Fraser Hollins Quartet
2016 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival
NAC Fourth Stage
Friday, February 5, 2016 – 9 p.m.

Read our interview with Hollins about this show

There was a big grin on Brian Blade's face for almost the entire show, as Fraser Hollins' quartet performed at the 2016 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival. The renowned drummer appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he responded in the moment, constantly adding energy and character to the music.

With two acclaimed American jazz musicians in the group – Blade and John Cowherd on piano – and two prominent Canadian jazz musicians – Hollins on bass and Joel Miller on saxophone – you could call this a supergroup. But the vibe felt more like a group of friends enjoying sharing music.

Which is not surprising, since Hollins has been friends with all of these musicians – and performed with them – for many years. They'd performed as a group once before, at the Upstairs Club in Montreal, in 2012. Before an appreciative Ottawa audience, all four worked together to keep the musical ball in the air, with the lead easily and naturally moving from one to the other.

In that they were aided by Hollins' multi-layered and open compositions. He wrote all but one of the pieces in the show (Miller contributed the other). Although he's been a first-call bass player in the Montreal jazz scene for more than a decade (ever since he returned from New York), Hollins had only previously released one album of his own compositions, Aerial [2010]. It was good to hear more of his own eloquent voice, telling his own stories.

I was particularly impressed by “The Ground Sea”, which Cowherd introduced quietly and lovingly on piano, very much in the jazz tradition. Hollins told the audience that the song was inspired by a visit to Chesil Beach in Dorset, England – the largest pebble beach in the world. When the waves lap up against the shore and they drag the pebbles down, he said, it creates a magical sound.

Sensitively written, the piece captured that magic with long strands of melody on soprano sax from Miller. A strongly-outlined bass solo and expressive piano further evoked the stones on the beach, with finely-attuned textures on snares and cymbals from Blade.

“Kimberlin” was dedicated to Hollins' father, who was in the audience along with Hollins' brother Max, and opened with a resonant and solemn bass solo. It was an elegiac and beautiful piece, with circling soprano sax and quiet piano both contributing to the otherworldly feel. “Bender”, on the other hand, was a lighthearted piece with strong forward momentum.

Miller contributed one song to the show, “Biscuit”, whose title Hollins gave the American rather than the Quebec pronunciation. It was a fast, rhythmic piece which was as much a duet between Miller's sax lines and their interesting corners and Blade's emphatic tour of the drumkit.

None of the musicians seemed to feel the need to dominate in the show – especially not Blade. He had a very full sound which filled in the music, but he wasn't loud or heavy – more cymbal-rich than anything else. Cowherd and Miller had a strong melodic rapport, enhancing each other's playing, and Hollins' sure-footed bass lines added a firm base to the music as well as extra melodic and rhythmic touches. It was a laid-back show, with no one having anything to prove other than enjoying and doing their best with the music. Throughout, Hollins kept up a comfortable link to the audience, explaining the songs and occasionally adding some dry humour.

The show ended with, if not a “prog-rock epic”, at least a song with non-jazz inspirations. Hollins told the audience that his first hero on the bass was Geddy Lee of the Canadian rock band Rush, and then introduced the song he wrote for Lee: “Geddily”.

It was a strongly grooving piece, which opened with a distinct bass riff and accented drums, and featured bluesy solos on both tenor, piano, and bass. It had an infectiously dancing beat, and was performed with zest by the band. After that joyful music, it's no surprise the audience rose for a standing ovation – and lot of cheers – as soon as the song ended.

The quartet returned for an encore with Hollins' “Treehouse” – a sweet ballad with a memorable melody and a strong gospel feel. The warm tones of Miller's sax and Cowherd's piano alternated in building the hopeful vibe, as did Blade's drumming, which steadily increased the momentum of the piece. It resolved simply but satisfyingly, and the audience responded with another, equally vehement, standing ovation.

It was a fine concert, whose 90 minutes passed far too quickly. At the end, there were lots of smiles, both on-stage and in the audience.

The Ottawa concert was followed the next day by a show at the Upstairs Club in Montreal – and then the quartet immediately went into a studio in Montreal to record an album. With these musicians' busy schedules, the release of that CD may be the next time Canadian audiences will see the quartet together again.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set List (all compositions by Fraser Hollins, unless otherwise noted)

  • Prowl
  • Blaze
  • The Ground Sea
  • Bender
  • Biscuit (Joel Miller)
  • Kimberlin
  • Geddily
  • Treehouse (encore)

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.

Read the interview with Hollins about this show: