©Brett Delmage, 2017
Director and bassist Adrian Cho brought Duke Pearson's music to Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's first concert of the 2017-18 season. The Orchestra's next show is La Chanson Française on December 9 at the NAC Fourth Stage. ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Ottawa Jazz Orchestra: The Duke of Groove
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, November 2, 2017 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

In its 12-year history, the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of Adrian Cho has done a great deal to educate Ottawa audiences about the history of jazz, playing many large-scale and lesser-known works that otherwise wouldn't be often heard.

The orchestra opened its 2017-18 season with a tribute to a pianist, composer, and arranger who had a large influence on the sound of the Blue Note jazz record label during the 1960s, adding a grooving touch to many albums. Duke Pearson also played with the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet and regularly with Donald Byrd, and released 17 albums under his own name.

I must admit I had not heard of him before this show was announced – and was glad that Cho made the introduction. For this concert, Cho primarily selected pieces by Pearson from his mid-60s albums The Right Touch, Sweet Honey Bee, and Honeybuns.

In two one-hour sets, nine musicians from the orchestra's floating repertory played the music with verve (although in places with quite rapt attention to their charts). On horns were many long-time and highly experienced OJO musicians: saxophonists Sandy Gordon, Mike Tremblay, René Lavoie, and Dave Renaud, trumpeter Rick Rangno, and trombonist Mark Ferguson; many of them doubled on several instruments, and in particular on flute in several songs. Cho played bass and Mark Rehder drums, and Peter Hum took Duke Pearson's place on piano.

They opened strongly with the fast and grooving “Chili Peppers”, with a forceful horn lines, a rounded and full tenor sax solo from Tremblay, and a sparkling piano interlude from Hum with a strong percussive touch. That set the energetic tone for the evening, and immediately grabbed the attention of the capacity audience.

In the first set, I particularly enjoyed the sweet smooth bossa rhythms of “My Love Waits”, with the melody anchored by Rangno's flugelhorn and Ferguson's trombone in unison, and an empathetic solo from Ferguson, and the bluesy “Scrap Iron”, with raw-edged alto sax solo from Renaud. “Rotary” has an unusual rhythm pattern (6/4 time): while not easy for the musicians, it was very approachable with an attractive (if not danceable) groove. Hum contributed a bright piano solo, with clear individual notes outlining the melody and decorated with flurries of notes, and Rangno a fine-edged trumpet solo. The set closed with “Los Malos Hombres”, a brisk Latin piece which ended with a powerful fanfare.

I found it a bit annoying in the first set when musicians kept entering and leaving the stage between songs. Each of the pieces required a different combination of horns – and not all of them – and the ones not playing left. I think it would have been less distracting if they'd simply sat and not played rather than making the audience wonder where they were going. The second set's music mostly featured more of the musicians and often the entire nonet, so this was less of an issue.

“Big Bertha” from Pearson's album Sweet Honey Bee opened the second set – an upbeat conversation between horns and piano, and many opportunities for solos. “Sweet Honey Bee” was a seriously funky piece, with Gordon's bright punctuated flute over the strong beat and later adding a bee-like fluttering rhythm. “Sudel” was defined by an initial hard-edged conga beat, over which the flowing horns and brilliant piano danced.

Renaud moved to baritone sax for “Is That So?” and “New Girl”, and that deep, full-bodied sound contrasted well with Lavoie's and Gordon's flute passages in the shining and percussive pieces. “You Know I Care” was a slow and thoughtful ballad, opening with deep piano chords and with Renaud's baritone and Lavoie's swooping and fluttering flute creating a sweet and full melody.

The music sped up again with the accented and intense “Honeybuns”, and then closed with a well-known piece not by Pearson, but very much in the style of the show: “Soul Bossa Nova” by Quincy Jones. It's an immediately-recognizable piece (even if you didn't know the name), and incredibly catchy, and the nonet did full justice to it with thumping rhythms and swirling horns, and three flutes soaring with the melody over all.

“We can't top that!” Cho said, declining an encore despite the strong and extended applause and cheers.

The show was an excellent introduction to the OJO season: an enthusiastic and skilled tribute to Pearson as a composer and an example of all the great but lesser-known jazz that's out there to hear and enjoy.

The OJO's next concert is La Chanson Francaise, featuring jazz renditions of Quebec and French songs (Saturday, December 9 at the NAC Fourth Stage). OJO will present three additional concerts in the winter and spring of 2018.

Set List
(all compositions by Duke Pearson unless otherwise noted)

Set 1

  1. Chili Peppers
  2. My Love Waits (O Meu Amor Espera)
  3. Wildwood (Gigi Gryce)) (from the Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet)
  4. MOX-NIX (Art Farmer)
  5. Scrap Iron
  6. Rotary
  7. Ready Rudy?
  8. Los Malos Hombres

Set 2

  1. Big Bertha (Peter Chatman, Duke Pearson)
  2. Sweet Honey Bee
  3. Sudel
  4. Is That So?
  5. New Girl
  6. You Know I Care
  7. Honeybuns
  8. Soul Bossa Nova (Quincy Jones)

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The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra gets into the groove with Duke Pearson