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Crossroads concert scribbled on genre boundaries while remaining true to Lynn Miles' songs (review)

Lynn Miles sings her songs in new jazz arrangements by saxophonist Petr Cancura and featuring bassist John Geggie (and guitarist Roddy Ellias, not shown) ©2016 Brett Delmage

Petr Cancura's Crossroads series with guest Lynn Miles
NAC Presents
NAC Fourth Stage
Thursday, February 4, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos of Petr Cancura's Crossroads concert with Lynn Miles

Billed as a cross between jazz and folk, this concert was as much about their kissin' cousins, country music and blues – in an evening which remained true to Lynn Miles' songs even as it scribbled on genre boundaries.

It was the second in Petr Cancura's Crossroads series at the National Arts Centre, in which the jazz composer and saxophonist has collaborated with Ottawa singer-songwriters to create jazz interpretations of their music. He picks songs from their albums, rearranges them for jazz quartet plus singer, refines the arrangements in extensive rehearsals, and then presents the results in this NAC Presents series.

His target? victim? co-conspirator? this time was prominent Ottawa folksinger Lynn Miles, who clearly gave as good as she got in the partnership. There was lots of banter on-stage, generally friendly though occasionally barbed. It complemented the music, which comfortably fitted itself around the songs.

Miles emphasized that Cancura had picked the set-list of her compositions – “the goal is to allow Petr have his way with my songs, and he said, you know, just tell me if I've gone too far”. They included some she hadn't played for decades, and once or twice she mentioned she felt naked on-stage only singing and not playing guitar – but on the whole she sounded at home with the music.

The concert was sold out and the room was stuffed – but not particularly with jazz fans. I only recognized a few jazz regulars, and audience members I talked to said they were there to hear Lynn Miles. Interestingly, when NAC Presents associate producer Xavier Forget asked the audience at the beginning of the show if they'd heard the first concert in this series, with Ian Tamblyn, only a few hands were raised. Tamblyn was, in fact, in the audience, as Miles had been present for his concert last November.

Unlike Tamblyn, Lynn Miles' music is more in a single style – her songs are differentiated more by their lyrics and melody than their overall sound. And while Tamblyn's music comes out of his external experiences and story-telling, hers are more confessional and internal. It gave a different feel to the concert, more intimate and with the jazz arrangements less integral to the music.

Nevertheless, the quartet – Cancura on tenor and soprano sax. John Geggie on double bass, Roddy Ellias on archtop guitar, and Greg Ritchie on drums – added considerable musical interest and variety to the music, supplying new intros and extros, fitting in solos between verses, laying textures underneath the vocals, and even creating sax/voice duets. For jazz fans, there was lots of fine musicianship; for folk fans, the richer and more diverse sound complemented and underlined the lyrics and considerably lengthened the songs.

While I'd heard Lynn Miles frequently live and on album years ago, I hadn't heard her much recently, and I was delighted to recognize her clear and flexible soprano voice. Her vocals can jump an octave or more partway through a verse or chorus to emphasize a line or a word, and she has a knack for crafting lyrics where the words sound perfectly inevitable.

The show opened with just the quartet, playing Cancura's upbeat composition, “Fig Bun” from his PeopleMusic album, a piece that had enough hard edges and soloing to indicate this was not going to be a jazz-lite show. Cancura also included a fine gospel-influenced instrumental, “There is a chance”, in the second set; that number opened with a deep bass riff and lightly-brushed snares, and then turned into a sorrowful yet uplifting duet between tenor sax and guitar, ending in a deep melody played on bowed bass.

The rest of the songs were by Lynn Miles. The first set I thought was more country-influenced (the weepy “How to be alone”, for example), while the second was bluesier. I was particularly impressed with her stark call to action "What if You Were A Refugee?", the direct and compelling lyrics in “More” (with the melody echoed by Ellias on guitar), and the elegiac feel of “Deep September Blue”, solemnly enhanced by tenor sax and bass.

The poignant “Party Too Long” began as a simple confessional number, and developed a strong jazzy feel as Cancura stepped up on tenor. It ended with a few bars of scatting from Lynn Miles.

The less-serious songs, such as “All the Birds”, worked particularly well in jazz arrangements. Opening with a deep and inflected bass solo from Geggie, it provided a contrasting and humorous set-up for the light-hearted vocals. The alternating tenor and guitar lines, combined with cymbal and snare textures from Ritchie, added to the joyous feel. “This Is The Night” was given a infectious salsa beat that emphasized the hopefulness of the song, and provided a bright ending to the first set.

“Time to Let the Sun” had the feel of a Great American Songbook standard, especially with Ellias' gentle and melodic guitar counterposed against the vocals. “Rainmaker”, her “cheery little ditty about a sociopath” gave many opportunities for the instrumentalists to shine while Lynn Miles told the story, opening with long lines on soprano and guitar, and later developing a considerable groove on tenor and inflected guitar.

Over two hour-long sets, the music never flagged. It closed with a song Lynn Miles wrote especially for the project, “Moody”. It was a catchy number with the chorus “Because I'm mo-o-o-o-o-o-dy!”, which allowed all the musicians to stretch out in response. Ritchie's brushes were flying as he added an echoing drum solo, Ellias and Geggie emphasized the blues notes in their solos, and Cancura's tenor growled through the melody – and they ended together with an extended flourish. The audience responded with a spirited standing ovation.

This concert, and its predecessor with Ian Tamblyn, demonstrated that jazz musicians, working with already-strong material, can make it even stronger and more compelling. Bravo to Cancura and his quartet for taking this risk and making it work.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos of Petr Cancura's Crossroads concert with Lynn Miles

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