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Kyle Shepherd plays with unexpected rhythms in his piano trio concert (review)

Kyle Shepherd Trio
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Friday, June 26, 2015 – 8 p.m.

The South African pianist Kyle Shepherd, who is not yet 30, has garnered a great deal of attention in his short career – including at this concert, which was completely sold out. The lobby outside the Fourth Stage was a zoo, with many listeners I had not previously seen at jazzfest concerts, including one man in floor-length African tribal dress.

The concert was part of the festival's five-show South Africa NOW! Series, and was introduced by South Africa's High Commissioner to Canada.

Shepherd played selections from his most recent album, Dream State, a double CD featuring his own compositions. He began the concert by sitting on the bench of the piano, carrying a wooden skewer and a long stake with an open loop at one end. He played a single note on the piano and then began creating metallic sounds by tapping the stake – as well as whistling through its top. Throughout, he was applying effects, making it sound as though it were being played underwater. Then he looped the music and started lightly chanting over the result while continuing to tap.

Also on stage were his frequent collaborators Shane Cooper on double bass and Jonno Sweetman on drums, and they joined in with Shepherd shortly thereafter. While the looped music continued, Cooper and Shepherd alternated playing. Shepherd played simple, African-inspired patterns with his hand muting the strings inside the piano, while Cooper responded with similar patterns on bass.

It was a lovely but slightly disquieting intro to the show, and an indication that this was not going to be your typical piano trio concert.

Then the looped sounds ended, the drums entered, and the music became more melodic and more reminiscent of mainstream jazz, fast-paced and vibrant. Gradually, Shepherd started repeating patterns, and bouncing off one or a few notes, until all three musicians stopped abruptly. The audience responded with strong applause.

During the 70-minute concert, Shepherd appeared immersed in the music, moving to it with his whole body. He was well-supported by Sweetman and Cooper who easily moved with him through all the changing moods and styles of the music. But those who expected oodles of melody were going to be disappointed; Shepherd used the piano more as a rhythmic than a lyric instrument. The second piece the trio played, for example, started out as a melodic anthem, but an ominous bass riff soon developed and the piece turned into a dialogue between a heavy bass hand and a bright rippling treble.

The third piece began thoughtfully and expansively but with a strong bass undertone, and then deconstructed itself with bright abstract drumming, off-and-on rapid piano ripples, and a fast, flexible bass line. It returned to melody briefly but then it became a propulsive groove, steadily building up in intensity before ending with a few quiet notes.

After another similarly energetic piece, and a standing ovation from a clearly-appreciative audience, the trio returned for an encore: an appealing, fast-paced bass vamp with a gospel feel, which evoked another standing ovation.

This was an impressive concert with a dramatic variety in dynamics and rhythms. I particularly appreciated the emotion and power the trio put into their performance: this was not the dry-as-dust technically perfect show I've heard from some New York players, but a joyous performance. But I left feeling wrung out; I would have like just a little more quiet in the music to offset the almost relentless groove.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.