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Joe McPhee, Jesse Stewart & Nicolas Caloia create music that's out of the ordinary

Jesse Stewart / Nicolas Caloia / Joe McPhee
Improv Invitational series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 20, 2015 – 8 p.m.

The first thing my tablemate said when he sat down in the Fourth Stage was “What, no waterphone?” And, in fact, this concert went back to the basics in terms of instrumentation: Nicolas Caloia simply on double bass, Jesse Stewart just on a standard drumset without extra percussion or waterphone, and Joe McPhee alternating among tenor and soprano sax and pocket trumpet. Unlike many musicians I heard at this year's festival, they used no effects; they played strictly acoustically.

But the sounds they produced with those instruments were anything but ordinary.

All three have a long pedigree in avant-garde jazz and free improv. McPhee (from Poughkeepsie, NY) has performed with European and American masters including Ken Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, and The Thing, as well as in his long-time Trio X with bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen. He's also a conceptual thinker in creative improvisation with his concept of “Po” (process of provocation) music.

Stewart is primarily a percussionist, but has created music from the most unexpected materials: ice, fire, stone, and even balloons. A music professor at Carleton University, he's brought in renowned avant-garde musicians like William Parker, Hamid Drake, Pauline Oliveros, and David Mott to perform with him in Ottawa, and is currently artist-in-residence at the Diefenbunker.

Caloia is important in Montreal's avant-garde community with his 30-member Ratchet Orchestra, as well as Tilting (his quartet), a 10-piece marching band, and duets with clarinetist Lori Freedman and with trumpeter Charity Chan. His music channels collective improvisation through composed textures, and he also works in totally improvised groups with musicians like drummer John Heward and saxophonist Jean Derome.

As Stewart told me after the concert, this was their first performance as a trio, although they've known each other and performed with one another for many years.

This was a completely improvised concert, kicked off with collective, barely-there percussion: Stewart lightly brushing the surface of his snare drum with his hands, Caloia bowing his bass, McPhee tapping on his pocket trumpet. Then McPhee added attenuated squeaks on trumpet to the sparse soundscape. The sound slowly filled in, with longer, fuller lines on trumpet, steady, echoing hand drumming, and buzzing bass lines.

For the next 40 minutes, the three created unexpected sounds, with a wide dynamic range. Stewart used a small mallet to run across his cymbal, creating a light, high noise, and then played an extended solo strictly with his hands, creating gentle echoing sounds on both drums and cymbals. Caloia created a procession of notes on his bass, holding and then letting each note resonate as he pressed it back and forth.

McPhee switched between trumpet and tenor sax, with gospel (with brief quotes from “My Lord What a Morning”) and blues tinges in his sax lines. He added desperation and sadness in his playing at one point; at another it was so intense that moisture was dripping off his face; at another it was smooth and clear; at another he was producing harsh strangled sounds.

There was careful listening and responsiveness throughout, sometimes letting one musician speak alone, other times supporting the lead instrument with similar tempos and contrasting rhythms. At one point, Stewart was ringing his cymbals by running sticks along them, Caloia was harshly bowing his bass, and McPhee was calling out on trumpet.

The audience was also involved, closely following each turn in the music, and applauding when the music moved to a new phase

The three ended the first piece playing full out again, in music that just escaped cacophony through its strong momentum, and engendered strong applause.

They followed that up with a 20-minute piece which began with Stewart deliberately making his drum throne squeak in a regular rhythm, in contrast to the bright bell-like notes from his cymbals. Caloia and he moved to sharing a regular marching rhythm, and then McPhee entered on soprano sax. He played what sounded like “Our Love is Here to Stay”, but slowed and stretched and transformed. The effect – together with rustling cymbals and a steady bass line – was melancholy and wistful.

All of the musicians then gradually upped their speed and energy, McPhee in particular adding more atonality to the point of sounding like a baby crying, before finally returning to the quiet rhythms of the start of the piece – and again strong applause.

The trio closed with a short, five-minute piece, starting with a dancing rhythm on bass and drums. McPhee added punctuated lines from his tenor sax on top creating an infectious, driving beat – more rhythmic and mainstream jazz-like than before. But this wasn't going to be just a groove: McPhee spiced it up with occasional screeches, a few strangled sounds, and some longer lines before returning to the beat. It was an upbeat end to a fine concert.

Near the end of the show, Stewart announced that the trio was going into the recording studio the following day, so there may be a CD of this collaboration – if not this exact performance. It will be interesting to hear if some of the patterns developed in this concert show up on that recording.

    – 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.

See photos from a previous show in which Jesse Stewart disassembled his drumset while playing on it: