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The benefits of experience (review)

Pat LaBarbera in rehearsal ©Brett Delmage, 2012

John Geggie / Pat LaBarbera / Josh Rager / Nick Fraser
Geggie Concert Series 11/12, #5
Saturday, April 21, 2012
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

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In jazz, you often get better with experience, and that was plainly obvious in the fifth concert of this year's Geggie Invitational series.

Toronto saxophonist Pat LaBarbera has been playing professionally for more than four decades, and that showed in the purity of his tone, his flexibility, and the exact intonations he coaxed from the tenor and soprano sax. And if the other three musicians couldn't match that number of years (except in total), their decades of experience also showed, and in particular their experience playing together. Nick Fraser is Geggie's favourite drummer, and pianist Josh Rager and Geggie have also been regular collaborators.

The line-up was predominantly standards, but spiced with originals from LaBarbera, Geggie, and Rager. They opened with Billy Strayhorn's "Upper Manhattan Medical Group", with fluid tenor over glittering piano, and each of the instruments fitting perfectly into the groove. For the next piece, LaBarbera's "Little Lady", LaBarbera switched to soprano sax, starting with a slow, evocative line. He alternated with Rager, both exploring the melody and shifting rhythms. A tender sax solo recapping the melody was succeeded by a bass solo, again recognizing the melody but giving it a more percussive nature. Fraser produced strong textures underneath all the melody anchoring all.

Overall, the musical choices were more upbeat: a strong confident, swinging vibe on "I'll Close my Eyes" (made famous by Dinah Washington); a bluesy and romantic feel on Geggie's "I Want It More"; energetic, punctuated rhythms on LaBarbera's "Dreamsteps" and on Bill Evan's "Peri's Scope"; slow, sensuous sax lines against resonant piano leading to an almost Brazilian vibe in Duke Ellington's "Phantasm".

Fraser again demonstrated his inventiveness as both a supportive group member and a solo artist. He opened "Phantasm" with a long, echoing solo, initially just on drums, and finally followed by a single cymbal note, then more drums, then the screech of a stick along the top of the cymbal, before the soprano sax finally joined in.

Josh Rager broke his leg three weeks before the concert, putting his participation at risk. However, the miracle of titanium pinned the break in his femur, and his own determination got him up and moving on crutches, and he was able to play just in time for the concert. The break didn't affect the speed of his hands or the attention he gave to the music: in songs like the encore, Cy Coleman's "Why Try to Change Me Now", he produced brilliant flurries of notes and then moved to a more syncopated flow, but always playing with the melody. He and LaBarbera worked particularly smoothly together in stating melodies, and with all the musicians in developing and exploring new rhythms.

Near the end of the second set, I had got to the point where I was happily considering whether I could drop the word "ominous" from my review vocabulary. Then came Rager's piece, “Time and Again” (the title track from his second album). It started out as romantic, slow ballad, and then Geggie took over: bowing his bass to produce atonal and disquieting lines with sudden changes in direction. He switched his bow back and forth to get the maximum range of sounds. The almost funereal feeling was supported by occasional cymbal frills, and when LaBarbera finally reentered on sax, his pace was much more stately and whole feel of the music was dark and sad. Finally Rager began to bring up the mood with lighter, brighter piano, and the sax moved to a more hopeful sound as well, finally slowing down to a restatement of the theme on all instruments.

Geggie consistently brings in strong musicians who meld well together even when they haven't played together recently – or at all. This concert was another example of that – it was just a delight to listen to, and the audience in the almost-full room was appreciative throughout.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Photos of the concert sound check / rehearsal   ©Brett Delmage, 2012
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