Date: Thursday, March 4th.
Location: The Rex.
Event: CD Release: Ron Westray & Thomas Hefflin Project “Live From Austin”.
Photographer: Ben Young.
Writer: Zach Sutton.
Ron Westray is one of a kind. He’s got the enthusiasm of a toddler experiencing candy for the first time, the swagger of a 1920’s New Orleans Jazz musician (often seen wearing suspenders and pink tops), the moves of an avid top 40 club goer, and the speech of a cat straight out of New York’s 52nd Street. Combine this with world-class chops on the trombone, a great melodic sensibility and strong compositions, and you have yourself Ron Westray.
Joining him for his Toronto CD release party was New York’s Thomas Hefflin (trumpet) and Michael Arthurs (tenor sax), as well as Toronto’s David Braid (piano), Ross MacIntyre (bass) and Daniel Barnes (drums).
Hands down, one of the coolest groups I’ve seen in Toronto in a long time. Westray led the pack playing some pretty unique and inventive solos on the trombone, and then comfortably stood to the side, grooving and moving as the soloists made their rounds. Channeling inspiration and influence from all over the map, David Braid fit the group perfectly, taking full advantage of a responsive rhythm section that allowed for the often-poorly miced Rex piano to be heard clearly. His minimalistic, yet intensity-filled choruses were a welcome change from the rest of the band’s 16th note heavy lines. Ross MacIntyre shined as a soloist on some pretty fast bop tunes, pulling off some incredibly technical licks on the upright, while Daniel Barnes’ many diverse sounding cymbals gave each soloist an altogether new sound to work with.
The band managed to play all of the tunes off the record, finishing off the night with crowd requests including Monk’s, “Ruby My Dear” and “‘Round Midnight” as well as a moderate tempo version of Parker’s, “Donna Lee”. As far as dynamic duos go, Thomas Hefflin was possibly Westray’s ideal counterpart, playing the calm, cool and reserved type all night. Dressed sharply in jacket and dress pants, the young New Yorker proved that one can fully capture the crowd with tasteful and original melodic playing, with nods to the likes of Louis Armstrong, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis. An honest pleasure to watch, as his professionalism on stage effectively conveyed his full artistic potential.
As many good moments as there were, there were also many evident lulls. The lackluster audience made it very hard for Westray to get the vibe going. In spite of his exuberance and clear enthusiasm throughout the night, his personable qualities didn’t win over the older, more impersonal crowd, looking more for music than entertainment. At times, it seemed clear that Westray’s extravagant stage moves and hip banter went over best with the handful of students and younger audience members.
Bringing me to my next point, what came as a surprise was the rather small student audience for the man who recently gave York University a breath of fresh air with his recent faculty appointment. No doubt, as with any newcomer on the scene, it may take Westray a few more years to really solidify a fan base in Toronto, and he is doing this quickly, sharing the stage with prominent Toronto players such as Mike Murley and David Braid. Altogether, Westray is an incredibly unique and valuable addition to the Toronto jazz scene, and it’s truly a shame that more people haven’t caught on to this yet.
– A great band, featuring original compositions and standards closely tracing the jazz lineage
– An enthusiastic front man in Ron Westray, who can salvage some of the bleakest nights and crowds, and turn them into something great
– New York’s Thomas Heflin! Hopefully he’ll be a more frequent visitor up here
– Two words: David Braid
– A lackluster crowd and pretty dead evening (granted, this was the second straight night)
– A shortage of younger faces in the crowd
The Purple Cabbage