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Organ-ic fusion fills the church (review)

Wayne Eagles matched his guitar to organ or piano. ©Alayne McGregor, 2013eagles – mcgowan – wittet
Trinity United Church
Saturday, October 19, 2013 – 7:30 p.m.

Freddie Hubbard's “Little Sunflower” is a jazz classic because of its great groove and its infectious melody. I've heard it played in many different configurations by organ trios, in jazz jams, and by student big bands. But the version that opened this concert was one of the best ever.

And that related directly back to the reason for this concert: to raise money for the (just-finished) refurbishing of Trinity United Church's Casavant organ. James McGowan, who is both the church's director of music and the keyboard third of this trio, played the Casavant organ in this and several other numbers during the concert. It added depth and a richness of tone to a really notable degree, and certainly surprised me how well it fit in with the jazz repertoire.

As McGowan explained later, this organ is almost a hundred years old, and was originally installed in a chapel in Montreal. When that chapel closed, Trinity, which originally didn't have an organ, bought it and had it reinstalled behind a screen at the front of the church.

But including a church organ wasn't much of a stretch for this trio, whose members come from quite different backgrounds aside from their mutual love of jazz and improvisation. McGowan is a professor in the music department at Carleton University, whose research interests include 18th- and 19th-century art music. Guitarist Wayne Eagles is a long-time performance instructor and ensemble director at Carleton, who runs the jazz fusion ensemble. T. Bruce Wittet has been a music journalist and drummer, in many different genres, for more than 30 years.

The concert started in an almost-classical vein, with a short stretch of solo organ before Eagles entered with fluid electric guitar lines and Wittet with light mallets on drums. Their notes coalesced after a minute or two into Hubbard's distinctive riff, and the music swelled to fill the church right to the back.

Most of the set list was originals by McGowan and Eagles, which allowed each member of the trio to shine. “Breagle Jam” by McGowan moved from consonant to dissonant and back again, with Eagles' fluid guitar and McGowan on baby grand piano following each other's lead.

James McGowan in full flight on piano. ©Alayne McGregor, 2013A highlight of the first set was two back-to-back pieces which Eagles composed in honour of his daughter and son, two ballads which featured McGowan playing the strings inside the piano and Eagles then matching those notes lightly on guitar. “Prime Time” by McGowan played around with time changes which keeping the same basic piano figures: it started off with romantic glissandos and ended with a few full held notes, and went for a fast, intense ride in between.

“Autumn Leaves” – but not your standard version of this standard – closed the first set. It started off staccato and syncopated, and morphed to fast piano and reggae-style guitar. Then McGowan moved to the organ, where he produced huge flourishes of sound. Wittet answered with machine-gun-like drumming, and Eagles with Jimi-Hendrix style guitar over the repeated organ chords. Then it calmed with a few bars of Bach, and closed with strong applause.

The organ reappeared in the second set for Eagles' composition “Organistic”: a piece that took full advantage of the reverberant nature of the church and allowed both the guitar and organ notes to sing through the room. McGowan explained at the end that, by tradition, the piano and organ have different tunings: the piano has the standard A=440Hz tuning, while the organ has A=433Hz. Eagles found a simple way to work with both: he brought two guitars, and tuned one in accordance with the piano and the other with the organ, and switched as necessary.

T. Bruce Wittet played carefully-modulated drums and percussion, adding to the overall atmosphere of the music. ©Alayne McGregor, 2013“AtMostSpheric” by Eagles was the most ECM-like of the pieces in this concert, with lots of rustling cymbals and hand drumming, and piano that ranged from heavy chords to a simple folkloric melody to playing strings inside the piano. It was dense and multi-layered, led by guitar notes that started out slow and gradually became more powerful, ending with them popping out in rapid succession.

This concert was the first time I'd heard McGowan sing. He included a piece he'd co-written with Trinity's minister. Rev. Ellie Berrigan, called “New Life will Rise Again”: hopeful music and lyrics sung in a pleasant voice. He later sang “What a Wonderful World”: as he said, for everyone in the audience who loved either traditional jazz or melody. There was just enough edge and rhythm in the piano and guitar – and some gracefully deployed chiming bells – to keep that song elegant and beautiful.

The show ended with McGowan's “Free Fall Funk”, which he dedicated to the complexities of life and all the supports we have to get through them. When I last heard this piece at the Carleton University Jazz Camp, there was a bit of a jarring transition between the first ballad-like section and the groove of the second half; this time, the resonant piano and light guitar more naturally became brighter and firmer, and the funk section simply danced in. I could see members of the audience smiling and swaying to the music, as the fast, playful groove continued. Eagles and McGowan played contrasting, contrapuntal rhythms, and finally ended with a flourish and strong applause.

Animal breeders often contend that mixed-breeds are healthier and stronger. Having heard this group play over the last few years, I think it's clear that the trio's varied interests and backgrounds add to the vibrancy of their music, producing an innovative hybrid that's a great deal of fun to listen to.

    – Alayne McGregor

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