Even though other shows might in the end be higher on my list of favourites, yesterday was easily the strongest single day of programming at the Festival.
My evening began at the 6 pm L'Astral series featuring Montreal bassist Adrian Vedady with drummer John Fraboni and their invited pianist, Marc Copland. Copland described the trio's work as "painting sound pictures." A more than apt description for his own sound on the instrument. Opening with Joni Mitchell's "Don't Know Where I Stand," Copland displayed a uniquely adventurous harmonic sense, fanning outward from diatonicism to incorporating the most tense of intervals as if they were the most natural note choices. His round tone out of the instrument and his often motivically-structured improvisational taste helped convey that idea, too. Copland's been playing with Vedady and Fraboni for a couple of years now, and their simpatico was clear in the flowing rubato of Copland's "Rainbow's End," with Vedady and Copland stating the melody in a tandem borne of listening and experience. Vedady was a more conventional solo voice than Copland, but no less captivating, with a warm, resonant tone. Fraboni, as always, provided impeccable support, and brought to bear his time spent in New Orleans in the second set, reframing Ron Carter's "Eighty-One" somewhere between ECM washiness and a dancing boogaloo. The two sets featured mostly standards that were often drastically re-harmonized (I wish I had recorded that version of "Greensleeves"; "Blue in Green underwent a similar harmonic enrichment) or re-envisioned ("My Funny Valentine" played at an uptempo). As with Copland's playing, these new approaches to old tunes never felt forced, but rather the most logical and appropriate reworking in the world. Peter Hum has sang the praises of Copland to me in the past and now I must do my due diligence on his previous work.
From there, I headed to one of the most-anticipated shows of the year for me: T.P, Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. This proto-Afrobeat group from Benin has been revitalized by reissues on Soundway, and seemed to maintain as many original members as possible. Playing to a very warm reception by a half-capacity Club Soda, the band energetically and enthusiastically delivered two sets of their most beloved tunes. For me, the links between West African music of the 1960s and 1970s with salsa is not only intriguing from a musicological perspective, but kicks my feet into motion like little else. I was surprised at how many people in the crowd were singing along with the lyrics. I can't really speak to the specific history of this band: I got to know them through the re-issues and I focus more on the music than the words. I had the same feeling as when I saw Orchestra Baobab in the same venue a few years ago: just to be in the same room as these legends, who are still playing fantastically well, makes the concert beyond reproach.
The fact that it was half-capacity, though, speaks to an issue I have tended to have with the Festival over the years. The promotion and publicity machine seems to create this cyclical interaction between attendance and coverage: all the advertising I see focuses on big names (Seal, Norah Jones, Esperanza, Rufus Wainwright) that are likely to sell out - or in the case of Rufus, draw big crowds - anyway. The lesser-known groups like Poly-Rythmo are not often featured in the print or subway ads. They're not profiled in the media to the same degree. What I would love to see is the Festival make a point of drawing people's attention to these half-empty shows, which are consistently fantastic if under-attended, because if the ENTIRE Festival programming can be as close to full house as possible, that will make life better for artists and programmers alike.
Leaving Club Soda for the SAT, I walked in on Joyo Velarde belting out a cover of the Isley Brothers' "It's Your Thing" for a smattering of people. The Festival had mentioned Lyrics Born would be performing with a live band - they neglected to mention it was his James Brown tribute set! [/end rant] The MC returned to the stage to join his "LBs" in a rendition of the Godfather's "Get Up Offa That Thing." From that point forward the band (populated by some of the Bay Area's finest, including some of the Jazz Mafia crew) unrelentingly dealt in old-school R&B and hip-hop showmanship. I do tire of the constant goading to "make some noise" but in this case it fit in the context of the show. Bassist and bandleader Uriah Duffy put together a phenomenal set, and indulged in a mid-set solo of slapping and other bass pyrotechnics (spinning his bass around his neck, etc). A perfect way to send off the Festival's 4th of July.