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Michael Kaeshammer and his audience have fun with energetic and varied music

Michael Kaeshammer
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre, Theatre
Saturday, April 23, 2016 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The first thing Michael Kaeshammer told the audience at the NAC Theatre is, “We're going to have a little bit of fun. I love playing the piano, and it's always fun to hang out with these guys.”

And that fun is what he and his band delivered for two sets, each more than an hour long, of energetic, upbeat music.

Michael Kaeshammer was a man in motion at his NAC concert Saturday, frequently playing both inside the piano and on its keyboard. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Kaeshammer was a man in motion: standing as much as sitting at the keyboard of his grand piano, and playing both on the keys and on the strings inside. In the opening number, he had one hand playing the piano keyboard and the other playing the Fender Rhodes set up behind him, adding a swampy organ sound to the mix. On “Stop That Train”, he swept from one end of the keyboard to the other, playing with his entire body. Other times he would walk around the stage, enjoying listening to his band perform, or chatting with the audience, sometimes at length.

Playing his favourite boogie-woogie, blues, and New Orleans jazz numbers, including songs from many of his albums, Kaeshammer was accompanied by five experienced jazz musicians from Toronto and Montreal. Drummer Roger Travassos, bassist Devon Henderson, trumpeter William Sperandei, tenor saxophonist Dany Roy, and trombonist Muhammad Abdul Al-Khabyyr are all musicians he'd played with for several years, and will be on his next album, No Filter, to be released in September.

Almost every seat in the main floor of the theatre was occupied, with a few people also in the balcony. The audience gave the band a warm reception from the beginning, with people clapping in time to the very first number, singing along in the second set, and consistently applauding strongly.

The music sounded natural and unforced – simply Kaeshammer sharing his joy in the music he loved and which came naturally to him. But he also gave considerable space to the rest of the band. Three-part short solos by the horns were a frequent feature; Travassos provided several varied and gripping drum solos, including trading fours with Kaeshammer on piano; and each of the musicians had multiple opportunities for extended solos. Both Al-Khabyyr and Roy moved to the front of the stage at different points for impressively eloquent and beautiful explorations of the melody, played acoustically.

Kaeshammer has always credited his father for interesting him in playing the piano, and introducing him to ragtime and stride and some gospel music. He told the audience that his father had just visited him for two weeks in Victoria, and played his solo piano version of one of his father's favourite tunes: Scott Joplin's “The Entertainer” (best known as the theme for the Paul Newman/Robert Redford film The Sting). In his hands, the recognizable riff almost completely disappeared: instead, he opened it as a romantic waltz and then moved to a more pointillist style, playing around with and ornamenting the melody and steadily increasing the speed and verve with which he played.

New Orleans jazz played a prominent role in the show, including two emphatic numbers paying tribute respectively to Bourbon Street and Basin Street. That second number was a particular highlight of the show: slow and bluesy, it featured an evocative and delicate trumpet solo from Sperandei, perfectly attuned to the mournfulness of the message. Al-Khabyyr and Roy followed with similarly flowing and emotive solos, and all three horns then alternated with Kaeshammer's nuanced piano. It received exceptionally enthusiastic applause.

Another highlight was a fast, two-fisted version of “Going to the Mardi Gras”, from Kaeshammer's most recent solo piano album, The Pianist. He and the band expanded it into an exploratory solo opportunity for each of the horn players. During the solos, Kaeshammer left the piano and stood on the other side of the stage, tapping a tambourine in time to the drums. When he returned to the piano, he tossed the tambourine inside on the piano strings, to create a muted and percussive effect while he played.

In 2013, Kaeshammer released a tribute album to New Orleans R&B/jazz master Allen Toussaint. He included one of the numbers from that album, Toussaint's “Shoo-Ra”, giving it a upbeat treatment on piano and Rhodes (sometimes at the same time), and vocals. With the band supporting the tune's strong forward momentum, it built to a strong fanfare.

The Curtis Mayfield number, “People Get Ready” (which he recorded on the 2011 Kaeshammer album) followed, featuring a nuanced and lovely solo on electric bass from Henderson with accompanying light hand drumming from Travassos, along with gospel-influenced piano.

Straight jazz wasn't forgotten, either, as Kaeshammer told the audience how Duke Ellington was one of his father's favourite composers. He then played an Ellington classic quietly and with feeling, with the horn lines emphasizing the romantic melody.

The show ended with a fun but unmemorable number reminiscent of early rock&roll, and an immediate and extended standing ovation. The band's encore was the R&B classic, “Rescue Me”, featuring Kaeshammer's emotional vocals and piano alternating alternating with all-out fanfares from the horns, and a full-out extended and quite beautiful sax solo by Roy. By the time the last notes died out, the audience was on its feet again.

The sound was crisp and clear during the entire concert, enhancing the experience. Even when the horn soloists moved downstage to play acoustically, you could hear every note and nuance. The lighting, on the other hand, unfortunately drew attention to itself, which it should not have.

Kaeshammer made a real effort to connect with the audience, perhaps even trying a bit too hard near the end when he asked people if they'd come from outside Ottawa, or tried to get a sing-along going when it was obvious the audience wasn't remembering the song lyrics. He'd already won over the audience with his music: he didn't need to try anything more. On the other hand, his tribute to the three people who had a birthday that day was a fun and original exercise in shuffle and boogie-woogie.

If you love the exquisite interpretations of jazz standards from Fred Hersch or Keith Jarrett, or the intellectual rigor of a John Escreet or a Vijay Iyer, Kaeshammer may not be for you. But if you love the robust vigour of old-timey jazz, stride piano, and boogie-woogie, played with skill and liveliness, go for this music. Kaeshammer and his band remind you that jazz has always been music to enjoy, and music that moves your body and your heart.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Michael Kaeshammer about his music, this show and his future recording plans: