David Braid n' Strings
with David Braid, Mark Fewer, Annalee Patipatanakoon, Jethro Marks, and Roman Borys
Ottawa Chamberfest
La Nouvelle Scène
Saturday, July 29, 2017 – 10 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Toronto jazz pianist David Braid is well worth hearing on his own, but the all-star string quartet he performed with on July 29 at Chamberfest added immeasurably to the impact of his compositions – which, as he explained to the audience, was what he was aiming for.

David Braid with string quartet at Chamberfest ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Pianist David Braid's music was beautifully interpreted by a Chamberfest string quartet including violinists Mark Fewer and Annalee Patipatanakoon ©Brett Delmage, 2017

He said that he had originally written one of these pieces for solo piano – but the piece included many long notes, which a piano can't fully sustain. “So I was smarter and I arranged it for instruments that can do things like sustaining notes. Apparently I have sustaining note jealousy, as Mark Fewer pointed out.”

Over the last dozen years, Braid has slowly transformed his own performances from primarily mainstream jazz to longer, more complex works for more diverse groups: jazz orchestra and nonet, symphony orchestra, and brass quintet. In particular, he's collaborated with chamber music groups; since 2011, he has been regularly performing in Europe, China, and North America with string quartets.

At this concert, the musicians played Braid's compositions: some new pieces and some older pieces in new arrangements. His latest album, Flow [2016], is an exploration of these pieces with the Epoque String Quartet from Prague; it was nominated this year for a Juno Award in the Instrumental (aka 'this doesn't fit anywhere else') category. He included three pieces from that album here.

Jazz? Chamber music? You could call the music chamber jazz, but primarily it's lovely, melodic music with a deepness and richness which keeps listeners engrossed. It contains both written sections and possibilities for improvisation. As Braid pointed out, if the audience couldn't tell the difference between the composed and improvised passages, “that means we're doing our job right”.

Braid has usually teamed up with long-standing string quartets – but not for this concert. Instead, the quartet was a Chamberfest special: Chamberfest artistic director Roman Borys on cello; Borys' fellow Gryphon Trio member Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin; the NAC Orchestra's principal viola player, Jethro Marks; and award-winning Montreal violinist Mark Fewer.

They opened with “Prelude”, one of the first pieces Braid explicitly wrote for string quartet and piano. It strongly reminded me of Bach with its formal lines. and provided a solemn and dramatic introduction to the concert. The audience gave it enthusiastic applause.

Braid told the audience that “Joya Variations” began as a fairly standard “theme and variations”-model composition – but then he cut it up into little pieces and scrambled them, like Cubist art. The result, in fact, was not as abstract or diffracted as he implied, although it certainly took some abrupt corners. Before beginning the piece, the musicians briefly played its theme, so the audience could recognize it. Then they opened with fast and intense repeated passages on piano and then strings, followed by a quiet solo improvisation on viola from Marks, vibrating and full and circling upwards before it resolved into a duo with piano.

The remainder of the piece, I decided, was best experienced as a jigsaw puzzle: enjoy each section and assume it fits somewhere. So shimmering piano, dancing cello and violin passages, bright muted piano, gentle strumming of the strings inside the piano followed by percussive slaps, deep and melancholy cello lines: they all illuminated the Romantic theme in some manner, before it culminated in a dramatic flourish and then ended with quiet flurries of piano notes.

Braid introduced “Red Hero” by declaring, “I really like melodies; I don't care if it's wrong. I'm going to write them. I'm going to play them.” It's not a position he really needed to defend to a Chamberfest audience, and especially not with this piece – a beautiful memorial to the soldiers of World War I.

Originally written for piano and baritone sax, Braid rearranged the piece for piano and cello. He and Borys created a moving lament together, the cello expressing grief and loss over relentless patterns on piano.

Braid's soundtrack to the 2016 Chet Baker biopic, Born to be Blue, has taken on a life of its own apart from the movie. He's touring the music in China this fall with musicians who played on the soundtrack. For this concert, he and Mark Fewer played one of his compositions from the soundtrack, “Once Away”. It was a flowing ballad, reflective in mood and simple in style, with the melody finely expressed by Fewer's violin. Wistful and ethereal, it was the type of melody one doesn't forget, and was greeted by a moment of silence and then very strong and extended applause at the end, as Fewer and Braid embraced.

“The Lighthouse (Le Phare)” is from Braid's solo jazz piano album, Verge. It gave him the opportunity to improvise around a sparse framework of some melodic fragments and chord progressions, ultimately creating a full-bodied, multi-layered jazz piece with pulsing lines which reminded me of waves lapping on the seashore.

He followed that with another solo piece, “Interior Castles”, whose shape was inspired by both Franz Schubert's soulful harmonies and by the rhythms and feeling of the rock band Radiohead. He told the audience that he had been informed this was a highly Canadian ability: to weave together ideas which normally don't combine. It was an appealing piece which immersed you in its melody, with enough forward momentum to offset its strong Romantic feel.

The string quartet returned for the final two numbers. “Semi” and “Spirit Dance”. Braid used the singing and fluid sound of the strings to full advantage in “Semi”. They added drama and gravitas in glistening waves, while his piano expressed the theme of loss through repeated percussive motifs, including the tolling of single notes. Borys' cello was a particularly important voice, played both bowed and pizzicato, and including several electrifyingly dissonant passages. Intense applause greeted this piece – plus a “Bravo!”

“Spirit Dance” is the title track from Braid's album with The Canadian Brass. Braid said that it had the design principle of “musical multiculturalism” (another Canadianism), harmonious but sometimes with sharp contrasts from one idea to another. It was inspired by the ethnic neighbourhoods of Toronto, where strongly different communities can live harmoniously next to each other.

The song's immediately recognizable dancing motif was celebrated and reinterpreted in variations throughout by the musicians. The music whirled and swayed, with the instruments constant overlaying each other in shifting patterns. There were strongly percussive sections from each of the strings players, both pizzicato and bowed, enhancing the bright piano passages. And Fewer played some particularly imaginative and powerful solos, reaching up to the highest notes on his violin with intensely vibrating solo notes and bowed lines, soaring and shining.

As the last notes of the piece died away, the audience rose for an extended and passionate standing ovation.

Braid ended the 75-minute concert with a simple and short melodic improvisation with the quartet, heartfelt and reflective – a perfect close and cool-down from an exhilarating collaborative concert, one of the best I've heard him perform.

Set List

  • Prelude
  • Joya Variations
  • Red Hero
  • Once Away (from the soundtrack of Born to be Blue)
  • The Lighthouse (Le Phare)
  • Interior Castles
  • Semi
  • Spirit Dance
  • (improvisation)

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