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Pianist Nick Maclean sees jazz fusion as much more than a reincarnation of the 1970s.
His jazz group Snaggle, which is back in Ottawa on Saturday after a two-year gap, is certainly influenced by 70s groups like Weather Report, the Mahavishnu Orchestra, or Chick Corea's Return to Forever, he says – but also some of the more modern brandings of fusion.
“Fusion's become a dirty word these days because it's very iconic of the 70s-era jazz/rock collaborations. But today we're seeing other kinds of incarnations of that – like in the band Snarky Puppy. And they're very much a large influence on the band's sound and on their direction, in terms of how I wrote and how we play the tunes. And that kind of breed of music takes a lot more influences from like dance tracks, from a little bit of hip-hop. I suppose it's just a wider range of things that we're drawing from.”
That includes the highly modern method Maclean uses for performing – on what looks at first glance to be keyboards, but what is actually a conglomeration of laptop, MIDI controller, breath controller, and talk box.
Last fall, Snaggle released its second full-length studio album, The Long Slog. The tracks on that album definitely contain rock-influenced guitar solos and funkified riffs – but also finely tuned trumpet interjections and melancholy sax lines. There's a huge dynamic and rhythmic range in the album, with some songs reminiscent of Pat Metheny's “The Way Up”, or Charlie Haden's Quartet West.
To modern ears, gypsy jazz (aka jazz manouche) sounds as fresh as when guitarist and composer Django Reinhardt first invented it. Rooted in the exotic music he learned growing up in gypsy caravans, and then reinvented through the American jazz of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller, his music was, by the late 1930s, hugely popular in France and England.
And no wonder! The combination of Reinhardt on guitar and Stéphane Grappelli on violin was intense and compelling, and Reinhardt's compositions like “Minor Swing” became immediate and memorable classics. Whether live or on recordings, the music of their Quintette du Hot Club de France grabbed their audiences with its all-encompassing swing and drive. You can see and hear that energy at the beginning of this film, with an extended recreation of a Paris concert by the quintet.
That's a real strength of this film: it never loses sight of the fact that music was the essence of Django Reinhardt and the core of his life. At one point, he's asked, “Do you know music?”, and replies, “No, but music knows me!”
To Django, music and his family and friends were what mattered – certainly not outside politics. As far as he was concerned, World War II was a gjado war – not a concern of himself or his fellow Roma (gypsies). Perhaps he was unwilling to recognize the evil, perhaps he was naïve, or perhaps he felt he had more important things to think about.
Toronto jazz pianist David Braid is well worth hearing on his own, but the all-star string quartet he performed with on July 29 at Chamberfest added immeasurably to the impact of his compositions – which, as he explained to the audience, was what he was aiming for.
He said that he had originally written one of these pieces for solo piano – but the piece included many long notes, which a piano can't fully sustain. “So I was smarter and I arranged it for instruments that can do things like sustaining notes. Apparently I have sustaining note jealousy, as Mark Fewer pointed out.”
Over the last dozen years, Braid has slowly transformed his own performances from primarily mainstream jazz to longer, more complex works for more diverse groups: jazz orchestra and nonet, symphony orchestra, and brass quintet. In particular, he's collaborated with chamber music groups; since 2011, he has been regularly performing in Europe, China, and North America with string quartets.
At this concert, the musicians played Braid's compositions: some new pieces and some older pieces in new arrangements. His latest album, Flow , is an exploration of these pieces with the Epoque String Quartet from Prague; it was nominated this year for a Juno Award in the Instrumental (aka 'this doesn't fit anywhere else') category. He included three pieces from that album here.
There are times when classical music can feel too constrained, a bit too perfectly enunciated within very strict and unyielding borders. That's not an problem with jazz pianist John Stetch, who quickly kicked away the boundaries in his show at the 2017 Chamberfest.
Stetch primarily played pieces from his 2014 Juno-nominated album, Off With the Cuffs, which consists of his jazz reimaginings of pieces by classical composers including Bach, Mozart, and Chopin, and from his earlier album Ukrainianism, whose pieces are inspired by folk melodies from his Ukrainian-Canadian heritage. It was a similar set-list to his show in Ottawa last September, but with a few added jazz standards and some changes in the classical repertoire.
He opened the hour-long show with probably his least-populist piece, especially for a chamber music audience. “Rye, Not Wheat!” is based on an Ukrainian wedding song, or rather permutations of that melody. But by the time Stetch finished with it, what it actually sounded like was a scatter-shot presentation of miniature musical ideas, all interesting but none actually coalescing. Here, there, back again, over somewhere else: the moods, the styles, the sounds, the speed kept changing before finally dissolving into individual notes and fading out. It was technically interesting but also frustrating.
He followed that with a much more interesting piece: his exploration of Mozart's Sonata No. 333 in B flat major, played in a bright pointillist style (almost ragtime in feel), and including delicate brushing of the strings inside the piano. He played it fast, with minimal sustain and emphasizing rhythm over melody – and then abruptly changed to playing what sounded like a fragile lullaby. It appeared as though he was removing the outer structure of the piece and exposing its beating heart – it certainly made the performance less predictable!
Double bassists stick together, even if one plays in a symphony orchestra and the other in a jazz quartet. Joel Quarrington has known Dave Young since Quarrington was 17, and that easy familiarity infused their performances in their 'Two Bass Hit' concert at Chamberfest Wednesday afternoon.
The show attracted packed audience to the National Gallery auditorium – many of whom were clearly Quarrington fans. When CBC radio producer Robert Harris introduced the show, he said Quarrington “used to be” the principal bassist with the National Arts Centre Orchestra. Voices all around the auditorium immediately corrected him: “he still is!”