The Souljazz Orchestra
Montreal Jazz Festival, Place TD (outdoors)
Monday, July 2, 2012 – 9 p.m.
The Souljazz Orchestra is an interesting amalgam, with a jazz sensibility and instrumentation but an overall soul-influenced sound and strong Afrobeat rhythms.
Those strong, infectious rhythms make the long-standing Ottawa group a particular favourite with the dance crowd, and a perfect choice for an outside stage at a festival. And it worked at their first show at this year's Montreal Jazz Festival, where (with only a few exceptions) they had the large audience on their feet with their first notes, and swaying or dancing in place by the second.
The six musicians started out with the most jazz-oriented piece of the night, “Rejoice” by Pharoah Sanders, which was given a relatively introspective treatment, with intense, thoughtful solos by alto saxophonist Zakari Frantz and keyboardist Pierre Chrétien.
But they quickly moved into dancing mode next with a highly funky number, which was more typical of the rest of the night. The set list was a mixture of older pieces from the band's three previous albums as well as several new songs from their upcoming album, Solidarity, to be released in September.
Particularly notable was “Ya Basta” from Solidarity, which layered both vocals and instruments in a complex pattern with lots of fast horn work.
On the quieter side again was “Negus Negast” from Rising Sun , which showcased all three saxophones in unison to create a deep atmospheric sound with the percussion rustling above – before keyboards and drums took over to build up the energy again.
Drummer Philippe Lafrenière contributed both vocals and a driving beat to “People People” – where the underlying rhythm added urgency to the message of getting together – but he was equally well matched by Ray Murray, whose baritone sax was a notably important part of the band's sound on that and other songs. Marielle Rivard took over the vocal lead partway through with a syncopated call to action.
However, one of the defining characteristics of the orchestra is how much each musician contributes: everyone sings, everyone plays some sort of rhythm instrument. The group showed its ten years of experience together with its tight, focused show.
The 9 p.m. show ended with a rousing version of “Mista President” which was greeted with intense applause and repeated calls for an encore. OttawaJazzScene.ca missed all but the last few minutes of the orchestra's second show that night (at 11 p.m.), but the audience there looked about as large (filling around one-third of the huge festival plaza), and equally enthusiastic.
(One thing the Montreal festival appears to do really well is sound, particularly on the outdoor stages. This show sounded big and full, but never so loud that it hurt your ears even if you were (like me) fairly close to the stage. You could clearly distinguish all the instruments and the vocals This is an achievement that the Ottawa jazz festival has not always been able to match.)
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