Strings in Focus
Ottawa Jazz Orchestra
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, January 19, 2019
The harp sitting in the middle of the stage confirmed it. This was not going to be your typical Ottawa Jazz Orchestra concert – or sound.
Instead, it was a celebration of strings in jazz, on a comparatively large scale. On a stage lengthened by eight feet and jutting an extra four feet into the audience sat six violinists, three viola players, two cellists, one bassist, one harpist, a pianist, a bassist, and a drummer, all directed by conductor Angus Armstrong.
In the first set, they accompanied vocalist Diane Nalini in classic arrangements of songs made famous by Ella Fitzgerald. In the second set, tenor saxophonist Mike Tremblay improvised in response to their performance of Eddie Sauter's compositions for Focus, an acclaimed Stan Getz album.
It was a beautiful – and very different – sound. Full and expressive, the strings added drama and intensity to Nalini's vocals, and a strong conversational partner to Tremblay's playing.
Nalini began her set with a Harold Arlen number, “This Time the Dream's on Me”, in the original arrangement by Billy May. Opening with a full-out strings serenade, it was an urbane number in a 1950s/60s style with the strings cradling Nalini's assured vocals, and Mark Ferguson's sparkling piano lines providing accents.
Nelson Riddle's classic string arrangements for Ella Fitzgerald were featured in several other numbers. “For You, For Me, For Evermore” was a dramatic number, with different sections within the strings playing against each other, creating a magical feel and underlining Nalini's sincere and hopeful singing. “I've Got a Crush on You” was the song that Fitzgerald used to end each of her concerts; Nalini began the song singing alone for a few bars, and then the strings responded, and they worked together to create a richly emotional, but not overdone, interpretation.
Nalini varied the set with some numbers in which she was accompanied by only piano, double bass, and drums, including an inviting Brazilian number, “Canção de Amor”, sung in Portuguese; and her own original lullaby, “Cradle Song”, whose lyrics came from a poem from Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “Il n'y a plus d'après” was the story of lovers who meet again after many years apart, and nothing is quite the same. Nalini sang it in French with verve but also sadness and a bit of irony.
I particularly enjoyed Nalini's tribute to the late jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson. She performed “Let's Live Again” as a simple duet with OJO director Adrian Cho on double bass – with vibrant and upbeat vocals and scatting over a syncopated and dynamic bass accompaniment.
The final number, “Close Your Eyes” was cool and sophisticated, with a touch of Latin rhythms poised against Frank De Vol's polished string arrangements. It was a crowd-pleasing close to an entertaining set with a diverse set of string arrangements – and was greeted with strong and extended applause.
The second set had a more unified feel – essentially a conversation between the strings players and Mike Tremblay on tenor sax. It contained the entirety of Stan Getz's Focus album. The strings and the rhythm section played from Sauter's original score, while Tremblay – like Getz in the original album – improvised his part in response.
The first piece, “I'm Late, I'm Late”, was inspired by the White Rabbit in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It was a real attention-getter, with the strings propelling the music forward in urgent and repeated rhythms, while Tremblay riffed off that urgency with his own melodies on sax. I particularly enjoyed the strings' alternating pizzicato and bowed sections, adding texture to their parts, and the deep inflected cello riffs. Partway through, Tremblay and drummer Scott Latham played alone, the fast patter of sticks on snares anchoring the flying sax lines – and they repeated that duet at the end of the piece, as it finally slowed down.
“Her”, on the other hand, was an outpouring of emotion, smooth and full, with saxophone and strings combined in the lyrical flow. It was a quiet and reflective piece, with deep, rich tenor lines over weeping violins, and had more of a symphony orchestra feel.
“Pan” upped the pace, with striking and energetic string arrangements underlining expressive and almost agitated sax lines. There was strong forward momentum to the piece, created both by Cho's assertive bass lines and Latham's fast drumming, but also by the forceful bowing of the strings players.
In the original Stan Getz recording, drummer Roy Haynes played a notable part both as a rhythm player and soloist. I thought that Latham did an excellent job in fulfilling this role in this concert, with his nuanced drumming and percussion, stepping out evocatively when appropriate but also supporting the strings without drowning them out.
“I Remember When” was a lovely nostalgic piece where the harp added to the wistful and magical feel of the piece. “Night Rider” evoked the feel of a horse and rider galloping over rough ground, with intense strings rhythm (both pizzicato and bowed) and propulsive sax lines.
In “Once Upon a Time”, the emphasis was on opposition, with the strings opening with alternating deep and ominous lines and bright circling ones, and Tremblay responding in simple, short, flowing segments. At one point, Tremblay's sax melody soared over streamlined strings; shortly afterwards, the strings and drumming became agitated and fierce, and then the piece ended with a last long calm sax line.
The suite closed with “A Summer Afternoon”, a balmy number that richly mixed the different voices within the strings with Tremblay's soothing sax lines. The audience responded with extended and intense applause and a partial standing ovation.
Nalini rejoined the stage for the encore: “At Last”, in the strings arrangement performed with vocalist Etta James. That song's optimistic and romantic message was underlined by the sweet strings and Tremblay's confident and full-bodied sax solo – ending with Nalini joyously declaring “For you are mine, at last!”
The show was sold out in advance, and the audience was quiet and intent throughout. Each of the sections of Focus evoked strong applause (and even a few cheers in places), and the encore was similarly enthusiastically applauded.
Cho noted at the end that the musicians were punching above their weight in this production. Focus, in particular, was written for a much larger ensemble (“5 basses, 16 violins”). Armstrong and the string ensemble played very smoothly together in music that was strictly ensemble-based (no string solos). For such a large ensemble, it was a remarkably nuanced sound that sounded glorious and did full justice to Sauter's score.
And it thoroughly justified the risks that the OJO took in presenting this show, with its large cast of musicians and extra preparation required. I left the show feeling buoyed up and delighted that I had been able to hear very different and well-presented jazz interpretations.
- This Time The Dream's on Me [Harold Arlen, arranged by Billy May]
- Canção de Amor [Antônio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes]
- Cradle Song [Diane Nalini]
- For You, For Me, For Evermore [George and Ira Gershwin, arranged by Nelson Riddle]
- Il n'y a plus d'après [Guy Béart]
- Let's Live Again [Milt Raskin, George Shearing]
- I've Got a Crush on You [George and Ira Gershwin, arranged by Nelson Riddle]
- Close Your Eyes [Bernice Petkere, arranged by Frank De Vol]
Focus (composed by Eddie Sauter for Stan Getz)
- I'm Late, I'm Late
- I Remember When
- Night Rider
- Once Upon a Time
- A Summer Afternoon
- At Last [Mack Gordon, Harry Warren]
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