Oscar Peterson’s AFRICA Suite featuring Benny Green, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash and the Oscar Peterson Festival Jazz Orchestra conducted by John Clayton
An Evening of Honours – Feb 12, 2020 – Koerner Hall, The Royal Conservatory – Toronto, ON
What an honour, to be on hand to witness the world premier of Oscar Peterson’s AFRICA Suite, an evening that honoured four incredible individuals, Oscar Peterson, Nelson Mandela, Jerry Fuller and Don Thompson. An evening of celebration. A celebration of freedom, life, love and music. The third annual Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival and the Canadian Jazz Masters Award ceremony hosted in Toronto at the Royal Conservatory of Music, Koerner Hall.
Oscar Peterson composed a suite of music that he called AFRICA, completed in 1979, he included in his concert repertoire three of the songs from the suite, Nigerian Marketplace, Peace, and The Fallen Warrior. Songs were for Africa and for Nelson Mandela, songs that resonated beautiful harmony, melody and a lyricism that evoked powerful emotions. This evening’s performance would mark the first time that the complete suite of AFRICA would be performed live and with a full orchestra, The Oscar Peterson Festival Jazz Orchestra. And what an orchestra, the lineup includes some of the best jazz musicians in the world.
John Clayton, arranger & conductor, Benny Green – piano, Christian McBride – bass, Lewis Nash – drums, Reg Schwager – guitar, John Johnson, – lead alto saxophone, Allison Au – alto saxophone, Mike Murley, Perry White – tenor saxophone, Shirantha Beddage – baritone saxophone, Jason Logue, William Sperandai, Kevin Turcotte, John MacLeod – trumpet, Al Kay, Rob Somerville, Terry Promane – trombone, Peter Hysen – bass trombone and tuba, Michele Gagnon, Diane Doig – French horn, Brian Barlow, Magdelys Savigne – percussion.
Renee Rosnes, Artistic Director and Artistic Producer Kelly Peterson, were the joint master of ceremonies for the evening’s festivities. Rosnes opened the evening with an introduction to the musicians in the orchestra and a warm welcome to the guests artists and the audience. John Clayton entered on cue and he got things hopping with two rousing big band numbers, “Blues For Big Scotia” followed by “Easy Money” as Clayton explained to the audience, “This is an oxymoron, like military intelligence or rap music, although we can’t use that one anymore.”
Small group ensembles performed “Falling in Love with Love”, “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “Just One of Those Things” featuring Green, McBride, Nash, Schwager, Turcotte and Murley in different configurations. The first act concluded with a big band finale, the full orchestra performing a swinging Horace Silver tune, “The Jody Grind”.
The second act started with the Canadian Jazz Masters Awards. This award was created in 2018 by the Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival board and has been handed out each year under the auspices of the Oscar Peterson International Jazz Festival. Each year two awards are presented to one living and one past legend of Canadian jazz.
This year’s past legend jazz master award was presented to the family of the late great Jerry Fuller, one of the greatest Canadian jazz drummers. The living jazz master award was presented to the incomparable Don Thompson, a living legend in the Canadian music scene. A most deserving multi instrumentalist, a multiple award winner, and now a Canadian Jazz Master Awardee. Thompson received a standing ovation as he accepted his award, when the applause lessened, he spoke eloquently of how he felt and he included recollections of time spent performing and being with Jerry Fuller. He hesitantly asked Rosnes if he could play something and inquired as to Reg Schwager. “Is Reg still here?” he asked. Schwager had never left his chair in the orchestra. The duo performance of Don Thompson and Reg Schwager was one of the most beautiful duet performances I have heard. Thompson on piano is wonderful, he displays such a tremendous depth of harmony, melody and emotion, the song, “Days Gone By”.
The band reassembled on stage and Kelly Peterson announced the AFRICA suite adding, “The last song is not part of the suite but we added it as a special bonus.”
The big band under the direction of John Clayton would play “Night Cry”, “Ellington Looks At Africa”, “Night In Transvaal”, “Peace”, “Nigerian Marketplace”, “Tribal Dance”, “The Fallen Warrior”, “Soweto Saturday Night”, and the grand finale, “Hymn To Freedom”. Nothing more could, would or needed playing after that stirring performance.
The audience stood and applauded, the guest artists departed the stage, the orchestra members stayed on stage. The audience continued to applaud and soon the guest artists came back to the stage and linked arms; they gave a bow, Clayton pointed to the orchestra and they all stood and bowed. The guest artists and Rosnes came back for one more arm in arm bow and with indications of adoration for the audience they departed the stage.