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Steve Berndt and Brian Browne keep evolving their collaboration at MJF (review)

Updated October 21

Steve Berndt sang with his whole body in his duo show with Brian Browne at Merrickville's Jazz Fest ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Steve Berndt featuring Brian Browne
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Baldachin Inn Restaurant
Friday, October 16, 2015 – 6 p.m.

View photos of this performance

Pianist Brian Browne and vocalist and trombonist Steve Berndt have had a fruitful partnership since 2012, with two albums and a series of high-profile concerts. Both veterans of the Ottawa jazz scene, they share a love of the classic jazz standards – but are also willing to go beyond that repertoire.

Their Friday dinner-hour show at Merrickville's Jazz Fest was warmly received. The restaurant was full as they launched into a happy, swinging rendition of “Our Love is Here to Stay”. Berndt sang the lyrics tenderly and with great feeling, while Browne adding exactly the notes on keyboard needed to define the melody, with no extraneous flourishes. In one or two places, I thought Berndt sounded a bit hoarse (the cold, wet weather that evening was not good for voices) but it didn't distract from the feel of the song.

I continue to be impressed with Berndt's original compositions, which he wrote for the two albums. All bittersweet love songs, they're very much in the spirit of the Great American Songbook, but are also clearly in his own voice. They hold up well to repeated listenings.

At the show, they played all three originals from the two albums, starting with the first album's title track “Déjà Vu”. Berndt sang smoothly and with attention to the lyrics, while Browne underlined the melody with strong chords and lots of space. As the song continued, both became more syncopated and lively, evoking strong applause at the end.

When the two started their collaboration, Berndt made a point of only being a vocalist, in the spirit of the classic Bill Evans/Tony Bennett albums he modeled their duo after. But now he's bringing out his other musical love – his trombone – to their concerts. Their rendition of “Someone To Watch Over Me”, with him playing the melody on trombone, was a delight: a full-bodied, fluid rendition, underlined by fast, sparkling keyboard. Berndt noted at the end that this is a song normally only sung by women, so thought he'd play it on trombone instead.

Just as he does in a very different style with the Jivewires, Berndt sings with his entire body, and one could particularly see that in the more upbeat numbers like “Sweet Lorraine” (which he dedicated to his girlfriend) and “You're Nobody Til Somebody Loves You”. “Almost Like Being in Love” got a particularly dramatic treatment by both, with Browne having fun playing around with the melody. Berndt ended it by repeating “love, love, love” while Browne played deep bass rumbles on the keyboard.

Berndt told the audience that he and Browne were trying something new for this concert – adding a solo piano piece. Browne's heartfelt version of Leonard Cohen's “Hallelujah” was solemn and glorious. It's a very easy song to overplay or turn maudlin, and he avoided all those traps, playing it much like a modern hymn and sharing the beauty of the melody. The audience responded with very strong applause.

Another highlight was the Mel Tormé number, “Born to Be Blue”, which Berndt delivered expressively, really fitting the words. His last deep notes on “I was born to be blue...” were echoed by Browne on the keyboard, which Browne made sound much more like a grand piano with his sensitive touch.

For their last number, Berndt returned to trombone for a swinging version of “Caravan”, a number made famous by the Duke Ellington Orchestra. It was a dramatic and fitting closer to a crowd-pleasing concert that showed that the duo have continued to evolve their musical friendship.

    – Alayne McGregor

Correction: Corrected the name of the first song Steve Berndt performed on trombone.

Read other stories about the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest:

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015