Sunday 3 June 2012

Queen of cool, Sophie Milman, warms up Toronto

Queen of cool, Sophie Milman provided some much needed warmth in a cold and rainy Toronto on Friday evening. The historical Massey Hall, built in 1894 was the venue for another great North American jazz experience with Ms Milman, impossibly elegant in a sleeveless peach number and matching shoes, taking us on a journey through some great jazz standards as well as some compositions from her own recent album.

Things got off to a great start with her super cool reading of Kurt Weill's Speak Low, followed by some of the all time greats from the American song book - Cole Porter's I Concentrate on You; Jimmy McHigh and Dorothy Fields' I Can't Give You Anything But Love and a sweet, simple reading of Meredith Wilson's Til There Was You - a song of particular importance to our leading lady and her family.

Story telling figured large, with an ultra confident Milman referencing her family's journey through emigration from Russia to Israel before finally settling in Canada nearly 13 years ago. This included speaking about how important music in general and jazz in particular had been to her family in Russia (and since then), how unable to afford a new stereo her mother had nominated her as the family stereo recognising her singing ability early on, and how a particular song by Jobim had encouraged her mother during a particularly dark time in the early days in Canada.

She performed two Jobim songs (in English) - the ever popular Agua de Beber (and a great version it was too) and the song that inspired her mother - No More Blues. As well as this tribute to Brazil we were treated to one song in French and for an encore a jazz version of the old Russian favourite, Ochi Chernye, which you can listen to by clicking on the picture above! This was a real hit with the many Russians in the audience as well as being a great reading of this much performed song. Indeed, we heard that she had performed in Moscow recently and that the audience had loved this version.

It was touching to hear her speak about her emotions at returning to a country that her family had left along with one million other Jews following the collapse of the Soviet Union and at last being allowed to leave freely and legally. She also spoke of her attachment to Canada, especially Toronto and how for the first time she really felt at home and attached to somewhere.

And the performance? Great. This (young) woman can sing. The voice is silky and clear, respectful of the lyrics, she swings but is understated - reminding me a little of some of Anita O'Day's recordings, which in my book is a huge complement. Her voice is strong enough to deliver a song without resorting to histrionics and this was born out by the excellent and therefore exposing acoustic in the Hall. Her demeanour also reminded me a little of the late great O'Day. Sophie Milman clearly loves performing and being on stage. Giving her very tight band lots of opportunities to shine both as an ensemble and individually, she enjoyed herself with a little dancing, swaying and finger clicking before taking songs back and making them her own.

She also featured some songs written for her including the title track of the latest album - In The Moonlight and So Long You Fool and Take Love Easy from earlier recordings. Not yet thirty and with a string of awards and accolades to her name, Sophie Milman will be with us for a very long time. I can't wait for a chance to see her back home in London and am thrilled for my very short time in Toronto to have coincided with this gig!

The evening had begun with the Robi Botos Trio who treated us to some extremely cool jazz, with Botos outstanding on piano and ably supported by bass and drums. Mr Botos is another European immigrant to Canada, originating in Hungary and of Roma background, he invited his brother to the stage to sing a smooth jazz version of the old Carpenters number - Close To You. A little hesitant at first, but quickly warming to his opportunity he received a warm response from the audience.

The Massey Hall was financed by one Hart Massey as a tribute to his deceased son. The theatre was renovated in 1933 and 1940 and has some art deco features, especially in the lobby. A massive auditorium, it can seat up to 2,765 people, although before the first set of renovations, it could take up to 3,500. It has seen some great performances over the years including in 1953 an unbelievable line-up of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell an event recorded as Jazz at Massey Hall.

Once again, proof that jazz is alive and well, and the second world class performance I've been privileged to attend in a few days. Isn't travel a great thing?

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