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After 75 years of playing, Oliver Jones still masterfully shares the joy of jazz (review)

Oliver Jones Trio
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre, Studio
Thursday, April 24, 2014 – 8 p.m.

Near the end of his sold-out concert Thursday night, pianist Oliver Jones asked the audience to continue to support “all the wonderful musicians that we have in this country”.

“Now is the time to appreciate them!” he urged. “Don't wait until the big stars come from Europe or the United States. We have a lot right here.”

This is a message that Jones has been pushing for the last 50 years, and followed himself: the other two musicians in his trio are both from Canada and he's watched their careers grow. He's known his drummer, Jim Doxas, since Doxas was 8 years old, and his double bassist, Éric Lagacé, since Lagacé started playing professionally at about 18 or 19.

The three showed a musical rapport born of that long familiarity, as they played a mixture of standards, some originals by Jones, and several numbers by Canadian jazz icon Oscar Peterson. There were lots of smiles, and an almost intuitive understanding amongst the trio.

Jones' delicate handling of a slow ballad would be subtly underlined by Doxas' light brushes on cymbals and ringing chain of bells. Lagacé's bowed bass would join in with Jones' bright piano to provide two voices expressing the melody.

The concert opened with "Teach Me Tonight" by Gene De Paul and Sammy Cahn, one of the many jazz standards which Jones has always delighted in, and which the trio gave a swinging, full-bodied rendition with strongly propulsive drumming. Jones first recorded that song on Requestfully Yours back in 1986 – an apropos title given the number of requests he took from the audience in the second set of this show.

In fact, the concert was an excellent introduction to the Great American Songbook, with two medleys in the first half and mostly-short renditions of audience suggestions in the second. It certainly showed off the variety to be found in standards: tempos ranged from quiet and sweet on “Skylark”, to bright and swinging on “Take the A Train”, to almost frenetic with swoops up and down the piano on “I Got Rhythm”, the culmination of a George Gershwin medley.

During “Georgia on My Mind”, Lagacé and Jones engaged in a mock-battle, alternating solos and trying to outdo each other in style and intensity – and with Lagacé underlining it all with exaggerated body language and facial expressions. The audience loved it, laughing and greeting the end of that medley with strong applause.

But while those renditions were faithful to both the melody and spirit of the songs, what I found most interesting were the pieces written by Jones himself and by his mentor Oscar Peterson. Peterson's “You Look Good To Me” is on Jones' latest album, Just For My Lady [Justin Time, 2013]; in the concert, it became a duet between bass and bright rippling piano, beginning and ending almost classical in tone (with bowed bass) but with definite syncopation in the middle.

Jones' own composition “Stan Pat” opened with a drum solo. Doxas started off spare and echoing on cymbals and snare, and built up to a fantasia of drumbeats, over which Jones entered with a sunny calypso beat. The cheerful rhythms eventually slowed for another drum solo, Doxas again presenting a musical and varied combination of rhythms and dynamics, before Jones reentered with a glissando. The two alternated flourishes before finally ending the song together, to an appreciative audience.

I may have aches and pains all day long, but the moment that I sit here, it seems as though everything goes away.
– Oliver Jones

The first set ended with a song by Oscar Peterson that Jones said was all too appropriate to the current weather: “When Summer Comes We'll All be Surprised”. Also from his latest album, it was an unassuming but lovely ballad, with the gentle melody underlined by resonant bowed bass and light cymbals.

By the end of the intermission, the basket containing audience suggestions was almost overflowing with slips of paper. Most requests were standards, although Jones' own “Tippin' Home from Sunday School” was also included. My favourites were the trio's variations on “A Night in Tunisia”, with strongly accented piano and drums, and a hard-driving version of “Sweet Georgia Brown”.

While this was clearly a crowd favourite, I would have liked to hear a more varied repertoire – songs which I couldn't recognize within the first few bars. Jones' latest album, for example, contains a three-part tribute to Saskatchewan, and a blues for Quebec violinist Josée Aidans, both of which would have been interesting to hear.

Jones has a tradition of ending his concerts with Oscar Peterson's “Hymn to Freedom”. It was an uplifting number to leave with, played with deep sincerity and feeling – and lots of joy, too, in both in the trio and the audience. The last notes were greeted with an immediate standing ovation and lots of bravos.

This year, Jones will celebrate his 80th birthday, and his 75th year performing. As he said, “I don't know where the years went! But I'm still here.”

With advancing years, “it seems as though about the only thing that's working in this body is my fingers, so I'm thankful for that. Well my brain's working still, too.” But as he told the audience, “I may have aches and pains all day long, but the moment that I sit here, it seems as though everything goes away.”

For an encore, Jones came out alone to perform “When You Wish Upon a Star”: a brightly pointillist version with many variations on the melody. In its fluidity and inventiveness – and the hopefulness of its message – it perfectly encompassed a musician who told the audience that his life has been a wonderful journey, and one he hopes to continue for more years to come.

    – Alayne McGregor