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Conjunction: three jazz and three classical musicians make music that sings (review)

The musicians in Conjunction 'pushed the boundaries and found that sometimes the boundaries pushed back.' ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Conjunction: The Gryphon Trio with Scott Good, Dafnis Prieto, and Roberto Occhipinti
Chamberfest: Chamberfringe series
La Nouvelle Scène
Friday, July 29, 2016 - 10 p.m.

Dafnis Prieto and Max Pollak
Chamberfest: Siskind Snapshots
Dominion Chalmers United Church
Tuesday, July 26, 2016 - 5:45 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto is best known for leading Latin jazz bands and collaborating with the cream of the NYC avant-garde jazz scene. Roberto Occhipinti is a prominent jazz bassist and bandleader in Toronto. Scott Good has played trombone with many Canadian jazz musicians.

Did you realize that each of them also composes and performs chamber music?

In one of the most fascinating concerts I've heard this year, these three musicians collaborated with the Gryphon Trio at Chamberfest. In a 90-minute show, they presented four pieces which crossed back and forth between jazz and classical music, building on the strengths of both and ending up with beautiful music.

The Gryphon Trio – Roman Borys on cello, Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin, and James Parker on piano – was a natural partner for this endeavour. The trio may be best celebrated for its interpretations of works by Beethoven and Schubert, but it has also consistently expanded its range outside the standard chamber repertoire, many times together with Occhipinti. Borys is also Chamberfest's artistic director, and has made a point of programming many jazz and jazz-crossover concerts in its late-night Chamberfringe series.

So there was the interest and experience on both sides to experiment, to try for a melding of styles and genres between jazz and classical, in this concert. Before the music started, Borys introduced the concept behind the show and said that, for the trio, it was an attempt to take its non-classical collaborations “up to a whole new level, and push those boundaries in a way we haven't done before”. The trio started by inviting Good to work with them to curate the show, and then suggested a few jazz collaborators.

This project challenged all the musicians, he said, “and took us all to a whole new place. We pushed the boundaries and found that sometimes the boundaries pushed back.” They had been working on the music since May, and had been rehearsing for the previous week.

The set-list for the evening consisted of short compositions by each of the jazz musicians, plus a major piano piece by classical composer John Adams, substantially rearranged and rethought by Good.

The ensemble began with Occhipinti's “Tuareg”, an earlier composition which he had rearranged for this ensemble, and which was influenced by sub-Saharan rhythms. Deep, reverberant bowed bass introduced the piece, with Prieto providing accents on cymbals and percussion – a melodic invocation to the concert.

It then rapidly picked up energy, with Prieto's insistent, Latin-tinged drumming driving the music. His rapid-fire solo partway through drew strong applause from the audience. Adding to the forward momentum were Good's intense, flowing trombone lines and whirling violin and cello – but this was primarily a bass and drums fantasia, a good introduction for those jazz fans in the audience worried about too heavy a dose of classical. It received an immediate, enthusiastic response.

Good wrote the next piece, “Wu Xing”, specifically for this ensemble – with, as Borys noted, the idea of taking everyone slightly out of their comfort zone. It embodied the Chinese philosophical notion that matter consists of five states, each of which is in transition to the next: wood to fire, fire to earth, earth to metal, metal to water, and water back to wood.

So the composition was all about the states in between, explored abstractly. Its overall feel was a shimmering and bell-like, with Parker and Occhipinti adding Chinese-style rhythms on piano and double bass – but its patterns were constantly changing and developing. Occasionally they became more dissonant (fire eating the wood), other times they were harder and more aggressive (earth to metal). Good conducted the other five musicians, and didn't perform himself.

I thought this piece particularly well integrated the strings and piano with the bass and drums, with beautiful atmospheric passages from the combination of rippling piano with alternating violin and cello. The sharper edges of the drums and the steady bass anchored the piece and added emphasis, allowing room for its sometimes joyous, sometimes disquieting, themes to develop. It was a memorable composition, which was greeted with spirited applause.

Prieto opened his own piece, “So Long Ago”, with an extended and imaginative drum solo – one that showed why he is renowned as a drummer. Beginning with echoing lines reminiscent of thunder, It was a constantly shifting performance, with complex patterns flowing into each other. Unlike many drum solos I've heard, Prieto doesn't need to play extremely loudly to get the effects he wants – instead he exploits the tonal qualities of different parts of his set, from the hollow clave to the more echoing snares and cymbals.

Then Patipatanakoon entered with vibrating violin lines, followed by cello and piano, and the piece became more elegiac, fitting the memorial theme in its title. Prieto's drumming remained a strong presence, but with bass, piano, trombone, and strings adding their voices on top. The piece shifted abruptly back and forth between slow, mournful passages and more interrupted, calliope-like fast ones – before finally ending with an evocative combination of bowed bass, cello, and violin. The audience responded with warm applause.

The main event of the night was “Phrygian Gates”, a minimalist and repeating piano piece by modern composer John Adams, which Good had rearranged for drum kit, jazz bass, and piano trio, extending it to almost 30 minutes from its original 20.

With Good again conducting, the piano trio opened the piece. Parker played repeated yet evolving piano patterns over which the violin and cello danced dramatically, underlaid by chiming cymbals. Occhipinti responded with his own bowed bass lines – and the piece continued richly mixing its instruments and never dragging or losing energy. While there was a connecting strand throughout the piece, it had a wide range of dynamics and speed, with each of the instruments showcased. I particularly liked the section where the strings played high, fine lines over complex piano patterns, sounding like angel's voices – but there were many magical moments throughout.

How would I describe this piece? Probably as new music more than anything else – but with lots of energy from jazz-based percussion and with a fine, nuanced feel from the piano trio. The different styles combined well to create an emotionally-resonant and consistently interesting rendition.

The hall at La Nouvelle Scène was almost full for the concert, and the audience was engaged with the music throughout. “Phrygian Gates” ended with one last echoing note on cymbals, and the listeners let it completely die off into silence, before bursting into intense and extended applause.

At the beginning of the show, Borys described this performance as “very much a workshop still”, giving a taste of where the ensemble was going. Based on what I heard, I'd describe Conjunction as a highly satisfying repast, one that I'd like to hear many variations on, at Chamberfest or elsewhere.

Set List

  • Tuareg (Roberto Occhipinti)
  • Wu Xing (Scott Good)
  • So Long Ago (Dafnis Prieto)
  • Phrygian Gates (John Adams)

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance


Afro-Cuban percussion, in drumset, dance, and more

Dafnis Prieto performed in several concerts at Chamberfest this year besides Conjunction. One of the most interesting was a free, late afternoon show he gave with American percussive dancer Max Pollak, in Woodside Hall (the smaller side hall) at Dominion Chalmers United Church.

Pollak grew up in Vienna, Austria, but fell in love with first tap dancing and then jazz drumming. Now he describes what he does as “body percussion”. He leads a music/dance ensemble called RumbaTap, which melds Afro-Cuban music and dance, American jazz, body percussion, and tap dance.

When performing, his feet certainly are in constant motion – but so are his hands and arms, clapping, slapping his legs and his torso. He moves sinuously, twirls, reaches with his arms into the air, unleashes flurries of taps – and calls out, singing Cuban melodies. It's a fierce performance – well-matched by Prieto's emphatic rhythms.

In their 45-minute show, both Prieto and Pollak played percussion, Prieto with his drumset and Pollak with his body. They concentrated on Afro-Cuban rhythms, with Pollak talking about how his life was changed by studying these rhythms.

It was a great introduction to these artists – both told the audience about themselves and their music – and the variety and complexity of Afro-Cuban rhythms. But, primarily, it was a fascinating combination of vibrant dance and music, each enhancing the other. Pollak and Prieto only had time to play two improvised pieces – I would have gladly watched a full concert.

– Alayne McGregor

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