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From all over the globe, the Florian Hoefner Group unites in presenting luminous jazz (review)

Florian Hoefner Group
Kildare Room, St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts
Saturday, January 30, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

In this era of far-flung jazz partnerships, the Florian Hoefner Group is still exceptional. Hoefner himself was born and raised in Germany, and now lives in St. John's, Newfoundland. Tenor saxophonist Seamus Blake was born and raised in Vancouver, and now lives in New York City. Drummer Peter Kronreif is from Salzburg, Austria, and is also now in NYC. Double bassist Sam Anning lives in Melbourne, Australia.

Florian Hoefner has spent his time in Newfoundland productively, writing the complex and melodic compositions which he presented with his group in Ottawa on January 30. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

But despite the thousands of kilometres often separating them, these four musicians showed a remarkable musical unity and fluency together in their Ottawa concert. The Winterlude show was sponsored by the German Embassy, and was part of a cross-Canada CD release tour for Hoefner's just-released third album, Luminosity.

The connection – unsurprisingly – is through New York, the jazz melting pot, to which Hoefner moved in 2008 and where all of them lived for some years. Hoefner has played with Anning and Kronreif since 2011. Blake joined them for this album and the tour.

Hoefner has only performed in Ottawa once before, at the Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge two years ago together with Anning and Kronreif, but Blake is well-known here as a saxophonist's saxophonist. Blake's more recent performances in Ottawa with Robi Botos, Alan Jones, and Bryn Roberts showed him to be a forceful, fluent player, but also one who enhances the entire group's sound and works to support the other musicians. You could see that same approach in this concert.

The downstairs Kildare Room at Saint Brigid's was packed for the concert, with hopeful listeners who had not pre-registered waiting at the door hoping to get in up until the concert started, almost half an hour late. That the tickets were free certainly helped, but the enthusiastic response of the audience to the music showed a stronger connection than that.

With one exception, the pieces were all by Hoefner and from Luminosity. The group opened with “Reminiscence”, a bright, expressive ballad whose celebratory mood supplied an inviting beginning. Behind the melodies on tenor and piano, you could also hear the substantial contribution of Anning and Kronreif, whose bass and drums (noticeably cymbal-rich) provided a powerful base for the music and who appeared to have an potent musical link together. The group followed with the fast-paced and more hard-edged “In Circles”, with strong circling tenor lines.

Hoefner has been living in St. John's since mid-2014, and the following two numbers were influenced by his new home. The city doesn't have too much jazz going on, he said, but “everything else is pretty nice”, including the scenery. With fewer distractions, he had been able to compose a lot of music, particularly in the winter: “there's not much else you can do during the day”. “The Narrows” was written in response to the beautiful entrance to the St. John's harbor – and Hoefner decided to give the title a secondary meaning by trying to play within a very narrow range on the piano keyboard in the piece.

It was a thoughtful piece, with solemn sax lines defining the mood, set against a conversational melody on piano that did indeed emphasize the mid-range. But the bass range was more-than-satisfactorily supplied by a supple solo by Anning, each of whose deep, full notes reflected the sombre and romantic feel of the composition.

“New Found Jig” was in 12/8 time, and was based on a traditional Newfoundland jig. Blake opened by playing that rhythm on his saxophone, alternating with piano. It was an intense piece, featuring flying notes on sax, sparkling piano riffs, and rich and varied pizzicato lines on bass. Despite the cognitive dissonance which the opening inspired (a jig? on the saxophone?), the fiery combination of Irish music and jazz worked remarkably well, and inspired extended applause.

The second set opened with the album's title track, whose light, airy approach with repeated patterns on piano, atmospheric cymbals, and reflective saxophone was indeed luminous. “North Country” was a varied and full-bodied ballad which opened with shimmering piano notes and developed into a multi-layered exploration of the melody by all. It evoked intense clapping.

A highlight of the second set was the Beatles tune, “Eleanor Rigby”, which Hoefner had included on his second album, Falling Up. Beginning with Blake playing the melody straight and beautifully on tenor, the musicians alternated in deconstructing the song in different ways, keeping its essential melancholy yet exploring its changes. I particularly liked Anning's and Hoefner's resonant bass-piano duet, and Blake's clear, rich tone on tenor. The group's rendition was like an intricate dance, changing leads frequently but always keeping the central melodic thread, and was a fine tribute to the song, well-appreciated by the audience.

The group gave an energetic close to the concert with “Elements”, a bright, vibrating piece featuring hard, fast rhythms on bass and drums, interrupted patterns on piano, and compelling sax solos. It was all about forward momentum, and showed off the Hoefner group's tightness and easy intuition with each other's playing. The audience responded with an immediate standing ovation.

One thing that slightly detracted from the excellent performance was the sound level; it was about 20% too loud. I also heard several complaints about it after the performance. Some lights also glared into the audience's eyes and could have been better aimed: at the musicians instead of the listeners.

For me, this concert was a highlight of the month and of 2016 so far. Hoefner and his group presented a fine collection of well-crafted and varied compositions, and performed them well – and Hoefner also introduced the music to the audience with a humor and warmth that only increased one's interest. Leaving the show, I felt uplifted and very glad I'd been there.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set 1:

  • Reminiscence
  • In Circles
  • The Narrows
  • Newfound Jig

Set 2:

  • Luminosity
  • Eleanor Rigby (Paul McCartney/John Lennon)
  • North Country
  • Elements

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