Happy to share that I’ll be facilitating a performance workshop this June in a month-long series alongside Jay MillAr, Liz Worth, Tabatha Stuhlmueller and the Toronto Arts Council. It’s $40 all-included. Grab a spot here.
Even if you can’t tell John Coltrane from John McLaughlin, you’ve probably heard of Canada’s most promising jazz singer, 19-year-old Nikki Yanofsky. Hailing from Hampstead, Montreal, Yanofsky immersed herself in music as a child – her two older brothers introduced her to the Beatles and she enrolled in vocal lessons spurred on by her father Richard, also a musician. She turned out to be a natural talent blessed with perfect pitch, and the results exceeded anyone’s expectations. At 12, she became the youngest artist in history to headline the Montreal Jazz Festival, performing in front of more than 100,000 people. At 13, she recorded her debut Ella…Of Thee I Swing, a tribute to her idol Ella Fitzgerald, at a packed Place des Arts in 2007. The album features astounding renditions of “You’ve Changed,” “Flyin’ Home,” and Etta James’ “At Last,” which Yanofsky dedicated to her dog Hudson after stating that, at her tender age, it was the best way she had to emote during the song. Through the 14-song set, she sounds comfortable beyond her years with both the stage and the cadences of soul earned through hardship. She dips into lower registers like a wrong turn purposefully taken, soars for that show-stopping high note like the powerhouse greats she’s studied since primary school, and she scats with the personality of someone who’s dwelled in hell and found her way out at a snail’s pace. A teenaged hell, but hell all the same.
Two years passed before her first studio effort, the laconically titled Nikki, hit shelves in 2010. Listeners encountered a greater prevalence of pop next to the expected jazz standards, but it was clear in Yanofsky’s delivery that she had a history with every song and artist. Nikki also had experience on her side, with St. Catharines legend Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Harris of “Don’t Know Why” fame on board as co-writers for some of her first original compositions. If the production was more refined, it was all the better for it, a necessary upgrade to meet the normal vocal changes from 13 to 16 years of age. On “God Bless the Child,” Yanofsky conveys a fitting cocktail of loss and longing; she understands Billie Holiday’s personal troubles during her 1941 recording without having to live them. On the playful “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” band and singer offer insights into straight ahead jazz that root Yanofsky in the history of her craft beyond proper song choices. Gone is what a certain critic called her “canny mimicry” – referring to her 2006-07 recording of “Airmail Special” on the compilation We All Love Ella– a sense of self-assurance and ownership over the material having taken its place. Nikki is currently certified gold in Canada, having shipped over 40,000 copies.
Throughout these years, what brought people out to the concerts is sheer amazement, at least on the surface. A kid that belts them like the best of them will always draw a crowd. What brought people out to see her for a second or third time, though, carries a considerable weight, and it’s that what we were watching was, without question, the rise of the world’s next great jazz singer. Diehards will disagree, purists always will until they see the grail before their eyes, but Yanofsky was a girl apart from the singers spoiled by jazz-inflected pop. From her Converse and jeans, she slipped into Ella’s high heel pumps better than anyone on the scene since she first squeaked her way onto it, and that all changed when Nikki signed with one Quincy Jones.
As Yanofsky’s co-manager, Jones had a gradual effect on the young singer’s sound. Jazz played second fiddle to pop song-structures; stripped-down, acoustic accompaniment was ditched for digital overproduction; and her supple vocal runs scooted to make room for clichéd R&B acrobatics. Yanofsky’s third album, Little Secret – long delayed since its initial fall 2013 release– saw her in the studio with Rob Kleiner, a songwriter and producer experienced in club-ready beats who’s worked with Flo Rida, David Guetta, and Cee Lo Green. The songs they came up with aim for a broader appeal and for younger audiences through the dilution of Yanofsky’s musical identity. Nikki has been smoothed out, with only vestiges of the uncalculated, care-free approach to soul, classic blues, and jazz that kept her from being swallowed by the industry. From the title track “Little Secret” to “Something New” to “Enough of You,” the album almost uniformly takes heed from repetitious Top-40-esque dribble. Additionally, the backing band on her Little Secret Tour is roughly 20 years younger than her last, with previous musical director Rob Fahie being replaced by Will Wells, a laptop-reliant arranger whose touring background is limited to a stint with LMFAO.
Yet as I said at the start, Yanofsky is immersed in music. Little Secret is masterfully executed because jazz is not the limit of her repertoire and she is a better singer with each passing year. During her set on June 25, 2013 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, she sang a jazz-medley of recent hits, including Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” She wrote around her favorite verse on Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” and performed it as the animated throwback “Jeepers Creepers 2.0.” There is ample need for experimentation in jazz – and a need for fun in general, free from critical stuffiness about what jazz is and what it isn’t– as is the case in the career of a girl not yet 20. There are decades still to tread before Nikki’s style settles into any kind of permanence and more changes are surely to come. It’s just too bad the most recent adaptation in her evolution is the outcome of pressure, naiveté, and a desire to excel within conformity when inimitability was already there.
In this series, Trevor Abes gets to know the people behind the counter at Toronto’s music stores, book shops, and art galleries.
Patrick Grant has his hustles. He’s been the general manager at Kops Records going on four years and he sings lead in Patrick Grant and the FleshVignettes, an indie rock sextet with soul and funk influences. He also plays guitar at The Comedy Bar for the Sunday Night Live show. Grant’s goal is to “make music that relates to both the body and the mind, to have a really groovy ass band that lets you get down, but at the same time makes you think.”
Trevor: What does your job at Kops involve?
Patrick: I do merchandising, stocking, and ordering of new product.
Patrick: I grew up on the North York side of Scarborough, Ellesmere and Victoria Park area.
Trevor: What kind of musicians inform you?
Patrick: My favorite artist of all time is Bruce Springsteen. I like guys who are heavily songwriting-oriented, like a Paul Simon, or in terms of newer guys, I really like Kurt Vile.
Trevor: Where’s your fascination with music come from?
Patrick: It grew through my family. My dad dropped The Boss, The Doors and The Eagles in the car all the time. Hearing “Break On Through (To The Other Side)” when you’re seven has a pretty profound influence on a kid.
Trevor: What have you been listening to lately?
Patrick: A compilation [on Now-Again Records] called Forge Your Own Chains: Heavy Psychedelic Ballads and Dirges. Tracks on this record might have been sampled on your favorite hip hop song, thought most people wouldn’t necessarily know.
Trevor: Tell me what’s so special about vinyl.
Patrick: This is a little heady, but when you’re relating to something that is a physical object scraping against another physical object to make a sound, it reacts with your body in a way that’s not necessarily just in your ears. It’s participation. People like to have a tangible physical medium when they’re consuming art. It’s the difference between going to an art gallery and looking at Picassos on your computer.
Trevor: What do you make of all this hoopla about the death of record stores?
Patrick: I don’t really believe that record stores are dying, I believe that record stores that don’t know their position and function are dying. Everyone wants a place like [Kops]. I see some record stores close because of a lack of an ability to adapt.
Trevor: Have any interesting run-ins during your time at Kops?
Patrick: There was a day a cat came up to me with a Connie Francis record he got out of our 25 cent bin, and he said, “Can you put this on hold for me? I’ll be back tomorrow to pick it up.” I asked him who I should put it on hold for. He looked me in the eye and said, “Andrew Lloyd Webber,” and walked straight out the door.
She Said Boom! takes its indelible name from the first song on Toronto post-punk band Fifth Column’s All-Time Queen of the World. It has two locations (393 Roncesvalles Ave and 372 College St), under separate but amicable ownership, that serve two very different communities. The College store is close to Kensington Market and the University of Toronto so it caters to younger customers, mostly college students, while the Roncesvalles store gets more young families and people from Parkdale.
The storefront sign at She Said Boom! Roncesvalles is proof that written explosions are just as eye-catching as hot ones. Open since 1999, it’s one of the first businesses in Toronto to sell both books and music. “The reason was largely accidental,” says owner John Bowker. “I wanted to open a record store, and my partner wanted to open up a book store, and neither of us were able to pay the rent on a full store by ourselves. I remember wondering whether people would be willing to shop for books in a store where loudish, non-classical music was playing. Turns out, books and music worked very well together. And so obviously Chapters and Indigo stole our idea. Now Indigo sells candles.”
Read the rest here: Portrait of a Record Store: She Said Boom! Roncesvalles.
The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (2013) was not your average convention. People weren’t dressed in carefully considered costumes or walking around in character stockpiling freebies indiscriminately. Set in the Toronto Reference Library over the second weekend of May, the intimate space lent itself to discovery and spontaneous conversation more than sweaty-palmed, star struck fervor. TCAF opened its doors to the simply curious and the comic-obsessed with equal grace, focusing attention on creators and their work.
Caitlin Cass, an artist based in Buffalo, NY, is the founder of Great Moments in Western Civilization, a cooperative dedicated to picking and blending stories from history. Her work draws on influences from Heraclitus to Paddington Bear in a poetic attempt to fit the whole world into one craggy group picture.
Matt Moses, head of New Jersey’s Hic & Hoc Publications, said, “TCAF is the best in my mind. It’s much warmer, and more welcoming, and so much better organized than most conventions.”And no, he’s not just being nice. As a home for alternative artists who eschew mainstream taxonomies, H & H is akin to illustrated Bizarro Fiction.
Chester Brown promoted an expanded version of The Playboy (Drawn and Quarterly), a nostalgic and curious treatment of his obsession with Playmates and self-pleasure that was first published in 1992. A believer in the idea of looking back as a way of moving forward, Brown said of his use of autobiography, “I was inspired by my friend Joe Matt’s honesty and openness about his life in his comics.” Then, he flipped one open (Matt’s Peepshow #1) and, with a warm and wistful smile, pointed himself out drawn on the page. “Of course, this is when I had more hair,” Brown added.
This year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival showed how the unlimited social circle is the fastest way to becoming yourself. From the small presses happy to have tables, to the centrally located major players digging through boxes of money to make change, everyone’s fictions were courageously laid bare for the sake of forging new connections where none existed before.
Founded in 1976 with a focus on soul music and mod subculture, Kops Records (229 Queen St. West) is Toronto’s oldest independent record store. It’s known for housing the largest selection of seven inch 45s in Canada and for an abiding dedication to musical roots. According to General Manager Patrick Grant, “[Kops] specializes in unveiling to people the roots of stuff that they like. We’re trying to provide [records] that elaborate on tastes you already have.” In this way, you can walk in listening to The Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” (1995) and walk out – with two LPs under your arm – having learned that its memorable sitar riff is sampled from A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum” (1990) which sampled it first from Rotary Connection’s “Memory Band” (1967).
Read the rest here: Record Store Roundup: Kops Records.
Toronto’s Atom and the Volumes’ self-titled EP comes across as built around the idea that the best music feels just like closing your eyes and dancing. The band could be the spawn of Wilco and Failure, a cocktail of raw emotion, storytelling and unexpected flourishes.
“Pointed Pins” is a brooding garage anthem topped with 80’s glam metal flare. The fuzzy, whirling guitars lend the pop-sensible chorus an edge like bacon on maple. “Lick Your Tears,” about a corroding relationship, has the slowest tempo on the album and is at least twice as angsty; the short wah-wah riff that reappears throughout the song evolves into a comment on the dangers of repression. The playing thickens at about the two and a half minute mark, becoming stronger than the sum of its parts, and you’re liable to be blanketed in sound.
“Boardwalk,” sultry and distant, floats along on an almost country-western twang from both strings and singer. Any Toronto flâneurs looking for a soundtrack best have a listen.
“To The Beat” typifies something to look forward to on future Atom and The Volumes releases: the band has gears. Mellow groove can morph into full-on jam session at the hiss of a cymbal.
The outro’s called “Ultimate Power Question” and its suggestion about what fuels human progress and creativity will have you paying close attention to your hips.
Get the full scoop here: Atom + the Volumes.
2. Purchase a hatchet and 7 copies of your most loathed newspaper. Stack the newspapers and roll them together, fastening the resulting cake roll with elastic bands. Plate and freeze. In the morning, slice off a dessert-sized portion for melting next to your bowl of cereal and cup of black coffee. If, after breakfast, you cannot deduce at least one thing you hate about the newspaper from the soggy mush, its contents will determine your poem’s subject matter. Otherwise, dump it in the trash and try the next slice tomorrow.
3. Suppose you spot the word “politics” upside down drooping over the plate onto the table and the name “Tibetan Mastiff” crossed with the word “court” in the middle of the plate where ink should be pooling. You decide to take as your theme the history of court cases in which both defendant and prosecution are of the Tibetan Mastiff breed.
4. Research famous Tibetan Mastiff trials and choose one. Suppose you choose Price v. Shanti 1983, where one Shanti Warren was accused of stealing one Price Kennedy’s gold-encrusted leg of lamb and taking it abroad from Toronto to Botswana, where security discovered counterfeit AAA-grade kibble inside of it and duly detained her.
5. For rhythm, think of the last song you had to turn off to stop yourself from getting sick of it. Play it on repeat and improvise about the case; be how you wish you were most of the time; do this until your ears are worn to the metal. Then, continue in and relish the silence. Record using tape or laptop microphone.
6. From the resulting material, select sentences you enjoy as they stand on their own.
7. Try to put them together.
The wandering, searching trumpets that start off “A Momentary Lapse” lead us to St. Pierre’s poised and elegant soprano. She sings and we notice two things:
1) The song’s lyrics are too iambic to be a fluke, meaning we’re dealing with an artist versed in rhythm.
2) She stops singing at 1 minute 20 seconds to make way for a round of solos, and starts singing again only at 6 minutes 50 seconds. Louis Armstrong would never show off less on purpose, so why would St. Pierre disappear on the album’s first song? She disappears because “A Momentary Lapse” doesn’t need more lyrics, meaning we’re dealing with an artist for whom the music is top priority. The song is a knockout opener for a contemporary jazz album for its neat arrangement and complete lack of weirdness. It could serve as a sonorous definition of jazz in your favorite encyclopedia.
On The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows,” St. Pierre’s nuances are like patterns on a Rothko, assured, unpredictable, and free of self-consciousness, an airy dream that ends too soon as dreams tend to. And that goes doubly so for her seamless scatting (i.e. vocal soloing) display at the end. St. Pierre utilizes her voice as an instrument and is able to incorporate it into the playing; rather than singing over background music, everyone’s in more or less the same relief.
(It’s at this point, four songs in, that I wonder why the title, Star Spinning? Stars are of course already spinning.
The title could be a cheeky way of expressing the rotation of the Earth.
A star may be spinning now, but it won’t be later when it turns into a black hole: Is the title then a commentary on youth’s fickle romanticism and the irrevocability of death? Decide for yourselves.)
The guitar solo on “Afro Blue” begins with a dare and descends into a joyous, frenetic jig that distills time and emphasizes texture. It’s the album’s freest, most purely improvisational moment. The finest is the trumpet solo on “Jorea;” it’s so regal it’s probably purple for synesthetes; the mariachi universe within which the player operates is as bad ass as your favorite television ranger and offers a short window into what Sketches of Spain might sound like if it was recorded in the 21st century.
There’s something refined about the kind of jazz this band creates. From the tender and cinematic “You’re Not Here,” to the yearning, unreserved “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” the players, including St. Pierre, sound live. They sound like they’re putting on a performance and we’re being presented with a show, something rehearsed, not engineered; a good thing if you enjoy vulnerability on your iPod.
Have a listen here: Ashley St. Pierre.
Buy it here: Star Spinning.
Winter in Toronto can be non-existent as a soggy laptop, but sometimes it’ll snow dependably and in plenty for many days, long enough to go outside and enjoy it. Michelangelo Anderson Lavoisier stood in his red ski pants and coat and toque at the top of a hill constructed out of snow against a brick wall of a butcher’s shop that sold horse meat. The hill, compacted by upside down garbage can, wore dozens of holes from the garbage can handles that were filled as soon as the first child caught one and tipped over. He was a fat child, Michelangelo, with a pointed, freckled face, red hair, and a slight hint of bow-leggedness. He considered sweets his greatest joy and his favorite snack late at night called for melting sugar in a pot with cream and dried coffee, and maybe a star anise; his grandmother, Estefanía Ramirez Lavoisier, taught him how to use the electric stove when she came to babysit. Michelangelo had climbed onto the hill by the side on a wooden ladder with a rectangular cut of cardboard in his teeth. Down below, a crowd of children paid no attention and formed two halves of a rainbow of winter gear. Upon reaching the bottom of the hill, only the fastest sleds made it past the gap in the audience to the edge of the street.
Scanning the road for cars, not wishing to depend on the onlookers for due notice, Michelangelo waved at a woman in an apartment window before letting gravity engulf him, his hands up front holding the edge of the cardboard to steer. He spun round twice during the first third of the descent, much to his delight, and traveled the rest of the way facing back at the hill, watching the powder he rustled in his wake. He stopped when the soles of his feet thumped and hyperextended against a Hyundai Santa Fe on the other side of the street. A few boys yelled “car!” to be mean though the road was empty. As soon as he’d realized he’d made it, Michelangelo tried to stand and shout with pride but fell from the dagger-like pain burrowing into his ankles; the two nearest children felt a sense of responsibility and carried him like a baby. They struggled with his weight, swaying away from the car then back, determined to hold on and save face amidst their peers. But they grew tired because the snow hadn’t been shoveled in a few days and took the last resort: understanding the SUV as a stretcher and chucking Michelangelo on the windshield to rest and recover.
The patient breathed heavily and squirmed on the car, managing to wave at his emergency medical responders to express his gratitude. It didn’t help his rehab that the windshield was covered in snow and harboured patches of ice that had been given a chance to harden. The thing that helped Michelangelo ignore the toothpick machineguns spraying his feet was the particularly dragon-like effect his breath had on the fine flakes. He ha’d hot air to clear a spot for his cheek and laid it on the frosted glass so that his mouth faced a good foot of accumulated snow ready for melting. He learned to breathe almost right up against the frozen fluff to maximize impact; the water drops seeping into the snow like a flesh-eating virus, like somebody’s bite mark or mold of the upper jaw. Soon enough, Michelangelo had ha’d a semicircle that from above seemed like it seeped out of his skull; together, the two instances of roundness re-enacted the profile of a disproportionate tomato. At the semicircle’s farthest point from its creator, floating in a now refreezing group of droplets, the second coming of Jesus Christ frowned amongst his belongings the day before he was scheduled to make his official return.
He looked just like he did in pictures except cricket-sized and with lower standards, long brown and red locks curled over his bare shoulders, goatee fully connected to an evenly groomed moustache.
He lived in (a once sprawling three bedroom, two bathroom, four foot by one foot icicle of) a mansion on a windshield in Toronto for two reasons. 1) He wouldn’t be paid for another two Thursdays after reporting for the messiah gig, and the rent was cheap. 2) He predicted it would all happen as it did three weeks ago as his first proper go at a miracle on the first episode of the first season of the reality TV ratings smash Jesus does Toronto.
The vested cameramen hovered conspicuously over the Hyundai’s driver’s mirror.
An inflatable Bible pool chair kept Jesus dry. Gathered on it was his wallet, made of hemp, an extra white monogrammed robe identical to the one he wore, a pair of frozen sandals, a bottle of wine marked “water,” a square boxy Tupperware container packed tight with butter tarts, and a thermos of black coffee. His attempts at salvaging heavier items like bed frames and mattresses would have to wait until he acquired an ice pick to dig them out.
While eager passengers screamed, racing down the hill to a safe stop, occasionally veering sideways and bowling into a section of the queue, Jesus cupped his chin in five fingers and caught Michelangelo’s attention. Michelangelo did not hesitate to take Jesus in his left hand for safe examination, soon determining that what he held had to be gummy candy.
“Ahhhhh,” said Michelangelo, torpedoing his gummy person in.
Jesus wouldn’t be almighty until after the induction ceremony the following afternoon; there was no use fighting back.
Nor did he have to. Michelangelo’s family’s limited means had taught him a long time ago that candy that is sucked on is candy that lasts. After one hairy lick, he dropped Jesus, spit, and was carried off by a woman that everyone supposed was his mother.
Jesus changed robes and had a tart.
Saint Augustine taught me about wonder. He said “you acquire it as a child, and you should never lose it, because it’ll come in handy once you get a day-job.”
To feel wonder is to be astonished, floored (but not ceiling-ed), to say “oh my” with jaw dropped and eyes wide open. It is to embrace an unfamiliar idea like a random book-vending machine.
Then after your embrace it, figure out the place it occupies in the world by asking yourself questions like: Where can I find such a machine? (Click on it for your answer). Am I prepared to learn about marine biology if that’s what Lady Fortune thinks my two cents are worth? What if it’s taxidermy, or anesthesiology, or fishing?
But don’t get overwhelmed. Too much whelm can send you to bed.
Next, wonder is never done. Or rather, it never ends. It all depends on curiosity and silliness’ willingness to strong-arm disbelief til the paper is no longer ripped but rugged.
Whomever is responsible for locking English away, I hope they reconsider. Language is claustrophobic, it needs to go outside, lest its feathers fade and its speakers forget what to do during vocabulary tests.
Someone is giving English away for Christmas. I hope for the fresh stuff, even though it spoils quicker than canned, and a canned adjective is always a two-for-one.
And finally, a few words from Mr. Vonnegut about a group of people that don’t want your money, your brain to wash, or your lawn to stick signs in.