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2011-12 Geggie Series: two masters communicate (review)

Susie Ibarra and John Geggie. The two were set up on stage so they could easily see each other. ©Brett Delmage, 2011John Geggie / Susie Ibarra
Geggie Concert Series 11/12, #1
Saturday, November 12, 2011
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

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Ottawa bassist John Geggie returned to his free jazz roots for the first concert in his 2011-12 Invitational series.

It was a duet with drummer Susie Ibarra from New York City, and the improvisations outnumbered the compositions. The two had never played together before that weekend, but Geggie said he had adored her playing for many years – listening to both her rich and varied recording output, and her concert a few years ago at the Ottawa Jazz Festival with Craig Taborn and Jennifer Choi.

They fitted together well in a surprisingly melodic and wide-ranging series of musical choices.

The concert opened quietly and simply, with Geggie playing "All the Things You Are" as a bass solo. Beginning with a blues riff, the slow ballad became more and then less abstract, the sound staying resonant throughout but the touch ranging from delicate to firm.

Their first piece together was Ibarra's "Little Flowers". Geggie's bowed bass, low and full, contrasted with the rush and clamour of cymbals and soft mallets or brushes on drums, and combined to produce a thoughtful piece with a definite ebb and flow.

The next piece, a free improv, again had Geggie bow in hand, but the sound produced was faster, harder, and more angular. He was matched by Ibarra's fast thrashing on drums, and that communication continued throughout the piece, including some notable dissonant passages. A waspy note on the bass was followed shortly thereafter by single notes, each quickly dampened, on the cymbals (rather like Morse code). Strong bowing was matched by rumbling drums.

In contrast, the next free improv was light and airy, opening with a slow shimmering vibration on the cymbals. Ibarra left space between individual riffs on the drums, letting them ring out. Geggie produced strong individual notes on the bass, first plucking strings and then, near the end, actually striking his fingers on the wood of the instrument.

The two were set up on stage so they could easily see each other, and the audience could see each following the other with both eyes and ears. Each was fully in control of his or her instrument, and each used it to complement the other.

Geggie's "Unsaid", played last year as a romantic ballad with Brian Browne, Mike Rud, and Archie Alleyne, this time was stately and slow. Both musicians used a delicate touch to elicit the melody.

Particularly notable was the one non-original of the evening: Dave Holland's composition "Mazad". The strong, flowing, Latin-influenced rhythm of the piece was evident throughout: it actually got a few people in the audience swaying to the beat. Within that rhythm, Ibarra initially added restrained grace notes on the cymbals, but gradually increased the intensity, at times drumming on the edges of her drums. As the two traded the lead back and forth, it produced an almost-hypnotic effect, and yet they weren't slaves to the beat. Near the end it appeared they were producing slightly different riffs on bass and drums and both became more aggressive while still playing homage to the Latin mode.

To open the second set, Geggie again dipped into a collection of Gregorian chant sheet music as a jumping-off point for improvisation. Starting with a slow riff on bass, he used electronics to store and then overdub himself, letting the first riff loop and playing over it. He stored the second riff and let both loops play, and then bowed his bass over them. At the same time, Ibarra was letting her brushes fly over her drumset and cymbals, light but full. The effect was slow and intricate, with both melody and strong repeated notes on the bass. As the piece progressed, the dynamic range grew larger, with Ibarra using first mallets and then sticks to increase the strength of her drumming. Then the loops faded out and Geggie ended with slow notes bowed on the bass.

Ibarra is also well-known for her work with South-East Asian gong music: Philippine Kulintang music, and Javanese and Balinese gamelan music, building on her own Philippine heritage. Those influences were apparent in her solo piece, played mid-set, where she started by played cymbals like gongs and then moved into a very earthy, almost-sledge-hammer beat, and then moved back to shining cymbals, and ended a last few patterned notes on the drums.

The duo's version of Ibarra's "Lullaby" was, on one level, a simple melody, starting with bowed bass and a slow rustling on drums. But both added texture on top: Ibarra at one point rubbing her brushes on the drums, and Geggie pressing his bow over the strings of his bass in a circular motion, creating a dissonance in contrast to the melody.

The final piece, another improv, was probably the fastest and most energetic of the evening, with a more traditional swinging beat, and ending with a long sustained note.

This wasn't the first time Ibarra had played a duet with a bassist: she put out Tone Time, a album of improvisations with bassist Mark Dresser in 2004. The AllAboutJazz review said that central to that CD was "the exploration of sounds and textures". Similarly, Geggie and Ibarra were well-suited to each other, since both have been fearless explorers in that realm, willing to try out different aspects of their instruments.

The audience, well trained by more than ten years of this series to enjoy free jazz, was intent and appreciative throughout, ending with strong applause. It was an evening where two musicians communicated well, took chances, and produced music well worth hearing.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Photos from the concert sound check / rehearsal  at the NAC Fourth Stage ©Brett Delmage, 2011