Robi Botos Quartet with Seamus Blake
Great Canadian Jazz Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Confederation Park
Tuesday, June 23, 2015 – 6:30 p.m.

Toronto pianist Robi Botos communicates a real joy in music when he plays. He had a big smile on his face as he began his Ottawa Jazz Festival concert Tuesday, and told the crowd how excited he was to bring, for the first time, his original music here as leader.

He also had a new album to promote – Movin' Forward [A440/Universal, 2015]  – and a new sound that's more his own.

When Botos won the TD Grand Prize at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2012, his music still showed the strong influence of his mentor, Oscar Peterson. Botos certainly hasn't lost either his delicate touch on ballads or his driving rhythm on straight-ahead pieces, but he's developed and expanded his own sound. Now there's touches of funk and electronics adding a modern edge as well.

And he has good taste in musical collaborators: both the album and this concert featured ex-pat Canadian, now NYC tenor sax player Seamus Blake. Blake is one of those saxophonists with a major reputation; I've made a point of hearing him every time he's played in Ottawa in the last few years and his playing has always substantially enhanced the music.

The album also features drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and bassist Robert Leslie Hurst III. For this tour, Botos instead chose Mike Downes, a Toronto bassist with whom he has had a deep musical friendship for years, and most recently played with in Ottawa in May, backing up Molly Johnson. On drums was American drummer Terreon Gully. Both provided a strong propulsive basis for the music as well as nuanced and noticeable solos.

The group's big sound suited Confederation Park, which was filled almost half-way back: a substantive crowd for this series and this time of the evening. Gully opened up powerfully on drums and Botos joined in on piano, followed by Blake fluidly on saxophone. For the next 10 minutes, they all collaborated in creating swinging, happy music, playing “EurOrleans”, the opening track from the album. It was an emphatic start to the evening.

Botos followed that with “Unanswered”, a romantic piece featuring sensitive piano and long, lovely lines on tenor. While Botos played, you could see Blake swaying, immersed in the music, his eyes closed. The audience greeted that number with strong applause.

Botos told the audience that “Heisenberg” was inspired by his favourite TV series, Breaking Bad (Heisenberg is the clandestine alias of the main character in that series). For that number, he moved from Steinway grand piano to Nord keyboards, and Blake from tenor to EWI (electronic wind instrument), while Downes bowed his bass. The sounds that they produced could best be described as unearthly – atonal cries, chirping birds, muted and punctuated keyboard notes. Blake slowly upped the energy with longer and faster bright lines on EWI, and the music became steadily faster and more energetic (and more mainstream) on all fronts – before returning at the end to the original sounds. It was an interestingly unsettling piece (although I found the link to the TV show a bit tenuous), and elicited strong applause.

Botos switched back and forth between Nord (in organ mode) and piano for “Figure 8”. It was a bright, hopeful piece with a fine melody, a bit reminiscent of Oscar Peterson's more anthemic pieces.

The concert closed with an extended version (longer than 15 minutes in duration) of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballad, “Close to You”, which was also on Movin' Forward. For the first few minutes, they celebrated the lovely melody, with delicate piano, a deep, evocative bass solo, and a strong sax line. But partway through, Blake switched to EWI and Botos first played inside the piano and then switched to Nord, and the music became much more accented and rollicking. It ended up as a dancing, fun number with a touch of funk.

The audience had already appeared primed to enjoy themselves, applauding heartily even before the music started. Perhaps these were some of the same people who gave Botos and Downes a standing ovation for their instrumental of “Close to You” during Molly Johnson's NAC concert in 2013?

They sounded even happier with what they heard, quickly jumping up for a standing ovation. I hope this happy reception means that Botos will be back in Ottawa leading his own groups more frequently from now on.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set List:

  • EurOrleans / Botos
  • Unanswered / Botos
  • Heisenberg / Botos
  • Figure 8 / Botos
  • Close To You / Burt Bacharach and Hal David

Note: received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.