©Brett Delmage, 2018
Justin Gray on bass veena and Ed Hanley on tabla were important and unique parts of Synthesis' sound  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Justin Gray's Synthesis
Ottawa Chamberfest, Chamberfringe Series
La Nouvelle Scène
Wednesday, August 8, 2018 – 10 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Justin Gray's Synthesis created a rich and exciting mix of East and West at Chamberfest on Wednesday, combining instruments and approaches from several traditions.

In a late-night Chamberfringe show, the Toronto jazz ensemble performed tunes from their debut album, New Horizons. All originals by Gray, they featured Hindustani melodies and rhythms within a jazz framework and with classical influences. The result: energetic and engaging music that brought together the strengths of all these genres, and which worked exceptionally well in the serene acoustics of La Nouvelle Scène.

On stage were ensemble members Drew Jurecka on violin, Ted Quinlan on electric guitar and effects, Ed Hanley on tabla, and Derek Gray on drums and Tibetan singing bowls, with guest Rebekah Wolkstein on violin and Hardanger fiddle. Almost all these instruments have been used in Indian classical music, most in jazz, and some in chamber music.

But in particular, the pieces showcased the instrument which Gray invented to play this music: the bass veena. A cross between an electric bass and Indian instruments like the sitar or sarod, it has four playing strings, tuned to the tonic of a piece – plus two drone strings, and a small 10-string harp above those strings. The drone strings in particular gave the bass veena the characteristic tone of Indian music, the lightly buzzing and continuous tonic over which other strings could create melodies. Gray played it both as a lead melodic instrument and more as a rhythmic background to the other musicians, and occasionally switched to electric bass as well.

The bass veena's drone was immediately evident in the group's opening number, “Migration”. Its lightly-outlined melody, underlaid by the drone, swelled to fill the room. It then was anchored by a propulsive stream of individual tabla notes from Henley, followed by exhilarating violin lines from Jurecka and a strong forward push on cajon from Derek Gray.

When Quinlan entered with a finely-developed guitar solo, you could hear his more jazz-oriented style contrasting against the previous Indian vibe – and yet the two styles complemented each other. Each of the instruments could clearly be heard in the mix as they twined around and through each other, each building on the underlying melodies and rhythms. The final held note on bass veena and violin was greeted with a “Wow!” and cheers as well as strong applause.

This strong and multi-faceted ensemble playing continued throughout the show. Jurecka and Quinlan frequently alternated their playing in duets; Justin Gray's bass veena, Henley's tabla, and Derek Gray's drums kept the music moving strongly forward.

Gray only played the bass veena's harp strings in one number. “Serenity” opened with an extended solo on bass veena, initially transparent and echoing with harp strings singing, and then moving more into an ensemble number with multiple evolving layers – ending with the bass veena's initial rhythm, but more attenuated.

Wolkstein, who joined the group with the second number, collaborated with Jurecka in violin duos, evoking the string quartet on the CD recording. On “Rise”, she also played the Hardanger fiddle, an ornamented folk instrument originally from Norway, which contains double the number of strings as a regular violin. When the four regular strings are played, the other strings which are run through the fiddle's bridge create sympathetic vibrations, adding depth to its sound.

She opened that number with a simple but very emotion-rich solo, the extra resonance of the fiddle adding majesty and intensity to her playing. As the other instruments joined in, the piece alternated between slow and sad Indian-style passages on bass veena and more propulsive ensemble sections. Quinlan then moved to the forefront with a sharp and slightly rough-edged extended guitar solo, almost savage in its assured power; as he slowed to end the solo, the audience erupted in impromptu applause.

Jurecka and Wolkstein took over with a solemn violin duet, the melody weeping off their bows, and with Quinlan adding light grace notes on guitar. After the piece closed softly, there were several moments of complete silence before the audience responded with strong applause. Justin Gray noted afterwards that “Rise” featured the “Megh” raga, which has similar elements to the blues, allowing him to combine the two in this piece.

Several times throughout the show, Derek Gray left his drumkit to sit on the floor surrounded by his own mini-orchestra of Tibetan singing bowls. He, along with his brother and their friends, brought the bronze bowls back from the Dharamshala area of India (where the Dalai Lama is based and which has a large Tibetan population). The bowls were of all sizes with a variety of decorations – and most importantly, carefully picked so that they were tuned to compatible frequencies, and placed in order on a rug on the floor.

In the two pieces featuring the bowls (“Eventide” and “Ebb and Flow”), Gray used two wooden sticks, with red felt glued to their lower thirds, to both gently strike and to run circularly along the top edges of the bowls. The singing tones he created as he played the different bowls expanded throughout the hushed hall, reinforcing each other in an almost unearthly beauty.

In “Eventide”, Jurecka complemented the bowls' tones with fine pizzicato notes on his violin, adding to the piece's magical feel, and then both violins and the guitar created a refined, delicate melody building on that sound.

I particularly enjoyed “Reflections”, in which Gray drew on Afro-Cuban rhythms to create a concentrated rhythmic base for evocative violin and guitar melodies. Jurecka's keenly romantic violin solo contrasted with the drone and bass rhythms of the bass veena, and the piece ended with guitar and bass veena recreating the initial riff and Jurecka releasing pizzicato violin notes over top.

Throughout the concert, Justin Gray clearly introduced and explained the music and the instruments, giving the audience the necessary background to understand what they were hearing. In turn, the audience members intently listened and applauded throughout, and there were a noticeable numbers of cheers after each number – and in some cases several beats of total silence after a piece while they assimilated what they'd just heard.

At the end of the 75-minute show, the large majority of the audience stood for an extended standing ovation. It was well deserved for this group's well-attuned ensemble playing and for Justin Gray's inventive and carefully-prepared compositions, which beautifully melded together diverse musical traditions.

This music – created by Canadians from multi-cultural influences – would be wonderful to hear again. It would be an excellent fit on one of Canada’s National Arts Centre stages.

Set List:

(All compositions by Justin Gray)

  1. Migration
  2. New Horizons
  3. Reflections
  4. Unity
  5. Rise
  6. Eventide
  7. Serenity
  8. Ebb and Flow

Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Justin Gray about this project, "It just really speaks to me": Justin Gray creates his own synthesis of jazz and Hindustani classical music

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