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Making the most of great songs (review)

Renée Yoxon and J.P. Allain. ©Brett Delmage, 2012My Pal Frishberg
The Renée
Yoxon / J.P Allain Quartet
Thursday, April 26, 2012
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage

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Renée Yoxon and J.P. Allain sold Dave Frishberg's music to an Ottawa audience last Thursday. The audience may not all have been familiar with Frishberg at the beginning (a show of hands demonstrated that), but they sure were fans by the end.

It was an evening where the lyrics and the music blended seamlessly. Yoxon's vocals were enhanced and supported by Allain's strong arrangements, and the tight trio of Allain on piano, Normand Glaude on bass (who contributed several sensitive bass solos), and Denis Ouellet on drums.

But they had great material to start with: the American pianist/composer has written songs in a wide variety of styles and on an even wider variety of topics, but with the common thread of memorable words and music. They stick: days after the concert, I am still being earwormed by Frishberg. Not just one song, either: the soundtrack keeps shifting between "My Attorney Bernie", "I'm Hip", and "Can't Take You Nowhere".

Frishberg's music has been covered by many other singers, particularly female vocalists, and Yoxon acknowledged them in her introductions and her approach to different songs. "Peel Me a Grape" was a tribute to Shirley Horn's sultry version; "I Want to be a Sideman" was for Anita O'Day; "Zanzibar" and "Snowbound" were inspired by Nancy King's latest album.

But others came straight from the man himself: for example, "Useless Waltz", an ironic meta-tune about the music industry, which Yoxon said she'd only ever heard sung by Frishberg, or the educational and witty "Walkin' On Wall Street" (from the TV show Schoolhouse Rock).

Yoxon delivered the more upbeat numbers in styles that ranged from breezy to swinging, playing with them and making them fun for the audience. The more serious numbers – for example, the bittersweet and lonely ballad "Eloise" – she sang straight, letting the lyrics come through simply and clearly. The dual approach worked well: the concert never dragged. She chose to present "My Attorney Bernie" in the more swinging style, inspired by Blossom Dearie: I prefer Frishberg's own more ironic approach to that song, but both interpretations are valid.

The most memorable moments, though, were with the ballads, particularly "Sweet Kentucky Ham" (about the loneliness of being away from home), and the encore number, "Heart's Desire", in which Yoxon pushed her voice from the bottom to the top of her range and yet never sounded strained.

The audience was involved throughout, laughing and clapping, and acknowledging the evening with a well-deserved standing ovation. The ease and involvement that Yoxon and her musicians demonstrated with the music clearly showed the five months of preparation that they'd put into it, and their love of these songs. The show deserves to be seen and heard again, by a larger audience

    – Alayne McGregor

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All photos ©Brett Delmage 2012. Click on a thumbnail for a larger version.