There's nothing quite as vibrant or intense as a live performance – as you could see from the transfixed faces of the audience at the NAC Fourth Stage on Saturday.
On stage were two ensembles featuring Canadian jazz musicians. Guitarist Mike Rud and vocalist Sienna Dahlen opened the show as a duo; they were followed by pianist David Braid with the Penderecki String Quartet. Although they played very different material, both groups quickly captured the audience's interest and were warmly applauded throughout.
Mike Rud and Sienna Dahlen capture vignettes of Montreal
It's been a year since Rud won the Juno Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album for his Notes on Montreal CD. But this was the first time in Ottawa that he had presented songs from the album in their final version, and performed it with Dahlen, his close collaborator. They were clearly very much at ease with each other and with the music.
They opened with “Florentine”, a song inspired by Gabrielle Roy's famous novel, The Tin Flute. Accompanied by tango-like rhythms on guitar, Dahlen's fluid vocals expressively told the story of poverty and desperation. “Streetcar 55” was happier and jazzier, with both Rud and Dahlen scatting at different times, while “LaPointe's Beat” (which Rud sang alone) was a simple slice of life through the eyes of a fictional detective, with a nicely-evoked film noir feel.
I particularly enjoyed Dahlen's singing on “Smoked Meat and The Main”. She hit exactly the right tone with her limpid vocals evoking the melancholy in Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. The following song, “Parc La Fontaine”, she treated almost as an art song, her rounded notes capturing a moment in a well-beloved part of Montreal.
Rud also looked ahead to his next album, with his solo guitar interpretation of Bach's Invention #8 in F Major, which he performed very lucidly, fully capturing the baroque feel of the music.
Notes on Montreal was Rud's love letter to that city, and the audience noticeably responded to several mentions in the songs of specific locations. The duo closed with a bilingual song commemorating the city's back alleys, which are a major community gathering place. It was a happy, smiling piece, and was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
- Streetcar 55
- Smoked Meat and The Main
- Parc La Fontaine
- LaPointe's Beat
- Invention No. 8 in F Major by Johann Sebastian Bach
- The Alley's Where to Start
David Braid creates drama and dynamism with the Penderecki String Quartet
Pianist David Braid initially made his mark in jazz ensembles, collaborating with major names on the Toronto scene including Mike Murley, Tara Davidson, Jim Vivian, and Ian Froman, and playing propulsive and inventive mainstream jazz. And he still does that – he'll be back in Ottawa in May with Murley's septet, and he recently toured with the Toronto group Peripheral Vision.
Over the last decade, he's done more solo concerts, particularly abroad, and released one solo CD and one collaboration with the chamber music group The Canadian Brass. About four years ago, he began also writing for and performing with string quartets – first in Europe, and now in Canada.
Saturday's concert showcased many of those compositions, some written specifically for piano and string quartet, as well as older pieces rethought and rearranged.
They were emphatically not classical waltzes a la Richard Strauss. Braid brings a strong jazz sensibility and love of improvisation to his compositions. In his writing, the strings are as much percussive as melodic, and switch among composed sections and short (one-minute) bursts of improvisation.
He was well-matched by the Penderecki String Quartet, a renowned and experienced group based in Waterloo, ON. I had previously heard them in the well-received premiere of percussionist Jesse Stewart's composition, Gnomon Variations, at the Guelph Jazz Festival. They have a reputation for being both adventurous and highly skilled, both of which were obvious at this concert.
In his introduction, Braid said the audience probably hadn't heard this music before, and it wasn't easily categorizable: not jazz, not classical, not new music. But it contained the elements he loved in music and in jazz – chords, rhythm, melody, harmony, and form – in compositions for piano and string quartet.
Overall, the music was dramatic, with a large dynamic range, abrupt pauses, and many different tonal characteristics. The compositions were clearly written for all five instruments as an ensemble, with the musical thread being smoothly passed from one to another.
I was particularly impressed with “Joya”, which featured constantly-shifting and intricate musical patterns. At one point, Braid played the strings inside his piano much like a harp; later he drummed on the piano body with his hands. The audience greeted the bright, accented ending with strong applause. Also impressive was “Semi”, an exploratory piece with repeating motifs and a great deal of emotional gravitas.
The centrepiece of the show was “Chauvet”, a piece inspired by the some of the oldest human art yet discovered, and a recent film by Werner Herzog about those paintings. The opening section had an magical, otherwordly feel, and featured some beautiful, expressive solo passages by Katie Schlaikjer on cello and Christine Vlajk on viola. It became more energetic, with intertwining melodies, and then slowed again, with the music becoming steadily more attenuated and almost atonal before finally fading out – perhaps echoing how the Chauvet paintings themselves were hidden for more than 25,000 years? The audience responded with immediate and extended applause.
Braid has played the closing piece, “Spirit Dance”, in many different contexts and arrangements over the last five years, including recording it with The Canadian Brass. It was the most lighthearted piece of the evening, but also containing many thoughtful passages and considerable texture from the strings. The musicians performed it with joy and high energy.
As the music ended, “Bravo!” came from around the room, and the applause lasted for several minutes.
Braid will perform several of these pieces (including “Chauvet” and “Spirit Dance”) again at this year's Ottawa Chamberfest, but with the Sinfonia UK chamber orchestra – the group with which he premiered “Chauvet”. If that concert has even half the the intensity and beauty shown on Saturday, it will be quite a show.
– Alayne McGregor
See related stories:
- David Braid's music interpreted and celebrated by Chamberfest string quartet 
- David Braid's music was inspired by 30,000-year-old cave paintings 
- Phil Nimmons and David Braid reinvent their music with each concert 
- Mike Rud tasted the depths of a city in Notes on Montreal
- Mike Rud will split his brain for his upcoming CD
- David Braid, Jill Barber, Mike Rud, and John Geggie featured in NAC concerts in 2015
- Correction (March 15): Sinfonia UK is a chamber orchestra, not a string quartet.