Samuel Blais Quartet ©Brett Delmage, 2018
The Samuel Blais Quartet attracted a full house of enthusiastic listeners to Record Runner ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Samuel Blais Quartet
Live @ Record Runner
Record Runner Rehearsal Studios, Ottawa
Friday, September 28, 2018 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The Samuel Blais Quartet introduced their new CD before a room full of enthusiastic listeners at Record Runner in Ottawa on Friday, in a consistently dynamic and striking performance.

The Montreal-based quartet had been on the road in Quebec and Ontario for the last week, performing and fine-tuning the tunes from the CD, Equilibrium. It is music with strong contrasts and energy, displaying the talents of all the musicians in the quartet: Blais on alto and baritone saxophone, Jérôme Beaulieu on keyboards, Olivier Babaz on double bass, and Alain Bourgeois on drums.

For this show, Blais decided to shake up the order of the set list from what they'd played the previous week, and from their order of the tunes on the CD. The music flowed well in this order as well, balancing more vehement numbers with quieter ones.

They opened with the first tune on the CD, “From Hangzou to Nanning”, which was a study in contrasts in itself. As Blais told the audience, most of the tune was written when he was on tour in China, and represents his impressions from travelling from the rich, cultured centre of Hangzou to the poor, polluted city of Nanning – only three hours away, but feeling as though he were in two different countries.

It was an extended musical journey, beginning with Beaulieu's poised piano introduction with Bourgeois' shimmering cymbals, over which Blais created a calm and simple baritone sax narrative. But then the gentle melody was interrupted by ominous deep tones and thumps on baritone and drums. Blais switched to alto sax, creating an altered mood of disquiet and agitation. The tempo eventually slowed, and Beaulieu returned to the calm of the beginning in an quiet rippling solo. Blais smoothly closed with first uncertain and then fuller lines on alto sax.

In contrast, “Third Row” was a full-out charge, probably the most rock-influenced piece in the show. Blais credited bassist Nicolas Letman-Burtinovic, who plays with him in their cross-border group Split Cycle, for the title, which was originally on a brainstormed list of group names. Blais came across that list in the last year and used them as titles and inspiration.

It opened with a hard, driving beat on bass and drums, and developed into an insistent riff which stopped suddenly and then started up again, and to which each musician contributed. The energy swirled up and up with needle-edged alto sax and propulsive drumming – and ended abruptly with popping notes on alto and drums.

“Spiral Vision” (another title by Letman-Burtinovic) similarly used repeated and gradually-changing motifs shared on the different instruments. Babaz opened the piece with singing bass notes, each string vibrating and building into an intense and extended solo. The other musicians built on that, creating an immersive feel and ending with a wildly-circling flourish.

I particularly enjoyed “Unconditional”, a ballad featuring conversational and sometimes elegiac melodies on piano and baritone, and “Ups and Downs”, an exercise in contrasting deep and high notes.

Blais gave a friendly (and occasionally humorous and teasing) introduction to each piece, explaining the origins of each and talking about his approach to composing and jazz. The audience responded in kind, laughing and clapping warmly, in an informal yet seriously listening vibe. The Record Runner space, intimate and with good acoustics, helped as well. Audience members could easily hear and see the musicians, and had a chance to socialize before the show and at intermission – and many stayed later to talk or buy CDs as well!

Several of the pieces were inspired by listening to NYC pianist Craig Taborn, Blais told the audience, and in particular, “Imitation Game”, which he wrote around a line from one of Taborn's pieces. It was a strong ensemble piece, with dancing treble patterns over sustained piano chords, vibrating bass notes, and circling lines on alto, all developing into a forceful and punctuated attack.

The closing number, “Craig's List” (another piece influenced by Taborn) was one extended alto sax line, morphing and evolving, with underlying textures from echoing cymbals and snare drum as well as bass and piano. Blais pushed harder and harder and then suddenly stopped. The Record Runner audience hesitated – respectfully quiet lest the song just as suddenly resume – then responded with extended and enthusiastic applause. It was a dramatic conclusion.

“Equilibrium” is usually defined as a state where opposing forces are balanced. Samuel Blais' music has arms that reach far out from its centre, in terms of volume, intensity, rhythms, and style – but which also balanced each other, within a tune, and definitely within the concert as a whole. I especially appreciated how the pieces each had a conceptual integrity: one felt as though each section and each musician's contribution to a piece fit together into an overall idea. There was little or nothing extraneous.

The final two shows in the Equilibrium CD release tour are tonight, at Dièse Onze in Montreal, and Tuesday, October 2, at Brasserie Albion in Joliette, Quebec.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Set List

Set 1

  1. From Hangzou to Nanning
  2. Third Row
  3. Unconditional
  4. Spiral Vision

Set 2

  1. Imitation Game
  2. Ups and Downs
  3. Craig's List

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