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Variety and virtuosity at the Toronto Jazz Festival

Jazz quintet leader Mark McLean

Ron Schuster

The Toronto Jazz Festival Various artists at various locations in Toronto on Saturday, Sunday and Monday

Jazz festivals are about nothing if not variety. It isn't just the plenitude of artists on hand; sampling a festival also means experiencing venues of varying sizes, audiences of assorted temperament and a broader range of musical style than is usually fenced in by the term "jazz."

That's particularly the case with the 25th-anniversary edition of the Toronto Jazz Festival. With a new home base at David Pecaut Square and the new, avant-garde Incubator series at the Music Gallery, this year's TJF promised even more musical diversity than usual.

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At the Playground

Mark McLean is in some ways the classic Toronto jazz success story - a musician so talented, so in demand, that he's now a New Yorker. But his roots are still here, and so is his band, the aptly titled Playground, which kicked off a Canada-wide tour with a Saturday-afternoon show at David Pecaut Square.

Unlike the evening headliners, who play under the big tent, performers for the festival's free, afternoon concerts play the smaller Outdoor Stage, an arrangement that encourages pedestrians to wander over and listen, but also leaves them vulnerable to the occasional shower.

However, it was fair and sunny on the bandstand as McLean and his quintet (saxophonist Kelly Jefferson, guitarist Ted Quinlan, pianist David Braid and bassist Marc Rogers) romped through an hour-long set. These guys are Toronto A-listers, and the playing was regularly virtuosic and occasionally - particularly when Braid or Jefferson stretched out - jaw-dropping. But the best thing about McLean's Playground is the writing, whether through ingenious arrangements such as the show-opening St. Louis Blues or vivid, imaginative originals such as South on Broadway. This group deserves a bigger audience than the small but enthusiastic crowd it got on Saturday.

It's elemental

In years past, the TJF hasn't given much space to avant-garde or free-improv jazz, and the new Incubator series reflects a welcome change in attitude. It would be hard to imagine a better introduction to this corner of the jazz world than the Swedish/Norwegian supergroup Atomic.

Led by saxophonist and clarinetist Fredrik Ljungkvist, Atomic includes some of the best-known free players in Scandinavia, pianist HÃ¥vard Wiik and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love among them. But the most striking thing about Atomic's music isn't the nucleus-splitting intensity of the improvisation, but the tuneful appeal of the compositions that grounds those solos.

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Atomic is very much a writer's band, and it's hard not to be impressed by the range and discipline of its material. Panama, which opened the 90-minute set at the Music Gallery on Sunday, framed the improvisations with smartly arranged, tightly played written segments that alluded to the blues without actually evoking them. Unity Toccata went even further, structuring its dazzling display of improvisation around an evolving series of bass lines that gave the music an almost classical sense of thematic development. Anyone who thinks that "free jazz" is just stream-of-consciousness noodling would benefit from exposure to Atomic.

A voice that carries

One of the challenges in putting together a festival program is matching artists and venues, and Monday's show by singer Kurt Elling at the Enwave Theatre was an absolutely perfect pairing. Not only was the hall the right size, big enough for Elling's fans to pack the place, but it also had the ideal ambience, being dark and intimate enough to suggest an after-hours club yet without the annoyance of smoke and noise.

Elling is a prodigiously gifted singer, with a sophisticated sense of swing and a tart, agile baritone capable of pretty much anything he wants. While that can lead to impressive displays of bravura, as on the opening version of Joe Jackson's Steppin' Out, it also leaves him vulnerable to fits of unnecessary showing off, as with the Al Jarreau-style beatbox bit at the beginning of Samurai Hee-Haw.

Yet if Elling's non-verbal vocals don't always sizzle, what he can do with a melody and lyrics simply dazzles. It wasn't just that his set ranged from standards such as Skylark to such pop chestnuts as Norwegian Wood; Elling was able to transform each into something fresh and transformative, at times - as on After the Love Is Gone - revealing emotional resonances a more straightforward rendition would miss.

The Toronto Jazz Festival runs until July 3 ( torontojazz.com ).

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