Published Jun 26, 2015At a time when so many so-called blues and jazz festivals rarely feature artists in those genres, it's been refreshing to see the Toronto Jazz Festival return somewhat to its genre roots this year. For local lovers of contemporary jazz, the grouping of Dave Holland, Chris Potter, Lionel Loueke and Eric Harland appealed as a potential TJF highlight. That it certainly was.
The fiercely talented foursome have yet to come up with a group moniker, and the songs they performed were not named either. Saxophonist Potter introduced the set by stating, "We are going to play some songs we have written together. We hope you enjoy them."
In the 90-minute (pre-encore) set, just four anonymous compositions were played. Each one took the listener on a long but always fascinating journey. To these ears, a lyrical ballad (song number three) was the night's highlight, as it featured a sweet and slightly Caribbean-accented lilt to the melody, a mite reminiscent of "Don't Stop The Carnival."
All four musicians were afforded space for solos, with Potter and Loueke taking the lead the most. Potter regularly switched saxes, but was especially impressive with his supple and expressive tenor work. Bassist Dave Holland is a genuine jazz legend, dating back to his work with Miles Davis in his seminal Bitches Brew period. Here, he seemed content to accompany his bandmates with characteristic fluid grace, often sporting a rather beatific grin as he admired their playing. Drummer Eric Harland was similarly restrained and empathetic, though he made the most of his spotlight opportunities. At one point his soloing was punctuated by some wah-wah playing from Loueke — a neat touch.
It seems almost unfair to single out one player on such a democratic all-star team, but Lionel Loueke was the real revelation of the night. Born in West Africa, he earned a reputation as one to watch through recording with Terence Blanchard and Herbie Hancock, and has released acclaimed solo albums. His playing here kept the appreciative audience riveted. He has that sweet and melodic jazz guitar sound down, as his fingers flew up and down his instrument with astonishing speed and precision. He also seamlessly infused African elements and sometimes branched off into neo avant-garde territory, banging on the body of the guitar or slapping the strings for percussive effect.
He used his pedals effectively too, injecting the occasional gritty or abrasive note to keep things interesting, and during the second tune of the night, he somehow managed to coax organ-like sounds from the guitar.
Holland, Potter and Harland have played together extensively in the Overtone Quartet, but their collaboration with Loueke is apparently quite new. Judging from their glances at his playing, they were as impressed as we were, so let's hope for much more from this project. Contemporary jazz doesn't get much better than this.