Joe McPhee ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Joe McPhee played vigorously and inventively at the trio's concert, showing his many years of experience in many corners of jazz.  ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Joe McPhee, Nicolas Caloia, Jesse Stewart
Saturday, April 27, 2019 – 9 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Listening to a free-improv concert is different from listening to a mainstream jazz show. There are no tunes to recognize, no natural song structure to follow. The music develops and evolves as the musicians will it from moment to moment, and can change direction without warning. You have to keep more of it in your head to see where it's going.

It's more intense, more immersive, more challenging – for both the listeners and musicians – and rewarding in a different way.

On Saturday, Joe McPhee from Poughkeepsie, NY, Nicolas Caloia from Montreal, and Jesse Stewart from Ottawa performed two back-to-back shows at GigSpace – both completely improvised. The music ranged from the barest whispers to full-out ensemble playing, and managed in the second show to both delight and startle me.

McPhee, who will turn 80 this year, has had a long and illustrious career in jazz, particularly as an free improviser, performing with top-ranked avant-garde musicians in Europe and North America like Hamid Drake, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, or The Thing. And he's as active as ever, with numerous releases and re-releases just in the last year. On stage, he was vigorous, moving with the flexibility and dynamism of a much younger man.

Caloia is a linchpin of Montreal's avant-garde scene, who was last in Ottawa in 2018 with his Mercury collaboration with Lori Freedman. Stewart is an endlessly inventive percussionist and composer who frequently masters or invents new instruments, and has played with everyone from Ernst Reijseger to William Parker to Kevin Breit. He and McPhee both performed with and were influenced by musical innovator Pauline Oliveros.

On Saturday, all three created a musical conversation, with give-and-take and profound listening. They had first played together at the 2015 Ottawa Jazz Festival (a well-received show), and then immediately gone into Phil Bova's studio in Ottawa to record an album. That album, Permutations, was released in 2018. Saturday's shows were their first return to Ottawa.

The 9 p.m. show attracted many of Ottawa's improvised music fans, and kept them rapt and attentive throughout. Inside GigSpace's deep quietness, every note and every intonation could be heard clearly.

It was stripped to the basics: McPhee on tenor sax, Caloia on double bass, Stewart on drumset. McPhee had also brought his pocket trumpet but didn't perform on it for this show.

The trio opened with a 30-minute exploration, whose overall form was at least initially the most recognizable to free jazz listeners. It began very quietly and sparsely – with intermittent tiny bass notes, light brush touches on drums and cymbals, and trembling saxophone lines – and steadily built up into repeated climaxes separated by quieter passages, a common development in free improv pieces.

The music felt frantic and desperate and disturbed, with raucous and harsh saxophone and strangled-sounding vocalizations from McPhee over deep and sometimes ominous bass and fast drumming. But then the pace abruptly slowed and became more deliberate. Stewart waved his brushes above the drums, the barely audible and airy texture contrasting with Caloia's slow oscillating and atonal bass lines and McPhee's stately and simple repeated sax riffs. They closed in a similar vein, with McPhee's sax lines becoming more exploratory over deep vibrating bowed bass lines and shimmering cymbals.

For many years McPhee played in a group in his hometown called Ira and the Soul Project, playing soul, jazz, Marvin Gaye, and James Brown. You could hear some of those influences – and a noticeable groove – in the trio's second piece, about 12 minutes long. McPhee contributed lean and commanding sax lines over energetic hand drumming from Stewart, while Caloia created glistening strings of individual quick notes with his bow, reminding me of quick water drops. The trio deconstructed and then reconstructed the groove with popping and whopping vocalizations, a soulful bass solo, and contrasting sax and bass vibrations – before Stewart closed with a long singing note created by bowing his ride cymbal.

The third piece connected more on an emotional level. McPhee alternated between singing wordlessly and then echoing that melody on saxophone, so that the two melded seamlessly together in a soulful vibe. The melody was anchored by deep, resonant bowed bass lines – and then accented by ringing cymbal tones. Stewart rubbed the edge of a cymbal on his surface of his snare drum and then created oscillating modulations by bowing the edge. The hymn-like melody and heartfelt playing buoyed me up and created a lovely oasis of calm.

The final piece in the hour-long show became a bass-drums duet, which opened with a full-bodied, classically-influenced bowed bass solo from Caloia, which he continued to develop with variations in tempo and intensity. It became more syncopated and bluesy, then more raw and vibrating. Stewart entered partway, creating a clicking rhythm by hitting a long wooden rattle with a thin, small stick. As Caloia's bass became quieter with more rarefied harmonics, Stewart ran a water glass on top of his snare, creating an almost insubstantial vibration. As Caloia moved to disconnected bowed bass phrases, the spaces between were filled in by Stewart's light metallic taps on cymbals. They sped up – and then stopped, their last notes echoing around the room in the sudden silence.

“That's it,” McPhee said.

We learned afterwards that McPhee had been feeling a bit wobbly, perhaps from the warmth of the room, and decided not to participate in the final piece – except as an intent listener. He appeared to recover quickly afterwards.

Sometimes free improv can descend into a mess of ear-splitting atonal dissonance. I liked the fact that these musicians skilfully used dissonance and atonality as a contrast and an accent to increase interest and unexpectedness. It was a show full of fascinating surprises and interesting techniques – but always in the service of music worth hearing.

Both Saturday shows were recorded for a possible live album: McPhee has said that more often that not his recordings are from live performances. It may take a few years for this recording to surface, but I suspect it will be well worth hearing again.

Nicolas Caloia will return to Ottawa on May 12 for a show in the Improvising and Experimental Music of Ottawa and Outwards (IMOO) series at General Assembly: the "In the Sea" trio with Tristan Honsinger and Joshua Zubot.

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