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Bernard Stepien deconstructs the accordion's music for an intent IMOO audience

Bernard Stepien deconstructs his accordion. ©Alayne McGregor, 2015

The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy
Bernard Stepien, David Broscoe, Scott Warren
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO)
Black Squirrel Books
Sunday, May 3, 2015

See photos from this concert

This concert was dubbed The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy, and, at the start, a listener asked Bernard Stepien to explain the title. So he efficiently deconstructed his accordion and showed off its innards (to the great interest of and with a modicum of laughter from the audience) – and then slid it back together again and started playing.

It showed how comfortable Stepien is with this instrument. It's a Hohner Morino model from the late '50s, with a keyboard on one side and buttons on the other which give it the same capabilities as a piano. He started playing it as a youngster back in the 1960s, but then revived it in an improvised music context about seven years ago.

Musicians like Richard Galliano and Pauline Oliveros have moved the accordion into a jazz and improvised music context in the last few decades. But Stepien has done a great deal of his own explorations, too, into altered harmonies inspired by his studies with Cecil Taylor and Billy Robinson. He's primarily been playing the accordion together with Ottawa saxophonist David Broscoe in a duo called “The Accordion Conspiracy”.

This concert took that duo's music in both simpler and more complicated directions (hence the “deconstructed”), and added percussionist/sound artist Scott Warren, who has frequently played with both musicians in different groups.

Read more: Bernard Stepien deconstructs the accordion's music for an intent IMOO audience


Molly Johnson sings Billie Holiday with understanding and love (review)

Molly Johnson ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Molly Johnson
Ontario Scene
National Arts Centre Theatre
Friday, May 1, 2015

Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson has such a strong public persona that she doesn't always get enough credit for her outstanding skills as an improviser and jazz musician.

In fact, much like Billie Holiday, the iconic vocalist whom she was honouring at the National Arts Centre on Friday. Most of the songs Johnson sang were ones made famous by Holiday – and even a few written by her.

Particularly since Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film starring Diana Ross, Holiday has been portrayed as the lady with the gardenia in her hair, or as a drug-addled victim. Instead, she was a ground-breaking vocalist who carved out a place for herself in music with her own forceful personality and talent and unique way of using her voice as an instrument.

One of Johnson's successes in Because of Billie, her new album which she was showcasing at the concert, is to reframe Holiday as a black woman who broke massive barriers, allowing her successors, like Johnson, to have successful careers. She described Holiday as a “feminist before that word existed, and a punk rocker before that existed, and a game-changer."

So it was particularly appropriate that Johnson began the concert with “Lady Sings the Blues”, sung simply with a blues swing over syncopated bass and piano. When Johnson sings, you can clearly hear and understand every word, and she let the bittersweet words in this song speak for themselves – and emphasize the message that this lady wasn't going to let the blues take her over.

Johnson was accompanied by two long-time friends and musical colleagues: Mike Downes on double bass and Robi Botos on Steinway grand piano. Downes has been playing with her for 20 years, and also produced and chose the material for Because of Billie – and, as she mentioned, surprised her by even playing trombone on one number on the CD. Botos and Downes also regularly perform together in their own groups.

Read more: Molly Johnson sings Billie Holiday with understanding and love (review)


Meghan Heeney pays tribute to jazz sax tradition, community at grad recital

Meghan Heeney and  Mark Ferguson performed a quiet and emotion-filled version of 'My One and Only Love' for her recital ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Meghan Heeney Graduation Recital
Kailash Mital Theatre, Carleton University
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ottawa saxophonist Meghan Heeney picked a wide-ranging selection of jazz for her graduation recital at Carleton University on April 29. The classics by tenor greats Dexter Gordon and Benny Golson were no surprise, but she also included a modern piece by saxophonist Bob Reynolds.

And one of the lyrical jazz standards on the bill also had a tenor saxophonist link. Heeney had been very impressed by Joel Frahm when he taught at the Carleton University Jazz Camp in 2013, and transcribed his version of “My One and Only Love” for her recital. It was a quiet and emotion-filled version, performed as a piano-sax duo.

Read more: Meghan Heeney pays tribute to jazz sax tradition, community at grad recital


Roddy Ellias plays fresh compositions with long-time friends this Saturday

Roddy Ellias and John Geggie rehearse ©Brett Delmage, 2013

This Saturday, Roddy Ellias will play very fresh music with three very long-time friends.

The music will be new – so new, in fact, that he was just beginning to write and arrange it when talked to him on Sunday. But the three prominent jazz musicians joining him at GigSpace are ones he's known for years and played with many times in many different combinations.

On stage, Ellias on guitar will be joined by Mark Ferguson on trombone and piano, Mike Tremblay on saxophones, and John Geggie on double bass. Ellias has known Geggie for about 35 years, and the others for not much less, and they've all played together hundreds of times over the years in both jazz and classical orchestras and jazz combos.

But only once before in this particular combination – about a year ago, at the official opening of the Canada Council office building.

“And it just sounded so nice. And I don't get to play enough with either horns or with those guys, so I thought it would be nice. So I'm excited about that.”

He's also excited about trying a “different kind of repertoire” than he normally plays.

“I'm aiming for a different concept. What I'm trying to do is think of it like a string quartet or even a small orchestra where rather than ... one common jazz approach is melody and harmony and somebody grabs the melody and maybe somebody harmonizes the melody with chords. I was thinking of more like each person is a separate section of a string quartet. So they'll have an independent part, so four independent parts. Sort of orchestral.”

Read more: Roddy Ellias plays fresh compositions with long-time friends this Saturday


Mirror Duo: Mike Essoudry and Michel Delage converse by drum on Thursday

If you're tired of trumpets, sick of sax, or veering from vocals, you can catch a concert on Thursday that will be free of everything except drums – and a double dose at that. Drummers Mike Essoudry and Michel Delage are playing drums together in the Mirror Duo at Mugshots. And they're excited about the possibilities of the evening.

Mike Essoudry ©Brett Delmage, 2010

Michel Delage ©Brett Delmage, 2015

“It's going to be really interesting. I think it's going to be a really, really different kind of show,” Essoudry says. “Duo drums. It will be neat. It doesn't happen very often.”

Read more: Why a duo is great and how it will work


Claudia Salguero brings Latin drama to the NAC with ORIGENES (review)

Claudia Salguero – ORIGENES
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, April 23, 2015

In one of the rare pauses in the first of her two high-energy concerts at the NAC, Ottawa vocalist Claudia Salguero explained why she chose the songs in the show. All of them meant something special to her, she said; they spoke to her of loss and letting go and of true love.

Sylvio Modolo, Regina Teixeira, and Claudia Salguero celebrate a Brazilian melody. ©2015 Brett Delmage

She described one as “the music that is in my heart” and another as her mother's bolero, and said she had sung one song from Venezuela all her life.

For two one-hour sets, Salguero and her band of excellent local Latin musicians swept her listeners along with upbeat and emotionally-resonant music. Even the sad songs were invigorated with complex percussion and tastefully-deployed horns.

It was music designed to touch the heart – and it certainly grabbed the Fourth Stage audience. The applause at the end of many of the songs was notably strong. Salguero introduced each piece, carefully explaining its message and its origin – and different sections of the crowd exploded into applause when she said a song came from Mexico, or Brazil, or Venezuela.

Read more: Claudia Salguero brings Latin drama to the NAC with ORIGENES (review)


Winning Ottawa Sens couldn't beat Thelonious Monk

Adrean Farrugia brought his own voice and careful thought to interpreting Thelonious Monk's music. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Adrean Farrugia, Michel Delage, Alex Bilodeau
Tribute to Thelonious Monk
Brookstreet Hotel, Options Jazz Lounge
Friday, April 24, 2015

It was a Thelonious Monk celebration at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge on Friday night. Pianist Adrean Farrugia from Hamilton hadn't played before with local bassist Alex Bilodeau or drummer Michel Delage, but with considerable careful listening on everyone's part, they produced three fast-moving sets showing off the wide variety and beauty in Monk's music – and its angularity and unexpectedness, too.

Beautiful ballads like “Pannonica” and “Eronel”, and upbeat numbers like “Bemsha Swing” and “In Walked Bud” held the interest of many listeners in the room – and, as promised, there were some lesser-known numbers as well. The trio aptly closed the evening with “'Round Midnight”, given a quiet and reflective treatment. Farrugia played a long solo intro before moving to the song's melody, and ended the piece with solo piano again, in a lovely romantic ending.

Ottawa is a hockey-mad town, and that evening was the fifth, win-or-die game in NHL playoffs for the Ottawa Senators against the Montreal Canadiens. So the second set was interrupted momentarily several times with loud cheering when the muted TV screen showed the Senators had scored a goal – but the musicians never missed a beat.

Read more: Winning Ottawa Sens couldn't beat Thelonious Monk


Adrean Farrugia accepts the challenge and excitement of reinterpreting Monk

Pianist Adrean Farrugia won't be wearing a beret or sunglasses when he steps onto the stage at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge this weekend. That's not how he wants to pay tribute to Thelonious Monk.

Adrean Farrugia at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012Monk was a hugely influential pianist and composer who helped redefine jazz in the 50s and 60s and wrote many of jazz's most enduring compositions, like “'Round Midnight” and “Ruby, My Dear”. And he had a strongly individual musical style, recognizable in only a few notes – and a similarly idiosyncratic personal look in suits, hats, and glasses.

And while that musical style can be honoured – as Farrugia will do with three Ottawa musicians on Friday and Saturday nights playing Monk's compositions – it can't be copied.

See's linked interview with Michel Delage about his jazz tribute series at Brookstreet.

It's just not possible, Farrugia said, because Monk's sound was “so unique. It's almost too obvious that you're doing Monk if you sound like that. For me it's not so much the substance of what he's playing but the spirit of what he's playing, that I can get really caught up in.”

“There's this amazing patience in his playing where he just sits there and he listens to what's going on around him until he'll just find the perfect sound and just slam it down on the piano. His sense of melody and harmony are just so unique. But for me it's the spirit of how he plays. I don't know how he does it, but he almost has this, even though he's an undeniable genius, he almost has this childlike quality when he plays, something that almost sounds like a child discovering sounds for the first time.”

Read more: Adrean Farrugia accepts the challenge and excitement of reinterpreting Monk


All together now: Rob Frayne's big Dream Band spectacle

“I've been running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” bandleader and composer Rob Frayne says as he arrives at's office to tell me all about his new Dream Band concert this Saturday. He refers to “lots of lists and checklists and spreadsheet-type things. Timings. People. Where they are, when they are. “

Rob Frayne's Dream Band concert on Saturday will be something to watch as well as listen to. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

No surprise. This “Back to the Future” concert (although “spectacle” might describe it better) features an 18-piece big band that includes a Juno award-winning sax player, a Hammond organ, and a tuba. To complement his big sound and deliver his vision of a concert that will span the decades and centuries, he's also featuring big visuals, with a choreographed and improvised modern dance element.

“Being a saxophone player, we have the lifelong... almost duty, to be in a big band,” Frayne says. He's been inspired, he says, by the big bands of Duke Ellington, Maynard Ferguson, the Sun Ra Arkestra (he recently played in Rake-star, a local version of it), and Charles Mingus.

“So you want to do at least one.”

This will actually be his fourth Dream Band performance in as many years (although not his largest; he's led an “80 piece triple concert/jazz band in around 1998”) The Dream Band launched at the Fourth Stage in October 2011 to two packed houses. The popular concert was repeated at the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival as part of a big band tribute to the late Jacques Émond.

Saturday's concert will feature new material, most of it composed by or arranged, and rearranged, by Frayne, with both returning and new band members performing it.

“It's the same ideas [as in the first Dream Band] except there's more of it. More lines weaving. So there's sometimes five or six lines because you have more pools of players. So you can have pairs of trios of players weaving their lines against pairs or trios. It's kind of neat. A lot of stuff going on. But it's hard not to resist the block sound of four beautiful trumpets in a choir, or a choir of saxophones or choir of trombones. They can do nice stuff.”

“The compositions are all written for 18 or 20 voices. So they're large scores. It basically took me, I'd say, about 5 months. I took every song I had before and totally redid it.”

“I tried to fight the urge to change things but I couldn't,” he said, smiling. “So I ended up changing or adding or subtracting ... everything. So a lot of new stuff [he laughs] and a lot of thick stuff and I got into what I call the can of spaghetti. If you open up a can of spaghetti it sometimes looks like that. I had to organize the strands of spaghetti into sensible parts.”

Win tickets to this concert! Enter our contest by Friday, April 24, 2015 at 1 p.m.

Read more: All together now: Rob Frayne's big Dream Band spectacle


Intent listeners enjoy the Cosmos Saxophone Quartet at the Record Centre

 ©Brett Delmage, 2015

On Sunday, April 19, the Cosmos Saxophone Quartet attracted an intent audience filling the aisles of The Record Centre in Hintonburg (and browsing the store's vinyl offerings too). About 30 people at its peak, the audience ranged from toddlers and pre-teens to experienced listeners, with many staying for the entire show and clapping enthusiastically.

The quartet (which got its name from the park where it played one of its first concerts) has been together for 15 years, and plays a mixture of jazz and classical material. All four members are well-known on the Ottawa scene: (l-r) Mike Tremblay on soprano and alto sax, Rene Lavoie on tenor and alto, Ian Babb on baritone, and Vince Rimbach on tenor and alto.

They closed with a memorable version of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years", emphasizing the song's jazz roots and its insinuatingly melancholy melody.

Read more: Intent listeners enjoy the Cosmos Saxophone Quartet at the Record Centre


Michel Delage tries new combinations in his Brookstreet tribute series

Ottawa drummer Michel Delage has found a way of playing his favourite jazz composers' music with some of his favourite jazz musicians.

This weekend will be the second in his series of tribute concerts at the Brookstreet Hotel Options Jazz Lounge. Last month, Delage's group honoured Wayne Shorter; this month, it's Thelonious Monk; in late May it will be Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Performances will be on the last Friday and Saturday of each month.

Michel Delage at Stella Luna ©Brett Delmage, 2013Each month features a different band (except for Delage), with guest musicians from out of town. The March show was supposed to feature saxophonist Petr Cancura, who had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict and was replaced by Vince Rimbach; this weekend's show features pianist Adrean Farrugia from Hamilton.

Read the interview with Farrugia and Delage about this weekend's tribute to Thelonious Monk.

The Ellington/Strayhorn tribute in May will feature the husband and wife duo of pianist Nancy Walker and bassist Kieran Overs from Toronto, plus Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias.

Delage is really looking forward to that combination.

“Nancy has been one of my main inspirations as far as listening to jazz, because when I was in high school and after high school attending the jazz festival, I would go to the jazz jams pretty religiously and watch that [house] band play. I always loved Nancy's playing and her compositions. So I'm extremely excited to have her on board – and extremely nervous too, to play with such an accomplished musician!”

Walker and Overs were last here for the 2015 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, in a well-received concert playing selections from her most recent album, ‘Til Now Is Secret.

Delage said he wanted to bring in out-of-town musicians to “do a bit more of a collaboration – just to be able to play with more people and for other Ottawa musicians to play with people from out of town. And also to hopefully get some more audience out, because you know how hard it is for local Ottawa musicians to get audiences out to their shows sometimes. I think by doing this I might have a little bit more of a chance of bringing people out.”

The Wayne Shorter tribute in late March went well, he said, particularly the Saturday night when it appeared many audience members came out specifically to hear the music. “There were at least maybe 25-30 people who were all sitting and listening and clapping after solos and responding to everything. In between tunes, we'd always inform them what tune we were playing, and what the album it was off of, and stuff like that.”

Read more: Michel Delage tries new combinations in his Brookstreet tribute series


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