Überjam and PRISM, Live Review
By Benjamin Thomas
TDJ News Corps
TORONTO, June 27, 2014
Thursday was made for jazz. As the sun began to set upon the Toronto Star Stage at Nathan Philips square, people hurriedly made their way into the packed tent. Unlike the previous night's stormy demeanor, the weather (which was beautiful) foreshadowed what was to come. Breakdancers were rehearsing at a nearby stage, wheat beer was being gulped, and people were taking selfies next to Eric Harland’s drum kit. Indeed, it was a very special night in Toronto jazz: legendary bassist Dave Holland’s PRISM and renowned guitarist John Scofield’s Überjam were about to take the stage for a grand co-headlining event.
PRISM kicked off the night, unassumingly trotting onto the stage without a word, and letting their music talk with the song “New Day.” Holland opened with a warm, curious bass line to entice the crowd. Drummer Eric Harland slowly chimed in with his dark, dreamy and trashy cymbals to set the ambience. The song progressed into a 15-minute jam, during which everyone had a chance to solo, including Holland with an especially pensive breakdown.
The band progressed into the song “Evolution,” which featured the players using their instruments in creative ways. Sticks were slid across cymbals, fingers plucked the piano strings and the guitar created a warm coo as if played like a violin. The song gradually evolved into a soft funk groove, and eventually crescendoed into a progressive rock peak. This formula was repeated multiple times, keeping the audience breathless throughout.
By “The True Meaning of Determination,” the band definitely had the crowd’s attention. Tapping their toes (perhaps the most enthusiastic expression of appreciation that a jazz audience can give), everyone was happily jamming along with the band. However, throughout the set, the band remained utterly focused, putting everything into every note. This was only broken when an audience member dropped a beer bottle, the reaction to which brought a hilarious millisecond of perplexed looks from everyone in the band before they returned to playing.
While the festival has been plagued with some sound issues for the past few days, everything was spot on for PRISM, who closed their set with “Empty Chair” and “The Watcher.” It was beautiful to witness the contrasting styles between songs that were written by different band members—each turning into an extended jam, much to the audience’s delight. The set ended just as powerfully as it began.
John Scofield’s Überjam—which includes Andy Hess on bass, Avi Bortnick on rhythm guitar and Tony Mason on drums—was all about variety. Each member brought a unique style to their Wednesday evening performance, and the group covered a plethora of genres, keeping the audience on its toes.
The opener “Snake Dance” was a funky latin blues shuffle with electronic elements. This was followed by “Cracked Ice,” a funk jam that transitioned into a disco groove. Both songs featured complex layers of guitar work and heavy loops and sampling courtesy of Bortnick. While Scofield gave his bandmates time to shine, he occupied the majority of the songs with his smooth, long and soulful solos. He also kept his songs malleable, providing vocal cues when it was time to cut to a riff or a bridge. Most admirable, however, was the appreciation that he showed for the band. Constantly introducing them between songs and crying out “look at this guy!” during their solos, the guitarist seemed humbled to be surrounded by such great talent. This positivity kept the band in great spirits throughout the set.
In “Jungle Fiction,” a spacey, experimental song laden with percussion, a brilliant flanging effect made Mason’s cymbals sound distant and eerie. This set the mood until he was joined by the guitar which peaked into a post-rock/experimental jam. The song featured frequent drum and guitar solos with a distinct free jazz feeling of liberation only to return to a structured melody.
If this wasn’t enough, the following songs were a soulful, reggae song a la Al Green followed by an Afrobeat, Latin funk jam reminiscent of Souljazz Orchestra. Überjam was full of surprises and had incredible chemistry together. Combined with PRISM, Thursday was truly the night of the supergroup.