Review: Brian Barlow Big Band

The TD Toronto Jazz Festival has been noticeably hot this year, and it isn't just the weather. Much of the heat is coming from the Toronto Star Main Stage. The annual mecca of music features the familiar giant white tent, and on a sunny Monday afternoon it was almost full for a free lunchtime concert. Those who couldn't squeeze into the venue spilled into the open air.

Onstage was drummer Brian Barlow and his big band - a collection of some of the heaviest players on the Canadian jazz scene including Guido Basso, Alex Dean and Robi Botos. On Monday they gathered to pay tribute to one of the greatest band leaders and composers of all time: Duke Ellington.

Barlow's Big Band focused on The Duke's Live at Newport recording, including such timeless classics as "Take The 'A' Train" in the setlist. Juno Award winning pianist Robi Botos found the right mood for the tune's introduction while band leader and drummer Brian Barlow locked into the classic groove alongside bassist Scott Alexander. The rest of the band floated on top of their confident swing. Trumpeter Guido Basso was a featured soloist and treated the audience to a thoughtful and creative flugelhorn solo.

The Live at Newport recording is ripe with juicy stories, and Barlow found time to share several in between numbers. Fans of the "live" recording were astonished to find out that Ellington re-recorded several of the tracks in studio the day after the Newport show, realizing the impact that the concert could have on his career. Barlow also recounted the riot that broke out as saxophonist Paul Gonsalves took a solo on "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue". As it turns out, Barlow may have been using the jazz yarn as a way to prepare the TD Toronto Jazz Fest audience for what was next.

The band kicked off "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" with the same degree of musical excellence with which they had played for the previous fifty minutes. A Botos solo dazzled the audience while saxophonist Alex Dean got out of his chair and began setting up a microphone for himself right at the front of the stage. As Botos finished, Alex started into his captivating contribution. He began to build; the rhythm section blared behind him. As the solo climbed, Dean gave it everything he had, red faced and finding momentum. At one point he dramatically pulled off his glasses, shoving them aside to a nearby music stand. The audience was eating it up, and started clapping along with the rhythm section. In the end, the Ellington riot was not repeated, but the band did receive a well deserved standing ovation.

Barlow and his band had clearly read the many chapters of the Ellington songbook, while the soloists blazed new trails. Monday's lunchtime concert was amazing, and a wonderful way to start off a week of music at Nathan Phillips Square.

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