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The Amos Hoffman Quartet adds classical and Mid-East motifs to mainstream jazz

Amos Hoffman Quartet
Black Squirrel Books, Ottawa
Friday, June 3, 2016 – 9:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The word had got out that this was going to be an interesting show. Black Squirrel Books had brought out every sofa, seat, folding chair, and step stool it had – and there were still listeners sitting on the floor at the front or leaning against the coffee bar. The bookstore was full, with well over 50 people concentrating on the music.

The packed audience in Black Squirrel Books sounded enthusiastic about the Amos Hofffman Quartet continuing ther collaboration ©Brett Delmage, 2016

They had come to hear Israeli jazz guitarist and oud player Amos Hoffman and three Toronto jazz musicians: pianist Noam Lemish, bassist Justin Gray, and drummer Derek Gray. And their anticipation was well justified, as the quartet performed a dynamic and consistently engaging 85-minute-long set.

It was an evening of all originals, plus a jazz arrangement of a traditional Jewish prayer – alternating between pieces by Hoffman and by Lemish. The sound initially harked back to the classic mid-60s jazz of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, but Hoffman in particular added Middle Eastern motifs, as well as the commanding tone of his oud.

The quartet was surrounded by tall bookcases, which had been pushed into a rough backdrop. There wasn't a great deal of room – Derek Gray's drumset in particular was crowded into a corner and he had to sit on his cajon. He had barely enough room for his elbows when he really got going with his brushes and sticks – but the tight corners also added intimacy. The quartet played warmly and with considerable ease, modulating their volume to the space; you could clearly hear every note.

Lemish said the three Toronto musicians had worked together in various combinations for several years. They'd heard Hoffman, and asked him if he'd like to collaborate. He came up to Toronto in January for rehearsals and shows, and the combination clicked. This Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto tour was their second opportunity to perform together.

They opened with a new, untitled piece by Hoffman, in an upbeat piece reminiscent of Kenny Burrell featuring strong bluesy riffs on his archtop electric guitar, contrasting with Lemish's sparkling keyboard lines. Unlike many guitarists I've heard recently, Hoffman didn't have an effects box – his sound was unadorned but compelling in its simplicity and intensity.

It strongly contrasted with the next tune, by Lemish, which he had adapted from a theme in Bach's Orchestral Suite in B Minor. It was quiet and chamber jazz in style, featuring Justin Grey's bowed bass and Hoffman's flamenco-like lines on oud. It became more dramatic, underlaid with shivering cymbals and strong piano chords. Hoffman switched to guitar partway through, in a more percussive style, and the piece ended solemnly and slowly.

The quartet had performed a similar combination of compositions the evening before in Montreal. However, their concert the next day in Toronto was going to be notably different: a collection of original compositions by five Toronto composers on the theme of the Tower of Babel. Hoffman played one tune he had recently written for the Toronto show, with the tentative title of “Shifting Sands”. More Middle Eastern in style, it let his oud ring out through the space, in accented and resonant patterns. The oud's sound was so sharp and bright – easily dancing over the fast rhythms produced by six-string electric bass, drums, and keyboard – that I was surprised to learn later that the oud had nylon strings. In other places, it actually sounded deeper than Justin's Gray's fluid bass solo.

Lemish's “Heartland” initially contrasted vibrating rhythms on oud with Derek Gray's energetic beat on cajon, and as Hoffman switched to guitar, became more melodic – ending in a strong flourish. The quartet followed that with Lemish's adaptation of a traditional prayer for Yom Kippur, with strongly accented rhythms on cajon, drumset, and keyboard. Hoffman grabbed drumsticks and drummed on his music stand, and Justin Gray added more rhythms on the wood of his double bass.

The music then slowed with Lemish's thoughtful ballad, “Girl with a Red Sky”, and the quartet closed with an extended and fast-moving piece, Hoffman's “The Foreigner”. He opened it playing solo on his oud, the deep, husky notes giving the music an almost other-worldly feel. When the other musicians joined in, the tune slowed and then sped up again, but always flowed smoothly, with strong vibrating undertones. It became more and more intense before resolving back into the melody, played fluently on guitar and keyboard.

The audience gave the quartet an immediate standing ovation.

With Hoffman now living in South Carolina, the quartet will have to continue to make special arrangements to perform together. But all four musicians – and the audience – sounded enthusiastic about their continuing the collaboration.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance