The musical connection between pianist Brian Browne and vocalist Steve Berndt is immediately apparent. Walking into the piano showroom where I was to meet them, I could see Browne playing the piano, Berndt listening intently, with obvious enjoyment. As we talked, they amplified each others' comments, and laughed and joked together.
This Friday at the NAC Fourth Stage, they release their second album as a duo: All Over Again. It's a direct sequel to 2012's Déjà Vu, and even the album titles are linked. As Berndt explains, it's two halves of a quote from baseball great Yogi Berra: “It's déjà vu all over again”.
Four of the songs, all jazz standards, were recorded in 2012; others were recorded recently.
“Some of the tracks that we recorded in the original Déjà Vu sessions were very good, and I had to make a decision about having an album with 17 or 18 songs on it,” Berndt said. And so I made some decisions about what would be on Déjà Vu, and there's always been these extra tracks.”
“And so I began thinking it would be good to do a bookend album using those tracks, and also to have the chance to record with Brian again. So that's part of the reason I named it All Over Again. So all I had to do was to write a song called 'All Over Again' that was worth listening to and good.”
The bookend theme extends to the cover art. Both CD covers feature piano keyboards, but All Over Again is in ivory and gold, contrasting with Déjà Vu's black and white.
The new album contains a few more upbeat numbers than the first one, Berndt said, but otherwise there weren't many changes. It was recorded in the same studio as the first, with the same Bösendorfer piano.
“We just picked some songs: songs that I know and Brian likes. He knows just about every song, so it's not a question of whether or not he knows the song, so we just picked a bunch of tunes and I gave him my keys. We didn't really do anything more than walk into the studio at some point after that and start recording. It was the same sort of improvisational on-the-fly, made-up arrangements and the same thing we'll be doing when we perform live.”
The album opens with “Our Love Is Here To Stay”, a song by George and Ira Gershwin which was suggested by Berndt's girlfriend. “It starts off with just me singing that song and then Brian comes in and he starts grooving in a swing groove pretty soon, and it just seemed like a nice comfortable way to start. And then it gets moving and it set the tone for the album being a little bit more upbeat.”
“This is probably the most jazz-like relationship I've ever been in,” Browne said. “We don't rehearse. We go in – bang! What tempo? Don't worry about it. I start something. He sings. That's it.”
“I've never seen anything like it. They're mostly first takes. If a note gets goofed or something, we might do it again, but it's mostly first takes. He says, 'Is that OK with you?' And I say 'OK, let's go.' And if there's anything he wants to do later, he comes in and works on his voice part later. I'm there for a couple hours and go home. And the whole album is done.”
For the most part, the songs are ones Berndt has been performing for years – but not Browne, whose standard repertoire is different. But “I've known them and played them over the years,” Browne said. The only piece on the album he didn't know was “Born to be blue”, the lesser-known 1946 jazz standard written by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells.
The album contains two originals by Berndt: “The Moment”, a “nice quick little AA (musical form) kind of song” which “just happened” while he was composing tunes for The Jivewires and which was the last song to be added to the album, and the title track. “All Over Again” was written to fit the album, he said: a jazz ballad which he realized would have theme of “fall in love all over again”.
In both the album and in Friday's concert, the duo will be approaching the material slightly differently than two years ago: less simply alternating choruses between the vocals and piano, and more mixing them up.
“One of my little complaints from the last concert we did was that when he sings a whole chorus of a song, a big long chorus of a song, and then I play a big long chorus, and then he sings another big long chorus, to me it's dreary. So I said we should do something different this time,” Browne said.
“I think I might maybe play a whole tune solo, one chorus, and then he'll come in and sing that chorus, and that's the end of it. Or he do a whole chorus, I play half, he comes in on the second half. Maybe I just play a solo quickly or whatever, a short version, he comes in and sings, and pfft we're out – just to shorten up some of the long performances.”
In the new album, Berndt said, they played just the preamble and the tune of “Mona Lisa”, with “no solo, no second time, none of that. And so we did that a couple times. There's a couple tunes where we just went through the tune twice without a solo in between. So we tried to mix it up a little bit in this recording as well.”
But, for the most part, the album and their concerts are “somebody singing and somebody playing piano. It's not a big Hollywood lounge act where you've got all kinds of props and you try to be terribly entertaining. It's about the music. That's what the album is about and that's what the show is about.”
Friday's concert – whose set list Berndt was still developing – should have songs from both albums, possibly even some songs they recorded in their latest session and but didn't include.
“Now we have other left-over songs!” Berndt said. “There's a bunch more from the sessions that I didn't put on this album, and some of them are really good. The version of 'God Bless the Child' is great. It's long but it's very, very good. I was thinking I might put it on YouTube or something, and just get it out there.”
But both were definite there won't be a third album. “No, this is done. I'm not going to do a third album. It's not going to happen,” Berndt said.
If no more duo CDs, what will they be working on? Berndt said he's been busy finishing the new Jivewires album, Blues 101, which he hopes to have released this fall. He's also writing and recording with a new R&B act, Delbert and the Commotions, along with local saxophonist Brian Asselin.
Browne is preparing to record a new solo piano CD – “as soon as I can, like tomorrow” – but he's still working on the songlist. He's planning to have a solo concert at the NAC Fourth Stage in the fall, and release the CD then.
And they'll continue to perform together, both in and outside Ottawa. Berndt is currently looking for festivals and other dates, and hopes to finally get them to Montreal. He said that Joel Giberovitch, the owner of the Upstairs Club in Montreal, was a huge fan of Déjà Vu and had tried to book them several times, but due to scheduling conflicts they hadn't yet played there.
– Alayne McGregor
See OttawaJazzScene.ca's video interview with Steve and Brian about the release of Déjà Vu, including clips from their CD release concert at the NAC Fourth Stage: