Ottawa Jazz Orchestra performs “Hidden Gems”
Fourth Stage, Canada’s National Arts Centre
Saturday, February 23, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) introduced a modern American jazz composer to its Ottawa audience Saturday – and everyone had a great deal of fun in the process.
It was a smaller and more relaxed show than the ambitious Strings in Focus concert the orchestra presented in January – but still definitely connected to jazz history and the jazz mainstream. It showcased the music of San-Francisco-Bay-area composer Reed Kotler, as arranged by trumpeter Bobby Shew.
Kotler is a “triple threat”: a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, a composer, and a software designer who has created tools to help musicians transcribe music. In that, he has a great deal in common with OJO's artistic director and bassist, Adrian Cho, who combines a software day job with a jazz avocation.
The tunes by Kotler which Cho selected for the concert were consistently appealing and approachable, in styles ranging from straight-ahead to ballads to even calypso. Many of these compositions were included in the 2002 album, Bobby Shew, Gary Foster and Friends: Play The Music Of Reed Kotler.
On stage was a classic jazz quintet: Rick Rangno on flugelhorn, and Sandy Gordon on alto and tenor saxes and alto and standard flutes, plus a rhythm section of Mark Ferguson on piano, Cho on bass, and Mark Rehder on drums. These musicians have been with OJO since its beginnings and have decades of experience in jazz.
They were clearly reveling in the music: laughing and making jokes (mostly at Gordon's expense) but also digging into the tunes and adding their own imprint. It was a freer, less programmed show, with more room to solo and improvise. The musicians took full advantage of that, with solos by each and a crisp set of trading fours between Rehder and Rangno.
The opening number, “Nice Groove”, was indeed that: it opened with a deep bass riff, with the tenor sax and flugelhorn then further developing the groove. It was tight and sassy, reminding me of a Rob McConnell number, with each musician given a chance to step out.
Several of the tunes commemorated musicians Kotler had known. “One for Smith” was for the late Smith Dobson, Kotler’s piano teacher and mentor, who had an illustrious career in Southern California playing with many renowned jazz musicians. It was a warm, comfortable tune, with melodic interludes from Rangno and Ferguson and a gently swinging tenor solo from Gordon. “Tuesday Blues” was also inspired by Smith, but not perhaps quite as happily; as Cho noted, Tuesdays were when Kotler had his weekly lessons with Smith. It was a strongly syncopated piece with a sizzling and rough tenor solo from Gordon and vibrating piano: a piece in which the quintet let themselves go and tossed the music around.
“Blues for Kenny B” was for pianist Kenny Barron, with whom Kotler studied at Stanford University, and was inspired by a piece which Kotler heard Barron playing. Rich and invocatory, it had a strong gospel feel and call-and-response sections, and featured an earthy alto sax solo from Gordon.
Gordon played flute on several numbers: regular flute flitting and shining through the rhythms of “Calypso Bop”, and the deeper and more full-bodied alto flute on “Distant Song”. It gave that tune a lovely ethereal feel, counterpointed against Ferguson's thoughtful piano lines.
Rangno's playing on flugelhorn was particularly expressive, ranging from as intense and pointed as a regular trumpet, to rich and smooth. His playing was especially melodic and captivating on “I Couldn't Have Loved You Any More”, concisely conveying the melancholy emotion in that tune. Similarly, “Jenny” was a charming bossa nova number with a mellifluous flugelhorn melody.
One of the concert's highlights was two back-to-back numbers which both evoked the smoky club feel of film noir. The sadness at the heart of “Tears Forever” was expressed through deep, inflected bass lines, by minor-key melodies on tenor and flugelhorn, and by delicate, sombre piano. “Take Me With You” was a more romantic and overtly emotional piece, expressed through circling alto sax and flugelhorn melodies.
The quintet closed with “Coop”, a fast and lively bebop number written in honour of tenor saxophonist Bob Cooper, who played in Stan Kenton's band. Its speed and intensity steadily built, with syncopated piano followed by fast vibrating flugelhorn – and ended with a strong flourish. The audience responded with strong and extended applause and cheers.
The OJO is best known for performing music from historical jazz composers, so it was intriguing to see them unearth the music of one who is still living and writing. I hope this won't be a one-of: there are indeed many hidden jazz gems around, modern composers whose work is worth celebrating. Perhaps the OJO could showcase a Canadian big band composer next: for example, Hugh Fraser and his Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation?
[all pieces by Reed Kotler]
- Nice Groove
- One for Smith
- I Couldn't Have Loved You Any More
- Tears Forever
- Take Me With You
- Blues for Kenny B.
- Calypso Bop
- You Are the One
- Darling, I Love You
- Distant Song
- Tuesday Blues
Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of the OJO's previous concert, Strings in Focus: