Jesse Stewart, David Mott, and Ernst Reijseger
Ottawa Chamberfest: Chamberfringe series
La Nouvelle Scène
Tuesday, July 26, 2016 – 10:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

You could call this a concert of intersecting friendships. Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger and Canadian baritone saxophonist David Mott have played together off and on since 1985, when they met in Gerry Hemingway's quintet. Mott and Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart met in the mid-90s and have been firm musical friends since, most recently in the Sonoluminescence Trio.

©Brett Delmage, 2016
©Brett Delmage, 2016

Two years ago, they performed together in Toronto and recorded a CD, Different Dreams. This Chamberfest concert was the first time they'd performed together since then – and the show was delayed for 30 minutes because Reijseger's previous Chamberfest show had run late.

But when the 70-minute concert began, the mood was calm and quietly, opening the bag of possibilities slowly and with deliberate care.

Stewart started by bowing his waterphone, producing a light strand of sound echoing around the hall – followed by equally light strands from Mott's sax and Reijseger's cello. The music evolved quietly from there, using the dynamics of the space. Reijseger swung his cello back and forth as he played it to create a larger, vibrating sound; Stewart ran a mallet along the bottom and across the spines of his waterphone, and then hand-drummed the bottom of the instrument for a warm reverberating tone. Mott responded to these with deep circling tones on his sax, and by tapping its keys. Then Stewart bowed the edge of his cymbals, while Reijseger played a brief almost-Slavonic melody on his cello and then some slight dissonant lines, followed by deep punctuated notes on baritone, high attenuated cello, and light drumming, before ending quietly.

It all flowed quite naturally – completely improvised, but feeling logically consistent and appropriate.

The trio played five improvised pieces in all, each a conversation among the three. Sometimes one would fall silent and let the other two talk, but would be listening intently and then joining in again at an appropriate point. When one started a piece, the others would listen and then add complementary sounds – for example, Stewart flapping his brushes in the air and lightly brushing cymbals to create a just-barely-there background to Reijseger's cello.

Reijseger is known for rethinking how the cello can be played – for example, on his lap, like a guitar. He plucked out bluesy riffs, pressed strings to create creaking sounds, and used his bow to create pops and dissonant lines. At one point he threaded his bow through the strings and thrummed it; at another he put his bow upright on the ground and pressed the cello and its strings up and down against the bow. It all created a much more interesting range of sounds – more rhythmic and varied.

Stewart played a handpan, an instrument he just recently acquired. It looks like a miniature squashed UFO, in brass, with inverted dimples. Because of the dimples and its shape, it can create melodic tones when lightly struck, somewhat like steel drums but quieter. It added an interesting texture underneath Reijseger's vibrating cello lines and Mott's baritone melody – and then Stewart put it on a stand and used it to create melodies of his own.

He also added a bird whistle and squeeze toys to the mix at one point, which Mott picked up on to add a punctuated sax line, and Reijseger to add low bowed moans on his cello. Then all three moved into a distinct groove, becoming more insistent and almost swinging, before ending with a quote from a jazz standard.

Mott used the full range of his instrument, from growls to high, sweet lines. At one moment, the saxophone's deep melodies could be ringing across the stage; the next, he'd be playing fast percussive flurries of notes.

There were frequent smiles from all three, and one felt that they were comfortable enough with each other to try new ideas and figure out different approaches.

The trio's final piece was its most energetic, beginning with only percussion. Reijseger drummed on the wood of his cello, adding the occasional plucked note; Mott held his baritone in his lap and clicked on the keys; Stewart added echoing drumstrokes. Then Mott's commanding sax lines took over, and they moved into a strong groove, accented by some dissonant notes on sax and emphatic bowing on cello – before finally ending with a last cymbal tap.

The audience was intent on the stage throughout, and warmly applauded each piece.

While the sound was good in the hall, the lighting did no favours to the musicians. It was overly-dramatic, with dark spots that made it more difficult to see what the musicians were doing. It also kept changing unnecessarily – at one point, it appeared as though it discouraged Stewart from continuing playing because the light on him went dark. And why one would need stage fog in an intimate trio show is beyond me.

But that was only an annoyance in an otherwise fascinating concert where the three consistently explored the full range of sonic possibilities – and made music from them.

    – Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

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