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2010-11 Geggie series: the audience wants jazz

John Geggie / Rebecca Martin / Peter Kieswalter / Jim Doxas
Geggie Concert Series 10/11, #2
Saturday, October 16, 2010
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

After ten years, there are certain expectations one brings to a Geggie series concert. The performers will be top-quality; there will be extensive improvisation; both the musicians and the audience will be challenged.

Sometimes one guest performer provides most of the pieces; sometimes every musician throws in a few compositions; sometimes a few standards creep in. The music can range from highly melodic to the freest of free jazz. But the magic of the shows comes from throwing musicians together who normally don't play together, and seeing them respond to each other in interesting ways.

Although Geggie has played with many local and visiting vocalists in Ottawa, his own concerts haven't included a vocalist for quite a while. This concert with American vocalist Rebecca Martin was an exception, and unfortunately not a happy one.

Martin is hard to categorize: she plays with jazz musicians like Kurt Rosenwinkel and Paul Motian, and her latest album, When I Was Long Ago (Sunnyside, 2010), contains stripped-down jazz standards. But her other solo albums are more in the folk/pop vein. Her description on iTunes includes Jazz, Singer/Songwriter, Folk-Rock, Rock, Pop, Adult Contemporary, Crossover Jazz, Vocal, and Vocal Jazz.

To prepare for this concert, I listened several times to Martin's second-latest CD, The Growing Season (Sunnyside, 2008). Overall, the melodies were interestingly hypnotic, and it was pleasant to listen to. Her backup musicians were first-rate: Kurt Rosenwinkel in particular contributed some elegant guitar work (as well as playing keyboards and vibraphone), and Larry Grenadier on bass and Brian Blade on drums provided a solid base. But her vocals sounded thin and occasionally disappeared  into the mix – it was hard to follow what the lyrics meant without looking at the liner notes. And the vocals were also annoyingly omnipresent: in most songs there wasn't enough room for the other musicians to spread out and interact with the music. The songs tended to blend into a vocal porridge: similar tempos, similar melodies, similar approaches.

I liked some of the songs ("Talking", "What Feels Like Home") more individually than as part of the set. There was also, as far as I could hear, relatively little jazz influence in her singing style on this album: no scatting, no swing, no changes in rhythm. It was more singer-songwriter in style than anything else.

I figured, however, that Geggie's influence would hold sway, and she would be doing more jazz at the Fourth Stage. Instead, the concert opened with the opening cut from The Growing Season. Oh dear.

Essentially, there were two Rebecca Martins that night. Two of her songs were jazz standards from her latest album, and they worked tremendously well. She told the audience she wanted to sing and record these "elders" because they needed to be sung as the composers intended.

"Tea for Two", in the first set, was just bass and voice, very simple and unaffected. Her phrasing was dead-on, she nailed the high notes, she wasn't afraid to leave space in the song, and she made you feel the lyrics. Geggie's extended bass solo echoed her vocals and extended the melody.

Similarly, "But Not for Me", which ended the second set, showed off her clear diction. Her vocals were direct and emotional, and she left space for the other musicians. Kieswalter echoed her vocal syncopation with his piano, adding depth to her voice. Doxas and Geggie filled in behind her, and then shared an extended drum/bass solo that reflected the pacing of the song. The combination succeeded really well.

The rest of the time, Martin played her own material, which appeared to be primarily from The Growing Season. She strummed an acoustic guitar, she sang, and the rest of the musicians filled in where they could. She dominated the concert more than usual in a Geggie show. She also had a noticeable rasp in her mid-range in many of the songs, which was more obvious live than on CD.

Jim Doxas' talents on drums were annoyingly underused. He is such an inventive drummer that it was disappointing to see him stuck on brushes for most of the concert. His subdued drumming added considerably to the atmosphere behind the songs, but he was rarely given a chance to step out. I liked how he ended "Honesty" with echoing drums, followed by some slow clicks and finally a flurry on cymbals and drums, and how he used bells and a shaker to underline the spaces in "What Feels Like Home".

Peter Kieswalter provided a strong melodic background on piano, soprano sax, alto clarinet, and accordion. He was particularly good on "Just a Boy", where his clarinet solo started off as a muted undertone and moved to a memorable, anthemic close.

In general, however, there wasn't much room for the other musicians to add to Martin's music, unlike in other Geggie concerts.

While it is certainly not required, most vocalists introduce and explain their songs. Martin tended not to do that, which made it harder to understand the point of the lyrics, particularly when they got buried in the instrumental mix.

At the beginning of the concert, Geggie mentioned that Martin had been delayed by bad travel connections for most of Friday, meaning the group had less time to rehearse. I wonder if that affected the choice of material, because if they had had more time surely it would have become obvious there should have been more jazz and less folk, or they could have introduced material by other group members.

But, as it was, the choice of material was not what the audience was expecting from a Geggie show – or what they wanted. The room was almost full for the first set, but during the break, it noticeably thinned out. Everyone at my table made their excuses and departed, which they don't normally do. And the show ended early (9:10 p.m.).

I'd still like to hear more vocalists in future Geggie concerts. I've enjoyed hearing Geggie play with singer Sheila Jordan, for example, and I could see him setting off sparks with someone like Jeri Brown. But the material needs to be jazzier, more experimental, and more improvisational.

  – Alayne McGregor