Jay Cleary knows a thing or two about carving out a niche in the Toronto music scene. He’s brought hundreds of artists through in many years, representing big-time on the local and international acts of a funk, groove and soul nature.

Cleary has been all over it in Toronto for years but now lives in NYC. Luckily his concerts remain, and he even visits for special occasions. Case in point: NuJazz Festival, which he started five years ago. Cleary has presented a slew of artists over the past festivals — a few standouts include shows by Herbaliser, Toubab Krewe and one of last year’s marquee attractions, soul legend Roy Ayers.

This year, Cleary bounced into town after yet another NYC/Toronto “commute” — in this case spending more than 12 hours in transit via bus — and went straight to work. On Nov. 9, SoulJazz Orchestra kicked off this year’sat Wrongbar to get the festival  underway. The group used the launch of the fifth annual festival as the debut Toronto performance of their new album Solidarity. Cleary confirms that this was SJO’s biggest Toronto headline show to date, noting “the rabid crowd loved every minute of the 2 hour set!”

SoulJazz Orchestra at the launch of the fifth annual NuJazz festival at Wrongbar on Nov. 9, 2012

SoulJazz Orchestra at the launch of the fifth annual NuJazz festival at Wrongbar on Nov. 9, 2012 (Photo courtesy Jay Cleary)

This year’s NuJazz lineup, Cleary writes, “embodies the spirit of nu-jazz, which is bringing jazz into a modern context by blending this essential improvisation-based art form with other contemporary styles.” Dig … here’s a little more on some of the fest’s remaining shows:

Saturday night (November 17) at Great Hall features the duo Martin and Blades, a year-plus-old collaboration between drummer Billy Martin (Medeski, Martin and Wood) Hammond B3 organist Wil Blades.  The two joined up at a festival in summer 2011 and the danceable, improvised old school grooves proved so popular that they’ve been touring this two-man, two-instrument act.  Drummer Billy Martin happens to be a student of Latin, Brazilian and global percussion and has immersed himself in a study of clave rhythms, recently publishing a book on African-derived clave grooves. So rhythm heads take note, this is a drummer to catch in a live setting. And to round out the night, Toronto’s free-spirited horn-based ensemble The Shuffle Demons support.

A taste of that drum kit/B3 duo:

Another of the shows we’re most looking forward to is the return of Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, who rocked it at the inaugural festival in 2008. Cleary recalls their show a few years back, commenting that at the time they had just “tapped into their own sound,” breaking new ground based on their background with jazz melodies and hip-hop grooves. Since then, Cleary notes, “eveyrone wanted to collaborate with them,” and those who did include Erykah Badu, Mos Def and Damon Albarn, who made HBO the touring backup band for Gorillaz. (The hit film Hunger Games also used their track War in a crucial scene.)

Musically, says Cleary, they’ve advanced in the jazz realm and recorded with composer and former Sun Ra Arkestra collaborator Philip Cohran — who by all accounts is indeed the father of the musicians comprising Hypnotic Brass Orchestra. HBO’s resulting music is “more African, more arranged than ever. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble plays The Opera House on Friday, November 23, a show that promises to once again bring out all the dancers and appreciators in the know. Opening the night are Heavyweights Brass Band, who use the classic New Orleans instrumentation to lay down everything from funk and R&B to some pretty fun covers of War, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Michael Jackson.

Finally, we have to give shout-out to Yuka, one of the city’s hardest-working funk/soul acts. They perform next Thursday, November 22 at the El Mocambo alongside  Chameleon Project and others in a local showcase concert.

Take a listen to the Yuka funk here:

Other NuJazz headliners on the DJ tip include the seemingly ageless Mark Farina and multi-instrumentalist/spinner Chuck Love. The latter show is co-presented by the boys of Promise and supporting DJs include Circle Research, whose inclusion on the bill is always a good thing and a sign of educated taste.

Props and a sort of farewell for now are due to Cleary, who plans to head back to NYC after the festival and stay there for a while, still maintaining his toe-hold on the groove scene in Toronto. We wish him well and look forward to the rest of a killer festival.

The fifth annual NuJazz Festival runs until November 24 in Toronto. Full schedule, ticket info and more are available on the NuJazz website