Brian Browne Trio
NAC Fourth Stage, Ottawa
Saturday, November 15, 2014 – 7:30 p.m.
The energy was palpable inside the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday, as pianist Brian Browne, bassist Neil Swainson, and drummer Terry Clarke began to play.
But it was almost as much from the audience as from the stage: these were listeners intent on and eager for the music. The room was completely packed, filling almost as soon as the doors opened, and there were lots of smiles on faces as first Clarke appeared, then Swainson, and finally Browne.
Clarke began the evening with a complex and changing series of patterns on his drum using brushes; after a minute or so, Swainson added in a steady, full-bodied bass riff; and then Browne entered with a strong swinging piano. It was a full-on trio production – lots of interplay, changing tempos alternating between more syncopated and more bluesy, and trading fours (alternating quick solos) between Clarke and Browne – before ending in a strong flourish.
The trio then slowed down for a delicate and heartfelt version of Burt Bacharach's “What the World Needs Now Is Love”. That set the pattern for the evening – varied but always melodic. Browne had no sheet music in front him, playing instead from memory, and the two sheets of paper on the piano just had some song titles jotted on them, not a formal, numbered set list.
After that song, Browne noted that it had also been included in an album of his from the 1970s called The Letter, and showed off that LP's cover, designed by his friend Bob Fleck. And then, he said, the LP was reissued three or four years later, “much to my surprise” with a cover featuring psychedelic mushrooms. He showed off the second LP cover, and there were some dropped jaws and considerable laughter throughout the audience.
Browne only occasionally announced song titles, but one he did emphasize was “Tres Palabras” by Osvaldo Farrés, which was included on Brad Mehldau's 2004 album, Anything Goes. Mehldau played that as his first piece in his Ottawa performance about seven years ago, he said, and Browne loved the melody but didn't know the title. Other jazz aficionados were no help in identifying it, until Rene Gely phoned him on Friday to wish him good luck with the concert – and suggest he play “Tres Palabras”. Browne said he didn't know it, and then went to the piano and asked Gely if he recognized his mystery tune. “[Gely] said 'You [body part]!' He thought I was putting him on. He thought I was joking, but that really was the tune and I didn't know the title.”
It was a finely-defined ballad, with a noticeable Latin beat. Speaking evocatively of lost dreams and loves, it inspired strong applause at the end.
Browne was playing a nine-foot Steinway grand piano for the show, and fully exploited its beautiful tone in filling the Fourth Stage with melody. But he also gave lots of space to the other two musicians: “How Deep is the Ocean” was strongly underlaid by a clear, steady bass riff from Swainson, along with a resonant solo. The blues “Baby, Ain't I Good for You” gave the opportunity for bass notes to alternate with drum strokes in one place, and for Clarke to play with rhythms later on.
Browne's medley of Duke Ellington numbers, particularly “Satin Doll”, felt as though every note was just sliding perfectly into place, with Clarke adding texture on brushes underneath. He said afterwards that he felt as though he was floating on top of the rhythm section – something he hadn't felt since 40 years earlier with Archie Alleyne and Skip Beckwith.
Browne celebrates the jazz standards, but his definition of standard is wider than just the Great American Songbook and reaches into the 1970s. His version of “Ode to Billie Joe” had the same strong rhythms of the Bobbie Gentry original but with considerably more fills and echoing drums and emphatic bass lines underneath, and appeared to really grab the audience.
“New York State of Mind” by Billy Joel is a signature number for Browne, with a beautiful melancholy feel and beautiful combination of improvisation and melody. He seemed absolutely sure-footed in this song, and by the end, all three musicians seemed to be completely inhabiting the music.
The second-last number of the second set featured just Swainson, playing “Prelude to a Kiss” as a solo bass piece. Although Browne and Clarke lightly comped under him later in the song, this was Swainson's piece, and he mesmerized the audience with the beauty and nuance of his playing. Sad and lonely, it ended with a long held note on bass and piano and was greeted by very strong applause.
After a rollicking closer, it was no surprise the audience gave the trio a standing ovation. Browne's encore was “Scarborough Fair”, another piece he has frequently featured in concert, which evolved from a thoughtful intro into a strongly propulsive piece and ended with a satisfying glissando – and another standing ovation.
It was a well-deserved recognition of all three musicians' decades of experience in jazz, and of their ability to so quickly click together and support each others' playing – and of the enduring appeal of the jazz piano trio format.
The concert was recorded by local jazz sound engineer Normand Glaude for a possible live CD, but Browne's not making any promises yet. In fact, he said earlier he probably wouldn't even listen to the recording or make any decisions about it for three months. But if the recording captures the excitement and tight ensemble playing that the audience heard that night, it should be quite an album.
– Alayne McGregor
Read our interview with Brian Browne about this concert: The unpredictable Brian Browne