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Phil Dwyer Trio energizes BDT with a compelling collaboration (review)

Phil Dwyer Trio
Les Brasseurs du Temps
Sunday, March 2, 2014 – 8 p.m.

Based in Vancouver Island, Juno-winning musician and composer Phil Dwyer doesn't often perform in Ottawa-Gatineau. Local jazz fans were lucky that he had a series of dates and recording sessions in Toronto last week, and that musicians Sylvie Duchesneau and J.P. Moisan figured out how to extend that trip by one more day to bring him to Les Brasseurs du Temps (BDT) in Gatineau.

It was a chance for Dwyer to play with his son Ben on double bass, and with Jim Doxas on drums. And what they gave an appreciative audience was straight down the mainstream, a mixture of standards and a Dwyer original, but all delivered with verve and clarity.

Unlike his quieter show with Don Thompson last summer at Chamberfest, this time Dwyer chose a generally energetic set-list, featuring pieces by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. His tenor sax strongly rang out through the large upstairs concert area at BDT, sometimes commanding, other times coaxing, and always creating enjoyable music.

The show opened with Monk's “We See”, which showed off Dwyer's pure tone on sax. Its swinging vibe put both the audience and the musicians at ease. The intensity increased with “Village Green” (best known in the recording by drummer Elvin Jones), and demonstrated what would be a consistent pattern throughout the show: the strong communication among the trio, each underlining the other's performance. The piece included a rumbling bass/drums duet, and pungent, vibrating lines on sax, and inspired strong applause.

The trio's interpretation of “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” turned into alternating drum and sax solos, the action continuing to speed up until Dwyer ended with a circling, vibrating sax line. “Bass Blues” by John Coltrane – whom Dwyer described as his single biggest influence – featured a notable sax/drums duet, with each echoing each other's riffs.

In honour of the Academy Awards happening that evening (which Dwyer disclaimed any knowledge of), he played a fast-paced, hard-swinging version of “The Shadow of Your Smile”, by Johnny Mandel, a composer whom he had praised several times in his afternoon workshop. That song, from the film The Sandpiper, won the Best Song Oscar in 1965 – the year Dwyer was born.

A highlight of the show was a Dwyer original, “The Narcalypso”. Dwyer told the audience that it was written about the time Ben was born. With two small children in the house, he would find himself falling asleep “at the worst moments”, and was worried he had narcolepsy. It turned out he was just very, very tired.

One night, as he was drifting off to sleep, he heard West Indian music, and that inspired the tune: a bright, sunny combination of calypso beats, varied riffs on sax, an expressive bass solo (in calypso style), and an discursive drum solo, which provided a bright end to the first set.

But there were quieter moods as well: the wistful, quiet sax lines on Monk's “Ask Me Now”, and an assured, simple exploration of “If I Should Love You”. At the end of that song, there was a moment of complete silence before the strong applause began.

Dwyer followed that with “In a Sentimental Mood” performed as a solo sax piece, an arrangement he said he'd been working on for the past 35 years. It was a quiet deconstruction of the melody, with circling lines and vibrating tones building to a burst of high notes, then a growl, and then the end.

By the time the trio finished their last number, which had all three playing all out, the audience was clearly satisfied, expressing that with lots of smiles and strong clapping. Compared to another Academy Awards broadcast, Dwyer's concert was much more fun – and original.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list

Set 1:

  1. We See (Thelonious Monk)
  2. Village Green (William "Bill" Greene)
  3. Ask Me Now (Thelonious Monk)
  4. The Shadow of Your Smile (Johnny Mandel, with lyrics by Paul Francis Webster)
  5. The Narcalypso (Phil Dwyer)

Set 2:

  1. The Surrey with the Fringe on Top (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II)
  2. If I Should Love You (Charlie Parker)
  3. In a Sentimental Mood (Duke Ellington)
  4. Bass Blues (John Coltrane)
  5. unannounced piece

See the OttawaJazzScene.ca story of Dwyer's workshop that afternoon:

See other coverage of Phil Dwyer: