©Brett Delmage, 2018
Doressa Dorcilhomme sang in the The Bytowne Big Band's inaugural concert  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

The Bytowne Big Band Presents The Best of Snarky Puppy
Live! on Elgin
Saturday, January 22, 2018 – 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Every time I've seen Snarky Puppy at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, it's been a standing-room only affair, with listeners packed shoulder to shoulder, all moving to the beat – great for energy, but not so good for hearing or seeing musical nuances.

And there is a great deal of nuance in the famed American jazz fusion orchestra's compositions. I was impressed how well the Bytowne Big Band expressed those more subtle intonations and expressions – while also keeping the energy level high – in its tribute concert Saturday evening.

With 14 local instrumentalists, plus vocalist Doressa Dorcilhomme, the Bytowne Big Band filled Live! on Elgin's stage to capacity. Nevertheless, their sound didn't overwhelm the compact, second-floor club. It was powerfully driven by two strong percussionists – Andrew Ferderber on drums, and Valeriy Nehovora on congas, bar chimes, and other percussion – but it reserved lots of space for individual solos and quieter passages.

They played two 45-minute sets of their favourite Snarky Puppy tunes, mostly from SP's mid-career albums: in particular from Tell Your Friends, groundUP, Family Dinner – Volume 1, and We Like It Here. The SP canon is diverse enough that they had no difficulty presenting a widely varied set, from funky numbers to upbeat, soulful tunes to quiet reverent pieces to multi-layered soundscapes. Within each tune there was also a wide dynamic range – a Snarky Puppy characteristic.

The band is led by trumpeter Andrew Knox and by guitarist William O'Neill, both big band aficionados, with Knox writing many of the arrangements. Its members are mostly in their 20s, but with considerable jazz experience: we've seen almost all of them in large (particularly the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra) and smaller jazz ensembles around Ottawa.

The show's opening number, “Shofukan”, was introduced by both the band's guitarists, O'Neill and Sean Duhaime, performing a complex riff together. It developed into a multi-layered piece with a Balkan feel, including an inflected trumpet solo from Knox and wordless singing from the band – strong and funky but with an edge of sadness.

Each of the musicians in the band was featured in at least one of the pieces. I particularly enjoyed Gabriel Paul's evocative alto sax solos in “Thing of Gold”, James Arif's muted and roughened trombone lines in “Young Stuff”, Tariq Amery's soaring flute alternating with Paul Adjeleian's raw-edged trombone in “Tio Macaco”, and the resonant combination of Anthony Kubelka's deep piano chords and Dennis Bass's low, swelling tenor lines in “Sleeper”. Sean Duhaime contributed a confident, blues-edged guitar solo in “Skate U”, while Ajo Elias added a spirited and circling trumpet solo in “Free Your Dreams”.

Vocalist Doressa Dorcilhomme sang soulfully on two tunes, “Gone Under” and “Free Your Dreams”, delivering the lyrics with concentrated passion and a strong R&B flavour. The band often underlined her vocals with horn lines, which added to their vibrancy, but also occasionally drowned out the lyrics.

But even more important to the group's sound were the ensemble passages, the horns together or in sections supporting the soloists – for example, in the band's Kenny-Wheeler-esque and rounded arrangement of “Kite”. Knox's sinuous trumpet lines, Nicholas Rivers-Moore's coruscating bass clarinet solo, and Valeriy Nehovora signaling the section changes with sweet rings on his chimes were all important to the slow but insistent sound, but also the smooth introduction from all the horns, the underlying strong beat from the rhythm section, and the prayerful lines from the saxophones which closed the piece.

The show was moved to Live! on Elgin only a few days before, when the original location canceled. The club luckily was able to welcome the band that evening, and it turned out to be an excellent location, with good sound and a warm vibe. The place was packed, with even more listeners coming in for the second set. The band had originally left a space up front for dancing or standing, but this crowd preferred sitting, and for the second set the front space ended up stuffed with listeners at chairs and tables.

The evening closed with a full-bodied and anthemic rendition of “Lingus”, featuring intense, needle-edged guitar solos from O'Neill and Duhaime, and strings of bluesy piano notes from Kubelka. The entire band appeared immersed in the groove, producing a wall of sound that grew into a full-out assault, before ending abruptly with one last cymbal chime.

Before introducing the last tune, O'Neill told the audience, “We've had a blast up here!” There were lots of smiles on-stage, but also in the audience, who had clapped strongly throughout. They greeted the end of “Lingus” with very strong and extended applause.

It was an excellent debut for this big band – and I hope the first of many shows, with this material and more, in the future.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

Set 1:

  1. Shofukan
  2. Thing of Gold
  3. Young Stuff
  4. Gone Under
  5. Tio Macaco
  6. Sleeper

Set 2:

  1. Kite
  2. Free Your Dreams
  3. Binky
  4. Flood
  5. Skate U
  6. Lingus

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