The Best of Toronto Jazz Fest
From Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin to the King of Sax Colin Stetson, this year's Toronto Jazz Fest spanned the spectrum from populist crowd-pleasers to avant-garde iconoclasts.
BY: Chris Bilton

Celebrating its 25th year, and its umpteenth name change, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival took over Toronto’s outdoor stages, fancy-pants concert halls and piano bars for the past 11 days. Aside from bringing in some of the biggest names in jazz (and soul and hip-hop), the festival made a particularly forward-thinking impression this year by including a number of modern and avant-garde acts in the proceedings. Here’s a quick round-up of the highlights.

Best festival opener ever: Aretha Franklin
The Queen of Soul kicked off the jazz fest with a free show at David Pecaut Square. ’Nuff said.

Guaranteed return on your investment: Dave Holland Quintet
Dave Holland is a perennial Jazz Fest favourite but, no matter how tempting it is to be all like, “Oh, they’re playing again?,” seeing the bassist and his band is always an enlightening affair. Drummer Nate Smith provided some seriously powerful swing, and vibraphonist Steve Nelson was constantly exploring new territory on his instrument. A talented soloist in his own right, Holland was even better at quarterbacking the proceedings by giving his star players the room to stretch out often and for many, many choruses.

Best use of the “Cinnamon Girl” one-note solo method: Atomic EU supergroup Atomic employs quirky, Thelonious Monk-sounding melodies jammed together in hopscotch arrangements that jump from straight-up swing to free noise in a heartbeat, but the band’s true strength comes with the occasional breakdowns where they play one note over and over for trancelike effect. This sort of ensemble playing is enhanced by the exceptional rhythm section—featuring Paal Nilssen-Love and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten from The Thing, plus mind-blowing piano player Håvard Wiik, who comes across like an avant-garde version of the late Esbjorn Svenson.

Most appropriate name: Hat and Beard
Local duo Hat and Beard got its name from an Eric Dolphy tune about piano genius Thelonious Monk, which is fitting since the pair—guitarist Ken Aldcroft and drummer Dave Clark—pay tribute to Monk with the same sort of whimsical reverence as Dolphy was wont to do. The exceptional and inventive playing from both Clark and Aldcroft on a fantastic selection of Monk numbers was just as impressive as Clark’s own hat and beard, and his penchant for getting audiences members involved in a clap-along.

Army of one award: Colin Stetson
As we mentioned in an earlier post, the Montreal saxophonist took some time out from his current commitments with Bon Iver to unleash an absolutely devastating set of solo sax compositions at The Music Gallery. Using an awe-inspiring circular breathing method, Stetson’s playing made a convincing argument for why his most recent album, New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges, is included on the Polaris Music Prize long list. He also proved that there’s a serious audience for weirdness at the jazz fest.