense and electrifying, in lieu of the intense groove applied through Derek’s drums, Justin’s bass, and Todd’s accompaniment on the electric organ.

On what would be the somber moments of the evening, there were two compositions in the set that were dedicated to the memory of beloved Canadian politician Jack Layton, both written by Derek along with lyrics by special guest singer Jillian Harris.   In the first piece “For J.L.”, the rhythm section provides a free flowing introduction that is dreamlike, futuristic, and heavenly at the same time.    The heavenly motif is applied throughout by Jillian’s vocal, which is angelic, soothing and peaceful to listen to while celebrating the life of a respected Canadian.   Todd’s piano solo is a very moving solo that breathes in life and hope into the memorable piece.     On “Eulogy”, the piece opens with a sample of the sermon given at Jack Layton’s funeral by the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes (senior pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto) , before the emotional lyrical delivery is executed by Jillian with her memorable lyrics.    Throughout the performance there was a gospel hymn quality that made you feel at church, while taking the time to remember and celebrate a man who impacted the lives of many.    To make it extra special, Jack Layton’s widow Olivia Chow and the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes was in attendance on the opening night of the Toronto leg of the tour to witness these wonderful creations in person.

To cap off the set, the composition “Wake Up” started off with a energetic, rhythmic, and swinging solo by Derek Gray, before shifting into Latin and bebop figures by the band in its opening passages.   Ingrid’s trumpet solo becomes highly energetic and soars mightily through the changes, and Eli’s saxophone solo navigates the shifts effectively from Latin rhythms into straight-ahead bebop.    Before closing the number on an energetic note, there is a cool unison passage by the horn players before taking it to a close.

From what I heard on opening night, “Gray Matter” is a cutting edge band to look out for in the months and years to come.    Through their incorporation of funk, hip-hop, electronica rhythms and jazz, it is bound to win new audiences with its collective sounds, rhythms and compositions.   


Front Row:   Derek and Justin Gray
Back Row:   Eli Bennett, Todd Pentney, Ingrid Jensen

Sunday, March 15, 2015


A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing, interviewing and promoting David Rubel and his debut jazz album “Into the Dark”.   Since that time, he has garnered rave reviews, radio airplay and a busy schedule through his teaching and performing of jazz music.

On three nights at the Jazz Bistro from March 5-7, David Rubel and his stellar quartet came together again to perform their stellar brand of jazz music.   But this time around, there have been a few changes.   First, the repertoire consists of tried, tested, and truly swinging standards ranging from Tin Pan Alley, bebop, hard-bop and post-bop eras.   Second, the performance is being recorded live for a future CD.   Last, and not least, the quartet has been augmented by a stellar vibraphone player from London, England by the name of Nat Steele to bring an extra complimentary voice to the David Rubel sound.

Nat Steele is a vibist who is one of the rising stars of his instrument in London   He is clearly influenced by the modern vibraphone sounds by the likes of Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, and can be heard performing a lot in the London Jazz Scene in places such as the legendary Ronnie Scott’s jazz club.    He was discovered by David Rubel through a YouTube video, and through developing a mutual friendship that crosses international and musical divides they were brought together to record a live album that celebrates this cultural exchange.

From the beginning, the quintet gets into a swinging groove as evidenced in their treatment of Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way”.   From the start, David’s saxophone tone is warm and relaxed, inviting the listeners to the charming beauty of the piece.   Nat follows the inviting atmosphere of the piece by providing a cool Milt Jackson influenced solo that is laid back, swings easy, and leaves the audience wanting more.   The rhythm section throughout is superb, with effective accompaniment by pianist Winston Matsushita, bassist Malcolm Connor, and drummer Robin Claxton. 

On the next piece of the set, “Alone Together”, the swing factor becomes more pronounced and intense as the members of the quintet turn it up a notch.   David turns it up through providing some intensity into his swing and digging into the song structure and melody.   Winston’s piano solo adds touches of funk and groove into the piece, until the band comes together and closes off the piece on a highly swinging note.  

A real highlight in the set that I attended was the quintet’s take on Hank Mobley’s “Dig Dis”.    In this performance they really got into the core of funky hard bop blues through its delivery of the melody and the hard swinging stop and go solos by David, Nat, and Winston, who played an extended solo passage that brought a gospel tinge to the piece, and even echoing the hard-bop grooves of pianists such as Wynton Kelly and Red Garland for good measure.

A word about the bassist and drummer.    Bassist Malcolm Connor provided a steady groove and sturdy timekeeping throughout the affair, keeping the arrangements and the feel of the performances as relaxed, simple, and swinging as possible.   He even takes a great walking bass solo on the complex George Shearing tune “Conception” and effectively plays the complex melody in unison with David and Nat.    Drummer Robin Claxton brings an excitement and a “snap” to the ensemble by playing with degrees of intensity and at times restraint, showing that he is very adaptable in various musical situations and is very musical in his approach to the drums.   He takes a very strong coda for “What Is This Thing Called Love” before the piece comes to a close.

From what I witnessed on that Friday night, the quintet produced music that really pays homage and brings the audience back to the good old days of a mutually swinging jam session.    Through selecting repertoire that stands the test of time and bringing their own unique voice to the classics, it is a breath of fresh air to hear (and record) jazz music that goes back to the basics of groove, swing, and rhythm.    Through this live outing, not only I got a chance to hear a great complimentary talent from another country share the stage with like-minded Canadians, but I can’t wait for the world to hear what has transpired through the three days of music that was recorded at the Jazz Bistro.


(From Left:   Winston Matsushita, Malcom Connor, David Rubel and Nat Steele.   Robin Claxton is not pictured)