Audiences will be able to hear two voices of Bernie Senensky in two cities this week – grooving in an organ quartet, and more intimately in a piano-guitar duet.

Bernie Senensky (photo courtesy of Bernie Senensky)
Bernie Senensky (photo courtesy of Bernie Senensky)
The Toronto pianist is best known for the 20 years he spent playing with and writing for jazz legend Moe Koffman. But he's performed with many more musical greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, Art Pepper, and Elvin Jones. He's played piano duets with Oscar Peterson and Marian McPartland, and been a member of groups including Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, the and the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra.

This will be his first Ottawa appearance in years – in two very different shows. On Wednesday, he'll be on piano, opening the new Wednesday jazz listening series at ZenKitchen. On Thursday, he's playing organ with the Toronto quartet Organic at Zola's.

On Friday and Saturday, he's at the Résonance Café in Montreal: first with Organic, and then with his Organ Quartet, including Roddy Ellias.

Speaking to him on the phone Saturday, he was enthusiastic about both.

The ZenKitchen show is a duet with guitarist Roddy Ellias. It will feature “some original music but there also will be some familiar music and it will be more intuitive.” While the music will be more spare, that “doesn't mean every tune will be very slow – it's going to be all kinds of things.”

“I love Roddy's playing: we've played together a few times and I've known him for years,” Senensky said. When Ellias was in Toronto a few months ago, he sat in as guest with another organ group which Senensky plays with, “and that was really great. I think we have a great rapport.”

“We've both been playing this music for many decades so that breeds a closeness and a knowledge of the genre and the style. And it's beautiful the way the guitar and the piano can resound together, played by the right people.”

Senensky has had decades of experience playing with great jazz guitarists, starting with Lenny Breau, and including Herb Ellis, Sonny Greenwich, and Bucky Pizzarelli – and especially Ed Bickert.

“It's important to be intuitive, and yet have knowledge of that person's playing and have the same ideas about what chord voicings to use so that we don't get in each others' way when we do play together. And that comes from experience in playing together and also experience in this kind of music.”

It started with a Hammond B3

On Thursday, Senensky will appear at Zola's with Organic, a quartet with three other busy Toronto musicians: Nathan Hiltz on guitar, Ryan Oliver on saxophone, and Morgan Childs on drums.

Oliver is also a member of the Shuffle Demons. Ottawa audiences last saw Hiltz and Childs when they added considerable verve to Brandi Disterheft's Fourth Stage show in 2012. For the Ottawa show, Mike Essoudry will sit in for Childs on drums.

The group plays “a combination of straight-ahead jazz, bebop, standards, some funky stuff like Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, and some original compositions and ballads,” Senensky said – and all with a classic organ-based groove.

Nathan Hiltz ©Brett Delmage 2012
Nathan Hiltz ©Brett Delmage 2012
The group started seven years ago because of a Hammond B3 organ, installed at Joe Mamas restaurant in downtown Toronto. In all of Toronto, only one other club had a resident Hammond organ; it inspired Senensky and Hiltz play at Joe Mamas every Sunday. About 4-5 years ago, Oliver joined and they became Organic.

A Hammond B3 organ is not something a musician can easily lug around: it weighs about 190 kg for the console, bench, and pedalboard. The accompanying Leslie speaker weighs about another 64 kg.

And it's surprisingly delicate: “you have to play it with a certain technique and a certain respect and not bang it like you do the piano.” Senensky said that some other musicians playing at Joe Mamas perhaps “weren't aware of how to approach it ... so as a result it needed repairing quite often. And the owner just finally got fed up with paying for it to be fixed all the time, and he figured most of these groups bring keyboards anyway.”

About a year ago, the organ was removed, and Senensky, to his regret, had to play his Nord Electro keyboard, which emulates a Hammond B3, instead. He'll be playing the Nord in Ottawa as well, although he will have a real B3 when the group plays the Résonance Café in Montreal on Friday.

Playing together every week for years has made the group very tight, he said: “we are so used to each other and we listen to each other but we know when when someone's going to play something before we do it.”

“We all come from different backgrounds but we have a common love for this type of music which encompasses a lot of different styles, a lot of grooves, a lot of feels.”

All four musicians have written originals for the group, he said, but their set-list also includes familiar music, like the Beatles' “Can't Buy Me Love”, done in a groove style.

The group released its first CD, Live at Joe Mamas, in 2013, and has recorded a second album, which Senensky expected to be released this fall.

Learning from Moe Koffman

Starting in 1980, Senensky played piano in the quintet of Canadian flutist, saxophonist and composer Moe Koffman, best known for “Swinging Shepherd Blues”, and for “Curried Soul” (the theme of CBC Radio's As It Happens). He was there for 20 years, and also contributed tunes to the group.

“It was a great experience for me. We travelled all over Canada, all over the States, Europe. We were in Australia a couple times and the Far East. It was really wonderful playing next to Ed Bickert, who was one of a kind. He's one of the greatest guitar players on planet.”

“And for about seven of those years, Dizzy Gillespie joined the band as special guest. He travelled with us, so I got to play with Dizzy Gillespie and he's on one of our recordings also.”

It's beautiful the way the guitar and the piano can resound together, played by the right people.
– Bernie Senensky

Koffman is known for popularizing the use of the flute, and bass flute, in jazz. But what Senensky remembers him best for was how Koffman connected with his audiences.

“He was very business-minded. He was actually one of the first musicians to sell their recordings on gigs [at a time when that rarely happened]. And he used to go around to tables and talk to people. He never took a break: he always either practiced on a break or went around talking to people. So that was quite an eye-opener because he was definitely a very successful musician, successful leader, and hopefully some of that rubbed off on me.”

Koffman died in 2001, but Senensky hasn't forgotten him. He leads a Moe Koffman tribute band, which plays occasionally, each show recreating a quintet concert. The band includes drummers and bass players who actually played with Koffman, as well as Bill McBirnie on flute, and, since Ed Bickert no longer performs, other guitarists including Reg Schwager or Lorne Lofsky.

And a new generation of Koffmans: in the band is Jake Koffman, Moe's grandson, playing Moe's alto sax. Senensky said he was playing many shows with Jake Koffman, and appeared on Jake's about-to-be-released first recording.

Pianist/organist, or organist/pianist?

So is Senensky a pianist or an organist? Both, but “let's say 75% piano, 25% organ”. His other projects include a piano trio, a piano quartet, and an organ trio where he plays the last remaining B3 at a Toronto club, at The Orbit Room.

And he has one project where he gets to play both: his Double Quartet, where all the musicians play two instruments. As well as him on piano and organ, Robi Botos plays drums and piano, Kieran Overs bass and guitar, and Don Thompson vibes and drums. “It's hard getting all those guys together. But we've done a few of those and that's been really enjoyable."

    – Alayne McGregor

Bernie Senensky plays Ottawa and Montreal this week (September 24-27):

  • Wednesday, at ZenKitchen in Ottawa, in a piano-guitar duet with Roddy Ellias
  • Thursday, at Zola's in Ottawa, on organ with Organic
  • Friday, at the Résonance Café in Montreal, on Hammond B3 with Organic
  • Saturday, at the Résonance Café in Montreal, on Hammond B3 with the Bernie Senensky Organ Quartet, with Kevin Dean, Roddy Ellias, and André White

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