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Phil Dwyer and Don Thompson celebrate the long-lasting beauty of standards (review)

©Brett Delmage, 2013

Phil Dwyer and Don Thompson
Ottawa Chamberfest
St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts and Humanities
Tuesday, July 30, 2013 - 10 p.m.

As the last notes of “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square” died out, Phil Dwyer told the audience that the root of the word “improvise” is “to improve”. And because neither he nor Don Thompson thought they could really improve on that particular tune, they simply played it straight – expressively, intently, and with just a little bit of an edge to offset its sweetness. They found the core of the tune, and the result was stunning.

Dwyer and Thompson have been playing jazz together for 31 years, in a wide variety of groups. They've just released their first duo album, Look for the Silver Lining [Triplet Records, 2013], and brought selections from it, plus a few more favourite standards, to an almost-completely full house at Chamberfest.

The lower hall at St. Brigid's is an intimate space with good acoustics, and neither Thompson at the grand piano nor Dwyer on tenor sax needed amplification. It also made for an informal, late-night vibe, with Dwyer easily chatting with the audience and describing the connections they had with each song. He said he'd only chosen the set list five minutes before the show – but that was the benefit of them performing together for so many years!

The moment I heard the opening number, “You Make Me Feel So Young”, I thought of Frank Sinatra, who made that song famous. It was more than that, though: the swinging vibe and Dwyer's dancing sax lines reminded me of Sinatra's full-bodied vocal style. And Dwyer confirmed the connection to the audience later: one of the first times he and Thompson played together, he put on a Frank Sinatra CD on the drive from the ferry to the gig. When they started the drive, they had no idea what they were going to play; when they reached the hall, they just played all the songs on the CD! And ever since then, he said they usually have a few Frank Sinatra numbers in the repertoire. This was a joyful rendition, with both playing around a bit with the tune.

They followed that with “What's New?”, a song made famous by Linda Ronstadt in the first album she made with bandleader Nelson Riddle, which they gave a quiet, romantic treatment. The next song, “The Touch of Your Lips”, came from the album that Tony Bennett made with Bill Evans; Dwyer and Thompson's smoothly confident version had the saxophone sing the melody, but also play with it, pushing out very low notes at one point. “What About You?” was more exploratory, with circling saxophone lines and strong piano runs (and what sounded like a quote of “The Surrey with a Fringe on Top”).

 ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Dwyer and Thompson's new CD is dedicated to two good friends of theirs, who died within three days of each other in January: Prairie abstract painter Ted Godwin (who also played jazz piano), and multi-instrumentalist Ross Taggart, who was a mainstay of the Vancouver jazz scene. They dedicated two songs to them: “Look for the Silver Lining” for Godwin and “Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” for Taggart. The duo played the first with great feeling, a simple and heartfelt rendition. Taggart's tribute was more swinging, with both musicians adding bright accents to the fluid melody.

They ended with a medley from the album: “I'll Be Around”, made famous by the vocal quartet, The Mills Brothers, and “Just You, Just Me” – which Dwyer announced would have a touch of Bach-inspired counterpoint. Thompson started out playing slowly and thoughtfully, almost classically in places, but very clearly and transparently. In “Just You”, he unleashed what sounded like a blizzard of notes, continuous rather than melodic, and became more intense (over Dwyer's circling sax lines) before returning to the song's theme and ending with a few high notes.

Overall, the concert was the perfect late-night jazz show. You could relax, knowing the repertoire and these Canadian musicians' experience and talent, but you were also challenged and intrigued by what they did with these standards: an approach that ranged from intellectual to intuitive. The audience certainly enjoyed the music, greeting it throughout with strong applause. 

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list

  1. You Make Me Feel So Young
  2. What's New?
  3. Touch of Your Lips
  4. How About You?
  5. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square
  6. You and the Night and the Music
  7. Look for the Silver Lining
  8. Guess I'll Hang My Tears Out to Dry
  9. I'll Be Around
  10. Just You, Just Me

See also: