©Brett Delmage, 2018
l-r: Patrick Sénécal, Linsey Wellman, Philippe Charbonneau, and David Broscoe in full melodic flight in Bernard Stepien's combinations of Christmas carols and free jazz compositions by Albert Ayler  ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Improvising Musicians of Ottawa and Outwards (IMOO) #187: A Very Ayler Christmas 2018
General Assembly
Sunday, December 16, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

It's become a tradition. Every December for the last dozen years, saxophonist Bernard Stepien has given a new spin to familiar Christmas tunes by combining them with compositions by 1960s American avant-garde – and very spiritual – jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler.

Stepien has overcome ice storms, illness, and frequent changes in his orchestra's line-up to present this project each year – and even released a CD of it in 2011. He's continued to find new correspondences between carols and Ayler's music, fitting them together in surprisingly musical ways.

And with the aid of skilled and adventurous Ottawa-area improvising musicians, the combination works. Ayler's music, with its gospel and military overtones, comes from much the same musical sources as many of our carols and other Christmas-themed music; in each combined Ayler/carol piece, the two tunes complement and provide a new viewpoint on each other.

This year, Stepien recruited musicians who have been playing this music from the beginning: saxophonists Linsey Wellman and David Broscoe and bassist Philippe Charbonneau. To that group he added François Gravel on keyboards and electronics, David Jackson on electric guitar and electronics, and Patrick Sénécal on drums.

I recognized almost all the pieces in this year's concert from previous years, and enjoyed a number of them where this year's rendition honoured the tunes: for example, the combination of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman” and Ayler's “Prophecy”. That piece opened with Wellman on baritone and Stepien on tenor playing the carol, accented by metallic overtones from Jackson and Broscoe's chiming tuning forks sounding like bells. The two tunes alternated and became increasingly loud and punctuated but still preserved the form of each tune before fading out.

Similarly, the combination of “The First Noël” and Ayler's “Zion Hill” featured all three saxophonists (with both Wellman and Broscoe on baritone) playing in unison, slow and lovely, enhanced by Charbonneau's bowed bass. While it became much dramatic with electronic squiggles in the middle, it closed with a quiet and evocative saxophone melody. The combination of “O Tannenbaum” with “Ghosts”/“Love Cry” had Wellman sing out the words from the Ayler tune, enhanced by melded saxophone and bass voices, before Stepien ended by singing a few lines from the carol in his native Alemannisch from Alsace.

Other tunes didn't work nearly as well. Stepien told the audience that the group hadn't rehearsed for this show. While that works for musicians used to playing with each other, it caused problems here. People were stumbling musically over each other.

For example, the opening number: three Ayler tunes (“Holy Holy!”, “Holy Family”, and “A Man Is Like a Tree”) mashed together with the African-American spiritual “Go Tell It On the Mountain”. The Ayler tunes (with bell-like accents) predominated at the beginning, but dissonant notes began appearing. The music then switched between the hopeful feel of “Go Tell It On the Mountain” and a wild and bloodthirsty stream underlined by crashing and thumping drums; the two streams crossed and the second overwhelmed the first, gobbling up the melody and regurgitating it as noise. It gradually returned to the original melody, and faded out.

The shrieks and thumps added partway through to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town / The Truth is Marching In” detracted rather than added to that combination, while the hard-edged electric guitar and electronics from Jackson and Gravel didn't feel true to the original material in “Deck the Halls/Omega is the Alpha”.

That was the problem with at least half of the show: the interesting parts of the music and the intertwining combination of Ayler and the carols were too often swallowed up. With all seven musicians playing (and often loudly), the sound was frequently too loud for the space. The group overplayed the small room, a concrete box with hard walls, floor, and ceiling which noticeably reflect sound. There was also too much going on at times, making it difficult to distinguish the different interesting strands within the music, and it all became one cacophonous mess.

I've heard most of the Aylermas concerts over the years, enjoying hearing new variations on the old combinations and the new mash-ups Stepien introduced each year. I hope it will continue, but in a more controlled and sparser manner that is truer to the original pieces. The source material for this project is essentially tuneful and singable, and that should not be lost in any interpretation. A bit of dissonance is interesting, but not so much that it drowns out the melody.

After this concert, IMOO is planning to take a two-month winter break before restarting in early spring – unless a special project or touring musicians turn up.

Set List

Set 1

  1. Go Tell It On the Mountain / Holy Holy!, Holy Family, A Man Is Like a Tree
  2. Joy to the World / Bells
  3. Silent Night / Our Prayer
  4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town / The Truth is Marching In
  5. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen / Prophecy

Set 2

  1. Deck the Halls / Omega is the Alpha
  2. The First Noël / Zion Hill
  3. O Tannenbaum / Love Cry, Ghosts
  4. Good King Wenceslas / Vibrations
  5. We Wish You a Merry Christmas / Spirits Rejoyce

Read and watch OttawaJazzScene.ca's coverage of previous Aylermas concerts: