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Jef Neve's dramatic piano compositions enthrall his Ottawa Jazz Festival audience

Jef Neve
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Monday, June 29, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Michael Bates' Northern Spy
Great Canadian Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Monday, June 29, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

Jef Neve is a Belgian pianist and composer with considerable credits in both classical and jazz, who has been touring and recording as a jazz artist for more than a dozen years now, including performing with vibraphonist Pascal Schumacher and American singer José James. He had just come from five days of performing in Japan before this show, and afterwards was heading off to Vancouver.

He's a polished performer – musically, in his appearance (three-piece brocade suit), and in his easy rapport with the audience. This was the first time he'd performed in Ottawa, but his demeanour throughout his solo piano show was natural and comfortable.

Neve had to compete with Pink Martini's full house in Confederation Park, so the Fourth Stage looked a bit empty to start but filled in throughout the first half-hour as listeners came in from the 7 p.m. Studio show. At the beginning, almost the entire audience was in the south half of the room, the better to see Neve's hands on the piano keyboard.

His set-list was a mixture of standards and originals, performed with verve but also sensitivity. He started by playing thunderously on the strings inside his grand piano, following that up with rumbling bass lines, and then letting vibrating notes resolve into a melody. It was Billy Strayhorn's “Lush Life”, performed gracefully and with added flourishes. Neve said later that the song had added meaning for him because of Strayhorn's role as a composer from a young age.

Read more: Jef Neve's dramatic piano compositions enthrall his Ottawa Jazz Festival audience


From hypnotic groove to intimate duets: two very different French groups at the Ottawa Jazz Festival (review)

Céline Bonacina Trio
Improv Invitational series: Spotlight on French Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 27, 2015 – 6 p.m.

Airelle Besson and Nelson Veras - Prelude
Improv Invitational series: Spotlight on French Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 27, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Half an hour into Céline Bonacina's concert at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, her trio was filling the Fourth Stage with a deep, hypnotic groove. Loud and all-encompassing, the groove was created by her fluid, circling lines on baritone sax, hard drumming, and deep bass notes.

It was typical of a concert that featured standard jazz instruments, but used them in different ways, altered them with effects and looping, and replaced swing with funk rhythms. Bonacina switched among baritone, alto, and soprano sax, and was joined by Olivier Carole, playing a five-string electric bass (with an added deeper string), and Hary Ratsimbazafy on drums.

It was what could only be described as an in-your-face show.

The French saxophonist primarily plays the baritone sax. Now the baritone can be a melodic instrument, or a mainstay of the rhythm section, but Bonacina played it as both. She easily drew out different sounds from it, and repeatedly used circular breathing to create extended vibrating lines. There was almost an element of cognitive dissonance hearing a person so short and slim producing such intense, huge sounds from that saxophone.

Read more: From hypnotic groove to intimate duets: two very different French groups at the Ottawa Jazz Festival (review)


The joy in Robi Botos' music delights an Ottawa Jazz Festival audience

Robi Botos Quartet with Seamus Blake
Great Canadian Jazz Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

Toronto pianist Robi Botos communicates a real joy in music when he plays. He had a big smile on his face as he began his Ottawa Jazz Festival concert Tuesday, and told the crowd how excited he was to bring, for the first time, his original music here as leader.

He also had a new album to promote – Movin' Forward [A440/Universal, 2015]  – and a new sound that's more his own.

When Botos won the TD Grand Prize at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2012, his music still showed the strong influence of his mentor, Oscar Peterson. Botos certainly hasn't lost either his delicate touch on ballads or his driving rhythm on straight-ahead pieces, but he's developed and expanded his own sound. Now there's touches of funk and electronics adding a modern edge as well.

And he has good taste in musical collaborators: both the album and this concert featured ex-pat Canadian, now NYC tenor sax player Seamus Blake. Blake is one of those saxophonists with a major reputation; I've made a point of hearing him every time he's played in Ottawa in the last few years and his playing has always substantially enhanced the music.

Read more: The joy in Robi Botos' music delights an Ottawa Jazz Festival audience


Emil Viklicky turns his Moravian heritage into melodic and dramatic jazz

Emil Viklicky “Grand Moravia” Trio
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Emil Viklicky is a pianist and composer from Moravia, the south-eastern region of the Czech Republic. Besides a jazz career spanning 40 years, he's also written several operas and TV and film scores. In 2004, Wynton Marsalis commissioned him to orchestrate the prison letters of former Czech President Václav Havel for a big band concert at Lincoln Centre.

And consistently throughout his career, Viklicky has used the folk music of his native Moravia as an inspiration for his jazz and classical compositions. As he said in one interview, that's his “calling card”. While he can play jazz standards, those folksongs are what he grew up with, and his own musical language.

Almost all of the pieces in this concert incorporated these Moravian themes, performed by Viklicky on piano with Petr Dvorsky on double bass and Cyril Zelenak on drums.

Read more: Emil Viklicky turns his Moravian heritage into melodic and dramatic jazz


Duchess: “Girl-on-girl harmony” in a very easy to enjoy show (review)

Great Canadian Jazz Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Saturday, June 20, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

There was a time when jazz didn't take itself too seriously.You went to a jazz show to have fun, to dance, to get cheered up.

The vocal trio Duchess – Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner, and Melissa Stylianou – did its damnedest to bring back that era at its Ottawa Jazz Festival concert Saturday. Supported by a strong rhythm section, they sang cheerful jazz standards in tight harmony, in a show that was very easy to enjoy.

“Girl-on-girl harmony” is how the trio describes its music, and a great deal of it was sung in unison. They alternated verses and even lines, and their voices melded well as they celebrated the songs – which were mostly from the 1930s to 50s, and which they described as “timeless”. They followed that theme through by dressing similarly – though not identically – in well-cut, blue polka-dot dresses in a distinctly retro style.

Read more: Duchess: “Girl-on-girl harmony” in a very easy to enjoy show (review)


Ottawa Jazz Festival's late-night jam an upbeat completion to Saturday's music

Festival programming manager Petr Cancura (l) listens to a swinging duet by jam hosts pianist Steve Boudreau (on June 27-30) and guitarist Roddy Ellias. All three played with a variety of guest musicians throughout the jam  ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Ottawa Jazz Festival Late-night jam
Spin Kitchen & Bar, Ottawa Marriott Hotel
10:30 p.m. Saturday, June 20 to 1 a.m. Sunday, June 21, 2015

View photos of this jam by photojournalist Brett Delmage

Jazz fans who wanted an upbeat end to Saturday evening would have enjoyed the Ottawa Jazz Festival's late-night jam session. For 2½ hours, Spin Kitchen & Bar was filled with fast-moving jazz, with a good participation by both local and visiting musicians.

The house band – Roddy Ellias (guitar), John Geggie (double bass), and Nick Fraser (drums) – all have years of experience running jams. They opened with a half-hour set of three standards, including “Cheek to Cheek” and “Domino”. Each was given an extended treatment, and the music quickly captured the attention of the listeners near the stage.

By 11 p.m., the room, seating approximately 50 with clear sight lines to the stage, was mostly full. Ellias called up local pianist Steve Boudreau to the stage to join the band for several instrumentals. That set the shape of the music for the evening: energetic with lots of interplay, including a swinging duet between Boudreau and Ellias. The audience responded with continued appreciative applause.

Read more: Ottawa Jazz Festival's late-night jam an upbeat completion to Saturday's music


Ottawa Jazz Festival June 19 - jam session (review)

Even a short stay at the first night of jamming on June 19 gave me a good feeling for what to expect late at night at this year's Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Walking in at 11 p.m., I saw a pianist intently bent over his keyboard, his hair obscuring his face. He was producing long strings of separated notes, clearly playing free jazz improv. Guitarist Roddy Ellias standing nearby on the stage, was responding to and contributing to the pointillist flow, together with John Geggie on double bass and Nick Fraser on drums. The music kept cornering unexpectedly – you couldn't predict where it would go – but it was very clear there was a strong thread connecting all four.

Read more: Ottawa Jazz Festival June 19 - jam session (review)


Laura Crema brings a fresh approach to jazz standards

Laura Crema's strong, supple voice, with a huskiness in her lower registers added extra depth and interest to the show ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Laura Crema
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, May 30, 2015

View photos of this performance

There have been times when I've become Great American Songbooked-out. No more Broadway show tunes. No more songs that are indelibly associated with Billie or Peggy or Lena or Blossom. No more George Gershwin or Harold Arlen.

It's not that these jazz standards aren't extremely well-written – both lyrics and melody. But I've heard them sung in much the same way too many times.

This is an issue for any singer who includes more than a few standards in a show. Recognizability gives you an extra link to the audience, but it can also make you blend into a crowd of similar singers – unless you make an individual connection to a song.

So we come to Vancouver jazz vocalist Laura Crema, who made her National Arts Centre debut as part of the NAC Presents series on May 30. Crema's four solo albums have almost exclusively featured jazz standards; her latest, Fotografia [2013], includes seven standards, but also two songs by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim and two originals.

For the NAC show, she interspersed the jazz standards with three Jobim numbers, two songs by John Lennon and by Paul McCartney (“new standards”), and a few originals. And what really appealed to me is that she and her musicians took a fresh approach to the music.

Read more: Laura Crema brings a fresh approach to jazz standards


Celebrating Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's rich legacy at Brookstreet (review)

Roddy Ellias and Nancy Walker collaborated beautifully ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Tribute to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
with Nancy Walker, Roddy Ellias, Kieran Overs, and Michel Delage
Brookstreet Hotel Options Jazz Lounge
Friday, May 29, 2015

Jazz composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn wrote such a huge range and number of compositions that a tribute to them doesn't have to stick to the obvious. And on the first evening of a two-night run at Brookstreet, Toronto pianist Nancy Walker and Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias chose some less well-known numbers like “My Little Brown Book”, “Day Dream”, and “Rain Check” to complement the classics like “Prelude to a Kiss” and “Upper Manhattan Medical Group”.

Walker and Ellias hadn't played a full show together before this, but, with occasional quick conferring between songs, they collaborated beautifully, easily switching roles between lead and accompaniment or both working to display the melody in different ways. Almost all these pieces were originally performed by Ellington's big band, and in several songs such as “Purple Gazelle”, Ellias' archtop electric had a similar flowing feel to a tenor saxophone solo.

This was the third show in the monthly jazz tribute series at Brookstreet organized by Ottawa drummer Michel Delage, and Delage and veteran Toronto bassist Kieran Overs provided swinging and nuanced rhythms behind Walker and Ellias, occasionally stepping out for short solos reflecting the melody and feel of the songs, and trading fours with the guitar or piano.

Read more: Celebrating Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's rich legacy at Brookstreet (review)


Garry Elliott and Bumpin' Binary make the organ trio fresh and compelling (review)

Don Cummings, Mike Essoudry, Garry Elliott ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Garry Elliott and Bumpin' Binary
GigSpace Performance Studio
Saturday, May 23, 2015

Just a few days after Mad Men ended its TV recollections of the 1960s, three Ottawa musicians brought some of that decade's music back – and made it fresh and compelling.

It was an evening of organ trio music, with guitarist Garry Elliott performing for the first time with the Bumpin' Binary duo: Don Cummings on Hammond organ and Mike Essoudry on drums. And their inspiration came from the giants of that genre, including organist Jimmy Smith and guitarist Grant Green.

There was groove – lots of it. There were sharp contrasts between bright guitar licks and light cymbal taps, and the full organ chords. And there was melody and feeling expressed in the slower numbers.

The organ trio, with Hammond B3, drums and either electric guitar or saxophone, flourished in the 60s with artists like Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Jack McDuff on organ teaming up with guitarists like Green, Kenny Burrell, George Benson, and Wes Montgomery. After a partial eclipse over the next few decades, it's been revived more recently by musicians like Joey DeFrancesco and Larry Goldings.

Read more: Garry Elliott and Bumpin' Binary make the organ trio fresh and compelling (review)


The young and the experienced collaborate in a fast-moving show

Ben Heard was double-bassed all evening ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Roddy Ellias / Ben Heard / Keagan Eskritt (set 1)
The Chris Maskell Quartet (set 2)
Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Three talented young jazz musicians teamed up with three experienced musicians on Tuesday to perform two sets, each with a very different vibe.

Common to both was young bassist Ben Heard, who arranged the first set with fellow student drummer Keagan Eskritt and master guitarist Roddy Ellias. The three met at the JazzEd sessions which Ellias had taught with local high school musicians in 2013, and kept playing together even after the last JazzEd concert.

Although the trio's set had lots of swing, it was on the quiet, thoughtful side, opening with a flowing version of Henry Mancini's “Days of Wine and Roses”. Ellias contributed a new composition, “Postcard”, a wistful, melodic piece which included exploratory passages; Heard's original, “Spindle”, moved from stately and a bit melancholy to almost flamenco in style, before ending with delicate harmonic notes on the guitar.

They closed in a more emphatic vein with Eskritt's “Smash”, which began with a deep bass riff and hard drumming and then added strongly-accented guitar lines, to produce intense music where notes were held and played before and after the beat. It ended abruptly, and was greeted with appreciative applause from the audience, which filled almost every seat in the café.

For the second set, Ottawa tenor saxophonist Chris Maskell, who will enter his final year studying jazz performance at McGill University this fall, teamed up with Heard and two well-known players on the local scene: drummer Mike Essoudry and guitarist Alex Moxon. They played originals by all members of the group and a good mixture of less-common jazz classics, such as “Punjab” by Joe Henderson and “Take the Coltrane” by Duke Ellington.

Read more: The young and the experienced collaborate in a fast-moving show


Big Band Ottawa plays to keep big band music alive

Big Band Ottawa leader Robert Vogelsang (trombone): 'We're all here because we love to play'  ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Big Band Ottawa
Canadian Tulip Festival
Commissioner's Park, Dow's Lake, Ottawa
Saturday, May 16, 2015

This year, the Tulip Festival showcased big band jazz in honour of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands in 1945.

The energy and enthusiasm of Big Band Ottawa – and the interest they created in their audience – showed that this music was far more than a historical artifact.

The big band attracted listeners who stayed – and grew in number – during its two, hour-long sets, and not just people who danced to that music back in the 40s and 50s, either. It included everyone from toddlers to teenagers to 20-somethings to seniors, and of a wide range range of ethnicities.

Big Band Ottawa's leader and trombonist Robert Vogelsang told that the group has been together for four years. Many of the members had played in other, now-defunct big bands, such as Big Band Caravane, and missed playing the music, he said. They rehearse every week and play 10 to 12 shows a year, some private, some for veterans, and some huge shows – for example last year's New Year's show at the National Arts Centre, which sold out with 1000 attendees.

The band's 18 instrumentalists include both professional and amateur musicians, with ages ranging from late teens/early 20s to much later.

Read more: Big Band Ottawa plays to keep big band music alive


Kathryn Ladano takes her bass clarinet from growls to helices of melody

 ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Kathryn Ladano
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO) #121
Raw Sugar Café
Sunday, May 17, 2015 - 7 p.m.

Bass clarinetist Kathryn Ladano took her instrument from deep bass growls to unearthly treble lines to percussive pops at her Ottawa concert Sunday – in a café of silent listeners absorbed in her music, despite the attractions of balmy spring weather during a long weekend.

The Waterloo-based musician and educator, who studied with bass clarinet master Lori Freedman, is on tour across Canada. She's performing solo but also promoting ...Listen, the just-released album by Stealth, her duo with Richard Burrows of the TorQ Percussion Quartet.

On that album, she said, Burrows primarily plays vibraphone – which made the second half of this concert, a duet with Ottawa percussionist Rory Magill playing the similar xylophone and assorted percussion, particularly fitting.

This show was the second stop on Ladano's tour, and part of the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO) biweekly concert series. It attracted IMOO regulars, but also new audience members who stayed for the entire concert.

For the first set, Ladano performed solo: a series of six compositions and improvisations, each lasting about 5 to 8 minutes. She opened with vibrating bass notes, reminiscent of whale songs, and deeper than I'd heard on a bass clarinet – and then moved to lighter, shimmering notes, more like from a bass flute. She filled the entire room with long, vibrating tones, quiet blankets of sound which ebbed and flowed in intensity, dual circling lines of melody, and memorable rhythms.

Read more: Kathryn Ladano takes her bass clarinet from growls to helices of melody


John Geggie's two-saxophone experiment satisfies the audience

John Geggie's 2015 Invitational Concert with Jim Doxas, Kelly Jefferson, and Frank Lozano
NAC Presents
NAC Fourth Stage
Saturday, April 25, 2015

Jazz is a genre of experimentation. Improvisation is the norm; new combinations are welcomed.

So when John Geggie decided to go chordless – no piano, no guitar – for his annual Invitational concert, I figured it would be an opportunity to hear some interesting interactions and different music. And with saxophonists Kelly Jefferson and Frank Lozano in front, and Geggie on double bass and Jim Doxas on drums driving the rhythm, that's exactly what happened.

"Concerts like this are special because they are ephemeral: even in Canada's smaller jazz scene, musicians in different cities who aren't in the same groups are unlikely to get together often. It made for a special experience for the audience."

Jefferson and Lozano have known each other since they studied jazz at the same time at McGill University, though with Jefferson busy on the Toronto scene and Lozano in Montreal, they haven't had much chance lately to perform together. They both showed up with tenor and soprano saxophones, and deployed them in every possible combination: two tenors, two sopranos, one tenor and one soprano, and one soprano and one tenor.

Although all the musicians except Doxas contributed compositions – one even written on the train coming up – the set-list contained more jazz classics than usual at a Geggie concert. They opened with Ornette Coleman's “The Blessing”, emphasizing the groove in the piece.

Lozano and Jefferson began by blowing in unison on soprano, and then divided: Jefferson first outlining the melody incisively and delicately in the instrument's higher range with Lozano playing a simple line underneath, then Lozano taking over playing in a slightly lower register. The rhythm section supported them with strong forward motion, and then Geggie moved to the forefront with a sparse, deep, almost grumbling bass solo, with Doxas adding light drum thumps and cymbal taps as accents. Jefferson returned with an assertive soprano line and was joined after a few bars by Lozano, and they ended the piece as it began: strong and swinging.

Read more: John Geggie's two-saxophone experiment satisfies the audience


Mike Murley revisits the past and celebrates the new with his septet at Ontario Scene

Kevin Turcotte's intense trumpet lines added to the energy of Mike Murley's Septet at the NAC's Ontario Scene. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

The Mike Murley Septet
Ontario Scene
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Friday, May 8, 2015

View photos of this performance

What do you get when you put seven fine musicians from Toronto on stage together in Ottawa? A night of satisfying and wide-ranging mainstream jazz, melodic and dynamic.

Jazz, in particular, benefits from more instrumental voices on stage, allowing more interplay and different arrangements – but the economics of touring a large group can be daunting. That's why we see very few visiting big bands, or even a septet like the one saxophonist and composer Mike Murley brought to the NAC Fourth Stage Friday night.

He was there as part of the NAC's Ontario Scene festival, whose mandate is to “celebrate the province’s dynamic culture: a synergy of tradition and innovation, of established and emerging artists”. Murley is certainly an established artist – it's been almost 35 years since he left Nova Scotia for Toronto and since then he's established himself as an essential part of the Canadian jazz scene, winning many Junos and National Jazz Awards. His recordings celebrate both the tradition (jazz standards with guitarist Ed Bickert) and innovation (the electric jazz of Metalwood).

The room was packed and expectant as Murley took the stage, along with Tara Davidson (soprano and alto sax), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet and flugelhorn), William Carn (trombone), David Braid (piano), Jim Vivian (double bass), and Ted Warren (drums). It's the same lineup as when he formed the septet a decade ago, with the exception of Carn, who was subbing for Terry Promane.

Read more: Mike Murley revisits the past and celebrates the new with his septet at Ontario Scene


Mirror Duo made drums - and only drums - a compelling show

Michel Delage and Mike Essoudry conversed by drum for two engaging sets ©Brett Delmage, 2015

The Mirror Duo
Mugshots (Nicholas Street Jail Hostel)
Thursday, April 30, 2015

See photos of this performance

If you want to totally silence a bar, get drummers - only drummers - to play in it.

The opening piece by the Mirror Duo halted conversations in Mugshots within seconds – to a total silence in that bar that I had never before witnessed. Drummers Michel Delage and Mike Essoudry started their performance by bowing their menagerie of cymbals with long, resonant strokes and changing pitches. It was surprising: not the percussive sounds that listeners might expect to hear from the small stage tightly packed with two bass drums, four toms, several snares, and eight cymbals - including four hi-hats - and assorted bowls and hand-held percussive instruments.

Taking full advantage of their now fully-attentive audience and the acoustic opportunity, the duo moved into their second quiet piece with overlapping and alternating brushed strokes on drum skins and cymbals, changing in tempo, intensity and pitch.

Read more: Mirror Duo made drums - and only drums - a compelling show


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


Jesse Stewart's BOOM silences listeners at the Diefenbunker

Jesse Stewart rehearses for the BOOM performances ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Jesse Stewart's "Boom"
Ontario Scene
Diefenbunker blast tunnel
Sunday, May 3, 2015

Improviser and percussionist Jesse Stewart conjured up auditory references to the Cold War and the Diefenbunker - the Canadian government's massive underground Cold War nuclear bomb shelter, now museum – with his performances in its blast tunnel entrance on May 3.

Stewart's performance of “BOOM” was highly dynamic. He animated the tunnel with sounds ranging from barely audible dripping water – a reference to its use in torture – to bass drum beats. The drum beats grew from an almost inaudible low rumble conveying a heightening sense of impending doom, to the loudest of booms that echoed for seconds inside the tunnel, invoking images of nuclear bombs exploding outside.

In his two, forty-minute, continuous and improvised performances, he transformed the simple ribbed texture of the concrete floor into a variety of sounds with aid of a dragged metal bar. He created sound from a struck and shaken spring, audibly referencing the many springs which suspend equipment inside to protect it from bomb-induced shock. He also used a wide variety of unusual devices to make music with, which included a metal kitchen bowl, wind-up toy, and more traditional brass bowls/gongs, drumsticks, and mallets.

Read more: Jesse Stewart's BOOM silences listeners at the Diefenbunker


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)