Given his commanding physical presence and even more impressive list of accomplishments, creations and distinctions, you’d think it would be hard for people to overlook multi-instrumental guitarist, composer and producer Tony Quarrington. Yet this large-framed musical behemoth usually somehow fades into the background while he’s making other accomplished artists look and sound even better by accompanying them with his tasty guitar stylings that leave even award-winning fellow strummers and pickers in awe.
That will change on the night of Sunday, February 16, however, when Quarrington is firmly in the spotlight as the subject of an Honouring Our Own concert being put on by SongTown as part of the twelfth annual Winterfolk Blues and Roots Festival. He’ll be toasted by a roster of acclaimed musicians and others whom he’s helped to elevate while being content to sit to the side and play the enabler.
Perhaps his lack of marquee recognition is due in part to the fact that he lived for many years somewhat in the shadow of his more high-profile brother, the late Paul Quarrington, a more gregarious author, songwriter and bandleader who passed away four years ago this week at just 56 years old, and who continues to receive honours –most recently the announcement this week that Toronto City Council has voted to name a new facility after him. The Paul Quarrington Ice Rink/Splash Pad will be a central part of the new Sherbourne Common waterfront park being built this year.
For all his fame, however, brother Paul never won a Juno (though he certainly copped many other honours, particularly in the literary field) but Tony received one back in 1998 for his role as producer, musician and songwriter (he wrote the title track) on the late Willie P. Bennett’s seminal album Heartstrings.
His mastery of diverse musical styles is astonishing and in addition to his role as a writer and producer he has performed as a studio musician on hundreds of recordings by acclaimed fellow artists, including Jazz artists such as Order of Canada inductee Don Thompson, Jaymz Bee, the Yiddish Swingtet and violinist San Murata. He’s also created 15 Jazz recordings as a bandleader or co-leader, including his 2002 album Group Of Seven Suite released by CBC Jazz Records. Based on the paintings of the famed Canadian artists, it also features Jane Bunnett on sax and flute and Jane Siberry on vocals, among other luminary talents.
But Quarrington’s career extends back well before his involvement in production and with Jazz, when he made his debut at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 1966. In the late ‘60s he became a fixture of the Yorkville scene, performing ballads, Blues and his own original tunes at many iconic “Village” nightclubs and coffee houses.
Quarrington’s involvement on the Roots scene has included long musical associations with such notable performers as Bennett, Joe Hall, Daisy DeBolt, Brent Titcomb, Laura Smith, Mose Scarlett and Rick Fielding. It was, in fact, Quarrington who suggested to Winterfolk executive director Brian Gladstone that this year’s Winterfolk XII festival should include a special tribute to Fielding, who passed away ten years ago this month and who was part of the trio The Gangreen Boys with which Quarrington made his Mariposa debut in ’66. The Fielding tribute show, which Quarrington also organized, takes place on Sunday Feb. 16 and features performances by Hall, Scarlett, Glen Hornblast, Darcy Wickham, Crabtree & Mills, Lynne Mantle and, of course Quarrington, no doubt performing some of his originals.
For while Quarrington may be best known as a guitar virtuoso, he has always written songs as well. Most recently, in 2012 he showcased his gifts as a songwriter on two solo recordings of his own material, First Set and Gathering Place: Songs Of Toronto. He’s also penned tributes to such musical heroes as Django Reinhardt, Hank Williams and Lonnie Johnson, and wistful tunes like “The Waltz We Never Quite Danced.”
Although you don’t often see him singing when accompanying people like Gladstone or Titcomb in concert these days, he also has a voice that’s captivatingly distinctive, as you can hear by attending the shows he’ll be performing at for Winterfolk.
For these many reasons the roster of artists who will gather at the Black Swan on the 16th to pay him tribute is a wide-ranging and impressive one by any standard. In addition to Hall, Titcomb, Gladstone, the Yiddish Sextet and Hornblast, there will be tribute sets by Soozi Schlanger, Denis Keldie, Stuart Laughton, Howard Gladstone, Noah Zacharin, Laura Fernandez, Don Francks, Margaret Stowe and more. Admission is just $15 and advance tickets are available through the SongTown website.