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Jeff Johnston Trio enraptures the audience (review)

Jeff Johnston played into the space in his concert at GigSpace. ©Brett Delmage, 2013Jeff Johnston Trio
Friday, April 26, 2013
GigSpace Performance Studio

View photos of this concert

It was a night where the music flowed out over the audience, and they responded with rapt attention.

After an absence of many years, pianist Jeff Johnston brought his trio to Ottawa April 26. The occasion: the release of his new album, the first in more than a decade.

So long-time fans of the Newfoundland-born, Montreal-based pianist, some of whom had already heard the album, were anticipating the concert even before it started. And Johnston, bassist Fraser Hollins, and drummer Rich Irwin did not disappoint them.

The show consisted of originals from the new album, Returning, plus several interesting standards, played intensely and melodically in a way that made full use of the quietness and excellent acoustics of GigSpace.

Johnston started alone on the piano, introducing “How Deep is the Ocean”. He carefully took the song apart and arranged it in new patterns – before the bass and drums joined in for a an assured recounting of the standard. You could hear immediately that this trio had experience playing together: they smoothly switched places and easily supported one another.

The remaining songs in the first set were all originals from Returning, each of which used resonance and echo to add drama and interest to the music. In “At You”, Johnston and Hollins traded the lead but each built up the strong tune. “What” began with ghostly effects on drums and bass, with a few reverberant notes on piano following. Unlike the other songs in the set, it stayed sparse and somewhat jagged, increasing in intensity and speed until finally resolving to a still-sparse melody, with repeated fast runs of notes on both piano and bass.

My favourite in this set was definitely “Cavern Heaven”, which was also one of the most memorable pieces on the album. As Johnston told the audience, it written just before the recording session, and was inspired by a 15th century silk scroll entitled "Seeking the Tao in Cavern Heaven". It started off slowly and simply, using repeated motifs to create an otherworldly effect. A simple melody crept in, with the bass and piano circling each other in a dance full of measured pauses and restrained feeling. And ultimate effect was almost orchestral, romantic and beautiful, before finally ending with flurries of notes which reminded me of light rain on windows.

The second set opened with “As Time Goes By”, which was also included on the album. This song has acquired an almost indestructible melancholy patina courtesy of Casablanca, and it was delightful to hear it given a robustly unsentimental treatment by the trio. Stripped of its standard context, it was joyous and not cloying – and Johnston had a chance to play with variations on the tune.

Two more songs from the album followed: “Ayaz Song”, a magical ballad with some lovely cymbal work, and “Play”, a full-bodied piece which featured riffs rubbing against riffs, and earthy bass notes. The audience had been appreciative all the way through, but that song engendered particularly strong applause.

An improvised blues in F ended the set, exploratory but with everyone getting into the beat. While Hollins' bass provided a strong centre, Johnston seemed to be having a great time vamping all over the place. The entire room felt as though it was vibrating with the strong piano, deep bass undertones, and hard swinging drumming, finally ending with a reverberant bass solo. The audience broke into extended applause.

The encore was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. Johnson started it with obscure-enough variations that it took quite a few bars before the melody emerged. But when it did it had a serious emotional kick – almost hymn-like in its effect, and then made more demanding by the bass and drums entering. And then, as crisp drums contrasted with romantic piano, all three musicians simply celebrated the melody.

Johnston's music has frequently been described as “lyrical”, an interesting word which is assigned rather different meanings by different dictionaries – especially when applied to music. I think the best way to describe his music is to say that it sings: sometimes call-and-response, sometimes deep and grumpy, sometimes very sweetly. But all his music has a melodic underpinning which attaches itself to your emotions – without ever becoming bathetic – and makes it compelling.

Which is why his CDs have always been among my favourites. But what made this concert special was that it gave a chance for the trio to spread out more with the music. In the right hands, a trio of piano, bass, and drums gives you synergy, communication, and a huge range of possible textures, rhythms, and sounds – and that's what the audience heard at GigSpace. It was a great evening.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set List
  1. How Deep is the Ocean
  2. At You
  3. Cavern Heaven
  4. What
  1. As Time Goes By
  2. Ayaz Song
  3. Play
  4. Blues in F
  5. Somewhere Over the Rainbow

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2013

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