Da Costa and Wood
Ottawa Chamberfest, Chamberfringe series
La Nouvelle Scène
Saturday, July 23, 2016 – 10 p.m.
Pianist and modern composer Claude Bolling wrote a whole series of suites for classical instruments – flute, cello, guitar, and violin – teamed up with a jazz piano trio. His Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano Trio, written in 1977, was the third in this series, a commission from violinist (and former National Arts Centre music director) Pinchas Zukerman.
Alexandre da Costa, a Juno-winning classical violinist from Montreal, decided to revive the composition for a concert at Chamberfest, appropriately placed in the festival's late-night, and edgier, Chamberfringe series. The suite was is billed as a crossover between classical and jazz – but to my mind, it was more of a wrestling match, where the jazz definitely had the edge.
This was not because of any lack of skill or commitment on da Costa's part, but rather from a compositional design that didn't always gel.
Besides da Costa, the concert featured two well-known Montreal jazz musicians, Dave Laing on drums and Alec Walkington on double bass, and Australian jazz pianist Graham Wood. Da Costa is now Head of Strings at the Edith Cowan University in Perth, Australia, where Wood is Dean of Teaching and Learning. Wood performs with a wide range of Australian jazz musicians in Perth as well as American imports like Joel Frahm and George Garzone.
Bolling's Suite has eight movements, each based on a dance. The ensemble played seven: "Romance", "Caprice", "Gavotte", "Tango", "Valse lente", "Ragtime", and "Slavonic Dance (With a Swing)", and left out the final piece, "Hora". Da Costa briefly mentioned the names, quite quickly, after the first movement, but didn't introduce the pieces individually.
The suite is structured so that the violin is the primary voice for most of the composition, with the jazz trio responding to and underlining the themes. Da Costa opened the piece with an extended violin solo, hopeful and Romantic, and then was joined by Wood's full-bodied piano. And then an abrupt change: the violin stopped and a sparkling jazz piano trio took over. After a minute or so, we returned to swirling violin lines. Both sections were lovely – but connected? No.
“Caprice” and “Ragtime” showed more conceptual unity, mostly with the violin adopting more jazz rhythms. In the latter, I particularly enjoyed the mixture of Woods' stride piano with da Costa's more swinging violin lines, ending with what sounded like a quote from “Alexander's Ragtime Band”. The two strains also worked together in the short and straight-forward “Valse lente”, with Strauss-like violin and Bill Evans-like piano.
“Slavonic Dance”, on the other hand, alternated circling, and sometimes wistful, violin lines against syncopated jazz trio sections, neither enhancing the other.
Da Costa described the music as a “classic-jazz fusion. I can't really say what it is for sure” – and that appeared to be the reaction of most of the audience, too. The applause for several of the sections was polite, but not enthusiastic. The jazz musicians in particular appeared to be glued to their charts for the Bolling suite, which made for very careful and accurate music, but not as free-spirited. In the “Ragtime” section, the music was happy but no one was smiling on stage.
Playing brushes, Laing added particularly fine textures of cymbals and drums both in the jazz sections and supporting the violin sections, for example in “Caprice” – as well as swinging hard in the jazz trio sections. Walkington accented violin passages with bowed bass, and added several deep and melodic solos. Woods' piano was a strong presence throughout, both exact and nuanced, and with deep familiarity with and love of the jazz trio idioms. Da Costa's played his violin firmly and with determination, producing beautiful romantic passages as well as gently underlaying Wood's piano solos.
Da Costa had promised that, after the Bolling suite, “then we're going to light this place on fire”, and that's what he did with the following piece: a jazz version of “Manic Depression” by Jimi Hendrix. His violin replaced Hendrix's electric guitar – not as loudly but still intensely and dramatically with lots of vibrating lines. As he noted, this was likely the first time a Stradivarius had been asked to play this type of music.
The concert ended with two lovely compositions by Wood, which were warmly received, the second getting a partial standing ovation. The first was an thoughtful ballad, with interesting repeated patterns on the piano. Near the beginning of the second piece, da Costa played a short improvised passage – which he noted was not an experience which classical musicians enjoyed – and acquitted himself respectably. That piece began as a waltz, including shimmering piano, and grew in speed and certainty until it ended with repeated riffs on all instruments and a strong flourish at the end.
Those two pieces showed that these musicians could produce fine music together. But I think that adding classical motifs into a jazz framework would have been a better combination, rather than the jarring juxtapositions in Bolling's suite.
– Alayne McGregor