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Playing to ‘A New Standard’: Exclusive Interview With Jazz Pianist Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo

Among family, friends, and his many acquaintances, Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo is known for his infectiously positive spirit, his playful hijinks, and a smile that absolutely lights up a room.

But it’s the music that emanates deep within Egbo-Egbo’s soul his piano as a constant appendage, his jazz, classical and pop leanings and the constant intermingling and pushing of musical genres that reveals the creative standard of the man. As a Toronto-based pianist, composer, producer and sound designer, 2018 marks the official release of his new musical work, appropriately titled A New Standard.

The twelve-song album contains a wide selection of entries originally created by a number of legendary composers over the last two centuries. They are, naturally for Egbo-Egbo, culled from disparate genres: classical, jazz, and curiously, even rock music. In A New Standard, Egbo-Egbo lovingly performs a fun and up-temp version of Sigmund Romberg’s and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” as well as a rollicking account of John Coltrane’s “Mr. P.C.” that merges brilliantly into the classically jazzy and beloved theme song from the 1967 Spider-Man cartoon by composers Paul Webster and Robert Harris.

In a more contemporary sense, Egbo-Egbo’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s”Make You Feel My Love” brings a wonderfully fresh and emotional sense of affection to the beloved classic, but surprisingly, there’s also a perfectly lonely interpretation of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” found on the new compilation, whose aural sense of isolation any fan of the band might expect and adore. This time, it’s just with a piano.

Biff Bam Pop’s consulting editor and regular contributor, JP Fallavollita, got the chance to steal Thompson T. Egbo-Egbo away from his busy schedule to talk music, his home city of Toronto, and the release of his latest album, the shimmering and wonderful A New Standard. Read the rest of this entry

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CMW 2015: Rashid St. James

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Rashid St. James, the energetic and quotable rapper from downtown Toronto, performed for Canadian Music Week at Studio Bar on Dundas Street West Wednesday night. St. James’ performance was yet another example of the city’s rising homegrown talent.

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Review: Yes, Live At Massey Hall, April 11th, 2013

“Biff Bam Pop, right. You were in the front row tonight. Are you going to review the show?”

So asked Geoff Downes, keyboardist for legendary progressive rock band Yes when I reintroduced myself at the band’s meet and greet following their sold out performance at Massey Hall Thursday, April 11th. Last summer, Geoff and I had met at the band’s summer tour opener after he and I had conducted an email interview about the band. I told him I would indeed be writing about this stop on Yes’ three album tour, where the group was performing their classic albums The Yes Album, Close To The Edge and Going For The One in their entirety. This was the first time the band was attempting something like this since the early 70’s, when they toured their double album Tales From Topographic Oceans. It’s an ambitious undertaking, but one that is paying off nicely for the group. Shows have been selling out and reviews have been positive.
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Review: Yes, Live At Casino Rama, July 10th, 2012

Can a band that’s been around more than 40 years really hit the heights of yesteryear?

In the case of Yes, the answer is…well, you know.

Last night in Rama, Ontario, the band (one of my favourites) kicked off their summer tour, which also serves as a North American introduction to their new lead singer, Jon Davison, who has some pretty big shoes to fill. Did he do it? Find out after the jump?
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Japer Sees Primal Scream In Toronto And Declares That They Have A Beautiful Future Together

It’s been something along the lines of eight years since The Scream team last played Toronto. That’s a long time for fans of the band.

For me, it’s been even longer.

Although I’ve fervently followed the eclectic musicians from album to album, and grown with them from genre to genre, I’ve never seen Primal Scream play live. The closest I ever got was when my brother, who was living and working in England a few years ago, regaled me with tales of one magical night that the band played the historic London Astoria. He paid over $250 Canadian dollars for the ticket, describing it simply as “a f**kin’ awesome” show.

Yes. I was jealous.

I missed Primal Scream when they toured their seminal acid trip album Screamadelica in the early nineteen nineties and I have regretted it ever since. Like many, that particular album opened me up to a completely new type of sound – trippy head music and dub-infused meanderings that expressed themselves many-a-night on the sweaty and alcohol-soaked dance floors of Toronto’s club scene. The album became a musical backdrop to my first few years of university life, informing both my listening habits and my late night socializing. The prevalent philosophy of the album: introspection, illumination and freedom (albeit via the use of illegal substances) was adopted in a personal outlook on life through both my thinking and my writing. No, I never hit the drugs, but the many sleepless nights of revelry eventually did take their toll. Still, “Higher Than the Sun” remains one of my all-time favourite songs.

In the middle of that same decade, it was blues and American-styled rock’n’roll that influenced the album Give Out But Don’t Give Up and I could be found shaking my hips, stamping my feet and nodding my head to “Rocks” under the influence of strobe lights and tequila shots. I wasn’t the only one. Here, Primal Scream showed that they had musical interests outside of Ibitza and rave culture – and that they could play a mean guitar.

A little older and a little more politically aware, the turn of the millennium Xtrmntr album came at precisely the right time. Once again, Primal Scream forced me to re-evaluate what my expectations of music were as well as make me consider what kinds of music I could (and would) enjoy listening to. A heavy, dark album, it borrows as much from punk as it does the industrial sounds of Europe, imbued with a nihilism that swarms and hammers the listener while never once losing a sense of musicality. This was echoed in 2002’s Evil Heat, which I listened too constantly at the gym. Robert Plant’s harmonica on “The Lord is My Shotgun” got me through a number of sessions on the stationary bike – which I rode the hell out of.

Last Tuesday night, at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in downtown Toronto, I finally got my chance to celebrate Primal Scream and their latest release, 2008’s electro-pop infused Beautiful Future, with a crowd full of adoring fans.

These days, I make an concerted effort to study the crowd at concerts, looking for familiar faces from the clubs and concerts of the past and wonder how these people I once saw on a regular basis grew up, what occupation they might currently hold, what their family life might be like. Occasionally, I’ll actually spot someone I recognize. Generally, these people have a little less hair and, perhaps, a little more pudge around the belly. At the Scream show, for the first time, I noticed something else: walking past me were concert-goers wearing military-styled jackets or hoodies and baggy jeans or form-fitted dress shirts and thin ties. On their feet were running shoes or Doc Martins or desert boots. Their hair was cut short or left long or even styled mop-top.

I realized that as I had grown up with the band, their various albums of differing influences had reached out to a variety of audiences and had brought once disparate groups together through a unifying “Primal Scream” sound and philosophic aesthetic. Regardless of our various interests, the crowd had at least one thing in common: we had grown up, all of us, with an acceptance of differences, be they music or style or attitude or scene.

Primal Scream is, musically, one of the most important bands of the last two decades and perhaps it is this last observation that they should be most celebrated for.

On Tuesday night, my long wait was rewarded. The Scream played a selection of songs throughout their discography, every one of them sounding fresh and vital, as if each track was simply part of a larger whole. As a reward for my patience, they even played an extended version of “Higher Than The Sun.” In the words of my brother, the night was “f**kin’ awesome.”

Primal Scream and I, along with all their other fans, continue to grow, certain to accept change in music, in people, in philosophies and certain to have a beautiful future together.

A Canadian Soundscape – Japer Experiences Daniel Lanois in Concert

I remember, early one cold and dark winter morning, driving east with my father to inspect a construction site he had been working on. Dawn was still some hours away and the windows of his company truck were frosted from overnight moisture. A chill came through the cabin door and I remember pulling the sleeves of my jacket low so that I could keep my hands warm. It was a rare occurrence for me to travel with my father to one of his work sites and I can’t quite recall what reason had me up so early that particular morning other than that’s what was expected of me and that’s where I was.

We left Toronto behind, driving steadily on a lightly snowed highway 401. It may have been a weekend. There weren’t many automobiles on the road. Buildings gave way to warehouses which gave way to pine or maple trees or forested moraines to my left and a cold, still, Lake Ontario unfolded to my right.

The truck was quiet as neither my father nor I spoke much on the drive. There were no business calls either. It was the early nineteen nineties and cell phones weren’t in the jacket pockets of blue collar workers or tired-eyed teenagers with much regularity. The radio was on, however, an FM channel softly playing the songs of a Canadian musician. The light, bluesy guitar sounds and thick, honeyed bass groove played alongside the backdrop of the drive, echoing each other in both imagery and feel. “I’m going to build the bridges high for working money” the singer crooned and I thought: my dad does that for a living.

The station played four songs by that artist, Daniel Lanois as I discovered, and as the sun rose brightly over the eastern tree line, a silent father and son shared some notable time together on a simple drive to an outlying town.

I make mention of this story for a reason: Daniel Lanois, in the best of Canadian traditions, tells stories in his music, inducing emotion through the imagery of landscape and the experiences of characters, both fictional and factual. His eclectic and experienced music and song craft is, at its heart, distinctly Canadian.

Playing at venerable Massey Hall in downtown Toronto this past Friday night, Lanois took to the stage as he should – amidst a story.

Looking like a cross between a Cuban national and a hipster lumberjack, he sported a thick black beard, form-fitting black leather jacket and jeans and pointed-toe rhinestone shoes. He tells the audience that he had once sat in the front row at this very venue, years ago, to watch and listen to the brilliant Miles Davis, a show that inspired him to create music. He opens with the beautiful The Maker, off of his first solo album, Acadie, and the crowd is immediately in awe over the sounds he and his three fellow musicians fill the hall with.

A stage technician manipulates a hand-held camera, unobtrusively moving in and out the band, projecting them in black and white on a large screen at the back of the stage, showcasing the deft drumming of longtime collaborator Brian Blade as much as the musicianship of Lanois. These men enjoy playing together and it is evident from their artistic jamming that would stray from established songs and then return to the sounds that the audience recognized. An ample selection from Lanois’ first release would be played, with special attention given to the French-versed songs, a nod to his Quebecois heritage. Jolie Louise, the sad story of a man whose loss of family is of his own doing, is played to enthusiastic acclaim.

Between songs, Lanois converses with the audience, scanning the upper balconies and telling stories of the ghosts of past performers at Massey Hall, where other story-teller musicians such as Gordon Lightfoot once played. He mentions the studio that he’s building in Toronto and acknowledges friends and family and his most cherished watering hole in the city. The sounds he makes on his guitar or pedal steel evoke the images of his downtown Hamilton, St. Catherines, Toronto or, for that matter, any other city or small town in Canada. He creates a musical panorama that echoes the landscape of the country: grand and natural, a terrain that is at once endless and open as well as dense and finite.

The lyrics of Lanois evoke the images and poetry of the Canadian open highway in songs like Sometimes and the running river, vital to commerce, in Still Water. He stirs a range of emotion, giving us the despair of parentless children in Where Will I Be, a new, richer and groove-based take on the song he wrote for Emmylou Harris years ago. He “raises the roof,” as he tells the audience, with Here Is What Is, the title track of his latest release, a song that suggests the acceptance of self, this night played loud and long.

Lanois doesn’t mind posing like a rock star on stage. He’s not pretentious about it, but he turns and stares at the camera on more than one occasion, his arm making a half windmill as he strums his guitar at just the right moment. He breaks a string, something he never does, he tells the crowd. He’s into his band, his music and his audience, and, perhaps, he’s learned a thing or two spending time with the likes of Bono. Still, he’s appreciative when told by a charity representative that he’s sponsored over two hundred children in third world countries through his many donations. The somber moment doesn’t ebb his sense of humour, however. He asks the audience to purchase product at the swag stand, nodding to his rhythm guitarist, a resident of Tijuana, Mexico, and says “It cost a lot to get him here!”

He finishes the evening with a beautiful rendition of Rocky World, which leads into an instrumental piece before the house lights go up.

The music of Daniel Lanois is storytelling accompanied by melody. His soundscapes conjure images of his home country and its people and, like all great songs, makes us remember and sometimes relive instances in our own lives. It can take listeners back to wintry Ontario mornings, riding in quiet peacefulness on Highway 401 – a distinctly Canadian moment that transcends nationalities, becoming something more, something universal.

A musical memory for all.

(Many thanks to Denny B. for providing photographs)

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