Phantoms of the Organ

Toronto surprises me yet again, this time with the annual free “Halloween” event held at Metropolitan United Church. Featuring ten pieces played by members of the Royal Canadian College of Organists on the largest pipe organ in Canada (over 8300 pipes).
Described as a mostly pagan affair where the audience is invited to dress up in Halloween costume to listen to this incredibly atmospheric music genre in a darkened Gothic style church complete with candles and smoke machines.
Renditions included the evocative Toccata & Fugue in D minor along with a couple of other “made for organ” compositions by J S Bach, and a couple of really really dark film noire” style pieces by composer Louis Vierne who lived an absolutely tragic life and died at the console of the organ on Notre Dame Paris at the age of 75
Just for the record this church hosts an entire Music Series – “Music at Metropolitan”
Many of the “organists” were young immensely talented musicians, who whilst consummate keyboard players had only been “at” the organ for 2 months or so. Amazing how these guys can pick up the technical skills needed to navigate such a complicated “instrument” in such a short time – it’s not as if you can practice at home!!



Cool Jazz – Hot City

iphone 216

With over 40 decent music venues (not counting live pub music) you’d be hard pushed to find a city anywhere in the world that has such a vibrant and diverse music scene as Toronto

The following focuses purely on the Jazz/Blues scene and includes two mainstream “Ronnie Scott” type dinner-jazz  set-ups for the mainly international acts; venues that schedule feature jazz/blues almost every night of the week and those that consistently schedule jazz/blues on one or two particular nights of the week.
And yes it’s official:  it really is possible to visit one or more Jazz/Blues clubs in Toronto every single day of the week

Starting with the dinner jazz clubs:

#1 Jazz Bistro
As the newest addition to the Toronto jazz scene, the reborn Jazz Bistro is at the high end of the club spectrum.
Swanky New York meets elegant under-stated Toronto decor – huge chandelier, standard black and red jazz colour scheme with glitzy gold webbed table settings and a shiny red Steinway stage centrepiece. On three floors the open concept design ensures that diners on the second floor balcony also get a view of the stage.
Fabulous food and always a great line up of both local and international performers.
Appropriate attire a must here with cover for Nightly Entertainment

#2 Hugh’s Room
The novel (in Toronto at least) concept of a dinner/music venue or “Room” where diners could sit in a concert hall setting at intimate  formally dressed and candlelit  tables,  enjoying great music and performances was the brainchild of brothers Hugh and Richard Carson in the late 1990’s. Sadly Hugh never got to see the realization of their dream but his name and reputation as a music lover and bon vivant live on through his brother’s creation of Hugh’s Room which opened in 2001.
Dinner reservations and performance ticket requests have to be completed on line

#3 The Rex

Every Day of the week  
The Rex is the “rufty-tufty” workhorse that has dominated Toronto’s Jazz landscape for over 40 years. Showcasing around 19 bands a week it definitely earns its slogan –
“More Great Jazz than anywhere else, all the time!”
The casual atmosphere, good pub scram (some of the best nachos in town), beer and always exciting mix of incredible music talent (Harry Conick Jr. Kurt Elling, Wynton Marsalis have all played here) make it the perfect place to just walk in off the street and hang out anytime of the week. Generally cost involves a donation to the tip jar and a drink, though some performances do attract a cover charge.

#4 Gate 403
Every night of the week
A tad smarter than The Rex Hotel and a little out of downtown is the iconic Gate 403 Bar & Grill in trendy Roncesvalles.
A natty blend of upmarket pub (be warned – the food exceeds expectation) and shabby chic piano bar, the venue is known for its daily menu of live jazz and blues. There is the “pub” end (just walk in) and the more intimate “candlelit cavern end” for which a reservation is needed. The actual performance space is quirkily sited in the centre of these two areas.

#5 The Reservoir Lounge
Tuesday through Saturday
Their tagline “Cool jazz. Hot Swing. Great people. Smart Cocktails. Good eats”.
Says it all: tucked away in the cellar of a stone building in Toronto’s historic Front Street area (Wellington Street), the Reservoir Lounge is a mix of Paris Jazz cavern and supper club, hosting a different genre of jazz 5 nights a week. Cocktail and dress-up friendly (but casual is okay too) with excellent house- made pizza.
Best for jazz on Tuesday and Saturdays when the lounge hosts jazz pianist Tyler Yarema and his cohorts – almost permanent fixtures on stage here for at least the last 5 years.
Claim to fame – it launched the career of Michael Bublé

#6 The Monarch Pub in Delta Chelsea

Jazz Wednesdays and Delta Blues Thursdays
Inside the Downtown Delta Chelsea Hotel, it turns out that the Monarch Pub is a haven of excellent live jazz and blues performances. Initially it presents as just a Hotel Pub but venture past the huge TV screens; past the bar populated by the Business overnighters and head towards the stage, the pocket sized dance floor and the surprisingly restful pastel coloured lounge area. Be prepared for an evening (9-1am) of great music with an eclectic crowd of jazz/blues groupies who trickle in from 10 pm onwards to support the regular acts and to practice their  dance moves. Surprisingly good food and a hotel standard drinks/cocktail menu available.

#7 The Homesmith Bar at the Old Mill

Friday/Saturday evening
This is performance so close-up and personal it’s like watching a live band in your own living room.
The room design is a shout to cosy and intimate with a whisper of the masculine refinement of a private Gentleman’s club. A respectable sized bar and a tiny performance area dominated by a grand piano leads you through to the long narrow stone lined lounge stuffed with inviting armchairs, playing footsy with rug covered flagstone floors and large coffee tables.
Performance range from solo to group with a particular speciality being the Jazz Party idea hosted by a specific Performer with others simply turning up and joining in.
See website for Reservation details

#8 Orbit Room


Founded by Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson, this minuscule quirky venue in vibrant Little Italy schedules a mix of Rock, Blues and Jazz several nights a week. Especially  worth a visit on Friday nights when the ex backing band of the legendary and much missed Jeff Healy – now called the Dave Murphy band – set the planets spinning with their inspired mix of Jazz, Blues and Rock.

#9 Cherry Street Restaurant

Varying nights of the week
The Cherry Street Restaurant is a bit of a Toronto anomaly in terms location in the Portland’s area. Originally built in 1907 as a branch of the Dominion Bank, it transitioned to a restaurant in the 1940’s – a reminder of Toronto Docklands more vibrant history. It is now nicely positioned in the “flight path” of the gaggles of cyclists and skaters that zoom past on their way to the Martin Goodman cycle path that skirts Lake Ontario
Nicely refurbished in 2010 to incorporate an intimate performance space (with great acoustics), some exposed  brick walls and the Bank’s original art deco exterior. A little bit different from your average jazz venue – the music programme varies from week to week but always features artists like the incomparable Alex Samaras and Sophia Perlman – who also pop up at other clubs all over the city – plus other superb mainstays of the Toronto jazz scene.

#10 The Pilot Tavern

Saturday afternoon
This gets onto their list because of its Saturday afternoon jazz status.
Need a break from shopping or dining in Toronto’s mink mile?  Make it a musical break. From 3.30-6.30 you can listen to jazz in this fun and happening Yorkville bar/restaurant. Check out the riveted metal decor (pilot: plane connection maybe?) and its rooftop patio

Back to Celtic Roots – Goderich revisited

Goderich Celtic Roots Festival is 20 years old and despite the devastating tornado that swept through this western town sitting atop Georgian Bay last August – which decimated its famous central core ( Goderich is famous for being one of the only Ontario towns built in a circular pattern around a huge central roundabout surrounding the jarringly imposing deco- styled city hall).
All the trees that shrouded this building – and I mean ALL have gone. The same story is repeated at the site of the Festival in LionsGatePark – The Goderich port elevator stands stark against the blues of the lake and endless sky; a newly revealed backdrop to the festival tents and stages.
This year the usual batch of outstanding talent and just a couple of old favourites from last year namely Shannon Lambert Ryan from the US with her band Runa and the incomparable and extremely entertaining and brilliant Daoiri Farrell back again all the way from Limerick Ireland with his band “Solid Clarity”.
Other highlights for me were Brian Taheny –  the story telling “all things strings” somewhat wry Scotsman, whose verbally rich and colourful anecdotal descriptions of his pieces placed all his music within the context of time and place,; the stories often longer and just as entertaining as the song itself;  the superb “elegant singing” ( a phrase coined by the UK’s Daily Telegraph) of  Hilary James (with Simon Mayor), from Central England with her tinkling laugh and enigmatic smile; Cupola (Sarah and Oli Matthews and Doug Eunson ) also from the UK  (pattern emerging here!) with their narrative brand of traditional and contemporary English folk. Oh yeah, and Aiden Burke (UK) and Qristina & Quinn Bachand (What’s with the Q’s), the incredibly young and talented sister/brother duo from BC – the boy a mere 16 years old; AND a legend in the shape of Sean Keane from Limerick, And, and,  and,  and…………
Many more talented musicians played over the three day period but we became groupies of the above selection following them from tent to tent and stage to stage. These guys also chose to bond together over a pint during the evenings at the Park House pub (on-site), continuing with impromptu celidhs in one of the pubs other rooms – joined by any one with a musical instrument.
Apart from blues/jazz I can’t think of another musical genre that lends itself so gloriously to the concept of virtually unrehearsed collaboration between individual members of the various groups who as part of the festival joined other musicians in the side stage venues to play within loosely defined categories such as “Fiddle Traditions”; “Ballads of Near and Far”; “Songs of Ireland” and “La Belle Province “to give you the idea.
Not even frequent and torrential downpours could deter the audiences who continued to watch the various acts, crouched in portable canvas chairs, swathed in waterproofs and cocooned under enormous umbrellas waiting for each downpour to pass.  An extra show courtesy of the skies over Lake Huron were almost as entertaining as the music: mottled bruised cloud layers reflected in the mixed blue strata of the Lake. The aforementioned elevator shrouded in darkness, its shape picked out by the occasional flash of sheet lightening.
Next years dates: August 9-11, 2013.
Over and Out

Toronto Jazz Festival – George Benson

The incomparable George Benson

It was a perfect summers evening 25c with velvet soft summer air sort of “breezin” through the main stage marquee at Nathan Phillips Square. slanting sunset rays bathed the normally strident concrete arcs and walkways in a soft filtered light that blurred all the nasty seventies angles.
People were sitting around the marquee area at sun umbrella’d tables drinking wine, craft beer and half decent fast food courtesy of Mill Street Brewery. No buzzing queues, just a laid back civilized very Canadian drift into the venue. Very “cool jazz”

Introduced by Brad Barker, of Jazz FM fame, the whole shebang kicked off with a support act in the shape of Treasa Levasseur & The Daily Special
A sassy white soul singer with a huge funky Memphis sound. Nice start.

So even though I was right at the front – but side, thanks to the last-minute urge to buy a hotdog which cost me my original supposedly “saved” front of stage seat – I didn’t see as clearly as I’d have liked because one of my contact lenses broke in my eye. However whilst his features were a blur to me, I could certainly feel the charisma of the this ten time Grammy award-winning artist whose career spans over four decades. The living legend that is George Benson.
Here is another performer whose timeless songs have formed the backing track to some my most memorable years.

You gotta be kidding – whilst he didn’t look like the guy on the front of the eighties cover of the LP I had been playing all week to get me in the mood, I didn’t expect 70 years old, the spritely vibrant figure that strode onto the stage looking not a day over fifty-five (ok I wasn’t wearing lenses).
He doesn’t appear to have been afflicted with any obvious age related arthritis as he careened around the stage; his fingers still able to perform digital acrobatics on the guitar strings during his particular brand of guitar playing and scat interspersed with the evocative melodies.
The sound was amazing, his silky chocolate croiquant voice as clear as ever, I just closed my eyes and let the years roll away.

There is always a reason why these aged musicians roll out tours and it’s usually to promote a new album!!
George was here to promote his new mainly instrumental album – “Guitar Man”
I probably won’t be purchasing this as I am living in the past with this guy’s music. I just love that eighties dreamy keyboard sound dancing around his distinctive guitar playing and trademark voice/guitar dueting.

He played a lot of his old stuff including:
Love times Love
Turn your Love around
Nothing’s gonna change my love for you – cried during this one
That’s What the people say
A cracking version of Give me the night
A Michael Jackson number that he played as an instrumental thereby “George Bensonizing” it almost out of recognition (recorded for his new album)
Call me miserable but I could have done without his version of “Tequila” which irritates me at the best of times (also on the new album)
An instrumental cover of Norah Jones “Don’t know why”
An elaborate instrumental of “Sonny Boy”

He then appeared to leave the stage; his band were introduced – presumably giving George time to change and have quick gargle.
He finished up with an extended version of ” On Broadway”

Magnificent show!

A word about Jazz FM – this is a public radio station totally funded by sponsors and members of the public. It is one of the largest jazz stations in the world with full 24 hour programming; commercial free Sundays and the wonderful BBC Radio 2’s “Jamie Culham show all the way from London”
This is one of my favourite things about living in Toronto and well worth a few bucks a month to ensure it keeps going

Over and Out



Jazz Thursdays at Cherry Street Cafe

中文: 樱桃

中文: 樱桃 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Have passed this cafe by so many times on the way to Cherry Beach and used to wonder about the business model of something stuck in the middle if the Port Lands like this. The only decent building left on this road, it stands out like a sore rhumb – an art deco beacon of commerce amongst the Rufty -Tufty dock lands neighbourhood. It is however right on the spring/summer “flight path” of the gaggles of cyclists that zoom past on their way to the Martin Goodman cycle path that skirts the Lake shore, I was certain that winter heralded a downturn in footfall but the cafe always wore an open sign – a blue and red beacon of promised hospitality amid a pretty bleak neck if the woods.
And so it was with curiosity that we arrived one Thursday night in March, having heard a promo on Jazz FM radio about their Thursday jazz evenings. Ordinarily if we were to have a “school night” out on a Thursday then we would meet a bunch of friends at the Monarch Pub in the Delta Chelsea to watch the superb Jerome Godboo and his blues band. So what to do!
What a great evening upom which to visit. We were treated to a stunning and intimate performance by the Alex Samaras quartet. We had seen Alex perform with the Toronto Jazz orchestra at the Rex Hotel last autumn during their homage to Radiohead
Alex is not your average jazz vocalist – he approaches all his material with the air of one who has studied all the nuances of jazz performing at an academic level with spot- on perfect phrasing and tone. Just looked him up and sure enough he studied vocal performance on the Jazz program at the University of Toronto!
Incredibly versatile, it was obvious from his choice of music for the Cherry Street set that he was very at home with the “musical” numbers from all the great shows of yesteryear.
His 3 piece band who were all playing together with Alex for the first time were consummate professionals who no matter what was requested if them didn’t miss a beat.

Food – this is no gourmet eating venue – burgers and standard cafe fayre; small nicely laid out space with the original brick walls exposed and original deco exterior. A little bit different from your average jazz venue – definitely worth a visit.

Over & Out

“Ricky don’t lose that Number” – Steely Dan at the Molson Amphitheatre

Steely Dan 2007

Image via Wikipedia

Problem is, Walter Becker and Donald Fagan appeared to have done just that during Friday night’s performance. Sure they played most of the good and the greats. I guess when you have a collective song-book that spans over 40 years, what are you going to do? Apparently you leave out the one highly anticipated “are they gonna play it” hit and leave the audience on the edge of their seats assuming that it will be left till the encore. What you then have – and this is purely subjective according to my husband who wasn’t as disappointed – is a bunch (well at least 1 – me) of slightly deflated disappointed fans huddling out of the amphitheatre, looking back at the stage and the Miles High Big Band section who bookended the Steely Dan portion of the show – in disbelief as if to conjure up a third encore with the missing hit.

Also not played – my absolute favourite – “Mr Woo” (Katy Lied).

So that’s the negative over with!. This Tour called Shuffle Diplomacy Twenty Eleven was originally only going to be a US tour featuring the above mentioned Miles High Big Band and a trio of backing singers called “the Embassy Brats”. In May, Australia and New Zealand were also added the tour.

Having seen Donald Fagan a couple of times recently, I am “in love” with this style of music, stylish, classy, timeless and at the same time nostalgic – my husband tells me that he and his brother missed out on tickets for them in London in the 1970’s – sounds like the “Sade” review all over again or is it that I keep going to see huge retro acts/bands, where not only the quality of the music but the chance to re live a slice of my teens and twenties adds to the huge enjoyment derived from the experience.

I’m really sorry but to the opening act who played their hearts out as people were milling in and out of the arena, I have no idea who you were but the retro sound was a perfect intro and set the mood for the evening.

After these guys vacated the stage and the various stage-hands had shuffled the instruments and paraphernalia around, the lights came on to reveal the Miles High bands featuring the absolute genius Keith Carlock on drums; ; Jon Herington – guitar; Freddie Washington bass; Jim Beard keyboeards; with Michael Leonhart, Walt Weiskopf, Roger Rosenberg and Jim Pugh on horns. They played some classic smooth numbers as Becker and Fagan ambled onto the stage. I hardly noticed them sidle into position though the roar of the crowd gave it away, Donald Fagan – with his trademark “cool cat” shades looked like a version of Stevie Wonder playing the entire set with his head tilted up and to the side; and Walter Becker looking like some old codger – portly and whiskered – remaining virtually static or seated for the entire set.

They were joined on stage by the three stunning backing singers – the Embassy Brats – comprising Carolyn Leonhart, Cindy Mizelle, and Catherine Russell. I’ve seen Catherine Russell a dozen times or so – she has the most amazing graceful arm and hand movements – yeah I know they’re all doing the formula standard backing singer sway – feet together (as if tied at the ankles); knees alternately bending with arm and hands over-emphasising each nuance of the music, but she always stands out, she is so statuesque and graceful with a blow away powerful set of pipes. These ladies were so perfectly in sync that they reminded me of 1920 animated cartoons, when they used to replicate images in long rows. Maybe that was why during the set-up for the encore they decided to put a larger than life Betty Boop beside the backing vocalists – in my mind that was appropriate but wondering if anybody can tell me the significance of this rather surprising addition to the ensemble.

The Embassy Brats got more chance to shine individually during this show than I’ve seen before with any backing group; featuring both individually during various tracks and collectively performing an amazing soul-tingling rendition of Dirty Work without Becker of Fagan. Absolutely superb……

The set-list consisted of the usual contenders (with the exception of the aforementioned numbers above) – Bodhisattva,; Hey Nineteen;, Josie, Peg, My Old School, Reelin’ In The Years, and Kid Charlemagne.with a smattering of lesser known numbers – Time Out of Mind; Black Friday, Your Gold Teeth and Showbiz Kids. Walter Becker sang one number and rapped amusingly over couple of other numbers – in a kind of Square-dance calling mode that did nothing to dispel the Farmer/country hick impression.

I hadn’t actually realised that Steely Dan ever “went away” with a parting of ways in 1981 and a reconciliation in 1986, when both Becker and Fagen got together to feature on an album (Zazu) by the former model Rosie Vela. If you get a chance to listen to this you’re in for a treat.

Neither did I realise that in 1975 they became a purely studio-based band until 1993 when they resumed playing “live” During their long long career their brand of cool jazz funk has occupied a niche in the market to the extent where despite gaps in their performing and “togetherness they have sold over 30 millions albums worldwide. Quite simply their music has had a place in every decade since the group’s inception during Becker and Fagan’s college years in Boston.

Never has the inevitable “Reelin in the Years” been so enjoyable


Over and Out

Fifteen again with Donny and Marie

Donny & Marie (1976 TV series)

Image via Wikipedia

During the days of daily school assemblies, – for anyone who doesn”t have a clue what I’m talking about, whilst in the U S at that time the school day used to start with the pledging allegiance to the flag (at least when I attended school there), similarly in UK many of us used to have to commence each day by marching ( literally) into the school hall; bibles clutched in one hand, hymn book in the other to take part in a denominational or non-denominational school assembly. In my school. our assembly consisted of singing a few hymns, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and listening to school updates and notices. The “lucky“ few of us who did piano lessons would be called upon every month to play the piano in a desperate and bum-clenchingly embarrassing attempt to accompany the hymn singing that morning!! Our bibles (and this is not meant to sound sacrilegious or disrespectful in any way) would serve as the secret repositories for pressed flowers; photos of our latest “crushes”; little girlish notes and scribblings ; clippings and so on. Mine ( which is still full of this original 70`s teen girl stuff) had photos of Donny Osmond and Jay Osmond ( the drummer).
Just a piece of historic context as this was around ahem ********** years ago, and The Osmonds`collectively had already been forming from the age of 5 or younger.
So of course both Marie and Donny have been at the showbiz thing for almost 50 years each, and after a break of 20 years have brought their` Donny and Marie`Vegas show to Toronto for two weeks only so that we Canadians can bask in their fabulousness.
During my walk east along Queen street, I got my first shock in the shape of an ever-increasing swarm of women of a certain age; dressed to the nines and in packs descending upon “The Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts`
Seriously! surely these mature creatures couldn`t be going to the same gig as I – yep wise-up girly – the alternate delusional universe you have been inhabiting of late has opened up and spat you out – this is reality, you are probably older than most of the audience.
Second shock of the evening was that both Donny and Marie seemed still to be living in the alternate reality I thought I inhabited – They were on their 50`s, lithe, vibrant, fit looking and leaping (yes LEAPING) around the stage – no evidence of knackered knees on this stage. Both sublime professionals; both recent `Dancing with the Stars contestants ( she a finalist; he a winner – different seasons), and both with bios that took half the show to read. I was witnessing practiced consumate show biz perfection.
Although I thought I`d gone to see Donny Osmond – my childhood dream – it was Marie who stole the show for me…
Slim, and a fabulous advert for the `eat what I eat`nutrisystem diet program; she was still voluptuous – all hair, fringed glittery costumes (a different outfit for every song courtesy of her `dresser`daughter) and sky-high spangled heels. She had an amazing vocal range and a neat comedic repartee with the audience. She necked down a bottle of water in about 2 seconds before turning to confront the audience with the quip` and you thought Mormons couldn`t drink!` She was especially beguiling with some of the minority males in the audience inviting one brave soul on stage to bask up-close and personal in her allure. She sang and smootched with him declaring herself às safe“ to his wife because she was married. She had some difficulties singing an operatic number dedicated to her lately departed son – Even I – ever the cynic – was moved.
Donny – yep he looked fantastic dancing around the stage like someone half his age, but for me Marie stole the show.
I did however get to experience a running high-five” from Donny as he raced past my seat and – I’m embarrassed to admit – my outstretched hand. I would have appreciated this so much more when I was 14. Why can’t we have these momentous experiences when we need them??
Wrapping it up quickly, this was a stupendous slick, professional and unflawed BIG glossy show. Almost too perfect actually but amazing on so many levels; from their collective experience; the montage of family photos and film flashing across the starlight screen behind many of the performances – images that have back-dropped my life and more formative years in particular ( The Osmonds `Crazy Horses`was the first LP I ever bought) and dêspite the by and large retro material, the sheer up to the minute dazzle…….
Way to go