Mary Margaret O'Hara, Peggy Lee, and Aidan Closs
Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, Day 6
Dominion Chalmers United Church
Sunday, February 15, 2015 – 7 p.m.

I first heard vocalist Mary Margaret O'Hara and cellist Peggy Lee play together in 2012. Their Beautiful Tool project, which also incorporated several other talented Vancouver musicians, opened that year's edition of the Guelph Jazz Festival. I was immediately highly impressed with the group sound and inventiveness of Lee and the other instrumentalists, but I found O'Hara frustrating – in particular because I had consistent difficulty understanding her words, whether sung or spoken.

I decided not to review that concert because the art gallery they performed in is notorious for “eating” and distorting vocals, and I might not have been fair to the show. Given O'Hara's performance this Sunday at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, perhaps I was being overly cautious.

Sunday's show started a full 30 minutes late. While both the festival and O'Hara apologized for the delay, they never gave any reason for it. On stage were O'Hara on vocals, Lee on cello and occasional piano, and Aidan Closs on primarily electric guitar, but also drums and piano.

O'Hara and Closs have regularly played duets together (mostly improvised creative music), and Lee and O'Hara have toured together, but this was their first performance as a trio.

They opened with a sad song of love lost and rejection. In style, it reminded me of old-time parlour music. O'Hara sang it in a simple, almost-impromptu style, with a large amount of vibrato in her voice, accompanied by soft, melodic guitar from Closs and abrasive cello lines from Lee.

O'Hara indicated the following song had something to do with St. Patrick's Day, although her mumbling and incomplete sentences made it difficult to understand her. She has a strong, melodious voice – when she sings in a straightforward manner – and she delivered the country-influenced, melancholy ballad about getting lucky with lots of feeling, accompanied by full-bodied folk-influenced guitar, and lovely fiddle-like cello lines. It was followed by a similar blues-influenced heartache song.

While singing, O'Hara wandered around on stage, looking distracted and disconnected from her fellow musicians and in particular from the audience. That was a consistent problem with the concert: O'Hara neither properly explained what she was doing, nor reliably announced song titles, nor seemed to make an effort to ensure that the audience understood her, nor even seemed to be aware at times that the audience was there.

Next came a freely improvised piece, which O'Hara introduced by saying she liked improv because “there's no errors, so it's lovely”. Lee played frantic harmonies on her cello. Closs, at the piano, alternately plucked the strings inside and played abbreviated riffs on the keys. Sometimes fast, sometimes hesistant, the instrumentals were consistently dramatic. And they were matched by O'Hara's vocals: growls, grunts, yells, screeches, and scatting, as her voice rose from alto to treble back down again. A spectacular, all-out demonstration of musical anger, it quietened at the end into an almost classical mellow blending of cello and piano.

Several members of the audience were looking a bit stunned by the end of this piece.

Their second free improvisation, near the end of the concert, had a similar vibe, Beginning with fast, punctuated drumming by Closs, it also featured abrupt, pizzicato cello and snarling vocals. As Lee made her cello vibrate, O'Hara sang nonsense syllables quickly and angrily, before they all slowed and faded at the end.

I found these two improv pieces the most genuine parts of the performance. Unlike some other parts of the show, O'Hara appeared fully present, not putting on an act or adding a mannered veneer to her songs.

For the remainder of the 90-minute show, the trio played parlour music, jazz standards, folk ballads, gospel songs, and R&B numbers from early to mid-20th century, ending with the Vera Lynn chestnut, “We'll Meet Again”.

The group's rendition of Oscar Brown jr's “The Snake”, was particularly memorable, with Closs playing both guitar and hi-hat cymbal, and Lee providing raspy, fasted bowed cello. They gave the song a rockabilly treatment, with O'Hara's voice dropping from falsetto to growls and back up again, and delivering the lyrics full-on with huge amounts of energy. As O'Hara cried out, “Take me in, tender woman”, the song echoed around the church sanctuary.

Another highlight was the gospel/country number “Peace in the Valley”, which O'Hara started singing simply, and then added vocal improvisations, and ended up almost declaiming the lyrics. Lee underlined the music with vibrating notes on cello, and the group took the piece well beyond conventional treatments while still being true to its joyful message.

For the Solomon Burke classic “Cry to Me”, O'Hara invited her two brothers on stage. One played drums, and the other helped accent the bluesy, desperate feel of the song with balloons, which he and a friend filled up and then slowly let squeal as the air dribbled out. As the song ended, they let the balloons fly up and over the stage. It was a great moment.

Overall, this was a mercurial show, primarily because of O'Hara. When she was good, she was very, very good. When she wasn't, she was annoying.

Closs and Lee were excellent throughout and I'd love to hear more of them, but I got really tired of O'Hara forgetting lyrics and restarting songs. Once is endearing; many times is not. I kept wishing that she would drop the act, or the attitude, or whatever prevented her from just singing and communicating with the audience.

Was it an off day? Was it the stress of working with this particular trio for the first time? Given how similar her act was here and in Guelph, and given this review of a show she did last year in Montreal, I would have to say not.

Which is a pity, given her fine vocal talents.

To be fair, there were many people in the audience who, unlike me, did enjoy the show. The group received a standing ovation, and very strong applause at the end of their encore.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the 2015 Winter Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist. Therefore, we are unable to publish photos with the reviews.

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