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Two divas and a whole lot more at the T.O. Jazz Fest

Canadian singer Nikki Yanofsky performs on stage at the XIV Jazz Festival in Valencia July 15, 2010.

REUTERS/Heino Kalis/REUTERS/Heino Kalis

The Toronto Jazz Festival

In a neat bit of symmetry, the 25th edition of the Toronto Jazz Festival opened with one diva, long-reigning Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin, and closed with another, jazz vocal wunderkind Nikki Yanofsky. In both cases, the term refers to vocal prowess, not attitude; in fact, there was a notable lack of drama around this year's festival, a welcome change after last year's coincident G20 troubles.

But if book-ending the festival with two such different divas was meant to make a statement about the music's past and future, the message got muddled. Franklin's performance may have made a strong case for the enduring vitality of aging legends, but Yanofsky's set seemed to suggest that the promise of youth doesn't mean much when it's filtered through the confusion of adolescence.

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Yanofsky has matured quite a bit since her first TJF appearance in 2007, but the 17-year-old still seems undecided about what kind of singer she wants to be when she grows up. At David Pecaut Square on Sunday, she bounced from contemporary R&B to straight-ahead jazz to modern country to bossa nova in just five songs, and though she sang well on each of them, none of the renditions shed much light on her own artistic identity.

Her sense of swing is sure enough to make the jazz fare feel right, and she has largely reined in her tendency to show off, although her reading of Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive nearly succumbed to death by melisma. But she avoids improvisation - her "scat" solos in No More Blues and I Got Rhythm actually had her doubling written-out instrumental lines - and frankly seems happier belting out retro-R&B numbers like the Cee-Lo Green hit Forget You (with the clean lyrics, of course).

There's no way Yanofsky could have enjoyed the chart success she earned through the Olympic ballad I Believe - Sunday's first encore - had she stuck to singing Air Mail Special and the like. But it would take a greater optimist than the author of that tune to imagine that Yanofsky's future will be in jazz.

Classics of a different sort

There was a delicious irony in hearing The Bad Plus introduced at the Enwave Theatre last Tuesday as being notorious for their versions of new-wave tunes when the only cover in their 90-minute set was Stravinsky's Variation d'Apollon. (A fan later called out for their version of The Rite of Spring, but that apparently was being saved for a July 8 appearance at the Halifax Jazz Festival.)

As always, Ethan Iverson's classically schooled pianism made for an engaging contrast against the occasionally funky ferocity of the rhythm section, and he brought a wonderfully tart lyricism to his interplay with bassist Reid Anderson in People Like You. But the band was at its best when drummer David King was in the driver's seat, as on the aptly titled Rhinoceros Is My Profession.

There were also classical overtones to the Branford Marsalis/Joey Calderazzo performance at Koerner Hall on Wednesday, although that had more to do with acoustics than with musical style. Deciding to take advantage of the Koerner's intimate size, Marsalis played off-mic the whole evening, allowing the audience to enjoy both the richness of his sound and immediacy of the duo's interplay. Although there were a few "classics" in the set - most notably Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? - the duo's most moving playing came courtesy of originals such as Eternal and La Valse Kendall.

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And while it was possible to hear echoes of classical in the music Vancouver native D'Arcy James Argue brought to Pecaut Square Thursday afternoon, they weren't where you'd expect. Argue's Secret Society, the 18-piece big band he brought from New York, painted some brilliant soundscapes during their 90-minute set, but the classical influence was mainly audible in the pulsing, Steve Reichian patterns the rhythm section used in Zeno.

On the other hand, the electric piano and bass clarinet of Pharaoh Magnetic evoked Miles Davis's Pharaoh's Dance, and when you add that to the Bob Brookmeyer-ish colours of Transit, you have some sense of just how wide a net Argue casts with this band. Add in incendiary solos by baritone saxophonist Josh Sinton, trombonist Ryan Keberle and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, and you have good reason to wonder how long this Society will remain secret.

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