This year’s Toronto Jazz Festival played host to two legendary groups in two awe-inspiring and sold-out venues: The Dave Brubeck Quartet at Koerner Hall on Tuesday and The Keith Jarrett Trio with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette at The Four Seasons Opera Centre on Wednesday. The Dave Brubeck Quartet gave a solid performance but one that has become somewhat less of a novelty since it was nearly identical to his concert last year and the year before. The Keith Jarrett Trio, on the other hand, gave a concert of sheer ingenuity and brilliance from start to finish, though I’d expect nothing less from this group of masters.
Dave Brubeck Quartet
On Tuesday, the current rendition of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, with Bobby Millitello on saxophone, Michael Moore on bass, and Randy Jones on drums, took the stage at Koerner Hall for one set of standards and one set of what Brubeck does best: his own pieces in odd time signatures. In the first set, they played, among others, “Gone with the Wind”, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, and a medley of Duke Ellington Songs: “C Jam Blues”, “Mood Indigo” and “Take the A Train”. The interpretations were competent and fun to listen to, but this really isn’t where Brubeck shines and there are other pianists who have better renditions of these pieces. Nevertheless, it was nice to hear a few pieces that weren’t performed in the last couple of years.
But things got going in the second set, with Dave Brubeck’s son Matthew Brubeck on cello, as they dug into Brubeck’s trademark pieces, which are incredibly hard not to get lost in when counting is done by mere mortals. They played “Three to get ready, Four to go”, which has two bars in 3/4 time followed by two bars in 4/4 time, and then improvisation in a totally different time signature altogether and they kept time. When they played “Unsquare Dance”, a real earworm, in 7/4, they encouraged the audience to clap along with the drums: some people tried and many waited way too long to stop their out-of-time embarrassing clapping efforts. The group, however, had no trouble keeping time. “Blue Rondo a la Turk” was a wonderful foot-tapping experience, of which Brubeck said “this is one of the hardest pieces I’ve ever written for myself. I don’t know why I did that to myself. Every time I go to play it I’m always worried I won’t be able to. But Mathew is here to help me out”. They played a couple of pieces in 5/4, one that we didn’t all know, and one that we did (“Take Five”) and “The Sermon on the Mount” which is perfectly suited for having a cello in the ensemble.
When he takes a solo, Dave Brubeck does a lovely job, with great technique and jive. Mathew Brubeck also brings a beautiful edge to the pieces with his cello, adding an unexpected but perfectly agreeable layer of detail. But their bandmates can’t keep up, except in their ability to literally keep time. Michael Moore is a perfectly satisfactory bassist when he’s playing the bassline but he’s not Stanley Clarke or Charlie Haden or Gary Peacock so his solos aren’t that exciting. Randy Jones is your average run-of-the-mill jazz drummer, though he may have a slightly heightened awareness of time, and Bobby Millitello’s playing rubs me the wrong way: he croons too much without enough definition or character. But there’s something perfunctory about the way these folks trade off solos and play in a style from year’s past without the expected modernity of a solo. There’s little interplay between the group to keep the music charged and so while the individual parts, well the Brubeck parts anyway, are a joy to listen to, the rest falls a bit flat.
This year’s Brubeck concert, the fifth year running at the festival (and the third one I’ve been at), was perhaps the best executed concert. The quartet format, with the addition of the cello, is the right format for Brubeck to be playing at and Koerner Hall is a perfect venue for this group. The acoustics and the seating sure beat the hell out of the Nathan Phillips Square tent from last year, and the music itself was at a higher level.
Seeing Dave Brubeck in Toronto is an essential for every jazz fan. He is, after all, a jazz great for good reason, and no one else has replicated what he has done in weird time signatures. “Time Out” and “Time Further Out” sit satisfactorily in every serious jazz lover’s collection. But there are only so many pieces from each of these albums, and Brubeck seems to only like to play a few of those, albeit the better ones, so if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen it all. Just make sure you go when it’s at an excellent venue.
Keith Jarrett Trio
The Keith Jarrett Trio, on the other hand, is a revelation every time they play. As a soloist, Keith Jarrett would easily sell out the Four Seasons Centre where his trio performed, but there’s an exciting additional dimension when he plays with the best jazz drummer, Jack DeJohnette, and the great bassist Gary Peacock. First of all, there isn’t a single low point to the concert: each moment can only be characterized as fantastic or more fantastic. I might even go so far as to say they reach perfection. In their extremely able hands, the music coruscates and they create an experience of immense beauty.
It is possible to listen to each of these magnificent players independently, focussing in on one in particular, and then rotating. But to do that would be to miss the richness of the texture they provide, the way in which they each carefully support one another yet find their own sound and complexity at the same time. When these masters improvise, they do it collaboratively without ever drowning out anything important. Keith Jarrett on piano, of course, leads the show, takes the melody and leads the improvisation. But listen to how Jack DeJohnette deviates from the norm, the subtle changes he makes, how he mimicks and supports what Jarrett does without copying him. And on bass, Peacock holds down the fort with a supportive but complex baseline that tends towards the melodic. The group played a variety of standards, including “My Funny Valentine”, “God Bless the Child”, and “Bye Bye Blackbird”. When they slow it down, it becomes so beautiful that it almost brought me to tears.
Keith Jarrett is probably the best jazz pianist alive right now and Jack DeJohnette is unquestionably the best living jazz drummer of any fame. So it’s no surprise that when they team up it’s dynamite. DeJohnette finds melody in his drumming and can actually make a beautiful line of the piano sound even more melodious rather than wrecking it with some banging. DeJohnette plays notes, not just rhythm. There is nothing run-of-the-mill about either of these two.
Halfway through the first set, Jarrett stopped in the middle of a piece because a note was out of tune on the piano. He asked the audience if “it sounds OK out there?”, and one clever-mouth chimed in “it sounds great, but our ears might not be as good as yours”. Jarrett proceeded to play the note in question repeatedly, commenting that it “sounded like ‘help!’” and that he owed Steinway a phone call to complain about their piano. He decided to go on but switched keys in order to evade the offensive sound.
At intermission, a brand new Steinway was rolled out on stage and fastidiously tuned: good thing they happened to have an extra Steinway Grand just lying around. This seemed to be to the satisfaction of Jarrett, who, after playing an even more amazing second set wowed the audience with not just one or two encores, but three encores. Thank goodness he liked the new piano and the hall. When he was here three years ago, we were treated to two fabulous encores because Jarrett liked the hall. And what’s not to like? The Four Seasons Opera House is a fantastic venue, a beautiful hall with outstanding acoustics: the perfect venue for these jazz masters. When I saw the trio three years ago, their last performance in Toronto, I wrote that it was the best concert I’d ever seen in my life. Well, I’d say their most recent concert on June 30th was exactly on par with the 2007 show: tied for the best concerts I’ve ever seen.
Photo: Keith Jarrett performing at Carnegie Hall, September 26, 2005, Photo by Richard Termine, ECM Records