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Collaboration in two acts: Newport Festival Now 60 & the Norma Winstone Trio

2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 8: Newport Festival Now 60, Norma Winstone Trio
National Arts Centre (Studio and Fourth Stage)
Friday, June 27, 2014

I was curious exactly how this Newport Festival all-star group was going to celebrate the festival's 60th anniversary – in a concert less than two hours long.

Trying to be historically representative would require playing tiny snippets of many songs – not that much fun for the audience. Even trying to reflect all the major styles and types and movements in jazz that have been showcased on that festival's stage since 1954 would have been effectively impossible!

What the septet ended up presenting was an upbeat show of many standards and a few originals – mainstream jazz played with verve, enthusiasm, and quite a dollop of skill. Arguably, that did indeed reflect Newport's spirit and the quality of what it's offered over the decades.

I was immediately interested in this show when I saw that NYC clarinetist Anat Cohen was its musical director, and that it also featured musicians I'd enjoyed hearing previously, trumpeter Randy Brecker and bassist Larry Grenadier. But also contributing substantially were vocalist Karrin Allyson, pianist Peter Martin, drummer Clarence Penn, and guitarist Mark Whitfield. I finished the concert wanting to hear much more from Martin and Whitfield in particular, who produced some fine musical moments.

The show opened with a rousing version of Ornette Coleman's “Blues Connotation”. Allyson's scatting, a vibrating trumpet solo from Brecker, and an accented tenor sax solo from Cohen all contributed to the fast-paced and audience-pleasing vibe.

A non-stop set followed, including vocal jazz, some Latin pieces, and some all-out instrumentals, each played with verve. Highlights included Allyson's slow, controlled, and deeply emotional vocals on Monk's “Round Midnight”, accompanied only by Grenadier's thoughtful and resonant bass, and Whitfield's multi-layered solo guitar on “Midnight Sun”, reflective and beautiful.

In “La Vie en Rose”, Cohen let her clarinet take flight, both in dynamic solos and in a bright and swinging duet with Brecker. It was an extended and very different take on what is usually a slow, emotional vocal show-stopper: this was faster, edgier, and more texturally and dynamically varied. The audience loved it, giving the group a mid-show standing ovation.

Partway through, Brecker thanked founder George Wein for Newport's success. But other than that, there weren't any anecdotes or reminiscences about the festival. Instead, the rotating hosts (everyone on stage had a chance at the mic) talked about the other musicians and the music. Penn did a particularly good job of teasing the other players and engaging the audience.

The show ended with an energetic Monk montage arranged by Penn, and another standing ovation. The encore was a composition by Peter Martin, “Cuba New Orleans”, which started with his romantic piano introduction and Cohen's bright Latin-influenced lines on clarinet. Each musician added to the rhythmic mix, with scatting, full-bodied trumpet, repeating shakers, and fast and inflected guitar lines – which clearly delighted the audience, who gave it a third standing ovation.

This show was a reminder that listening to music, and jazz in particular, should be fun. The overall high level of skill combined with the way the musicians communicated their joy in the music made for a memorable evening.

Norma Winstone / Klaus Gesing / Glauco Venier

British vocalist Norma Winstone has been collaborating with German saxophonist/clarinetist Klaus Gesing and Italian pianist Glauco Venier since 2002. They've released four albums on ECM, including the Grammy-nominated Distances [2007], and most recently Dance Without Answer [2014].

For more than four decades, Winstone has worked with with some of the finest composers in jazz, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland among them. But, in person, the trio members are unassuming and friendly trio: working musicians not “stars”. That's until they start playing and one's attention becomes riveted on the music.

In an 80-minute concert in the NAC Fourth Stage, the trio played a mixture of originals and re-envisioned pop songs, mostly from their latest CD. While Winstone's clear soprano is a flexible instrument, capable of considerable jumps and unexpected changes, primarily she concentrated on giving the lyrics their full emotional resonance. She also frequently added wordless vocals, acting as a third instrument entwined with the piano and sax/clarinet.

For several pieces in the show, Winstone wrote lyrics, generally simple and direct in form and fitting the music well. “High Places” by Gesing, for example, featured dramatic lyrics which she said were influenced by seeing the recent Canadian film, Incendies.

The same direct style was apparent in the instrumentals. Venier's piano technique moved from simple romantic ballad-style playing to acerbic to strumming the strings inside the piano, but never crossed the line into over-ornamentation. Gesing's tone on bass clarinet and soprano sax was simply beautiful; even when he jumped the intensity with fast circling abstract lines, they were always clear, never muddy.

Venier dedicated one piece to his grandmother and a fairytale she used to tell him, which Winstone sung in a dialect from the Alps region of Italy. It was a catchy, danceable tune which featured unexpected percussion – Gesing clicking his bass clarinet keys, Venier tapping his piano frame, and Winstone creating rhythms with her voice in sync with the clarinet.

But what really grabbed the audience was the way all three musicians communicated emotion: for example in the bittersweet number “Dance Without Answer”. Another Winstone-Gesing collaboration, it was a fluid ballad, where the deep bass clarinet solo echoed and accented Winstone's vocals. Carefully crafted, it ended with bright bell-like piano notes, and evoked strong applause.

Winstone came nearest to actual verbal pyrotechnics at the end of the concert, with wordless vocals soaring very high before returning to rhythmic scatting and then ending with a long held note. The audience responded with a standing ovation and demanded an encore.

The encore was again simple and moving: Dave Grusin’s “It Might Be You”, the theme song of the movie Tootsie. Introduced by a rich bass clarinet solo, it featured Winstone singing sincerely and intently over light accompaniment on piano and clarinet. The effect was simply magical, like the entire concert.

    – Alayne McGregor

Photos are not available for this review because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied access to OttawaJazzScene.ca's photojournalist.