The Canto Trio
Ascension Jazz Series
Church of the Ascension, Ottawa
Sunday, September 25, 2016 – 7 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The Canto Trio – Peter Woods, Devon Woods, and Hélène Knoerr – consists of two saxophonists and one double bassist/vocalist. It's not your typical jazz group, or trio sound.

The Canto Trio: Peter Woods, Helene Knoerr, Devon Woods showed the versatility of a 2-sax, chordless format as they opened the new Ascension Jazz series in Ottawa. ©Brett Delmage, 2016
The Canto Trio: Peter Woods, Helene Knoerr, Devon Woods showed the versatility of a 2-sax, chordless format as they opened the new Ascension Jazz series in Ottawa. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

But this chordless ensemble did a more-than-credible job of performing a well-chosen selection of jazz classics at their concert Sunday, to an appreciative audience.

The concert was also the first in a new jazz series at this church in Ottawa East, and showed off the church's excellent acoustics and friendly ambiance.

Peter Woods, Devon Woods (no relation), and Hélène Knoerr first met and played together at an Ottawa jam session a few months ago. They started chatting, and it turned out that Devon Woods had a large folder of arrangements for two saxophones. In July, the three performed a noon-hour concert at MacKay United Church, where Peter Woods is minister; this was their second full show.

Both Peter Woods and Devon Woods had a tenor sax and a soprano sax, and they played them in all possible combinations (two tenors, two sopranos, soprano/tenor, and tenor/soprano). Sometimes they'd play in unison, and other times they'd play contrasting melodies, entwining and circling around each others' lines – but always they were listening and responding to each other. Devon Woods also brought a vintage metal clarinet dating from the 1930s, and added its richer sound to “Mood Indigo” and “East of the Sun” to good effect.

I've heard this two-saxophone sound before – obviously in classic recordings like Tenor Madness with John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, but also locally. But it's still not all that common, especially a minimal trio like this. Consistently the two saxophonists produced an complex, warm sound together that well served each tune. They also added their individual voices in solos (Peter Woods was particularly energetic and inventive in these), and created enough varied sounds to obviate the need for piano or guitar.

Knoerr provided the bass backbone of the music, as well as introducing pieces like “All Blues” and “I Can See Clearly Now” with strong, insistent bass solos. She also sang on several pieces: I particularly liked her charming, vintage vocal style on show tunes like “On a Slow Boat to China” and “East of the Sun”, evoking the feel of the 40s. On classic jazz pieces like “All Blues” and “Mood Indigo”, her vocals were huskier and a bit accented: her expressive wordless vocals and humming worked well on the latter tune.

Throughout, the three musicians alternated in talking about the music and what they were trying to do, and making it more accessible to a generally non-jazz crowd – which the crowd appeared to appreciate.

Most of the pieces in the show I've heard done live by much larger ensembles, especially big bands, and I was intrigued to hear them done in stripped-down versions. I enjoyed the trio's versions of “Idle Moments”, with its full-bodied conversation between the saxes; “Alto-Itis”, where they “fit in the middle” emulating an alto sax with tenor and soprano in a bright, swinging style that would have been enjoyed by swing dancers; “Petit Fleur”, with its tango-esque bass line and haunting melody expressed on two sopranos; the sizzling soprano and tenor lines on “Walking'”; and how Devon Woods accented Knoerr's vocals with his clarinet on “East of the Sun”.

I was amused that Peter Woods jokingly introduced “Harlem Nocturne” as the ultimate stripper song – I've always thought of it as film noir. In fact, it was the theme song of the television series “Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer”, which is about as hard-boiled detective as you can get. The trio gave it a bluesy, intense treatment, ending in a sensuous long joint sax line – to strong applause.

While the trio, and particularly Peter Woods, did dig seriously into the music in many places, overall I thought their approach could have been livelier. There were a couple pieces – “I Can See Clearly Now” and “Jumpin' with Symphony Sid” – which were taken too slowly and solemnly. Those pieces in particular needed more zip, and I think the whole concert could have benefited from a slightly faster tempo and a more upbeat approach. As well, in several places Devon Woods squawked his tenor sax, disturbing the otherwise smooth sound.

But those are problems that will disappear with more experience – and I do think this stimulating two-sax/one bass format should be encouraged. If this concert was ambitious, it was also well-organized with excellent material and with nicely varied dynamics and styles. And it was well received by the audience, who warmly applauded throughout.

This was the first in a five-concert jazz series being presented at the Church of the Ascension. The church offered a cash bar, and refreshments including coffee and tea at intermission, and made the experience social, friendly, and welcoming. The church itself has many stairs, but it has been renovated to be handicapped-accessible.

The church is easy to reach by bicycle and by automobile. The closest OC Transpo access on a Sunday evening is by routes 5 or 14; the latter requires a 13-minute walk from Elgin and Gladstone, and both routes run only every hour on Sunday evenings when the concerts end.

Next in the series (on November 27) is Linsey Wellman's Wedding and Funeral Trio, whose music blends Balkan rhythms and jazz. OttawaJazzScene.ca reviewed this group very favorably at its debut in 2014.

– Alayne McGregor

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

Set 1:

  1. Big P (Jimmy Heath)
  2. All Blues (Miles Davis)
  3. Idle Moments (Grant Green)
  4. On a Slow Boat to China (Frank Loesser)
  5. Con Alma (Dizzy Gillespie)
  6. Alto-Itis (Oliver Nelson)
  7. Mood Indigo (Duke Ellington)
  8. Line for Lyons (Gerry Mulligan)
  9. Petite Fleur (Sidney Bechet)

Set 2:

  1. I Can See Clearly Now (Johnny Nash)
  2. Walkin' (Miles Davis)
  3. East of the Sun (Brooks Bowman)
  4. Footprints (Wayne Shorter)
  5. Jumpin' with Symphony Sid (Lester Young)
  6. Harlem Nocturne (Earl Hagen/Dick Rogers)
  7. My Baby Just Cares for Me (Walter Donaldson/Gus Kahn)
  8. Song for My Father (Horace Silver)
  9. Killer Joe (Benny Golson)

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