©Brett Delmage, 2019
Zakari Frantz leads the Prime Rib Big Band with flying alto sax lines as they play Ed Lister's composition "Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda” (l-r: Nick Dyson, Zakari Frantz, Mark Ferguson, Petr Cancura, Nick Adema, Brian Asselin) ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Ed Lister's Prime Rib Big Band
Second Anniversary Show
Irene's Pub
Wednesday, March 6, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

On Wednesday, the Prime Rib Big Band filled every seat at Irene's Pub for a long set (100+ minutes) of dynamic big band music. All but one song was a meaty original, but they were very much in the tradition. The show marked their second anniversary as a band: two years in which they've played 30 concerts, including monthly shows at Irene's, festival dates, and special concerts.

The band is the creation of Ottawa trumpeter Ed Lister, who invited ten of his favourite jazz musicians to join in. They began with seven of his compositions and three classic big band numbers – and the promise of a continuing monthly gig if they could draw the crowds at Irene's in the Glebe.

Since then, Lister has continued writing tunes for the band, more than tripling its repertoire. For this show, he included one of the band's first tunes, and one he only debuted in February – plus a tune by Richard Page which he added to the band's book this month. Irene's now offers a full prime rib dinner on band nights. And judging from the reaction to this show, they've developed quite an audience for their big band music.

Lister called the band “Prime Rib” because of his esteem for his band members, all strong players from both Ottawa's veteran and younger jazz contingents. The band has almost the same lineup as when it started, with Lister and Nicholas Dyson on trumpet, Mark Ferguson on trombone, Zakari Frantz on alto sax, Petr Cancura and Brian Asselin on tenor sax, Richard Page on baritone sax and clarinet, Alex Mastronardi on bass, and Jamie Holmes on drums. For this show, guitarist Alex Moxon replaced the band's regular pianist, Clayton Connell.

And Nicholas Adema played trombone in the band, as he has for the last several months. Adema is currently in his second year of jazz studies at the University of Toronto; he hopped a bus that afternoon to get to Ottawa, and was to return to Toronto on another bus that evening.

It was a varied but compatible set, opening with the attention-getting “Stampede”. Its confident ensemble passages were set off by expressive solos by Ferguson and Moxon, both extending and finding variations on the tune's theme. One characteristic of Lister's writing – which I heard in this and other tunes that night – is that he'll often start to bring up the full band near the end of a solo, then dip it again briefly to let the soloist complete their phrase, and then return wholly with the soloist's and band's voices blending in an intense climax, which worked effectively here.

Another characteristic is Lister's hilariously inventive, and often beef-related, song titles, fitting in with the Prime Rib theme: “Sir-Loin's”, “Down to the Bone”, and “Big Greazy Blues”. He told the audience that when his mother had heard the band, she couldn't stop laughing at the title “Don't Shank My Flank”: “Whenever I say the title of this tune, there's a deathly cackle in the mid-region of the room somewhere, and it's usually my mother laughing at it”.

Throughout, Lister told stories and gave friendly introductions, for example telling the audience about his dog Sable who inspired one song by falling down the stairs during thunderstorms. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed – but also very much in an appreciative listening vibe, with almost no talking during songs, and lots of clapping and cheers for solos and individual tunes.

The band was neatly arrayed on the raised stage at the back of the pub, with the audience filling the seats in the room before them and extending into the bar section standing, up to the pub's front door – most of Irene’s capacity of 130 people. The band played primarily acoustically: loud enough to be impressive but easy on the ears, and with the individual instruments clear and blending well together.

There was a well-chosen variation in styles among the tunes, from the Dixieland in “Sir-Loin's”, to the swinging “Big Greazy Blues”, to the popping, funky groove in “Don't Shank My Flank”, to the delicate ballad melody in “East Coast Sunset”.

Each band member had the opportunity to solo during the show. I was particularly impressed by Holmes' commanding but subtle drum solo which opened “Sir-Loin's”, with deep bass thumps accented by solid tom and cymbal strikes. Also memorable were Page's joyful and sinuous clarinet in “Sable's Saga” and his rich baritone on “Little Sunflower”, Frantz's knife-edged alto in “Big Greazy Blues”, Moxon's pointillist and almost ethereal solo on “Little Sunflower”, and Nicholas Adema's vibrant trombone solo and Brian Asselin's surefooted tenor lines in “Don't Shank My Flank”.

I enjoyed “Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda”, which was inspired by Christian McBride's blues tune “Used to Could”. It opened with a steady hand-clapped beat from the entire band (and some of the audience), over which Frantz's flying sax lines gradually coalesced into a groove. With tambourine accents from Holmes, the band smoothly rolled out the song with occasional fanfares and rough-edged and inventive solos from Cancura and Lister – before ending on a long, slow concluding chord from Cancura, Ferguson, and Lister.

“The Art of the Build” was a homage to the Blue Note sound, opening with a deep bass and guitar riff and joint muted trumpet lines from Lister and Dyson. It featured an extended and varied solo from Cancura, moving from punctuated to flowing to almost whispering to buzzing and back to an assured swinging sound with the entire band.

Richard Page had originally written the ballad “East Coast Sunset” in 2009; he played it with his Night on the Town Band (which also includes Lister) a few years ago. Rearranged for big band, its nostalgic ensemble melody was counterpointed by a finely-tuned trumpet solo from Lister.

“Down to the Bone” is a frequent closing number for the band, finishing the night on a reflective note. It opened with a hymn-like vibe which filled the room. Ferguson's trombone dominated the sound: solo, in a double-trombone melodic duet with Adema, and in a powerful complementary duet with Cancura. The piece ended with a peaceful and singing gospel-influenced melody, which faded out to strong applause and cheers.

A big band is in many ways the apotheosis of jazz, with its ability to showcase and combine the sounds of many gifted musicians. With this Prime Rib band and his original material, Lister has produced compelling music worth listening to over time.

While it's by no means the only jazz big band playing regularly in Ottawa, it's one of the few that plays principally current and original material on a regular basis – much like John MacLeod's Rex Hotel Orchestra, which has been playing once a month at the Rex in Toronto since 2003.

I hope – and, in fact, expect – that that the Prime Rib Big Band has the talent and execution to have similarly long life.

Set List

(all tunes by Ed Lister unless otherwise specified)

  1. Stampede
  2. Big Greazy Blues
  3. Sable's Saga
  4. East Coast Sunset [Richard Page]
  5. Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda
  6. Don't Shank My Flank
  7. The Art of the Build
  8. Sir-Loin's
  9. Little Sunflower [Freddie Hubbard]
  10. Down to the Bone

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