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Fern Lindzon Trio wins over MJF audience with original approach to familar songs (review)

The strength and originality of Fern Lindzon's material and her approach won over Merrickville Jazz Fest's audience  ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Fern Lindzon Trio
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Baldachin Inn Ballroom
Sunday, October 18, 2015 – 8:15 p.m.

View photos of this performance

Toronto jazz vocalist and pianist Fern Lindzon had to win over an audience at Merrickville's Jazz Fest, which had just given a standing ovation 15 minutes before to a very different band with a very different sound. The fact that she was able to do so, and got a standing ovation herself at the end of the night, was testimony to the strength and originality of her material and her approach.

Lindzon was playing with Toronto bassist George Koller, her long-time collaborator and producer, and Ottawa drummer Michel Delage. The Juno-nominated musician performed a diverse set of songs from her last two albums, plus new material she's been developing recently.

She's been concentrating lately on Thelonious Monk, and opened with Monk's “Straight, No Chaser”. She sang it simply, accompanied just by double bass and drums – no piano.

No piano? That's because the version she was singing was called “Get It Straight”, with lyrics by Sally Swisher on top of Monk's original piano composition.

The lyrics had a strong message, very much in tune with Monk himself: “Don’t wait for no one / You have to go on / Because the moment is the place where it happens / And there's no one who can help you get straight”. Lindzon sang them in a very Monk-ish accented rhythm, combining the words with scatting.

After a few verses, she moved to her digital piano and added flurries of shining notes dancing over Koller's inflected bass lines and Delage's forceful drumming. It was a fast-paced and distinct intro to her concert, and the first of four Monk tunes she included – each with added lyrics which enhanced and spoke to the music.

Next came a lesser-known but endearing Broadway tune: “Never Never Land”, from the musical Peter Pan, where Lindzon's shimmering piano and Koller's bowed bass lines initially emphasized the other-wordliness of the lyrics.

She gave Fats Waller's “Honeysuckle Rose” a different reading than Alex Pangman had the evening before: still swinging, but more conversational and intimate. Koller accompanied her bright piano by scatting softly into his mic, sounding like bees buzzing. The ease and fun in the trio's rendition connected with the audience: they started cheering and clapping partway through and strongly applauded at the end.

Lindzon had several major sources for her set-list: Brazilian numbers, songs in Yiddish and Hebrew, and jazz standards, plus some quite unexpected material.

The most notable of those was her arrangement of “Jazz at the Bookstore” by Canadian singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith. I particularly enjoyed Lindzon's version on her latest CD; this arrangement was more stripped down, without the saxophone or vibraphone, but still was a much more exciting and pointed rendition than Sexsmith's original. She sang Sexsmith's well-crafted and ironic lyrics with verve and understanding; her accented piano, Koller's memorable bass line, and Delage's crisp cymbals all added energy to the piece.

Other memorable songs were the effervescent “Loro” by Egberto Gismonti combined with Lindzon's own “Shashado”; the intense “Mishaela” (sung in Hebrew but easily connecting with the audience who gave it strong applause); and the gentle “Windmills of Your Mind” by Michel Legrand, to which the trio gave a magical feel.

Lindzon introduced the standard “That Old Black Magic” by giving a vivid picture of the scene in the Marilyn Monroe movie, Bus Stop, which first introduced it. It was a scene familiar to any musician – no one was paying attention to Monroe's singing this song until the movie's hero took action! Lindzon gave the song a lovely, smooth, swinging rendition, reaching high notes effortlessly.

I particularly enjoyed hearing the more balladic side of Monk in “Still We Dream” (based on “Ugly Beauty”), whose lyrics she sang romantically and intensely. At the beginning, the solemn bass and piano rendition was hardly recognizable as Monk, but the trio moved to a more interrupted style later on.

And Lindzon's own take on Monk's “Evidence” was delightful. She began the piece by simply singing the standard “Just You, Just Me” (on which “Evidence” is based), and then morphed her singing into a more and more Monk-ish, punctuated style – which was also reflected in the instrumentals.

George Koller added substantially to the concert, with his expressive playing and his considerable showmanship. He often looked as though he was dancing with his double bass.

His bass introductions frequently set up songs' style and feel (for example in “Jazz at the Bookstore”), and he wasn't afraid to try new techniques to get exactly the sound he wanted. In several places, he loosened strings to get a more vibrating sound; in “Mishaela”, he entwined a drumstick across his strings and struck it to create a dramatic, very disquieting introduction. His arco (bowed) bass contrasted with Lindzon's percussive piano, sometimes adding a romantic feel, sometimes a very ominous one.

This was Delage's first show with Lindzon, and they'd only had a chance to rehearse that afternoon. Furthermore, he had just played what must have been an exhausting hour-long show with The Night on the Town Band, and only had time for a 15-minute break before getting back on stage to play very different music. But his experience playing with many different groups and musicians around Ottawa came through, and he kept the forward momentum of the show high. His light touches on cymbals and snares complemented Lindzon's vocals, and he upped the energy in other places with highly propulsive drumming.

The trio closed with a lovely piece by Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, whose lyrics he originally wrote in English. Lindzon told the audience that she first heard “Two Kites” on an album by British vocalist Norma Winstone, and she became completely obsessed with it. The trio gave it a vibrant rendition, with Koller scatting along with Lindzon near the end.

The audience responded to the upbeat, hopeful music with a standing ovation – a satisfying conclusion to the 5th Merrickville's Jazz Fest.

   – Alayne McGregor

Set List

  1. Thelonious Monk, with lyrics by Sally Swisher/ Get It Straight (Straight, No Chaser)
  2. Jule Styne, with lyrics by Comden and Green/ Never Never Land, from the musical Peter Pan
  3. Fats Waller/ Honeysuckle Rose
  4. Sholom Secunda/ Dona Dona
  5. Ron Sexsmith/ Jazz at the Bookstore
  6. Fern Lindzon – Egberto Gismonti/ Shashado – Loro
  7. Thelonious Monk, with lyrics by Mike Ferro/ Still We Dream (Ugly Beauty)
  8. Noa, with lyrics by Gil Dor/ Mishaela
  9. Harold Arlen, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer/ That Old Black Magic
  10. Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman/ The Windmills of Your Mind
  11. Thelonious Monk, with lyrics by Abbey Lincoln/ Blue Monk
  12. Lysias Enio and João Donato/ Ate Quem Sabe
  13. Thelonious Monk, with lyrics by Fern Lindzon/ Evidence
  14. Alan Bern/ Afile
  15. Antonio Carlos Jobim/ Two Kites

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015