Last night's shows on the TD Stage were two bands who have one foot in the jazz tradition and one foot in forward-thinking electronica and groove music.
Toronto bassist Rich Brown and his band rinsethealgorithm took the stage at 6 pm, playing music from their album Locutions. Throughout the set, elements of Rich's experience with Andy Milne and Steve Coleman were mixed with a smoother R&B gloss and inspiration from London's broken-beat scene. Drummer Larnell Lewis was taking his cues as much from the drum programming of Bugz in the Attic as Steve Coleman's phenomenal history of drummers. I grew up listening to pianist Robi Botos in Toronto, hearing him in acoustic jazz contexts at the Rex. He also has a tremendous pocket, unleashing a funky clavinet solo on the final tune and creating pad-laden atmospheres behind Brown's heartstring-tugging bass solos. I could have used more of Botos and saxophonist Luiz Deniz in the mix - Deniz was a bit drowned out but his solos were full of intensity and invention.
José James and his band followed up with two sets of music drawn from their album Blackmagic, along with some tracks from The Dreamer and white-label releases. The 9 pm set was plagued by terrible sound - James' lower mid register fell victim to a massive, distracting woofiness, and Frank LoCrasto's Rhodes was lost entirely. They still rose above it with fantastic versions of Freestyle Fellowship's "Parkbench People" (based on "Red Clay") and Coltrane's "Equinox." Richard Spaven is the perfect drummer for this band, stomping the Flying Lotus beats from Blackmagic as well as swinging his ass off on "Equinox." Bassist Chris Smith, a new name for me, matched Spaven's pocket the whole way through. LoCrasto's rich harmonic palette was on display in his many solo turns. The 11 pm set was much better sonically and it showed, as the band seemed to be a lot more at ease on stage. The Rhodes was clearer, and there was almost no woof to be heard. The only repeated tune in the two hour-long sets was "Electromagnetic," delivered in two entirely different versions. James' improvisations are superb. He nailed upper extensions with perfect intonation, hanging out on the #11 of the final chord of "Save Your Love For Me" and laying into the 6ths on "Equinox" and a couple of other tunes. In the 11 pm set he was really digging into Spaven, engaging him with extremely quick passages of scat but also more generally in the whole time feel. The highlight of the second set was his interpolation of "A Love Supreme" (with all of its harmonic complexity) into another tune. His phrasing is obviously indebted to hip-hop, especially in the way he would chop the phrase of a tune the way a DJ would scratch a record, but also to the laidback phrasing of Billie Holiday and Andy Bey. James is proving to be the epitome of a 21st-century male jazz singer.