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Jamie Baum and Jane Bunnett: two voices in close conversation (review)

Jamie Baum Quintet featuring Jane Bunnett
Saturday, November 30, 2013 – 9 p.m.
GigSpace Performance Studio, Ottawa

Introducing her composition “In Another Life”, flute player Jamie Baum told the audience that it was inspired by the feeling you sometimes get when you meet and collaborate with someone: “it just feels like you knew them forever in another life.”

Watching her and fellow flute player Jane Bunnett on the stage, you could feel that applied to them. 

While bringing quite different styles to their performance, they collaborated beautifully, enhancing each other's lines and creating melodies that were more than the sum of their parts. In that, they were strongly supported by their rhythm section: Montreal pianist Paul Shrofel, NYC (and ex-Montreal) bassist Zack Lober, and Toronto drummer Nick Fraser, who added melody, depth, and even swing in many places.

Ottawa was the last stop on the quintet's tour of Ontario and Quebec. They played two back-to-back shows at GigSpace, the first of which was sold out and the second of which had only a few seats remaining.

This was a release tour for Baum's new CD, In This Life. But it also was the first time Baum (from NYC) and Bunnett (from Toronto) had had a chance to play together, although they had known each other for years. And it produced some interesting challenges for Bunnett, because her soprano sax was replacing both trumpet and alto sax parts in Baum's compositions.

They opened with “Nusrat”, which Baum based on a vocal improvisation by the Pakistani Qawwali vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Bunnett (on soprano sax) and Baum (on flute) started the piece off in unison, fast and intensely vibrating. Shrofel played reverberant piano underneath, and then later produced a sparkling but grounded solo, his fingers dancing on the keys. But the main force of the piece came from the commanding sounds of the flute and saxophone circling around and creating variations on the melody.

Bunnett only contributed one song in the set: “Burning Tear” from her 1993 album, The Water is Wide. While she is more frequently associated with Afro-Cuban music, this was a reminder that she is equally well-grounded in adventurous modern jazz. The quiet ballad started with repeated glissandos on piano, followed by a romantic, warm line on soprano outlined by light flute beneath. It was a melancholy piece, with long strands of melody arching high and then dropping down again. At one point, Baum's flute shimmered above the soprano line; at another, their two voices contrasted, the flute higher and more fluid, the saxophone sharper and rougher.

“There Are No Words” was a recent composition by Baum, written to honour of her father, who died in October. It was full of reminiscence and sadness, with deep, expressive piano and bass solos providing gravitas, and flute and soprano sax spinning out the melody above. Bunnett displayed the full range of her soprano in a finely modulated solo, before she joined in with the flute to soar high and close the piece.

Thelonious Monk's “Rhythm-a-ning”, which was the only number on which Bunnett played flute, upped the pace again. With Baum on alto flute, the quintet shook up, took apart, and had a great swinging good time with this song, for about 15 minutes. Baum and Bunnett played the initial melody together, and then explored it separately, Bunnett a bit faster, Baum a bit more quietly. But equally interesting was Lober's percussive bass solo, in which he was snapping out notes, and Shrofel's double-quick yet thoughtful piano. Aided by Fraser's impeccable time, the quintet kept Monk's swinging feel but gave the song fresh appeal.

“In Another Life”, which Baum wrote after her last trip to Katmandu, featured Baum's alto flute rising over long lines on soprano, and sounding almost like birdsong in places. That contrasted with Fraser's drumming, sometimes hard and assertive, sometimes bright cymbals, and Shrofel's piano, which moved from high and shining to a deeper rubato. It was an intense piece, dense with different strands of sound.

Baum ended the show as she began, with her rearrangement of “Sweet Pain” by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the song which contained the improvisation on which she based her first piece. Lober introduced the song with a fast, punctuated (almost danceable) rhythm on bass, which was then taken up on piano and drums, and finally on alto flute and soprano sax. It was an electric piece, with all the musicians playing full out. I particularly enjoyed Baum's flute solo which sounded like water rushing downstream, and how she and Bunnett intertwined their lines like a double helix.

Both the flute and the soprano sax are not heard nearly enough in jazz – usually they're “doubling” instruments for alto or tenor saxophonists, not something to specialize in. Baum's expressive and clear-edged flute, and especially the lovely tone from her alto flute, was a case study in why that instrument deserves a more major role in jazz.

And Bunnett's control of her soprano sax, in a context allowing her more freedom to experiment than her usual Latin music, was amazing. She moved from notes that easily matched the top of the flute range to textured growls, and she used the slight extra roughness in the soprano's tone (compared to the flute) to add a whole level of emotion and interest.

I hope Baum and Bunnett do get another chance to play or record together, because not only did their sounds meld well together, but their differing styles (Baum a bit more controlled, Bunnett a bit wilder) complemented each other and even perhaps pushed each other to greater heights. While everyone on stage looked a bit tired after a long week, you wouldn't have known it from the energetic, involved, and compelling music they produced. And certainly the audience enjoyed it, responding to each number in their 75-minute set with strong (and, at the end, extended) applause.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list

  1. Nusrat (Jamie Baum)
  2. Burning Tear (Jane Bunnett)
  3. There Are No Words (Jamie Baum)
  4. Rhythm-a-ning (Thelonious Monk, arranged by Jamie Baum)
  5. In Another Life (Jamie Baum)
  6. Sweet Pain (Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, arranged by Jamie Baum)

See the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Jamie Baum and Jane Bunnett: