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A powerful jazz fusion outing for Modasaurus (review)

Modasaurus
Options Jazz Lounge, Brookstreet Hotel
Saturday, August 20, 2016 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The four Ottawa jazz musicians in Modasaurus are nothing if not versatile. In the many different groups they're involved in, I've heard them play everything from straight standards to serious funk, with reggae, pop, and classical, and blues excursions as well.

Bassist J.P Lapensée opened pianist James McGowan's 'Khaleegy' with an extended and melodic bass solo, to enthusiastic audience response  ©Brett Delmage, 2016

But it's jazz fusion that they play in this group – a driving and intense jazz style with touches of rock. The group is also a fusion in another sense: between pianist and composer James McGowan, and the three members of the HML Trio: guitarist Alex Moxon, bassist J.P. Lapensée and drummer Jamie Holmes (who are also three-quarters of the Chocolate Hot Pockets).

As you might guess from their dinosaur-inspired name, Modasaurus has a big sound – not excessively loud, but full-bodied and complex. Most of their repertoire is original compositions by McGowan, which use the talents of all four, and allow for considerable interaction and interplay.

This weekend was their third outing as a group. They used the two nights to showcase several new tunes, and to bring in guests: saxophonist Mike Tremblay on Friday, and guitarist Wayne Eagles on both Friday and Saturday.

OttawaJazzScene.ca heard them on Saturday. Any group playing that night was going to have some serious competition: the Tragically Hip was playing its final concert, which was broadcast everywhere in Canada and attracted the kind of national attention usually only given to two Canuck teams playing for the Stanley Cup. The Options Jazz Lounge turned on the broadcast on its TV screen between sets, but otherwise put the jazz first.

While that meant a smaller crowd, it also meant that those in the audience were there to listen, and judging from the consistent applause, listen appreciatively. In the first two sets in particular, it was one of the quietest crowds I'd heard at Brookstreet in ages. That allowed the quartet to exhibit an impressive dynamic range: from a very quiet guitar and piano duo to full-out funk.

For most of the first set, Eagles sat in with the group, adding an extra guitar voice that complemented Moxon's. In McGowan's “See My Jawa”, he and Moxon combined in a barely-there conversation, Eagles' harmonics over Moxon's restrained guitar. In the fast-paced “New Beginning”, his pointillist and inflected guitar solo contrasted with Moxon's more flowing solo, and McGowan's scintillating piano.

I particularly liked the quartet's rendition of Eagles' own composition, “At Most, Spheric” – a subdued, ECM-influenced piece which used repetition to create a haunting and mysterious effect. Its rhythms subtly altered and developed during the piece, creating a disquieting feeling – enhanced by McGowan's crystalline piano, Lapensée's inflected bass lines, Holmes' light, atmospheric percussion, and Eagles' strong circling guitar lines over Moxon's repeated patterns.

The quartet opened their second set with a tribute to The Tragically Hip: the Hip's 1999 hit, “Bobcaygeon”, given a joyous treatment with a touch of groove. That was followed by McGowan's “Funky Pterodactyl”, which verged on rock with its rollicking piano lines, edged and soaring guitar, hard drumming, and funky bass lines – but was primarily fast and fun. Then came two new pieces: “August Evening”, an emotionally-rich ballad with touches of gospel, and “Cereal and Eggs”, a rock-infused piece with thumping drums, syncopated piano, and rawer and more interrupted guitar, enhanced by effects.

I've heard Mark Ferguson's song, “Home” many times, both live and recorded (the NAC Fourth Stage frequently played it before jazz shows). It has a lovely, memorable melody that sweeps you along and stays with you even when it's finished. While staying true to the song, Modasaurus gave it a faster and more punctuated rendition – brighter and less caressing, with interesting solos on piano, bass, and guitar. I liked the reinterpretation.

The last song in the set was McGowan's “FreeFallFunk”, which had a slow and elegiac opening, but then sped up and spread out – a high-energy dance with each instrument stepping out and continuing to evolve the music. I thought I caught hints of Grant Green and 60s soul-jazz in some of the lines, but mostly it was a playful and highly entertaining piece.

We had to leave before the third set ended. Of what we heard in that set, I particularly enjoyed McGowan's Khaleegy”, which had a Middle Eastern feel, enhanced by circling rhythms and a back-and-forth duet between McGowan's punctuated piano and Moxon's hard-edged guitar

Lapensée opened the tune with an extended and melodic bass solo, to enthusiastic audience response. He continued this exploration later in the song with fast and complex riffs. Consistently he uses his 6-string electric bass more as a deeper-toned guitar than simply as a rhythmic instrument, adding an enjoyable extra level of interest. Holmes also contributed a strong drum solo, expanding on the song's rhythms with a combination more muted and more reverberant strokes.

I was impressed with the depth of the music Modasaurus presented in this show – but also how upbeat and appealing it was, and how well the quartet combined to perform it. If you wanted, you could analyze the interconnecting strands, but you could also just sit there and enjoy listening to four musicians stretch out and experiment, and become immersed in the music. I'm looking forward to their next show – and to hearing the album that they've been working on for the last few months.

– Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

  • Dancing Preacher (James McGowan)
  • Green Tea (John Scofield)
  • New Beginning (James McGowan)
  • At Most, Spheric (Wayne Eagles)
  • See My Jawa (James McGowan)

  • Bobcaygeon (The Tragically Hip)
  • Funky Pterodactyl (James McGowan)
  • August Evening (James McGowan)
  • Cereal and Eggs (James McGowan)
  • Home (Mark Ferguson)
  • FreeFallFunk (James McGowan)

  • Seeking (James McGowan)
  • Khaleegy (James McGowan)
  • Corean Poultry (James McGowan)

    (after OttawaJazzScene.ca left, reported to us by the group)
  • Prime Time (James McGowan)
  • Recordame (Joe Henderson)
  • Bobcaygeon (The Tragically Hip) repeated, as requested

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