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The Mike Murley Trio celebrates the beautiful and less-known in jazz (review)

Mike Murley Trio, with Reg Schwager and Steve Wallace
2016 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival
NAC Fourth Stage
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 7 p.m.

This week, the Mike Murley Trio released their second CD, Ship Without a Sail, in a show in Toronto. But Ottawa audiences got a good taste of that music when the trio played the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival back in February.

And a beautiful impression it was. As soon as he stepped on stage, Murley told the audience that he, guitarist Reg Schwager, and bassist Steve Wallace have been playing together for a long time. You could hear that experience in their easy communication and supple playing together.

While the trio may have been named after Murley, this was clearly an equilateral triangle in terms of musical interaction and contribution. I particularly enjoyed how Wallace played his double bass as much as a melodic as a rhythmic instrument, creating a strong third voice in a deeper register. Wallace rarely performs in Ottawa, and it was a pleasure to hear him.

It was a friendly, relaxed show, with Murley well and truly breaking the ice early into the first number. He developed a puzzled look on his face as he listened to a buzz in his tenor saxophone – and then stopped, reached into the bell of the sax, and drew out the bottle of water he had put there to carry on-stage, and then forgotten to remove! The audience cracked up when he pointed out the importance of staying hydrated, and the trio restarted their upbeat rendition of the Blossom Dearie classic, “You for Me”.

A highlight was the ballad “Looking Back”, the title track of the trio's first CD, which was written by pianist Jimmy Rowles (better known for “The Peacocks”). Melancholy and a bit enigmatic, the piece featured Murley's heartfelt rendition of the beautiful and memorable melody over Schwager's delicate guitar patterns and Wallace's bowed bass. It also featured an extended and nuanced pizzicato solo from Wallace.

Schwager is known for his love of Brazilian music, and the show included “If You Never Come to Me”, a gentle bossa nova by Antonio Carlos Jobim, played slowly to fully enjoy the rhythm. Murley offset its sweetness with tenor lines just on the edge of roughness, and Wallace added a sparse bass solo outlining the melody. On the ballad “Detour Ahead”, Murley defined the thoughtful melody Schwager moved outside it with exploratory guitar riffs, and Wallace added texture with bowed bass.

The trio also included the title track of the new CD, “Ship Without a Sail”. Its gently swinging rhythm reminded me of the swell of waves on the sea, and its relaxed and enjoyable groove was enhanced by Murley's smooth tenor, Schwager's bright accented guitar, and Wallace's bluesy, inflected bass.

That song is an early effort by famed American composer Richard Rodgers, and before playing it, Murley asked the audience whether they'd heard of it before. No one had. That was one of the real strengths of the trio's material – they weren't playing the same, all-too-familiar standards which we've all heard over and over at jam sessions.

The composers were familiar – including Jobim, Rodgers, Cole Porter, Herb Ellis – and these songs weren't completely unknown. The Jobim number, for example, had been recorded by Frank Sinatra, and the Ellis song by Bill Evans. But, like many standards, these songs deserve to be better known, and the trio did themselves and their audience a favour by bringing them forward.

The show closed with “Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West” by John Lewis (of the Modern Jazz Quartet) – also on the new CD. It was an extended, full-bodied blues number, with everyone playing with and contributing to the groove. The audience greeted it with an enthusiastic standing ovation.

On his website, Murley describes this trio project as “chamber jazz”. That's a term I've more often heard used to describe a mix of classical and jazz influences. But if he's referring to music that repays careful listening, that's played by a small group of highly accomplished musicians, and that's warm and intimate and beautiful – yes, I think “chamber jazz” works quite well for this trio.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list:

  1. You for Me/Blossom Dearie
  2. Looking Back/Jimmy Rowles (from Looking Back)
  3. Ship Without a Sail/Richard Rodgers (from Ship Without a Sail)
  4. If You Never Come to Me/Antonio Carlos Jobim (from Looking Back)
  5. So In Love/Cole Porter (from Looking Back)
  6. Detour Ahead/Herb Ellis (from Looking Back)
  7. Two Degrees East, Three Degrees West/John Lewis (from Ship Without a Sail)

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.

Read our review of Mike Murley's Septet concert at Ontario Scene: