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The Miguel de Armas Latin Jazz Quartet and the Horizon Quintet create a dancing groove at MJF 2015

The Horizon Quintet
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Merrickville Community Centre
Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 12 noon

The Miguel de Armas Latin Jazz Quartet
Merrickville's Jazz Fest
Merrickville Community Centre
Saturday, October 17, 2015 – 1:30 p.m.

Pianist Miguel de Armas is a perennial favourite at Merrickville's Jazz Fest. Even performing in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, his Ottawa-based Latin Jazz Quartet filled a large room in the local community centre with fervent Afro-Cuban jazz enthusiasts, clapping and swaying to the beat.

Pianist Miguel de Armas in close musical conversation with percussionist Arien Villegas and bassist Marc Decho at Merrickville's Jazz Fest  ©Brett Delmage, 2015His show was the second half of a double bill, and the room already looked packed when we arrived partway into the first group's set. More people kept arriving, with a final count from the organizers of at least 130. But the community centre and the volunteers were prepared with chairs, and they steadily added them around the edges of the room.

The quartet has been preparing for its upcoming debut performance at the Havana Jazz Festival in December, and had a long list of tunes ready for this show – but no fixed set-list order. Instead, de Armas signalled the next tune as the applause died down from the previous one – and, in fact, the music flowed well from tune to tune, never losing its strong forward momentum.

View photos of the Miguel de Armas Latin Jazz Quartet at MJF 2015

There was clearly an easy communication among the four players. Underlying all the tunes were Ottawa percussionist Arien Villegas' nuanced conga rhythms, giving the music its characteristic Cuban sound and energy, but also moving out at times into interesting variations. He was in frequent eye contact with Montreal drummer Michel Medrano, an assertive and dynamic player who provided a powerful underlying beat but who could also play quietly and atmospherically under ballads.

Marc Decho played a six-string electric bass, in a style as much guitar as bass. He frequently contributed fluid and inflected solos, alternating with de Armas on piano in vibrantly expressing the melody. In many ways, the melody line felt like a partnership between him and de Armas. When he was more in the background, however, I thought his bass lines were almost drowned out in the mix by the other instruments.

De Armas was everywhere – immersed in the music and frequently signaling changes to the other musicians and keeping the band tightly together. By nature a propulsive player, he could create brilliant flurries of sixteenth-notes on piano, but then a few minutes later would be pounding out long chords to support a fast conga solo, or playing more quietly and emotionally on ballads. Because of language barriers, he has tended to let his music speak for itself, but at this concert he did verbally introduce the music and his musicians more often – with a big smile that went over well.

The quartet opened with a de Armas original, “Almonte”, a song which reminded me of the brilliant skies of Cuba in antithesis to the gloomy weather outside. It began lightly with chiming cymbals and rippling piano and ended with a fast-paced flourish.

They then immediately segued into “Close Your Eyes”, a jazz standard which has been recorded by everyone from Tony Bennett to Ella Fitzgerald to Oscar Peterson. They gave it a Latin beat with shimmering piano notes and emphatic drumming. A duet between bass and congas added a strong groove, and then all four musicians added to a start-and-stop beat under the melody that made your feet want to dance.

The group continued with nine more pieces, with feels that ranged from almost classical, to expressive, quiet ballads, to fast blues, to upbeat Latin numbers. Many were de Armas originals – full of vitality and combining the different instruments well. But he also included a swinging version of Thelonious Monk's “Monk's Dream” (with cowbell accents), and an emotionally-resonant “You Don't Know What Love Is”.

The crowd loved it, and greeted the last few notes of “Getting Serious” with a standing ovation. The quartet came back with an encore: a de Armas original called “Greco's Shopping”. As the dancing, melodic piece developed, it felt as though the quartet was putting out enough energy to power a small town. Medrano's hard-edged drums and Decho's bass combined in a strong beat below de Armas' streams of piano notes, and then developed into a strong joint riff – which the audience then echoed with on-the-beat clapping. The pace kept increasing, until de Armas stood up, pointed to the band, and the music instantly stopped – to be greeted by another standing ovation and lots of cheers.

First up on the bill for this concert was the Horizon Quintet , an Ottawa-based group of strong musicians who specialize in jazz/bop music from the 60s and 70s with more than a touch of funk and soul. Their energetic and full-out music melded well with de Armas' quartet – but they were impressive in their own right.

View photos of the Horizon Quintet at MJF 2015

The Horizon Quintet (l-r: Karen Rauh, Alex Emard, John Yemensky, Allyson Rogers, Mario Gauvreau) filled the room with a happy groove at Merrickville's Jazz Fest  ©Brett Delmage, 2015I missed the first half of their show, but was immediately caught up in the quintet's groove as soon as I entered the hall. They played pieces by avant-jazz-funk band Medeski, Martin & Wood, as well as by undeservedly lesser-known composers such as soul-jazz saxophonist Rusty Bryant, and hard-bop/soul-jazz organist Big John Patton, and included some of their own material.

The group includes Mario Gauvreau on trumpet and gourd rattle, John Yemensky on electric guitar, Alex Emard on electric bass, Karen Rauh on keyboards, and Allyson Rogers on drums. They've been performing around Ottawa in this formation since last winter. Rauh also played with Rogers in Rogers' Latin Jazz Quartet; Gauvreau was part of the recent Afrobeat tribute at the Mercury Lounge.

Each piece had barely-leashed forward momentum, with deep bass rumbles and pounding drums adding to the strong groove. “Chubb Sub” (by Medeski, Martin & Wood) featured Yemensky's morphing guitar lines; “Fire Eater” (by Rusty Bryant) was driven by funky organ lines from Rauh and deep, vibrant bass solo. I was particularly impressed with Gauvreau, who was spitting out trumpet notes within the groove on “Fire Eater”, as well as playing an intense trumpet/guitar duet as we entered the hall. His circling trumpet lines also added considerable excitement and vibrancy to “Latona” (by Patton).

Yemensky's original, “The Other Left”, was more more soulful and swinging, and featured an echoing drum solo from Rogers and fast bluesy trumpet lines, as well as a pointillist guitar solo. It was strongly applauded by the audience, but particularly grabbed the interest of one very young listener – Rauh's toddler daughter, who had to be carried backwards several times as she tried to join her mother in what clearly looked to her like a very interesting activity.

The dynamism of the group – and Gauvreau's ability in particular to play to the audience – was a big hit with the crowd, who gave the group a standing ovation. I was left hoping to hear them again in a full set. Their upbeat music is just the ticket to get people up and dancing, as well as listening, either indoors or outdoors.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read's reviews of concerts at the 2015 Merrickville's Jazz Fest, and interviews with musicians appearing at the festival, linked to from our main festival article: