In all the jazz combos I've seen over the years, two cellos in the front row was a first.
Al Henderson's septet had that – plus piano, saxophones, clarinets, flutes, bass, drums, and bird whistles, to produce soundscapes that were far more complex than your average straight-ahead jazz.
The Toronto-based septet opened the Confederation Park evening show Saturday night (June 26) at 6 p.m. That can be a difficult time, with many jazz fans arriving during the show and the late afternoon sun pointing straight at the stage. Henderson commented on that near the end of the show: even at the back of the stage with his bass, the red-head found the intense light quite brutal.
But that didn't show in the group's playing, as they recreated tunes from Henderson's recently-released CD, Regeneration. It was nominated for a 2010 Juno for best Traditional Jazz Album. Henderson brought most of the musicians on that album to the Festival: Alex Dean on sax and flute and bass clarinet, Mark Chambers on cello, Richard Whiteman on piano, Barry Romberg on drums, and Henderson on double bass. Andrew Downing subbed in on cello, and Kelly Jefferson on tenor and soprano sax. All of these are well-known on the Toronto scene, and Henderson has also played with Jefferson in the group Time Warp.
The highlight of the show was the entire Regeneration Suite. The suite was inspired by Henderson's work with architect Raymond Moriyama, who designed the Canadian War Museum, and dealt with how war affects us all. The seven-part suite started with music reminiscent of a Scottish reel. Then, with an ominous cello solo, it moved into steadily more frantic interplay ("Darkening Clouds", "Conflict", and Final Confrontation") until the tension finally broke with a drum roll and moved into "Recovery". On the album, the effect is enhanced with machine gun sounds and air raid sirens, but the sound machine malfunctioned at the concert. Nevertheless, it was an engrossing piece.
The audience got a break with the next song, "On the Case", with its carnival-like sound reminiscent of Ferris wheels and merry-go-rounds, featuring Dean on bass clarinet. Then came "In Search of a Soul", which Henderson described as an epilogue to "Regeneration", because it was inspired by Moriyama's book of the same name about the process of building the museum. Henderson had originally considered adding it as another section of the suite, but his wife told him he was better off finishing that project, rather than leaving it open forever. "In Search of a Soul" was a dark, thoughtful piece, featuring a cello solo by Downing in which he plucked strings in a flamenco style.
The last piece, "Spirit Owl", was inspired by a sculpture Henderson owns by Inuit artist Turataga Ragee, which shows a shaman turning into an owl. He said he was trying to invoke the subarctic with flurries of snow obscuring the landscape. The piece started out with Henderson, Dean, and Jefferson playing plaintive owl call whistles, and then reinvoking that feel on tenor and soprano sax. It became gradually more intense, with airy piano and soprano sax solos, and ended again with owl calls.
Despite the scheduling, the septet got an appreciative applause from the crowd. Certainly, people in the rows near the stage appeared to spend more time listening to the group than conducting loud conversations.
– Alayne McGregor