Friday, September 07, 2012

Bettye Lavette, The Big Sound, Get The Blessing @ Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 23, 2012)

  Bettye Lavette: photo by Michael Ligon

Like many of the music festivals that either have the words jazz, blues, or folk in their name, it's pretty much a misnomer these days and the Toronto Jazz Festival isn't any different. Although jazz still remains it's foundation and focus, I can say for a fact that many of the feature acts this year were not jazz, at least by purists standards.

On Saturday June 23rd, I had a few different acts on my schedule and I started on a sweltering late afternoon down at the Nathan Phillips Square, Outdoor Stage to catch UK band called Get The Blessing. Out of the all the acts during the festival which I saw, Get The Blessing were the most jazz. Formed from the rhythm section of Portishead, Jim Barr (bass) and Clive Deamer (drums), the band added Jake McMurchie (saxophone) and Pete Judge (trumpet) to the fold. During their set, a member of the band jokingly bantered about their instrumental songs, that they had two types of songs - ones about food, and ones about literature. The bright hot sun, didn't quite match the mood of the music in my opinion, the set being a heady mix of jazz, fusion, groove, and a slight dub reggae influence at times, the band gussied up in their dark suits, white shirts and dark sunglasses. But their was also an upbeat tempo to some of their tunes, enough to get several persons in the audience dancing enthusiastically, with a member of the band at one point giving a shout out to 'the woman in the white hat', and the 'man with the blue frisbee'. Pretty stellar playing all around, although I was particularly fond of the warm tones of the guitar playing and the occasional fuzzier solos. A decent start to the the the day.

This show was also an opportunity for me to catch local Motown-covers collective The Big Sound who'd I'd missed their semi-periodic residency at The Great Hall on several occasions. With a base group of musicians (guitar, rhythm section, etc), a horn section, backup singers and a select group of featured vocalists (I recall five or six different ones), I soon lost count of how many people were on stage. Of the vocalists, I'd only recognized Drew of The Bicycles and local vocalist-for-hire Maylee Todd but every one of the vocalists brought something unique to whatever they sung, Drew for example utilizing his sweet falsetto on Smokey Robinson's "Tracks Of My Tears" and Maylee belting out Jackson Five's "I Want You Back". The piece dé resistance had to be at the end (near the end?) of the set when Maylee and one of the male feature vocalists belted out the Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell classic "Ain't No Mountain High Enough". Most of what the collective performed was pretty familiar, whetting the appetites of the crowd with each song performed and as the set drew to a close, the crowd was sufficiently warmed up.

Ms. Bettye Lavette's career has been a lifetime in the making, having started her career in 1962 at the age of sixteen when she recorded a single, "My Man - He's a Lovin' Man", and since then her rise has taken baby steps. It wasn't until 2005, when ANTI- released her album I've Got My Own Hell to Raise an album comprising covers of songs written by other female artists including Aimee Mann, Joan Armatrading, Sinéad O'Connor, Rosanne Cash, Dolly Parton and Fiona Apple when many more people started to take notice. I'd recently been introduced to the music of Brooklyn-based soul artist Charles Bradley whose own story of being discovered late in life was an intriguing one and this was part of the motivation for me to check out Ms. Lavette.

Dressed in a silvery, sleeveless top, Ms. Lavette commanded a great deal of respect and applause as she came on to the stage. Backed by a four0piece band, Lavette ran through a set of soul balladeering, interspersed with some more uptempo soul tunes. Lavette's singing style on the slower numbers, tended towards strategic pauses, creating moments of quiet. Lavette displayed her versatile vocals, capable of belting out on the more uptempo numbers and dialing it back on the quieter ones. Her band, while capable musicians, seemed a bit on the reserved side, though the guitar solos and some harder drumming toughened things up at times. My only previous sampling of Lavette's work was her 2007 ANTI-released album The Scene Of The Crime which was a collaboration with Drive-By Truckers as her backing band and I was hoping for that grittier instrumentation, so I was disappointed by her backing band who were by comparison almost antiseptic. Draggier moments seemed to come and go during the set, but the set picked up steam in the latter half and there was no doubting Lavette's power such as on "Love Reign Over Me" which she got a standing ovation. At the conclusion of the set her band left the stage one at a time, the crowd giving her a standing ovation for several minutes and Lavette then returned to the stage for an accapella number to soothe us before we walked out of the tented area into the warm summer night.

Photos: Bettye Lavette, The Big Sound, Get The Blessing @ Nathan Phillips Square, part of Toronto Jazz Festival (June 23, 2012)

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