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Ottawa audience enjoys Organic's groove (review)

Nathan Hiltz and Mike Essoudry, in musical conversation. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Nathan Hiltz's Organic, featuring Bernie Senensky
Zola's Restaurant
Thursday, September 25, 2014 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos of this performance

I love jazz organ music. There's something about the deep throb of a organ – whether a Hammond B3 or a church organ – that adds richness and immediacy to the music. And a lot of groove.

But there aren't that many real Hammond organs out there – or organists – so it was a treat to hear the Toronto quartet Organic in Ottawa for its first appearance Thursday.

Guitarist Nathan Hiltz and pianist/organist Bernie Senensky started playing together every Sunday night at a downtown Toronto club seven years ago. Senensky loved the sound of the club's Hammond B3; Hiltz was influenced by guitarists like Wes Montgomery and Grant Green who had regularly played with organists.

A few years later, they added tenor saxophonist Ryan Oliver and drummer Morgan Childs, and they've been performing weekly as Organic ever since. You could see and hear that familiarity in the quartet's playing: there was an ease and suppleness in how they switched leads and supported each other.

For the Ottawa show, Ottawa drummer Mike Essoudry subbed in for Childs. Essoudry was an inspired choice: he's been regularly playing with local Hammond organ player Don Cummings for more than five years (as well as in a wide variety of jazz/funk groups), and his crisp attack and atmospheric cymbals smoothly fit in and enhanced the music. I particularly enjoyed the sections where he alternated short but interwoven solo percussion with Oliver's in-your-face sax solos.

The group played two hour-long sets, ranging from Great American Songbook standards to jazz classics to originals. They opened with “Big John” by hard bop organist John Patton, with fluid sax contrasting with bright pizzicato on guitar and strong riffs on organ, with a strong groove supported by all the musicians.

I wouldn't have expected “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in this setting, but its beautiful melody, played slowly and with feeling, was evocatively interpreted on guitar, sax, and organ. It resonated through the room, played delicately but not too sweetly, with extra texture provided by cymbals and organ rumbles and by Oliver's occasionally-gruff sax.

Charlie Chaplin's “Smile” is most frequently heard as a ballad, but Organic played it in double-quick time, with fast variations on organ, circling around the tune, and intense short drum interludes – a new and interesting interpretation.

Local musician Patrick Denison, who went to school with Hiltz, sat in on alto sax for an extended exploration of “Lover Man” (best known as a ballad sung by Billie Holiday). He opened the song by retelling its melody, keeping to the spirit of its bittersweet lyrics. Oliver provided a more assertive interpretation; Senensky followed with flowing, bluesy organ riffs, altering the emphasis and playing variations on the tune. The song ended with Oliver's hard-edged, vibrating tenor underlaid by Denison's alto, and then both slowed. Denison reprised the melody as they closed, for a satisfying conclusion.

Oliver's “Amsterdamage” (from the group's debut CD) reminded me of a Horace Silver number. It featured fast, grooving sax, a rhythmic bluesy guitar solo, and syncopated organ fills: lots of improvisation and reinterpretation of each other's ideas, and just the ticket for an organ quartet.

Senensky contributed one tune: “Silver Trane” was an guitar/organ showcase, fast and bopping and crowd-pleasing. Morgan Childs' “Theodore” was a swinging calypso number. Fast and fun, it also included raw-edged sax lines, flowing guitar lines, and bright organ (even reminding me of steel drums in places). Both were also on the group's CD.

The groove really came out for Wes Montgomery's “Full House”, a classic that had room for lots of attack and fast, repeated riffs, but also smooth, full waves of sound from the organ. It featured Hiltz on guitar, in a long exploratory solo with repeated climaxes, and Essoudry in a fast circling drum solo, before ending with a fast, punctuated sax/guitar solo.

The attraction of an organ quartet is how rich and full and satisfying it is, like an overflowing bowl of spicy stew. I was impressed with what love and intensity all four musicians approached this music, and how strongly layered their sound was. From the first song onwards, they captured and kept the attention of almost the entire audience.

The show was at Zola's, an Italian restaurant in Ottawa's western suburbs, which was runner-up in the jazz venues category in OttawaJazzScene.ca's 2013 Jazz Favourites Poll. Despite the band playing mostly acoustically (other than amps for electric guitar and organ), the sound was clear and clean right to the back of the long room. Senensky played a Nord Electro organ, which did an excellent job of emulating a Hammond B3, while being much more portable (17 lbs as opposed to 400-odd); however, the amp he had rented in Ottawa couldn't be turned up as loud as he would have liked without creating distortion. The organ was still clearly audible and had an excellent tone, but it would have sounded even better with a just a little more authority and presence.

The restaurant was less than half-full, a disappointment given the high quality of the music and the musicians – perhaps because of competition with other music events this weekend, or miscommunication regarding cover charges? Those who attended – primarily long-time local jazz fans – thoroughly enjoyed themselves, with strong applause after each number, and almost everyone staying for both sets.

Organic is off to Montreal this evening (Friday, September 26), for a show at the Résonance Café. Morgan Childs will be back on drums, and the café has arranged for Senensky to play a real Hammond B3. Based on their Ottawa show, it should be well worth hearing.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Bernie Senensky:

All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage

October 3: Corrected the story to indicate that "Theodore" was by Morgan Childs.