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Hiromi Uehara and her star-studded rhythm section swap licks like old friends finishing each other’s sentences. (Joe Giblin/AP)
Hiromi Uehara and her star-studded rhythm section swap licks like old friends finishing each other’s sentences. (Joe Giblin/AP)

MUSIC REVIEW

Toronto Jazz Festival: When nimble fingers face off, music lovers win Add to ...

Hiromi: the Trio Project/the Bad Plus with Joshua Redman

The Toronto Jazz Festival mainstage

in Toronto on Sunday

Showing off is an intrinsic part of the art of jazz. Fans and players aren’t always eager to acknowledge this, in part because strutting your stuff can sometimes devolve into the sort of virtuosic display that seems more athletic than musical. But the fact is, the best soloists are not only quick-witted and musically nimble, but also blessed with a competitive spirit that can lead to bouts of friendly one-upmanship.

That certainly was the case at Nathan Phillips Square Sunday evening, when the Toronto Jazz Festival brought together two chop-heavy but musically dissimilar combos.

On one end of the spectrum, there was Hiromi’s Trio Project, a fusion-inflected combo whose rhythm section includes two big names from the rock world: bassist Anthony Jackson (who made his name with the bass line to the O’Jays hit For the Love of Money) and drummer Simon Phillips (who replaced Kenney Jones in the Who). On the other end was the Bad Plus, a postmodern piano trio whose music draws from alt-rock and contemporary classical music, performing that night with guest saxophonist Joshua Redman.

In both cases, these were special projects that grew into ongoing relationships. Hiromi Uehara, speaking at her hotel before the gig, explained that she had written some material with Jackson and Phillips in mind. She’d recorded with Jackson before, as a guest on her first two albums, but was “really surprised” that Phillips was already familiar with her work.

“He and Anthony go way back,” she says. “They’ve been playing together for, like, 30 years. We had great chemistry from day one.”

No kidding. Watching the three of them onstage was eavesdropping on friends so close that they’re forever completing each other’s sentences. During her tune Now or Never, as Uehara and Jackson traded licks, she quoted the first two bars of the hard bop chestnut Gingerbread Boy, and Jackson responded with the answering phrase.

Despite the trio’s collective virtuosity, there was precious little grandstanding during the set. Uehara’s tunes didn’t offer solo set pieces, but instead emphasized the whole ensemble, so even when Phillips uncorked a crowd-pleasing drum solo during Flashback, with rapid cymbal crashes and thundering double kick drums, his flourishes remained within the flow of the group.

Uehara said before the show that, although she has recorded a second album with the Trio Project, it’s not necessarily an ongoing band, and the Bad Plus is in a similar relationship with Joshua Redman.

In their case, however, it started out not as an album project but as a blind date set up by the New York jazz club the Blue Note in April 2011. “As part of a their 50th anniversary celebration, they wanted to put together artists that they like,” said Bad Plus drummer David King from his home in Minneapolis a few days before the show. “So they actually arranged for Joshua and us to play together.”

There wasn’t any new material written for the shows. “We just churned the repertoire and figured out what would work,” said King. And things worked well enough that the four repeated the performance last August at the Saalfelden festival in Austria, which led to a European tour next month. “What we’re doing in Toronto is just a one-off,” he adds. “It’s not like the new Bad Plus or anything. We’re friendly with him, and he’s a great musician, so it’s ended up working out nicely, musically.”

Redman and the Bad Plus actually stood in the crowd and watched much of Hiromi’s set, and although nothing was said afterward, it was not hard to sense a bit of the competitive spirit in their set.

Whereas Hiromi’s set ended with a bang, as she and her band tore through a blistering rendition of Desire, the Bad Plus started with a whisper, with pianist Ethan Iverson gently intoning the first bars of Love Is the Answer. It wasn’t a rebuke of fusion intensity so much as a means of refocusing the audience’s attention away from technical displays and toward a more cerebral virtuosity.

That’s not to suggest that TBP or Redman are slouches. King, for example, had exactly half as many drums onstage as Phillips, but he used them in such interesting ways that his sonic palette seemed twice as large. Likewise, although Reid Anderson’s acoustic double bass lacked the amplified heft of Jackson’s electric contrabass guitar, his playing actually carried more weight rhythmically, particularly on Iverson’s quasi-improvisatory 2 p.m.

And make no mistake – these four could definitely make noise when they wanted to. Silence Is the Question may have started with a quiet statement of the melody on Anderson’s bass, but it gained considerable sonic momentum as it went along, particularly when Redman’s plangent tenor joined the fray. By the time it climaxed, with Redman’s saxophone shrieking the melody as the others churned and pounded behind him, its dissonance and complexity was every bit as affecting as Hiromi’s fusion – even if it wasn’t quite as easy to swallow.

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