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A tuba (and jazz) fantasia with the Keith Hartshorn-Walton Quartet (review)

The Keith Hartshorn-Walton Quartet
Live @ Record Runner
Record Runner Rehearsal Studios
Friday, February 24, 2017 - 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

I admit it: I'm prejudiced in favour of the tuba. I've always found that instrument's deep sound to be rich and beautiful and wonderfully resonant in a room. I've enjoyed the very occasional times I've heard American tuba masters like Howard Johnson.

Keith Hartshorn-Walton (tuba) listens to Michel Delage (drums) in their Live @ Record Runner show ©Brett Delmage, 2017

But opportunities to hear the tuba in a jazz context in Ottawa have been rare – until Keith Hartshorn-Walton moved here in 2015. As he's gradually increased his performances with a variety of local jazz groups, we've had more chances to hear the tuba in unexpected places. This concert, though, was his first show as leader.

By the end of the show, you could see why Hartshorn-Walton is such an advocate for the tuba and its abilities, as he deployed it in roles ranging from lead horn to bass background, and did full justice to a wide variety of classic jazz pieces.

For this show, he teamed up with three well-known Ottawa jazz musicians: John Geggie on double bass, Michel Delage on drums, and Peter Hum on keyboards. Hum also contributed two of his own recent original pieces to the set list.

For the remainder, Hartshorn-Walton picked jazz standards and classics – a few well-known, but most less commonly heard. Some Latin, some swing, some show tunes, some blues, but primarily enjoyable music that connected with the audience, and gave all the musicians room to play and innovate.

They opened with “On a Clear Day”, a Broadway number with an insistent upbeat message in both its words and melody. The tuba sound in this song was warm and celebratory, played primarily in a tenor sax's range but achieving a more rounded feel. Counterpointed against this were Peter Hum's percussive keyboards, the notes insistent and bright, Geggie's deep notes outlining the melody, and Delage's hard-edged and cymbal-rich drumming – all evoking a wide-open vibe where one could indeed see forever and ever and evermore.

“Sunny”, the next number, was jaunty and swinging, with more of an organ trio sound. The broad edges of Hartshorn-Walton's tuba lines developed and embroidered the groove, while Hum's keyboard notes danced on top. But before the music could get predictable, Geggie pulled out his bow to create abrasive buzzing lines on bass, following the melody but clipping it down to its essence. The audience strongly applauded his solo and the song.

The ballad “Here's That Rainy Day” allowed Hartshorn-Walton to demonstrate a more satiny sound from the tuba, enhanced by thoughtful, sustained notes on keyboards, solemn resonant bass lines, and atmospheric cymbals. The boogaloo “Listen Here” took the quartet back to the organ groove, and in particular showed how well the tuba and bass could interact. As Geggie created a vibrating and circling bowed bass solo, Hartshorn-Walton played long, deep notes on tuba underneath, adding a mellow depth to the music.

Peter Hum's “The Fake News Blues” – all too timely in its title – again opened with a tuba/bass duet and continued in a genuinely bluesy and interactive vein. Delage created vibrating, theremin-like sounds by stroking the edges of his cymbals, adding a bright touch over the deep, inviting groove. Hum's other piece (performed in the second set) was similarly politically titled “Hey, Pinko!”. It was an entertaining number with fast, punctuated performances and a strong mutual vamp, and showcasing Geggie's hard-edged bowed bass with added harmonics.

The first set ended with the Latin vibe of Joe Henderson's “Y Todavia la Quiero”, which opened with unadorned double bass followed by keyboards, both clear and resonant, and became more and more energetic with fast, circling tuba and propulsive drumming.

Hartshorn-Walton explored the deeper ranges of the tuba at the beginning of the second set, in “Blue Monk”. Playing bass-tuba duets and gravelly solos, he created growling and reverberant lines. At one point, his tuba notes were so low they were almost inaudible. “Hello Young Lovers” also featured deep, velvety tuba melodies as well as more rough-edged playing, and ended with a last deep, held note.

But the most memorable and extraordinary piece of the night was John Coltrane's “Alabama”. Hum had suggested adding this piece to the set list in memory of the mass shooting at the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City in January, which had overtones of the 1963 event which inspired Coltrane's piece: the Klu Klux Klan bombing of a church.

Hartshorn-Walton replaced Coltrane's tenor sax part with tuba, but retained – and, in fact, increased – its mournful intensity. Grave and elegiac, the piece began as a requiem driven by tuba and bowed bass. Partway through, though, it transformed (like Coltrane's original) into a statement of renewed determination for the struggle against racism – with the drums surging forward and the tuba and piano building to a climax.

Then Geggie's bowed bass renewed the evocative lament, with a strong repeated pattern of tuba notes underneath moving the piece forward before it ended in a deep, solemn last note on tuba and bass. Although 10 minutes in length, it was so beautiful that one became engrossed in the music and lost track of the time.

The quartet closed with the jazz classic, “Cherokee”, a fast and sizzling number that featured smooth, lively tuba over sparkling piano and dynamic, hard drumming. Hum and Geggie added brisk explorations of the theme in fluid and extended solos, and the piece ended with Hartshorn-Walton's velvety tuba lines and one last tuba thump.

The audience strongly applauded and many stood for a standing ovation. Closing the evening, Record Runner owner and M.C. Paul Adjeleian said, “That wraps up an amazing evening of jazz. … I've heard a lot of brass musicians. I've heard classical tuba concerts. I've honestly never heard the tuba played like that!”

It was indeed a fine – and quite varied – evening that showed off the tuba's capabilities. While the music was in any jazz audience's comfort zone, the high quality of all the performances and the group's ease of playing together took it a step beyond. This quartet would be well worth hearing again.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set 1

  • On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (Burton Lane and Alan Jay Lerner)
  • Sunny (Bobby Hebb)
  • Here's That Rainy Day (Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke)
  • Listen Here (Eddie Harris)
  • The Fake News Blues (Peter Hum)
  • Y Todavia la Quiero (from Relaxin' at Camarillo) (Joe Henderson)

Set 2

  • Blue Monk (Thelonious Monk)
  • Hello, Young Lovers (Rodgers and Hammerstein)
  • Alabama (John Coltrane)
  • Hey Pinko! (Peter Hum)
  • Cherokee (Ray Noble)

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