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Virtuosity in improvisation and composition: Colin Stetson & Hamid Drake, Darcy James Argue (review)

2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 4: Hamid Drake with Colin Stetson, Darcy James Argue's Secret Society
NAC Fourth Stage, Laurier Avenue Canadian Music Stage
Monday, June 23, 2014

Any time someone tells you that jazz is dying or that it only attracts the 50+ audience, you could point them to the concerts on June 23 and 24 at this year's Ottawa Jazz Festival.

On June 23, Snarky Puppy attracted a shoulder-to-shoulder standing-room-only crowd to the festival's outdoor stage in front of City Hall. And most of the listeners I saw there, clearly grooving to the intricate and well-executed jazz-rock mix with a huge dynamic range, were in their 20s or early 30s.

Earlier that evening, Colin Stetson's solo show at the NAC Fourth Stage was completely sold out. According to reports I heard from several listeners in attendance, disappointed fans of all ages were left at the door.

So I decided to show up early for Stetson's show with Hamid Drake the next evening, and was not at all surprised that the Fourth Stage again ended up packed, with most of the festival's Youth Summit members standing near the door. In fact, if the show hadn't partially overlapped with Hiromi's concert in the NAC Studio, I expect it would have attracted even more listeners.

The show was billed as “Hamid Drake with Colin Stetson” – an important distinction, because the show more closely reflected Drake's performance style than Stetson's. In fact, Stetson warned the audience at the beginning of the show that this would not be a repeat of Sunday night.

It consisted simply of four long-form on-the-spot improvisations. Stetson's solo concerts, by contrast, tend to feature his own compositions and a larger number of shorter pieces.

As the two musicians stepped on the stage, they were greeted with extended and enthusiastic applause, and a strong anticipatory vibe. That was quickly justified, as the Montreal saxophonist and the Chicago drummer showed how much in tune they were with each other. During each piece, it felt as though there was an invisible cord connecting them – each responding fluidly to the other's initiatives.

Stetson started on tenor sax, and switched to his trademark bass saxophone partway through the first piece. Although he did not wear his throat microphone for this show, the bass saxophone still resonated throughout the room, changing pitch as he swung it around.

By the end of the show, the audience had heard a full range of emotions in the music: from soothing and quiet, to increasingly tense with vibrating notes and impatient hand drumming, to growling and dramatic. At one point in the first piece, Stetson's tenor sounded uncannily like a crying baby, to the point where I actually started looking around for one. Drake moved smoothly from sticks to brushes to hand drumming, adding bright tones from a brass bowl on occasion; he produced barely-there brush strokes all the way up to furious staccatos.

Their last piece ended with Stetson first lightly blowing into his bass saxophone and clicking its keys, and then both of them slowing, with a last long held groaning note on bass sax overlaid by ringing cymbals. They shook hands and then hugged; the audience jumped to a standing ovation, repeating their hoots and huzzahs until they came back for an encore.

The duo's encore began with Drake on frame drum, chanting and letting the fast echoing notes bounce around the room. Stetson lightly joined in on alto sax, his muted notes echoing the otherworldly feeling. As the intensity built, Stetson added more curlicuing variations to his questing sax lines, and Drake increased the strength of his playing. Stetson ended the piece with a long held note as Drake slowed his drumming; the audience responded with another enthusiastic standing ovation.

It was a bravura performance, from two musicians who really can make music in the moment.

Darcy James Argue's Secret Society: many beautiful moments but more explanation needed

The festival's Laurier Avenue tent was close to full for Monday's late-night show: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society. Argue last brought the Society to Ottawa in 2011, also for a late-night and well-received show.

The 18-piece orchestra opened the show with the next best thing to an overture: “Transit”, from Argue's first CD, Infernal Machines. It began full and symphonic, deep and anticipatory, and then became satisfyingly multi-layered, with an attention-grabbing trumpet solo from Ingrid Jensen.

That was followed by “All In”, a piece Argue wrote last summer in tribute to a “fallen co-conspirator”, the late trumpeter and educator Laurie Frink. It was a celebration of a life well-lived, with Nadje Noordhuis leading a full trumpet section as they danced over the music, their bright calls contrasting with the deep bass rumble from the tubas and euphonium. Noordhuis' extended solo moved from soaring to light and exploratory, encapsulating the hopeful feel of the piece.

The main event of the night, however, was the Argue's new full-CD composition, Brooklyn Babylon, played in its entirety. This took almost an hour, which is a long time for a single piece, even though the music it contained was very diverse in instrumentation, dynamics, and feel. Argue himself described it as a “rather epic work”.

Within the sweep of the composition, there was lots of room for short individual solos. The clarinet and flute passages added a beautifully pastoral feel, while the brightness of the trumpets and soprano sax accented building tension. But ultimately this was an ensemble piece: each musician contributed to the whole rather than being individually spotlighted.

What really made this composition stand out for me was the bottom end. Argue included a euphonium and two tubas in his lineup: Jennifer Wharton on C-tuba, Jacob Garchik on tuba and trombone, and Mike Fahie on trombone and euphonium. They added a density and intensity that no other instruments could match; they increased the ominous, sombre feeling in many passages, and highlighted the drama of the story.

Although the CD contains 17 tracks, the live performance was not divided into any movements. It was one long stream of music, each section flowing into the next. However, because the sections could be so dramatically different, from Eastern-European style folk dances to propulsive brass sections to carousel music, it was obvious when the focus changed.

But that didn't actually tell the listeners where they were in the piece, or what was going on.

At the beginning, Argue gave a brief synopsis of the story. It's set in a larger-than-life, mythic Brooklyn, where past, present, and future coexist. The mayor wants to construct an immense tower — the tallest in the world — right in the heart of the city. He commissions Lev Bezdomni, a master carpenter, to build the carousel that will crown the building. But as Bezdomni realizes the effect this tower will have on his beloved neighbourhood, he is torn between personal ambition and his allegiance to the community.

It was difficult, however, to actually link the music to that story. If it had been a written piece, I would have said it needed subheads, call-outs, or pictures to break it up and clarify where it was going.

Just a second ... pictures?

And then I remembered that Argue had said he wrote this piece as a collaboration with visual artist Danijel Zezelj, whose artwork complements the music. When the piece was premiered in Brooklyn in 2011, the show combined Zezelj's animation and live painting with Argue's music.

If this show had included some of that visual content as cues, I think it would have been clearer and kept the audience's attention better. It certainly would have let us know what choice Bezdomni was supposed to have made at the climax of the piece: I couldn't tell from the music itself.

Alternatively, Argue could have stopped the music occasionally to add narration explaining what was happening.

Musically, Brooklyn Babylon is an extraordinary effort: the way it layers and combines its instruments, and the dynamism and power of its passages make it well worth listening to. (The immediate standing ovation at the end attested to that.) As an entire composition, I found it dragged in places primarily because I lost track of its narrative path. With a composition of that length based on a specific story, I think it needs some added cues and structure so the audience can follow along, and not start to feel frustrated and lost.

    – Alayne McGregor

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