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2010-11 Geggie series: Jérôme Sabbagh proves a melodic success

John Geggie / Jérôme Sabbagh / Nancy Walker / Ethan Ardelli
Geggie Concert Series 10/11, #1
Saturday, September 18, 2010
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

For the last ten years, John Geggie has been mixing up musicians at the NAC Fourth Stage.

He invites jazz artists from Canada, the United States, and occasionally from Europe to play with him, and gives them the opportunity to try playing with new musicians, in different styles, and with new material. It's a risk, but it generally works.

And it can work superbly, as it did in the first concert of his 2010-11 season.

For this concert, Geggie combined tenor saxophonist Jérôme Sabbagh, pianist Nancy Walker, and drummer Ethan Ardelli. Sabbagh has French and  Canadian parentage, was raised in France, and has lived and played in New York City for the last 15 years. Walker and Ardelli are from Toronto; Walker is a long-time collaborator with Geggie (you could almost claim a telepathic link between them). Ardelli has frequently played with Walker; he also played with both Geggie and Walker in the house band for a number of the 2009 Ottawa Jazz Festival jam sessions.

So you had here a very tight rhythm section – plus someone new. But the combination gelled: the way in which all four musicians were able to intertwine their sound spoke to a real flexibility and ability to listen. (This was actually the quartet's second appearance together: they had performed the previous night at Chalkers Pub in Toronto.)

And the delightful surprise of this concert was how well Sabbagh and Walker played off each other. For example, the first piece, Sabbagh's "The Turn", started with Walker's stately chords on piano, slow and romantic. Sabbagh echoed that romantic feel of the piano as he entered soon afterwards with a long, uninterrupted sax line. Throughout the piece, the tempo steadily increased to an almost frantic ending, but the piano and sax stayed in sync, exchanging places and underpinning each other. A similar effect occurred in Sabbagh's "Sick Leo", a blues in which the high, vibrating notes in the piano solo echoed Sabbagh's trick of inserting a single high note on a regular basis in the middle of his sax line.

None of Sabbagh's current groups contains a pianist: he plays with guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Daniel Humair in a trio, with bassist Ben Street and drummer Rodney Green in another trio, as well as with Monder, bassist Joe Martin, and drummer Ted Poor in a quartet. On Sabbagh's website, he includes a video of a live performance of an original called "Rooftops", featuring Monder on guitar.

On Saturday, he played the same piece with Geggie, Walker, and Ardelli, and I would argue that Saturday's version was better. It opened with a clear, swinging pattern on bass and drums, and the sax entered with a smooth line over the bass/drums pattern. Sabbagh moved to a more syncopated rhythm, and then Walker took over, echoing that syncopation. The piano increased in intensity, underlined by a partially unpredictable drum rhythm (the fourth beat was always there, but three in between varied), before the sax returned to complete the theme and ended (literally) on a high note. The richness of the piano complemented the fullness of Sabbagh's saxophone, even better than the comparatively thinner guitar in the video.

Walker provided two pieces for the concert, bookmarking the intermission. "Vigil" was a romantic ballad (occasionally reminding me of Michel Legrand), with a muscular duet between bass and piano in which they traded off the melody. "Imprint", a new composition, operated at a much faster pace, almost breakneck at times, with an intense performance on each instrument.

The remainder of the pieces were by Sabbagh. They showed off his gift for melody: some, such as the ballad "Eye of the Storm", almost appeared to contain verses and a repeated chorus. They gave him the opportunity for extended solos, with finely nuanced changes, as well as lots of space for the other musicians to interpret the theme. The one exception to his generally-melodic style was "Comptine", a recent piece included on his upcoming new CD. That piece was more what Geggie audiences have been led to expect: done in a much more free-jazz style, the effect was ominous throughout, with Sabbagh's dark, punctuated sax line, Geggie using his bow to pound on his bass strings and create eldritch cries, Ardelli's drum solo that sounded like marching feet, and Walker's tense piano chords.

Geggie stayed further in the background in this concert, but continued to show his gift for expressing melody on the bass: for example, in "Michelle's Song", which featured another duet between him and Walker.

I ended up sitting near Ardelli, with a group of drum enthusiasts, and was able to particularly appreciate how well he filled in the spaces in the music and supported the other musicians: sometimes just a light tap on the cymbals, sometimes very assertive sticks playing. On Sabbagh's "Trip", for example, he produced a drum solo that stayed at the same tempo as before but added internal rhythms and used his entire kit to explore some fascinating new places -- while still enhancing the original piece.

Sabbagh is an energetic and assured saxophonist, melodic but not sweet: a definite crowd-pleaser. He, along with Walker and Ardelli, proved to be an excellent opener for this year's Geggie series.

Set 1
1. "The Turn" by Jérôme Sabbagh
2. "Eye of the Storm" by Jérôme Sabbagh
3. "Comptine" by Jérôme Sabbagh
4. "Sick Leo" by Jérôme Sabbagh
5. "Imprint" by Nancy Walker

Set 2
1. "Vigil" by Nancy Walker
2. "Trip" by Jérôme Sabbagh
3. "Michelle's Song" by Jérôme Sabbagh
4. "Rooftops" by Jérôme Sabbagh
Encore: "Not Quite Blue" by Jérôme Sabbagh

    – Alayne McGregor