2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 11: Christian McBride Trio, Darius Jones Quartet
National Arts Centre
Monday, June 30, 2014

It was an evening of “inside” versus “outside” at the National Arts Centre, on the last evening of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Playing “inside”, primarily standards with a few originals, was the trio of bassist Christian McBride, with pianist Christian Sands and drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. They looked extremely snazzy as they hit the stage, each wearing a well-cut suit, and McBride sporting a pair of cream-coloured horn-rimmed glasses. It was a visual cue to the music they were about to play: strongly in the tradition, and very professional. And, of course, swinging.

The NAC Studio was packed to overflowing for this concert, and not all the long line-up of listeners got in. McBride could have easily filled a much larger venue. Those who did get in got value for their money: the trio played for almost two hours. Each song was given lots of room for exploration, lasting about ten minutes each.

McBride happily referred back to his last two shows in Ottawa – in fact, briefly again sitting in the on-stage advertising bumpf (the TD Bank easy chair) as he did three years ago. “It was just a gag,” he admitted, “but all the reviews mentioned it!”

The trio started off with McBride's “Ham Hocks and Cabbage” from their latest album, Out Here, [Mack Avenue Records, 2013]. His clear, sparse bass riff was soon joined by light cymbals and piano, and then all three started having fun with the music, with a muscular, swinging rendition. That was followed by Duke Ellington's “Caravan”, which they gave a pulsating interpretation with considerable dramatic tension.

For Antonio Carlos Jobim's “Triste”, Owens set up the ballad's quiet mood with light cymbal taps and shakers. Sands joined in with delicate piano lines, and you could see McBride swaying to the music as he listened. After a more exploratory sections, Sands start dancing the piano keys through the melody, McBride joined in with a lovingly-resonant bass solo, and Owens added hand drumming. It became a conversation, finally ending with a few last magical notes.

You could see from just those three initial songs why McBride had chosen to play with these young musicians, whom he later praised quite highly. Both showed dynamism and dynamic range in their playing and a real feel for the music. That was again obvious in “Easy Walker”, a 1950's number by pianist Billy Taylor, featured a tasteful brushes solo by Owen and light glissandos from Sands.

McBride later described Sands as “someone who not only was willing to play Oscar Peterson, but really could play Oscar Peterson. Really a breath of fresh air, I've got to tell you: I've seen a big gap in piano for a long time. They could play 'out', or funk, but no middle ground.” That served as an introduction to Peterson's “Hallelujah Time”, played at breakneck speed, and definitely with characteristic Peterson-style fast piano ripples and strong bass lines. It was also a strong ensemble piece, with bass underlining piano, piano underlining drums, and both piano and drums responding to McBride's inflected bass solo. The audience greeted it with a standing ovation.

I've got to tell you: I've seen a big gap in piano for a long time. They could play 'out', or funk, but no middle ground.
– Christian McBride

Midway through, McBride mentioned how pleased he was to see an eight-year-old girl sitting in the front row and thanked her and her family for attending. He said he rarely sees children in his concerts, and “we've got to do more of this! Don't just complain about young people not liking jazz!” The trio then launched into “My Favourite Things”, a piece McBride said even she might know. They gave it a an intense and extended deconstruction, moving through and around the melody. That prompted another standing ovation, including the eight-year-old, who stood with her parents enthusiastically clapping.

The trio closed with an R&B number: “Who's Making Love” by Johnnie Taylor. Their bright, robust version was enhanced by the audience singing along on the chorus, unprompted. And with the last drum crash, the audience rose for a third standing ovation.

Their encore, in McBride's words, started out sweet and turned funky, but I thought the sweet predominated. His bowed bass poured out the melody of the standard slowly like creamy honey, initially accompanied by light piano, and brushed cymbals and then moving to more full-bodied, rippling piano. Their last few slow notes were greeted, again, by one last standing ovation.

Darius Jones Quartet: high-powered and raw-edged

Darius Jones is an alto saxophonist based in NYC. His most recent album, Book of Mæ'bul (Another Kind of Sunrise), was listed among NPR's Best Top 10 Jazz Albums of 2012, and Jones said all the pieces in the show were from that album.

For his Canadian tour, he was accompanied by an all-star group from the New York scene: pianist Orrin Evans, bassist Eric Revis (who is in Branford Marsalis' quartet), and drummer Nasheet Waits, who together also form the Grammy-nominated trio Tarbaby.

The quartet played to what was effectively a full house in the NAC Fourth Stage – assisted, no doubt, by the high reputations of those musicians.

Their show was high-powered, from every angle: in the quality and inventiveness of their playing, in its intensity, and in its volume. For most of the show Jones' sax playing was raw-edged and vibrant, occasionally atonal but primarily just powerful. The other musicians shared in that style: interrupted piano riffs, hard rat-a-tat drumming (or echoing lines with mallets), and rough, almost screeching bowed bass added forward momentum to the pieces.

The first three pieces were definitely “outside”, strong ensemble pieces but not very melodic. The fourth, “No It's Not”, moved closer to the mainstream, with bebop overtones, and accented, hard-driving playing. “Hold My Snow Cone” was a quieter blues, introduced by bass notes which Revis let sing across the room, and featuring evocative minor-key sax lines almost like crying, as well as scintillating piano.

The 75-minute show ended with a fast, edgy piece filled with contrasting, intricate riffs and an Charlie-Parker-influenced alto sax solo. It was an upbeat close, and was immediately greeted with a standing ovation.

Going straight from McBride's trio to this music, with only a few minutes' break, was quite a culture shock. This was in-your-face music, well-played but much less relaxing. It was like eating a creme brulée followed by a double espresso: both very good, but with quite different effect.

    – Alayne McGregor

Photos are not available for this review because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied access to OttawaJazzScene.ca's photojournalist.