©Brett Delmage, 2018
Takashi Itani made music with aluminum trays ©Brett Delmage, 2018

IMOO Fest 2018, Day 2:
The Nick Fraser New Quartet – 9 p.m.
This Is It! (Satoko Fujii, Natsuki Tamura, Takashi Itani) – 10 p.m.
Saturday, September 22, 2018

View photos by Brett Delmage of the performance by This is It!

We weren't sure we were going to be able to get to the second day of IMOO Fest 2018 – and afterwards were very glad we'd dashed back to see it.

The headliner for that evening, and for the festival, was the This Is It! trio led by Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii, with her long-time partner, trumpeter Natsuki Tamura, and with percussionist Takashi Itani. They were on an extended Canadian/U.S. tour that took them from Montreal to Vancouver, and from Philadelphia to Los Angeles.

Starting at a relatively late time of 10 p.m., the trio nevertheless enthralled their audience with a vigorous and highly inventive set of four improvised pieces in slightly more than an hour.

From the first notes, it was obvious they were going to explore the full (and less conventional) capabilities of their instruments. Fujii opened by playing very lightly inside GigSpace's Yamaha grand piano on its strings – a tiny beautiful sprinkle of notes – while Itani bowed the edges of his cymbals, creating a swelling and moaning sound. Tamura cupped his hands around his mouth to create his own mouth trumpet noises.

Fujii used prepared piano in this concert – and one of her signal sounds, which I hadn't seen from other avant-garde pianists, was to run a string under and around piano strings. Then, holding one end of the string in each hand in a “V” above the piano, she pulled the string back and forth, rubbing it against the piano strings to create curious sounds, sometimes echoing, sometimes buzzing.

It was one of several times that she played inside the piano. Another time she began with light rustling notes, and let the vibrations swell as she plucked individual strings. The sound was notably Japanese in feel, like single raindrops falling. It developed into a pattern, and then Fujii played on the piano keyboard against this repeating pattern.

She also played extensively and more conventionally on the piano's keyboard – but hardly in a conventional style. Instead, she produced interrupted short riffs, thundering chords, melodies interrupted by deep bass chords, rumbling propulsive notes, glissandos, dramatic rippling lines that faded to nothing – and also (briefly) uplifting, romantic melodies reminiscent of Rachmaninoff.

Tamura produced an equally diverse collection of sounds from his trumpet: hard calling-out lines, repeated screeches, light muted notes, rough-edged lines, gasping croaks, and tense squeaks. At one point, his almost-inaudible breaths through the trumpet abruptly changed into ear-splitting shrieks, followed by hard individual notes interrupted by quiet breaths.

I had heard Fujii and Tamura perform together before at the Guelph Jazz Festival, and had expected their imaginative playing (and it fully met my expectations). But Itani was a delightful surprise – a drummer whose playing was both powerful and original. He not only played on his drumkit – he even jumped up and down on the stage to create a giant percussive thuds to match Fujii's energetic piano.

Itani made extensive use of several disposable aluminum trays – dropping them, crackling them, throwing them – to add different textures to his sound. He constantly changed his approach: from velvety mallet thumps, to fast rattling hand drumming, to running his sticks in a circle on his drumskins, to brushing his hands over his cymbals creating muted rings, to using his elbow to partially mute rapid drumming, to cymbal crashes, to creating groans by running mallets on cymbals.

He was so active it was difficult even to see everything that he was doing, and to guess exactly how he created all his sounds.

But what made This is It! particularly interesting was the fact that all these sounds fitted so well together into the trio's ensemble approach. Each musical action was responsive to the other musicians, fitting in the context to create interactive – and very angular – improvisations which could change abruptly. The keyword was unpredictable.

Their final piece began with Itani's half-muted clanging drums, followed by fast hand drumming on congas. All three repeatedly traded places in the music, in an intense and fast-moving up-and-down rhythm. They kept elaborating on the same short pattern, giving it a fast forward momentum and numerous variations – and then ended abruptly.

The audience responded with a well-deserved standing ovation.

©Brett Delmage, 2018
Nick Fraser created disquieting and sad groans by running his fingers up and down a metal rod ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Nick Fraser's New Quartet

View photos by Brett Delmage of the performance by the Nick Fraser New Quartet

The Nick Fraser New Quartet performed at 9 p.m. This was the Ottawa debut of this quartet, with alto saxophonist Karen Ng, trumpeter Emily Denison, and double bassist Alex Fournier. Although all now live in Toronto, Fraser and Denison are from Ottawa and took their first musical steps here.

The musicians in this group are all known for playing in a wide range of styles, but their hearts are in avant-garde and freely improvised music. They played a series of extended sketches by Fraser (numbers 37, 48, 39), each providing a framework for improvisation.

We arrived during the second tune of their set, after arriving from another previously-arranged review of a show in Ottawa South. My first reaction was that “all-acoustic certainly doesn't mean soft!” The sound as we came in was brusque, with sharp alto sax and trumpet over pounding drums.

I particularly liked how Denison and Ng combined their horns in the final piece, "Sketch 39". Denison entered with simple circling lines, unresolved and questioning. As her trumpet became more muted, Ng responded with vibrating alto sax, sounding like flapping bird wings. At another point, Denison's trumpet sounded almost like mangled speech, followed by trills on the alto. They joined and built up together into high treble calling lines, weaving around each other.

But that was certainly not the only noticeable strand in a very dense piece. Opening with deep singing bass notes and light percussion from rattles and bells, it also included Fournier playing quiet bowed bass lines as Fraser created disquieting and sad groans by running his fingers up and down a metal rod.

Near the end, Fraser opened up the piece with a hard-edged drum solo, surging ahead – and the horns responded with a lovely low, barely-there melody. As they faded out, Fraser closed the piece with one last cymbal tap.

We missed two earlier performances that evening: a duo collaboration by Jesse Stewart and Petr Cancura, and the IMOO String Quartet with Ian Birse, David Jackson, Laura Kavanaugh, and Mark Molnar.

GigSpace was very nearly full for this evening. The audience included both IMOO regulars and new faces and a wide ranges of ages. They were intent and involved in the music – a good sign for the future of avant-garde music in Ottawa-Gatineau.

Read about IMOO Fest 2018 in OttawaJazzScene.ca: