GRIOTS T' GARAGE written and performed by Dennis Rollins. Presented by New World Stage/Kuumba at Harbourfront Centre's Studio Theatre (235 Queens Quay West). Opens Saturday (February 10) and runs to Wednesday (February 14), Saturday-Sunday 7 pm, Tuesday-Wednesday 8 pm. $25. 416-973-4000, www.harbourfrontcentre.com. Rating: NNNNN
Go to Dennis Rollins's show and witness an endangered brass species.
According to the acclaimed UK-based jazz artist, there's been a big dip in interest in his main axe, the trombone, among younger music students. But the British Trombone Society adviser and National Foundation for Youth Music ambassador is changing all that.
Beyond gigging and recording - his third album, the funkdafied Big Night Out (Raestar Ventures), just dropped - he's involved in making the trumpet's big brother cool again through exhibitions, lessons and demonstrations. As someone who's worked with Cypress Hill, Erykah Badu and Gorillaz, among others, he's right for the job.
"My job is to go round to many schools and just promote the trombone," the affable player says over the phone from his place in Doncaster, admitting that "it's really difficult to get them to pick the instrument up."
But Rollins is not one to shy away from a challenge. Take Griots T' Garage, the composition he'll perform at Harbourfront Centre on four dates starting Saturday. His solo show, subtitled A Musical History Of The African Diaspora, chronologically coasts through five centuries of black music.
That's no small feat, the trombonist acknowledges.
"It's a lot to think about portraying in 90 minutes, but I feel like I've done it justice within the time frame," he says. Griots T' Garage is the perfect opportunity for Rollins to express the vast breadth of a profoundly soulful narrative in a way that has never been done before.
"Although we see documentaries and many films about the history of black music, there's never really been a jazz-based performance portraying the history of black music. I definitely felt that that needed to be addressed."
So, through his own research (online and off) and discussions with his wife, Rollins set about it. He says one of his greatest sources was introspection.
"I tried to find within myself what I wanted to say. For instance, one module is called Sunny Rain, which goes into a piece called The Storm, and with that I wanted to portray the beauty of the calm before the storm."
I had the good fortune to see an advance DVD of the work. It's a varicoloured and emotive performance despite the stripped-down set-up featuring only Rollins and a laptop that provides sampled loops like Bill Withers's Grandma's Hands (which resurfaced on Blackstreet's No Diggity) as accompaniment.
Rollins's gleaming trombone is the perfect centrepiece.
Potent enough alone, Griots should only be amplified by the work of visual artist Nick Hillel, who'll use live cameras and video filters to distort the performance in real time and mash it up with images that correspond with Rollins's sounds as he migrates musically from West Africa to the fields of the American South to New York's boom-bap.
The hardest part of putting it all together, says Rollins, is showing the pain of the past.
"It'd have been easy to have a series of happy tunes that aren't thought-provoking. I wanted this to challenge thinking, so I really was careful to try to extract specific emotions from each module of the performance."