Rollicking Diva Big Band sets the stage ablaze

Ashante Infantry
Entertainment Reporter, Toronto Star

The 10-day Toronto Jazz Festival, defined by middle-aged men and their horns, was brought to a swinging close by a youthful band of brilliant, exuberant women.

The 15-piece New York-based Diva Big Band, a rollicking model of cohesion and efficiency, played the last note of the festival’s 20th anniversary season at the Nathan Phillips Square mainstage last night.

With drummer Sherri Maricle at the helm, the women quietly assembled onstage, all dressed in black, and tore off on an exciting romp for three songs, the highlight of which was a battle of tenors “Did You Do That” featuring saxists Anat Cohen and Janelle Reichman.

Thus was the bar set high for vocalist Ann Hampton Callaway to join them, but she strode on stage and took command, regaling the audience with her cabaret shtick, charming with Toronto is “a beautiful, sexy city” kudos and delivering sassy tunes from her new disc Blues in the Night, such as “Swingin’ Away the Blues” and “The I’m-Too-White-to-Sing-the-Blues Blues” in a captivating, sultry tone.

By the time she was done, show opener John Pizzarelli was a ghost. Accompanying himself on guitar and backed by an ace group of musicians, Larry Fuller (piano), brother Martin Pizzarelli (bass) and Tony Tedesco (drums), the New Yorker’s sedate set was best summarized by the Sinatra-inspired tune “Nice ‘N’ Easy” which he performed from his new record “Dear Mr. Sinatra.”

Pizzarelli’s smooth voice, a blend of Harry Connick Jr. and Chet Baker, was pleasant, his manner amiable and guitar work deft, but no match for the fireworks that followed him onstage.

There are few boundaries left to stretch in Toronto’s largest annual jazz gathering which this year included the likes of rapper Kardinal Offishall and Brazilian samba sensation Seu Jorge, along with sax deans Pharoah Sanders, Maceo Parker, Yusef Lateef and Kenny Garrett who garnered the event’s greatest buzz.

“They have been criticized in the past for being too traditional but (artistic director) Jim Galloway is taking chances to book some weirder groups – he booked (rapper) Buck 65!” said local trumpeter Nick “Brownman” Ali.

While the festival often stages preview shows, for the first time it’s holding a post-festival concert with master pianist Dave Brubeck at Massey Hall tonight.

But there’s no master plan afoot, said executive producer Pat Taylor. “That’s the only way we could accommodate his schedule in co-operation with the Montreal Jazz Festival.”

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