Dear BlogUT reader,
Before you take a look at the title of this article, roll your eyes, and choose something less pretentious, please know that I am far from a jazz connoisseur. In fact, while something of a music enthusiast, I know next to nothing about jazz; all I’ve really had to go on for the past 21 years are stereotypical mental images of some fat guy blasting away on a trumpet while a sweaty tweaker bounces around uncontrollably in the audience. So, since I value your time as much as the next girl, and simply know too little about the genre, I won’t be boring you with jargon or technical details, or insightfully describing the “virtuosity of the alto sax”. This article is meant to be the thoughts, recollections, and recommendations of a jazz beginner, noob, philistine, or whatever other degrading term you’d prefer to call me. So, looking to get up close and personal with some real jazz, and not just the one Coltrane album in my collection, I decided to head down to The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar located in the bustling Queen St. West area and get initiated.
The first thing that became apparent as I approached The Rex’s exterior is that it isn’t a stuck-up or intimidating venue in the least. While jazz may conjure up images of stuffy, exclusive clubs, The Rex couldn’t be further from this cliché. The outside of the bar exhibits something of a sleek, retro look, while the interior is Cheers-esque, with wooden finishes and a pervading sense of warmth (Although maybe that was just the central heating. Yowza it’s cold out these days!). I was also heartened to discover that the place was absolutely packed. Although it was a little overwhelming to walk in and be greeted by what seemed to be a wall of people, me and my plus one were lucky enough to find a spot near the back, with seats just high enough to get a glimpse of the stage at the opposite end of the room. The crowd was a mix of all ages, and everyone seemed in good spirits with the drinks flowing and a nice selection of bar food at the standard expensive-but-not-Toronto-expensive prices. I ordered the New York style cheesecake with caramel sauce and was pleasantly surprised: the night was off to a good start.
Up next, a waitress came to our table, but we were told that we absolutely couldn’t be served until we paid our cover charge. Oddly enough, when we arrived there was no one at the door waiting to take our money and stamp us; we had to sit and wait a good 15 minutes before someone came to our table to help us. I also thought the cover was a little steep at $10 a person. It’s nice to support local acts, and so I wasn’t annoyed per se, but considering the place was beyond packed, $5 or even $7 seemed more reasonable to me. Still, for the show that followed, and for the wonderful ambiance of the place as a whole, it was worth giving up a tenner.
The best surprise of the night was when we discovered that the nightly act was the Radiohead Jazz Project, bringing together the Toronto Jazz Orchestra and local tribute band Idioteque. To be introduced to any live jazz that night would’ve been a pleasure, but knowing the songs really helped me get into the spirit of the evening. For the most part, the group sounded very tight and comfortable playing with one another. They burst out of the gates with a freewheeling, beautifully-played version of Bodysnatchers. Without any vocals getting in the way, the trumpets really shone, and the song presented itself in a completely fresh, invigorating way. Paranoid Android in particular was an audience favourite, and had people roaring with delight at every new twist and turn. Yet, as much as I hate to say it, the vocals really let the group down. To begin with, they were far too high in the mix at the start of the night, overpowering the backing band at various points. Yet, even when the vocals were noticeably turned down, the quality of the singing wasn’t up to par, especially when it came to the soaringly high notes Thom Yorke is famous for. In all fairness, few people could ever hope to cover Yorke’s vocals in a convincing or even competent way. Still, it seems to me that the show would be much stronger as a whole if the vocals were simply omitted altogether. It speaks to the strength of the backing band, however, that the lackluster singing didn’t detract much from the overall experience: the show was a rousing success with the crowd, and left me wanting to get out there and explore much more live jazz in the near future.
In summary, while certain elements of the show could’ve done with some reworking, the night as a whole was a wonderful experience, leaving me hopeful that this is but the start of my adventure into the world of jazz. Perhaps I’ll head back on the 25th, when our very own U of T Student Jazz Ensemble hits the stage. Join me?
Junior Editor’s Note: Due to an unfortunate error, this article could not be posted until ten days after it was first written – the “25th” referred to is of February.