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JUNOfest night 1: three very different vocal jazz groups plus baritone sax

Amanda Tosoff Quintet  ©2017 Brett Delmage

JUNOfest 2017 Jazz Night #1: Heather Bambrick and David Braid, Shirantha Beddage Quartet, Amanda Tosoff Quintet, Barbra Lica Quintet
Live! on Elgin
Friday, March 31, 2017 - 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of these performances

With the Junos in Ottawa, many nominated jazz musicians were here for the ceremonies. And some were also here to perform, in JUNOfest concerts across the city.

For jazz fans, the action was primarily at Live! on Elgin downtown, where four ensembles played Friday night in 45-minute sets. It's a compact club which was packed with enthusiastic listeners and stayed that way all evening.

The Friday show was all-Toronto – not surprising since this year's nominees were mostly from Toronto and NYC.

Heather Bambrick shared stories about her songs that brought smiles all around, including on pianist David Braid  ©2017 Brett Delmage

Heather Bambrick and David Braid

Vocalist Heather Bambrick and pianist David Braid opened the show with a lively and very personable show. It was obvious from the very first song, “Get Happy”, that Bambrick was in fine voice, giving it a vibrant and inventive treatment including scatting in a deep, sensuous style. In the Barbra Streisand number “A Sleepin' Bee”, she outlined the melody in a extended and inventive whistling solo up into an impressive high register.

Bambrick talked about how her “very opinionated” Aunt May reminded her in no uncertain terms that some songs are best sung without extra embellishments: “just sing the song!”, and then launched into “You'll Never Know”. The Vera Lynn classic is the title song of her Juno-nominated album, and her unadorned and passionate reading of it was a highlight of her set.

Throughout the set, she talked about her Newfoundland heritage, and ended her set with the traditional song, “Let Me Fish Off Cape St. Mary's”, singing it warmly and clearly, with intense feeling, and evoking very strong applause.

While Braid stayed more in the background in the set, he and Bambrick had an easy rapport, with notes spinning out under his fingers in “Get Happy” and deep chords underlining the feeling in “You'll Never Know”. He also performed one of his own pieces: a new piece which will eventually be recorded with string quartet, in the same format as his nominated album, Flow. This one was inspired by a Chinese folksong, and you could hear those overtones within a dramatic and robust piece. Braid says he hopes to play it in its full format at Chamberfest this summer.

Shirantha Beddage played songs from his nominated album, Momentum ©2017 Brett Delmage

Shirantha Beddage Quartet

In the second set, baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage played songs from his nominated album, “Momentum”, in a quartet with pianist Amanda Tosoff, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer Morgan Childs. Their first piece, the New Orleans-inspired “Pork Chop”, had the most propulsion, with a deep growling groove on baritone displayed over bright, accented piano – inspiring strong audience clapping. His other three numbers were quieter and slower but no less intense: the nostalgic and melancholy “the Long Goodbye”; “Centrifugal Force”, a thoughtful piece which slowly built up in intensity and ended with a long held note on baritone; and “Gravity”, which began with a repeated saxophone riff and then became more of a romantic ballad. Beddage explained how several of these numbers were inspired by going back to his high school physics courses.

Throughout, Beddage fully explored the capabilities of his baritone, from commanding riffs to very delicate playing, and was well-supported by very tight playing from the other three, for an excellent performance.

Amanda Tosoff Quintet

Tosoff, Maharaj, and Childs were right back on stage for the next set – in Tosoff's own quintet. They were joined by vocalist Felicity Williams and guitarist Alex Goodman to perform pieces from Tosoff's nominated album, Words. Tosoff created the album by gathering poems and lyrics which inspired her, and then wrote musical settings for them.

Settings is the operative word here – the songs often had only a minimal melody without many rhythmic or dynamic changes, although Williams evoked considerable emotional and tonal intensity. Unfortunately, I couldn't always understand the lyrics that she was singing; they kept getting drowned in the mix, appearing and then disappearing, which made it difficult to appreciate the songs' messages. On the other hand, the instrumental settings were gorgeous: dramatic and multi-layered, with the instruments flowing through and around each other. Goodman's guitar solos, fluid and emphatic, were a particular highlight.

I thought the most successful piece was “Living in the Past”, a country song with lyrics by Tosoff's father and uncle, where the music underlined the reminiscent lyrics. Maharaj's melodic bass solo in it nicely contrasted with Goodman's pointillist guitar. I also enjoyed their version of “Here in Heaven” by Yo Yo Ma, with a dramatic piano intro, acute lyrics, and a ringing guitar solo.

Matt Dusk and Barbra Lica, competing nominees for the JUNO vocal jazz album of the year joined in a surprise duet that delighted the audience ©2017 Brett Delmage

Barbra Lica Quintet

Vocalist Barbra Lica kicked the glamour up several notches in the evening's closing set. Supported by a well-attuned quintet, Lica sang a carefully-selected set of standards and her own songs. From the immediate strong response, it was clear that she had a fan base in the audience, and the listeners in the table nearest us told us they had come especially to hear Lica. She immediately connected with the audience, telling stories and jokes and explaining the background to the songs.

I was particularly impressed by her own songs, which were well-crafted in both the lyrics and melody – witty and catchy. They were more pop than jazz, but it's no easy task to write a memorable song of any type. I thought that several, including “Coffee Shop”, “Who Knows”, and “Did I Just Say That?” could easily get repeated radio rotation. They were fun and energetic and original. Many were from her nominated album, I'm Still Learning.

She also gave an perceptive reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim's “How Insensitive”, with an evocative guitar solo from Tom Fleming, ending dramatically with a question that fit the uncertainty in the song. And her Duke Ellington number, “Just A-Sittin' and A-Rockin'”, showed off the band's excellent time and her charm and ability to swing.

In most of the songs in the set, Lica sang the lyrics straight and simply, which I thought was more appealing and showed off her excellent, flexible voice. Her accurate French accent and intense emotional feel made the beautiful “La Vie en Rose” a memorable closing number. Pianist Joel Visentin, added added a lovely Parisian flavour to that number with his accordion, as did Marc Rogers with an evocative double bass solo.

Near the end, Lica brought out a surprise guest – vocalist Matt Dusk, who was also nominated in the Juno Jazz Vocalist category (for his duo album with Florence K). They sang a duet together, switching between French and English repeatedly in a mix of singing and comedy routine. Their voices blended well, and it was a fun, upbeat number.

   – Alayne McGregor

Read our other stories about the 2017 Juno Awards