Jason Robinson and Eric Hofbauer ©Brett Delmage, 2018
Jason Robinson and Eric Hofbauer played music from a suite composed by Ken Aldcroft, which they plan to record at the end of this tour ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late / Mars People
A celebration of the music of Ken Aldcroft
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO)
Black Squirrel Books, Ottawa
Saturday, March 3, 2018 – 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The late guitarist and composer Ken Aldcroft was a linchpin in Canada's improvised jazz scene, as a performer, composer, bandleader, and organizer. And as five of his friends and fellow musicians showed on Saturday, he hasn't been forgotten, as a person and as a musical influence.

Their Ottawa concert was an exciting blend of the avant-garde with more traditional jazz and gospel. It showcased musicians using the full capabilities of their instruments to produce absorbing sounds and soundscapes. Throughout, they performed music written by or inspired by Aldcroft.

It was the second stop on an eight-concert tour of Ontario and Quebec, which began on Friday in Montreal and continues until next Saturday in Toronto. On the bill were two groups: Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late (Americans Jason Robinson on tenor sax and Eric Hofbauer on guitar), and Mars People (Canadians Joe Sorbara on drums, Daniel Kruger on guitar, and Emily Denison on trumpet).

Aldcroft's untimely death in 2016 interrupted plans for him and Robinson to continue to tour and then record a suite of music Aldcroft had written for tenor sax and guitar. Still excited about performing this music, Robinson got together with Hofbauer (also from Massachusetts) to play it, and then contacted Sorbara about possible shows. Sorbara was also excited at the idea, and they developed a joint Canadian tour.

Mars People opened the evening. All three musicians had worked closely with Aldcroft (Kruger was one of his students), and they performed compositions influenced by him which each of them had written. The pieces were generally avant-garde, and partially-improvised. Tones rather than melodies predominated; they included metallic or clicking or partially-muted guitar notes, whistles, popping or static-like or vibrating trumpet lines, jangling percussion and hard taps on the wooden sides of the drums rather than just the skins. Throughout, the musicians used extended techniques to create these innovative sounds.

I enjoyed Sorbara's “Dancing Through”, in which the constantly morphing lines from all three nevertheless coalesced into an upbeat groove running through the piece, and Denison's untitled ballad in which her elegiac trumpet lines were underlaid with light cymbals and singing slide guitar. Their set ended with two compositions specifically written for Aldcroft: Kruger's “Closer Than We Thought” and Denison's “Riffin' (for Ken)”. Both filled the bookstore with echoes, punctuated and percussive and angry, ending with a determined sequence of trumpet notes.

Jason Robinson began his set with Eric Hofbauer by explaining why he held Aldcroft in such high esteem as a composer – “he's in a class with people like Derek Bailey” – and how the tour had come about. In one hour, they weren't going to be able to play all of Aldcroft's suite for guitar and saxophone, he told the audience: they had played about half the previous night in Montreal and would play the other half this night, with some overlap.

They opened with Aldcroft's “Just East”, combining reverberant tenor sax and ringing guitar into a spiral which climbed up and up. It was a bright and engaging piece, with a distinct groove developing which connected the two instruments and their disparate but complementary sounds. “Study In”, a thoughtful étude, began with clusters of shining guitar notes and developed into an involved conversation between two disparate voices, including Snakes and Ladders-style sax lines and dynamic guitar which added extra rounding and depth to the individual notes.

I particularly liked “Parkdale Serenade”, a more classic jazz piece, whose happy swinging rhythms reminded me of a summer stroll in the city. Robinson's muscular sax lines were easily matched by Hofbauer's strongly-defined guitar in an interesting set of variations.

For the following piece, Robinson invited IMOO co-founder Linsey Wellman to perform with the duo. “Is there anything I should know?” Wellman asked. “No”. “Perfect, just the way I like it!” Wellman's alto sax nicely complemented Robinson's tenor, the two following each other – but with individual touches – into a fast groove with raw edges. They then created high-speed punctuated dancing rhythms before finishing with a persistent lament accented by Hofbauer's metallic popping rhythms. Both used circular breathing to create long and intense passages.

“Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late” is what Robinson is calling his duo with Hofbauer. It's also a tune by Aldcroft, his ironic musical take on airport time – how one could arrive two hours early for one's flight and still end up 10 minutes late at the gate. As the duo played the piece, you could hear that constant airport waiting and frustration through its repeated patterns – and yet the final result turned out to be quite engaging and almost ear-worming.

The duo closed with “Work Song”, a country-blues-inspired piece featuring Hofbauer on slide guitar, using an Altoids metal box as his slide to great acoustic effect. Robinson's sax lines gave it a comfortable, old-timey feel, and Hofbauer contributed expressive slide guitar with dramatic and reverberant individual bass notes.

For the finale, Mars People came back on stage to join Robinson and Hofbauer. The now-quintet dove right into the controlled and energetic cacophony of “The Yanks Are Coming” with evident enjoyment, the two guitarists combining together and Robinson and Denison alternating lines.

They followed that with a piece by American drummer Paul Motian that was a particular favourite of Aldcroft's, and the first piece he and Sorbara ever played together. “Circle Dance” came together like a dance, starting with a simple riff from Denison on trumpet and echoing lines from Kruger on guitar. Each instrument joined in turn, adding to the joyous music.

Aldcroft's tune “Gospel” closed the concert with grace and beauty. It was prayerful yet ebulliant, with tenor sax, trumpet, and guitars all contributing to the sincere hymn-like melody and then breaking out in a joyous exuberance, and finally ending in a extended rhapsody of cymbals. The audience greeted it with strong applause, as they had for most of the pieces that evening.

The Ottawa show attracted both the standard IMOO crowd of free jazz fans, plus students and bookstore aficionados willing to have their ears stretched. Those who left part-way through were quickly replaced by others arriving late. It was an overall intent audience, warmly clapping after each piece, and chatting with the musicians between sets and at the end of the show.

Although Aldcroft had performed in Ottawa with a good number of his different duos and ensembles, it's doubtful that all of the audience had heard him or were familiar with his work. I think it would have been helpful if the members of Mars People had introduced Aldcroft and his music more right at the beginning of the concert, putting their compositions more in context and explaining how Aldcroft influenced them.

Nevertheless, it was an ear-stretching and engrossing show, performed with care and involvement by talented and inventive musicians – and a well-deserved remembrance of a fine and innovative composer and musician.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

Mars People

  1. Dancing Through (Joe Sorbara)
  2. Mars People (Ken Aldcroft)
  3. Super Bloop (Emily Denison)
  4. Rhymes with Grimace (Joe Sorbara)
  5. Untitled ballad (Emily Denison)
  6. Closer Than We Thought (Daniel Kruger)
  7. Riffin' (for Ken) (Emily Denison)

Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late
(All songs by Ken Aldcroft)

  1. Just East
  2. Study In
  3. First, Now Last + Reminiscent
  4. Parkdale Serenade
  5. Two Hours
  6. Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late
  7. Work Song

Both groups together

  1. The Yanks are Coming (Ken Aldcroft)
  2. Circle Dance (Paul Motian)
  3. Gospel (Ken Aldcroft)

The full Two Hours Early, Ten Minutes Late tour

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