More than three decades ago, renowned Canadian saxophonists Pat LaBarbera and Kirk MacDonald played their very first joint concert – in Ottawa.
They're back in town next Tuesday, June 28, co-leading a show at Les Brasseurs du Temps in downtown Gatineau – this time also featuring American post-bop drummer Adam Nussbaum and Canadian bassist Kieran Overs.
It will be something old and something new – an exploration of long-time musical friendships between LaBarbera and MacDonald, and between LaBarbera and Nussbaum – but in a new grouping playing brand-new compositions. It's the start of a multi-city tour (including Montreal and Toronto) which will also take the quartet into the recording studio.
MacDonald said he picked a two-saxophone format with just bass and drums, “because Pat also worked for many years with [famous American jazz drummer] Elvin Jones and oftentimes that was the format, too. So it just seemed like an opportune time to put those elements together.”
Although they play the same instruments – tenor and soprano sax – LaBarbera and MacDonald have collaborated frequently over the years, including in 2014 on MacDonald's Juno-Award-winning album, Vista Obscura. They met when MacDonald first came to Toronto: “Pat was one of the first people that I sought out to study with. He's been very much a mentor to me in many ways over the years.”
“I think we have a very strong connection musically – and that was apparent to me the first time we played together,” MacDonald told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “It was just great to play with him! I used to sit in with him when I was really young, in my early 20s, I suppose, the early 1980s.”
The first time they actually worked together was a concert at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, organized by Jacques Émond, the former programming director of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. They played a two-tenor concert in one of the hotel's ballrooms “and I believe the year was 1991 or 1990. That's the first we officially did a co-led thing like that. And from that spun the [John] Coltrane tribute which we've been doing ever since.”
Starting in 1991, he said, they've celebrated Coltrane's music for a yearly three-night stand at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar in Toronto – the dates picked to be on or close to Coltrane's birthday. They've also taken the tribute elsewhere: this summer to jazz festivals in Huntsville and Port Hope.
For next Tuesday's concert, however, the quartet will be performing almost all originals, some written by LaBarbera and MacDonald specifically for this new quartet. MacDonald said he had also invited Nussbaum and Overs to contribute compositions. “The idea is basically to create a repertoire for this band."
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The quartet was actually formed because of a student jazz camp: the Youth Jazz Canada summer workshop in Toronto, of which MacDonald is artistic director and where Overs also teaches, which will run from July 4 to 17. This year, the workshop's two Artists-in-Residence are Nussbaum and LaBarbera.
MacDonald said he tries to get the workshop's guest artists out into the community for shows: “for me part of the whole jazz education thing is to bring some different voices into the community, and have them interact with musicians from here. So it seems like a nice opportunity with Adam Nussbaum coming up to try and put something together. And of course Pat and [Adam] go way back together.”
LaBarbera said he'd played with Nussbaum in different projects and taught together at jazz camps in the U.S. “We see each other and work with each other in different cities, but he's never really been here in Toronto and played with me, so now he's finally going to get the chance. I'm looking forward to it."
They first met when Nussbaum “was a kid in high school and he used to come and watch me play at the Village Vanguard in New York with Elvin Jones. He was like a young student/fan and he would come in and listen to us, and then eventually he became a professional musician.”
“I just love his energy. He's really an enthusiastic … he's a great jazz fan. He knows so much about the history of jazz. He's a jazz video and audio collector, and for years we've been exchanging collections of tapes and private tapes and photographs and interviews.”
“But I've always loved his playing. He reminded me of Elvin, very close to it. He listened a lot to Elvin Jones and he's a very good listener when he plays also. He's a very popular drummer among tenor players in New York. Adam plays with Dave Liebman, he's played with Joe Lovano, he's played with Mike Brecker. He's a drummer of choice among a lot of the great tenor players in New York City.”
Overs has also played on occasion with Nussbaum, MacDonald said, while he himself has not. “This is how these things go, you know, first time out. But I'm aware of his playing. We've many, many, many mutual friends and musicians that we've worked with. You can pretty much tell from the musical relationships that people have and being aware of their music whether things will work. And he's an incredible musician, so I think we're going to have a really good time. And a very nice man. We've been talking quite a bit.”
Nussbaum played in Ottawa in 2005 with bassist Mike Milligan and guitarist Wayne Eagles. OttawaJazzScene.ca hasn't listed any concerts with him since 2009.
MacDonald said he thought he and LaBarbera had in common “the history of the music, a love for playing the music, a deep commitment to moving forward as musicians.”
“When I hear Pat play, I hear the whole history of the music. I can't really think of anyone who is more well-versed or well-read in terms of knowing recordings and listening all the time. Anytime you're in the car with him he's listening to stuff. He's always checking out new things. So he's very aware of – I was going to say the saxophone but that kind of limits it – he's very aware of the music. He's certainly aware of all the great saxophonists, and he's studied them all very deeply. So I hear all that in his playing, and I think we both share a love for that.”
But they “both are ourselves in terms of how we approach the music. There's a personal sound that I think we both have – or so people say [he laughs]. I've always gone after that, from the time I was a high school student studying, it was always important for me to try to develop my own voice. So I think I share a lot of those qualities but I think that I've always tried to find my own path with things. I write a lot of my own music to help my development, I suppose, and to try and push myself into new areas. And [Pat] that does that as well.”
LaBarbera is “great to play with. He's such a great musician, a great person. He's very much in the moment. There's a very giving spirit in not only his music but just in the way he lives his life. So I think those things are connected, so it just makes it very easy to work with him. We really enjoy working together and I think that's just grown over time. I think there are things that we can do that are very difficult to do with other saxophone players. I've done a lot of this kind of playing with a lot of different players and we're just connected from the get-go.”
LaBarbera said that what he and MacDonald have in common is that “we all draw from the same well”.
“I think we basically have a knowledge of the history. … We have basically a respect and a love for all the great saxophonists that went before us.”
Both played in the band of American trumpeter Sam Noto, who played with Charlie Parker. Noto moved to Toronto in the mid-1970s and became a major voice in that scene – MacDonald taking over in his band when LaBarbera left.
MacDonald said one place where they differ is that he tends to focus on his own compositions when heading groups: “typically for me getting my own music out there is a priority.” LaBarbera is an excellent writer, he said, “but something that he does that is very inspiring really, is that he really researches out-of-the-way standards – tunes that people haven't played to death. And I think part of that is a generational thing – they may be out-of-the-way for you and I.”
“He's got a real keen sense of going in and finding these under-played tunes. They could be by Ellington or Strayhorn or they could be Broadway show tunes that haven't really seen as much attention as other tunes like that. And he's absolutely masterful at that. So I'll go out to hear him play, and there will be tunes that I've never heard before, that are gorgeous. I'll go, what the hell was that? Oh yes, it was a musical from 1937, that lasted for three weeks on Broadway.”
LaBarbera said he and MacDonald had different styles of playing, in terms of the ways they looked at a tune and in improvising. “Kirk is a very linear player. He has a tremendous amount of technique. His lines are longer and more flowing. I tend to break my lines up more intervalicly.”
“Our writing styles are maybe a little bit different. My writing is steeped in late 50s/early 60s, Kirk of course probably from 60s to 70s to 80s and beyond. But it comes together.”
MacDonald said that, when the two work together, “we obviously try and find common ground where we're both comfortable. It's a matter of finding that balance, you know, so I think that when we do work together, we're able to get to that in a real way very quickly.”
LaBarbera and MacDonald are getting together this week to try out some of their new pieces, to see what “will work stylistically”. While composing for this group, he said, he was keeping in mind that there was no piano, and that he wanted to write around the drums because Nussbaum was a featured drummer. “The drums and bass become very important in the composition”.
MacDonald said he had been writing some very new material for the quartet in the last month, and might also include pieces which hadn't yet been recorded or would work well in this format. “And there may be some things that when we get together, we find will work well, that may not be original music as well.”
“It's a great opportunity I think for all of us to think about the personalities and the ensemble, and actually write for that. But you also need to keep in mind, you want to create things that allow people to be themselves, and that there is space in the music for people to find that meeting ground and that common ground as musicians.
“Whatever we play is going to be fine because they're all such great players. But you know rehearsal time is going to be limited and really conceptually it's a more open kind of thing. So I think some of the music should or may be more in the realm of creating something that's user-friendly. So that we can put it together quickly and that there is space for people to really interact – just creating a vehicle for people to comfortably meet musically.”
He expected the repertoire they will play in Gatineau – and later record – would be leaning towards original material, but the group was also a great format for playing jazz standards or standard repertoire. “You'll probably see a mix of both.”
With all the musicians very busy – Nussbaum is currently touring in China – they'll only be rehearsing in Toronto the day before their Gatineau show. After that, the quartet will perform for two nights at the Dièse Onze club (June 29-30) as part of the Montreal Jazz Festival. They'll drive back to Toronto on July 1, and then go into the recording studio for two days (July 2-3). Then, during the summer jazz workshop, the quartet will also perform at the Rex on July 6 and 7.
“So it's a nice little run. I'm looking forward to it. It should be a lot of fun,” MacDonald said.
– Alayne McGregor
The Kirk MacDonald/Pat LaBarbera Quartet, with Kieran Overs and special guest Adam Nussbaum, will perform:
- Tuesday, June 28, 8 p.m.: Les Brasseurs du Temps in Ottawa ($25 in advance, $28 at the door, $18 for students at the door).
- Wednesday, June 29, at 9:30 p.m.: Dièse Onze in Montreal ($20)
- Thursday, June 30, 7 p.m.: Dièse Onze in Montreal ($20)
- Wednesday, July 6: The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar, Toronto
- Thursday, July 7: The Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar, Toronto
Read related stories on OttawaJazzScene.ca:
- A hard-driving quartet finds new corners of modern jazz [2016 review of this quartet]
- Real jazz is a big hit in Confederation Park, with Kirk MacDonald and Dianne Reeves 
- Kirk MacDonald explores symmetry in music 
- The benefits of experience (review) 
- Pat LaBarbera: An Elder Speaks 
- William Parker, David Mott, and Jesse Stewart have many stories to tell (see Coda)