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A hard-driving quartet finds new corners of modern jazz

The Kirk MacDonald/Pat LaBarbera Quartet, with Kieran Overs and special guest Adam Nussbaum
Les Brasseurs du Temps, Gatineau
Tuesday, June 28, 2016 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Just before the end of this show, Kirk MacDonald told the audience that they had just heard world premieres – both of this band, and of many of the pieces they played. Two of the compositions he contributed, in fact, were so new that he hadn't yet named them.

Saxophonists Kirk MacDonald (l) and Pat LaBarbera have found a new partnership and new material together with bassist Kieran Overs and drummer Adam Nussbaum. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

But it was also an evening which showed off these musicians' many decades of experience and long-standing friendships. Although this quartet is new, the two saxophonists, MacDonald and Pat LaBarbera, both stalwarts of the Toronto jazz scene, have performed together since the 1990s; LaBarbera and NYC drummer Adam Nussbaum have decades of friendship; and MacDonald and LaBarbera are both in Toronto bassist Kieran Overs' band, Overs’ Eleven.

Unsurprisingly, there was a friendly, happy vibe on stage – and lots of energy.

Their show at Les Brasseurs du Temps in downtown Gatineau was the start of a three-city tour; the quartet would be playing at Dièse Onze in Montreal for the following two evenings, recording a CD for two days when they got back to Toronto, and then playing at The Rex in Toronto on July 6 and 7.

This first show offered them a chance to spread out and try out material, in front of a receptive and interested audience. The quartet ended up playing a 1½-hour first set and a one-hour second set, with only a half-hour break – but the music was so dynamic that one hardly noticed the time.

They opened with a warm, inviting piece by LaBarbera, “Baby Blue”, which was inspired by the standard “Melancholy Baby”. It featured both him and MacDonald on tenor, playing alternately and together, with Nussbaum's vigorous drumming and Overs' emphatic bass lines driving the piece.


They then moved into the one non-original of the night, “Footprints” by Wayne Shorter, which Nussbaum started off with a hard-edged drum solo before the introspective, entwined lines on both tenors took up the melody. Nussbaum was particularly notable in this piece: his propulsive drumming, accented by cymbal crashes, contrasted with the smoothness of the song's theme. His drum solo was a study in constant style shifts: at one point almost like a military march, the next moment stop-and-start. The piece ended with the two tenors playing together, each embroidering the other's lines.

But Nussbaum could also play softly and with great nuance in the slower compositions: for example, in his piece, “We Three”, which opened with cymbals shimmering. LaBarbera on soprano added a high, bright melody, more exploratory than melodic, with MacDonald on tenor underlining the soprano's lines. During Overs' earthy bass solo, Nussbaum added light cymbal taps as accents. The piece slowly faded out into only light bass and drums – and then one last cymbal tap.

LaBarbera's “Messing with Messiaen” was inspired by 20th century French composer Olivier Messiaen, and his theoretical work on symmetric musical modes of limited transposition. LaBarbera took one of Messiaen's seven modes and created a more abstract piece from it, often with very punctuated rhythms, and moving from thoughtful to very urgent.

MacDonald's first new piece, not yet titled, changed the mood to more solemn and processional, with deep bass riffs from Overs and more delicate melodies on soprano and tenor. It had a rich, almost classical feel, with prominent processional bass lines. Nussbaum could be seen very carefully listening to Overs as he fitted in his drum strokes with the bass.

In contrast, MacDonald's second new piece, also not yet titled, featured both him and LaBarbera on tenor for a more swinging feel and strong circling saxophone lines – and ended with a drum fusillade and a huge cymbal crash.

The second set featured a number of saxophone duets, but the most interesting piece for me was Overs' “22nd Street Waltz”. It opened with subdued drums and a quiet bass riff, and then LaBarbera entered with a sinuous melody on soprano, accompanied by MacDonald on tenor. It was a gentler, more sonorous piece, which highlighted how well they fit their saxophone lines together, each enhancing the other.

One joy of the concert was how well MacDonald and LaBarbera played saxophone together – sometimes in unison, sometimes with one taking the lead and the other blowing long notes underneath. They would play tenor together, combine tenor with soprano, and finally near the end, both play soprano. But even then, their sounds were noticeably different and complementary, since their sopranos had somewhat different sounds.

For example, MacDonald's “Sideways” featured a duet between him and LaBarbera both on soprano sax. The combination was bright and compelling, with vibrating patterns coming together and then separating.

I would have liked to hear at bit more of Overs' bass in the mix. His expressive solos (for example, in “22nd Street Waltz”) came through clearly, but in other places you had to strain to hear his bass lines.

The quartet closed with “Manhattan Getaway”, an older piece by MacDonald, in which the musicians were frequently trading 4's – alternating quick passages on drums or bass with saxophone. It was a highly dynamic piece, fast and expressive. Feeling its energy, you wouldn't have realized it had been three hours since the start of the show.

The audience mostly filled the largest room at the brewery restaurant, and was consistently attentive throughout, talking with the musicians at break, and ending the show with extended and wholehearted applause. Their ages ranged from late teens to seniors, and several of the listeners were students who had previously been in MacDonald's National Youth Jazz Combo.

For those who like classic mainstream jazz, played intensely by highly skilled practitioners, you couldn't go wrong with this quartet. We left BDT still buzzed by the energy of the evening, and happy to have heard this premiere.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

Set 1:

  • Baby Blue (Pat LaBarbera)
  • Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
  • We Three (Adam Nussbaum)
  • Messing with Messiaen (Pat LaBarbera)
  • untitled #1 (Kirk MacDonald)
  • untitled #2 (Kirk MacDonald)

Set 2:

  • The Hang (Pat LaBarbera)
  • 22nd Street Waltz (Kieran Overs)
  • Get Happy (Pat LaBarbera)
  • Sideways (Kirk MacDonald)
  • Manhattan Getaway (Kirk MacDonald)

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