Wednesday, June 28, 2017
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Alex Moxon searches for the heart and soul of Grant Green's music

Alex Moxon loves taking his favourite jazz albums apart and seeing what makes them tick – and then reinterpreting them in live shows.

Alex Moxon in the 2014 tribute to Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro, with Marc Decho and Adam Saikaley. ©2014 Brett DelmageThis Sunday, the Ottawa guitarist and composer will pay tribute to Grant Green, a renowned jazz/bop guitarist from the 60s and 70s, with a quintet playing two of Green's albums from front to back. The show is the first in a new monthly jazz series in Lowertown.

The series, at the Das Lokal restaurant on Dalhousie Street (north of the ByWard Market), is scheduled for the last Sunday of each month, and will feature local jazz and improvising musicians playing a variety of jazz and singer-songwriter projects, each crossing genres at least a bit.

That includes the Green show, which will have touches of funk and soul. “This music is all pretty funky. No swingin'. It's sort of a 60s funk vibe.”

Green was particularly influential in soul jazz and organ trio music, Moxon said; he's “soulful, he's understated, and he's got very nice hornlike phrasing.”

Moxon first encountered Green's albums while researching material for his own group The Chocolate Hot Pockets. “Initially I heard an album he put out called Ain't It Funky Now?. It's all James Brown covers and things like that, arranged for a jazz group. I thought, 'Oh wow! That's super great!' ”

And it spoke to him. “His playing is ... he gets right to the heart of what he's talking about. There's no fluff. It's just like, this is the music. Deal with it.”

The quintet will perform the entirety of two Green albums, both live recordings on Blue Note. First up will be Alive! (1970), followed by Live at the Lighthouse (1972). “I've been waiting a long time to have an excuse to play that kind of music.”

What really appeals to Moxon about the music is that “it's jazz that features the guitar. It's geared for the guitar. There's not a lot of jazz I think that is particularly influential that requires guitar. Jazz to me is saxophone music and piano music. It's not until around the 60s that the guitar started making really big contributions to the music.”

Besides Moxon on guitar, the quintet includes four musicians well-known on the Ottawa jazz scene: Adam Saikaley on keyboards, Linsey Wellman on alto sax, Marc Decho on bass, and Mike Essoudry on drums. It's the same group who paid tribute last spring to Miles Davis' Filles de Kilimanjaro album in a well-received series of shows. Last fall, Moxon took part in recreating a Hank Mobley record with several of the same musicians.

We don't want to lose the jazz sensibility. We still want to be in the moment and improvising and coming up with fun situations.
– Alex Moxon

Moxon emphasized that their performance wouldn't be playing “every note, note for note like the recording. I really like the songs, I like the arrangements, I like the direction of it. But we don't want to lose the jazz sensibility. We still want to be in the moment and improvising and coming up with fun situations. That's why I like playing music in the first place. So we want to preserve that.”

“I might be channeling a bit of the spirit of Grant Green in my playing, but I'm still going to be drawing on all my old influences in the way that I blow over these changes and I think the same goes for everybody else in the band.”

Moxon said he had to change the albums' instrumentation only slightly for the quintet. “There are two other band members on the recordings of both these albums. There's a percussionist and there's a vibraphone player. But if there was a negligible contribution to the albums, it's probably those, because they don't take any solos really, and all their parts are easily covered by the keyboards.”

There was still a lot of listening involved in transcribing the entirety of the two albums, and turning them into individual parts for the musicians. Just scoring each tune took an hour and a half, Moxon said, plus another three to four hours per album after that to finalize and clean up the individual parts.

“These two particular albums are not as easy to pull off as certain other classic albums because they're not really transcribed and they're not in any of the Real Book or Fake Book jazz literature. I had to sit down with all of them and work them up because they're more than just heads. They're real arrangements. So the bass player has a part, and the keyboard player has his own part, and the guitar player's got his own part and there's nice harmonies between the guitar and the sax.”

Doing that transcription taught him a great deal. “I love writing out albums like this. I do it in my spare time anyhow, just to get deeper inside the arrangements in my own compositions. Often you hear of guys transcribing solos or transcribing things like that. I don't do that as much but I really like full-band arrangements because I like to write for full bands. So it gives me ideas of my own that I can draw on or change around in any of the future writing that I do.”

An interesting thing about Grant Green's music and I think one of the reasons why he might still be relevant now is that a lot of his drum breaks and things like that have been sampled. You might hear it at a DJ night the next club night you go to.
– Alex Moxon

It also “gets to the heart of what you really enjoy” about certain pieces of music, he said, giving him a clear picture of why the music is working as a whole. “I can see that the saxophone is doing this and the organ is answering that and then the drumbeat has a counterpoint to that, just as an example. I'm aware of what every part is doing for those 32 to 64 bars or whatever the tune is.”

And what about the audience? What can they get from the performance?

Moxon hoped that listeners might “see the same things that we see” in Green's music and how “it's contemporary now and how it's still relevant now. Because it's really beautiful music and it's always beautiful, not just back when it was written.”

In fact, he said, he hadn't got any “Grant Who?” reactions. “He seems to be pretty well known surprisingly. He's one of those crossover artists. An interesting thing about Grant Green's music and I think one of the reasons why he might still be relevant now is that a lot of his drum breaks and things like that have been sampled. You might hear it at a DJ night the next club night you go to.”

Moxon has no immediate plans to recreate any other albums. “But when the spirit moves me if I hear a record that I just can't get enough of, I'm kind of a tinkerer. I like to figure out everything that's going on in the things that I like. So, next album I hear that I really like, I'll do that.”

"I just loved the vibe of the place"

Moxon will also be busy curating the remainder of the series at Das Lokal, which is initially scheduled to run until the end of July, and possibly past that.

He performed on the patio at Das Lokal twice a week last summer, in a duo with trumpeter and fellow Chocolate Hot Pockets member Ed Lister.

“I just loved the vibe of the place and I loved the people who worked there. Obviously their patio doesn't work in the winter. But we were thinking how can we get more music going on, and there's such an artistic group of people, so we decided, let's do a concert series! And so we've decided to do the last Sunday of every month, between now and when the summer starts again.”

The series will be called Nachtmusik, which is German for “Night Music” and in tune with the restaurant's German name. It includes a wide variety of local musicians, all of whom Moxon has heard or played with:

  • February 22: Alive! Ensemble plays Grant Green
  • March 29: Pierre Chretien's Sunburst Ensemble
  • April 26: Bosveld
  • May 31: Megan Jerome
  • June 28: Whitney Delion and Adam Saikaley
  • July 26: The Chocolate Hot Pockets

Moxon said he was focusing on music “that hasn't already been taken up in the market, ... modern-leaning jazz and maybe some singer-songwriters that also have some modern sensibilities – because I don't think there's as easy an outlet for that anywhere else in the market.”

There will be a $5 cover charge for each show, and because of sponsorship from Kichesippi Beer, $5 pints of beer.

Pierre Chrétien's Sunburst Ensemble (March) is a new trio with keyboardist Chrétien, bassist Alex Bilodeau and drummer Michel Delage. Moxon said it plays new compositions, “kind of groovy” and with a soul jazz feel similar to Grant Green's. “All I know is that it's new and it will be cookin' and anything that those guys are doing, I want to hear it.”

In April, Bosveld will feature improvisers Jeremy Mulder on alto sax and Théan Slabbert on guitar. Moxon described the group as “folk music with a lot of electronic elements, super-personal lyrics, and interesting use of looping pedals and different technological tricks”.

In May, jazz pianist and singer-songwriter Megan Jerome will perform a solo set, likely with material from her new CD. June will see a new pop-leaning project featuring multi-genre keyboard player Adam Saikaley, and vocalist Whitney Delion (best known for playing with an Ottawa trip-hop band called Sound of Lions).

And the last scheduled band, at the end of July, will be Moxon's own Chocolate Hot Pockets quartet, who will have recently released their own second album featuring a mix of jazz, R&B, and funk.

“We're really hoping to get people out and to get the community involved and have it be a good showing,” Moxon said. “I think it would be nice if it continued, but for now we've just booked these first six months and that's about as much as I can handle.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See stories about other recent jazz tribute shows: