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Toronto, Ontario (April 25th, 2012) - Assembling high-octane talent on one stage is usually the province of dedicated presenters and promoters whose simple aim is to put on a show. Introduce too many moving parts, and there's a good chance that some unexpected rattle will shake or roll down the production. The wheels fall off, the train runs amok, skid marks, scorched earth, children in tears... Oh, the humanity.

Such was the concern as I attended JAZZ LIVES, JAZZFM91's annual get-together at Koerner Hall in Toronto. Ok, paranoia runs deep, but the fact is, putting on winning jazz concerts is tricky business. Marrying art and entertainment in performance venues is not for the faint of heart, especially for those whose proven excellence involves a different kind of canvas - conjuring intimacy and imagination on air. If radio's got the magic, how then the stage? Can they do it?

These thoughts evaporated quickly enough with the arrival of Jill Barber, the evening's first featured performer. She was unknown to me, but within minutes a shining persona emerged - a musicianly singer, equal parts wounded bird and brash doyenne. Got my attention in a hurry. An original gospel shout, "Oh My My," lifted the roof with rising heat and willful persistence.  "Please don't let me go...," she exhorted, over and over.  Seemed the audience heard her. There was a meeting here tonight, and the person I least expected to lead the charge did just that.

Next up, saxophonist Tom Scott, whose "New York Connection" was a staple on jazz radio 35 years ago, showed why he continues to be a first-call LA studio cat and go-to guy. His body language alone had MD Lou Pomanti and the house band sitting upright, awaiting direction. He did not disappoint. He shared the stage with trumpeter Jon Challoner from Toronto's own Heavyweights Brass Band on a tribute to Cannonball Adderley, then unfolded a soulful  "Stars Fell on Alabama." It was a hypnotic treatise on virtuosic development.

Pianist Ramsey Lewis followed, inviting a level of audience response (and hero worship) reserved only for special players. His solo reads on Trane's "Dear Lord" (in which he referenced Bill Evans's "Peace Piece"), "Body & Soul" (the spirit of Art Tatum, channeled), and a medley of "Here There and Everywhere"/"In The Still of the Night" (the Beatles meet Cole Porter) reaffirmed his authority as a true jazz master, occupying a place where both florid and tender live side by side.

The evening's other vocalist was Curtis Stigers, who proved himself an able saxophonist on both tenor and soprano. After essaying the title track from his latest Concord album, "Let's Go Out Tonight," he threw down his gloves with Big Boy Crudup's "That's All Right." It was a rousing rendition; Elvis would have wrestled with his lunch. (Probably, that peanut butter-bacon-banana thing...)

Last up was John Scofield, one of jazz's preeminent guitarists. Only a handful can captivate a large audience with improvisatory know-how. His solos almost always surprised me, kept me riveted. The crowd, too, obviously, as he rallied all behind  "Ghost of a Chance" and the rhythm changes of "Lester Leaps In."

As if this show needed a closer, the performers - joined by members of the JAZZ.FM91Youth Big Band - assembled for a last-call take on the Average White Band's "Pick Up The Pieces." (It was nice to learn that this selection was inspired by a prior conversation I had with JAZZFM91 President and CEO Ross Porter.) It shed light on the station's coexisting realms of radio, performance, audience development and feel-good jazz with an artistic bent - on the air or in houses more earthly. Tune in or take the escalator to the left. The signal from JAZZ LIVES couldn't be more clear.


Jeff Levenson is a label executive, writer-producer, and jazz journalist. His affiliations include posts at Half Note, Sony, Warner Bros, Downbeat and Billboard. He currently produces the annual Thelonious Monk Instrumental Competition, and has authored and/or produced events for the NEA, the US State Department, the White House, the New School for Social Research and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. His credits include collaborations with Michael Brecker, Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Bela Fleck, Arturo Sandoval, and McCoy Tyner. He has produced and/or supervised six Grammy albums - 2 winners, 4 nominees. He currently chairs the National Jazz Committee for the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, serves as Board Governor for its New York Chapter, and digs the company of jazz musicians.


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