Kevin Turcotte's intense trumpet lines added to the energy of Mike Murley's Septet at the NAC's Ontario Scene. ©Brett Delmage, 2015
Kevin Turcotte's intense trumpet lines added to the energy of Mike Murley's Septet at the NAC's Ontario Scene. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

The Mike Murley Septet
Ontario Scene
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Friday, May 8, 2015

View photos of this performance

What do you get when you put seven fine musicians from Toronto on stage together in Ottawa? A night of satisfying and wide-ranging mainstream jazz, melodic and dynamic.

Jazz, in particular, benefits from more instrumental voices on stage, allowing more interplay and different arrangements – but the economics of touring a large group can be daunting. That's why we see very few visiting big bands, or even a septet like the one saxophonist and composer Mike Murley brought to the NAC Fourth Stage Friday night.

He was there as part of the NAC's Ontario Scene festival, whose mandate is to “celebrate the province’s dynamic culture: a synergy of tradition and innovation, of established and emerging artists”. Murley is certainly an established artist – it's been almost 35 years since he left Nova Scotia for Toronto and since then he's established himself as an essential part of the Canadian jazz scene, winning many Junos and National Jazz Awards. His recordings celebrate both the tradition (jazz standards with guitarist Ed Bickert) and innovation (the electric jazz of Metalwood).

The room was packed and expectant as Murley took the stage, along with Tara Davidson (soprano and alto sax), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet and flugelhorn), William Carn (trombone), David Braid (piano), Jim Vivian (double bass), and Ted Warren (drums). It's the same lineup as when he formed the septet a decade ago, with the exception of Carn, who was subbing for Terry Promane.

One of the reasons Murley formed the group was to rework and arrange repertoire from his previous albums for a larger group, as well as composing new pieces specifically for the septet. So the concert contained a good dollop of material from the septet's record, Still Rollin', which was nominated for a Juno in 2012 – but also both older and newer material.

The show began on a vibrant note with “I Wonder Who” – Murley's contrafact based on the chord progressions of George Gershwin's “Somebody Loves Me”. It's from Murley's most recent CD, Looking Back [2014]. Expanded from the original three to seven voices, it allowed the audience to get acquainted with the musicians' individual styles, with solos including Warren's double-quick, steely drumming and Carn's deep, rich trombone. And it confirmed that this was a group effort, not Murley with six supporting musicians.

The depth of group contribution became even clearer in the next number, “Joanie’s Steps”, which was inspired by another jazz standard – “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane. It began with Vivian's intimate, melodic bass line, and then expanded into multiple, alternating combinations – solos, an alto/tenor duet, and everyone in unison. It was an diverse investigation of the rhythm and chord changes, featuring Davidson's wide-ranging alto explorations and Turcotte's intense trumpet lines. This piece, like the remaining numbers in the first set, was from Still Rollin'.

A highlight of the show was Murley's lyrical arrangement of “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier”. He began alone, playing the melody of the 17th-century folk song lovingly and unhurriedly on his tenor sax, with bass and drums entering lightly after a few bars and acting as a counterpoint to the tenor. The other musicians joined in after several minutes, and the melody soared. It became more emphatic, and ended as an anthemic lament, with Vivian's bowed bass underlining the horns and piano.

“Tide Line”, inspired by the tides in the Bay of Fundy, began with the front line just barely breathing into their instruments, over slow deliberate bass notes, like waves rolling into the shore. The music strengthened into a sparse, slightly inflected melody, and then different musicians, alone and in duets, explored its ocean-based theme. Particularly notable were Turcotte's rounded, emotive flugelhorn, and Davidson's carefully-attuned alto, both conveying a feeling of loneliness and emptiness, softly at first, and then full-out. The piece ended quietly again, with piano, bass, and drums rustling like the wind and then fading out.

The first set closed with “Still Rollin'”, upbeat with noticeable bass and drum accents and reminding me of a fast freight train. Everyone added to the energy, whether with fluid, hard-hitting tenor or vibrating soprano. The duets between Braid on piano and Vivian on bass contrasting sparkling piano with strong repeated bass riffs were particularly memorable.

“Conversation Piece”, a piece Murley first recorded with his quintet two decades ago, opened the second set. It was a series of duet conversations: bass and piano, trumpet and tenor, alto and trombone. Braid's piano in particular drove the rhythm for the first part of the piece, with horns floating thoughtfully on top; he later slowed down, his reflective piano lightly accenting a hard-hitting, echoing drum solo, followed by short alternating conversations among the horns again.

Throughout, Murley explained each piece the septet played, letting the audience know the songs' backgrounds and history in a really interesting way.

He described the Jimmy Rowles tune “Looking Back”, from his latest album, as “almost like a folk song”. He started it slowly and reminiscently on tenor, and Davidson introduced the main theme delicately on soprano in a finely nuanced line. Turcotte took up the theme on trumpet, and all the horns joined in, and eventually Braid and Vivian in partnership. It was a beautiful, emotionally-resonant rendition which one could simply absorb and enjoy.

“Sonny's Way” was dedicated to tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins, one of Murley's heroes. He opened it emphatically on tenor, and then moved into a swinging duet with Carn on trombone. It was a light-hearted, somewhat retro piece, which allowed the musicians to really get into the music – Murley leaning into his tenor and playing it with his entire body, Warren setting the essential swinging rhythm, and Braid adding fast, accented piano.

Murley ended the show with two pieces that looked back in his career. “Rob”, which he arranged, was dedicated to influential Canadian trombonist and bandleader Rob McConnell. Murley was a member of McConnell's award-winning Tentet, which was one of the inspirations for this septet. “He was a character and a great musician and a great arranger, and all of us were in his bands,” Murley told the audience.

Carn really stood out in this ballad, starting off in a emotive, flowing duet with Murley, and then playing an extended, sad, beautiful trombone solo, with the other horns joining in later to add light, simple lines underneath.

“Creature of Habit”, from Murley's 2004 album, Extra Time, was a tribute to Jim Vivian, with whom he's been playing since the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, there was a strong bass line – but also vivid performances from all the musicians working to create lots of forward momentum and sizzle. It built up and then ended abruptly – and the audience responded with continued and very strong applause.

It was a fitting end to a crowd-pleasing show, which displayed the diverse and original music one can get from a larger group. A septet is a good size – enough for a full rhythm section plus each common type of horn – without forcing the musicians into sections. And when it contains musicians like these who are deeply familiar and comfortable with each other's work, it produces beautiful sounds.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set 1

  1. I Wonder Who
  2. Joanie’s Steps
  3. Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier
  4. Tide Line
  5. Still Rollin'

Set 2

  1. Conversation Piece
  2. Looking Back
  3. Sonny's Way
  4. Rob
  5. Creature of Habit

Read other reviews of Mike Murley:

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2015