The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Sandy Gordon (standing, bottom right) evokes alto saxophonist and composer Benny Carter in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's large-scale tribute to Carter's eight-decade career. Also playing: (top) John Merritt, Fred Paci. Rick Rangno, Paul Dubinski; (middle) Paul Adjeleian, Mark Ferguson, Nick Adema, Murray Cuthbert; (bottom) Mike Tremblay, Leah Reavie  ©Brett Delmage, 2019

The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra – Symphony in Riffs
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, May 4, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Listening to the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) tribute on Saturday to American bandleader and composer Benny Carter, you could hear why Carter had an eight-decade career in jazz. His music was warm, approachable, and repaid close listening.

Since 2006, the OJO has performed the music of many jazz legends from the 20th century, including Ellington, Mingus, and Miles Davis. Its concerts introduce listeners to jazz history, and give them a chance to hear large-scale works that aren't often performed live.

This was the first time that they had paid tribute to Carter, and OJO artistic director Adrian Cho decided to have Carter's music played by two different ensembles. The first set featured a saxophone quintet (effectively the sax section of a big band with two altos, two tenors, and a baritone) plus pianist, guitarist, bassist, and drummer. In the second set, these musicians were joined by one additional saxophonist, four trombonists, and four trumpeters to form an 18-piece big band – which just barely fit on the stage, even with extra sections added.

The additional musicians gave an extra richness – but not extra loudness – to the sound. Throughout, the music filled the intimate Fourth Stage but did not overwhelm it. As Cho noted, this gave listeners a chance to see a big band up “right up close”, as they did in the swing era.

The first set showed off the variety of Carter's writing, from ballads to bossas to dance numbers. All but one were originals from two sax-quartet albums he released in 1961 and 1966: Further Definitions and its follow-up, Additions to Further Definitions. The band also included a 1989 arrangement of the standard “Over the Rainbow”, giving it considerably more swing and shine than usual – although I felt that the extra-speedy tempo didn't really fit the original lyrics.

Each of the seven pieces was a succint yet multifaceted statement with numerous opportunities for individual contributions. The ensemble opened with the dancing “Doozy”, with all five saxophonists enhancing the gentle swing with their solos. It was followed by the bluesier “Rock Bottom”, ornamented with inflected and unhurried solos on guitar from Tim Bedner and on baritone sax from Zachary Sedlar, and closing with a forceful alto sax solo from Sandy Gordon.

The tiny songbird who gave his name to “Titmouse” was exemplified in that tune both by René Gely's bright treble piano accents and by the flying tenor solos from Mike Tremblay and Brian Asselin. “We Were in Love” was a comfortable waltz combining light piano with warm sax ensemble lines and featuring assured sax solos by Tremblay, David Renaud, and Gordon, making one feel like being swung around a dance floor.

“Prohibido” opened with bright Brazilian rhythms from the rhythm section, enhanced by sweet and sultry sax lines, and accented by pointillist guitar, sparkling piano, and an evocative tenor solo from Tremblay. “Come On Back”, the final song in that set, was a fast-moving piece featuring all five saxophonists playing solos in quick succession, each building on the previous one, plus a high-energy guitar solo.

In the second (big band) set, the focus was on a suite which Carter wrote in 1987 when he was 80 years old. “Central City Suite” was a versatile and varied piece in six sections, each exemplifying various aspects of a downtown city neighbourhood.

Up first was a full-bodied blues, the instruments circling and entwining, and with a stirring trumpet solo from Fred Paci. It segued into the rapid-fire “Hello”, the the different big band sections playing against each other, and featuring a flowing tenor sax solo from Mike Tremblay and a smart trumpet solo from Rick Rangno. “People Time” was a quiet interlude, opening with Gordon's wistful lines on flute, which were eventually taken up by the whole band, and ending with John Merritt's similar trumpet lines, playing over the romantic full sound of the entire band.

I particularly enjoyed “Promenade”, an joyful tune taken at a walking tempo but with occasional dancing steps added from Tremblay's tenor sax and Gely's piano. “Remember” reminded me (favourably) of a 1940s movie theme – not surprising since Carter spent decades writing for movies and TV. In it, the swelling melody from the entire band supported short and nostalgic soli from Gordon on alto sax, Merritt on trumpet, Mark Ferguson on trombone, and Gely on piano, creating a unified and strongly emotional impact.

The suite closed with “Sky Dance”. The jazz waltz opened softly with Tremblay and Renaud on flutes over muted trumpets, but rapidly became brasher and brassier, with a sharp alto sax solo from Gordon.

Cho reached back to the beginning of Carter's career (1923) for the memorable “Sleep”. It was apparently originally written as a waltz, but Carter turned it into a group tour-de-force, alternating full-band fanfares with short and fierce solos. The OJO took the piece at full speed; René Gely's insistent piano and Mark Rehder's rolling drums drove the piece, muted trombones and trumpets filled in the cracks, and sax and trumpet solos (including an especially intense trumpet solo from Merritt) added spikes of energy. The music built to a huge climax, a drump thump, and a sudden stop.

“Evening Star”, on the other hand, was a lyrical ballad, with Sandy Gordon's expressive alto sax developing the reminiscent melody over the full accompaniment of the big band. Carter wrote it in 1960 and then rewrote it in 1992 to feature his alto sax.

For this concert, Cho included three musicians who were “younger than the average” age of his usual experienced musicians: Sedlar on baritone, Nick Adema on trombone, Paul Dubinski on trumpet, and Leah Reavie on alto sax. Reavie, who is a student of Tremblay's, was featured in “Dream Time”, where she contributed a thoughtful and emotional solo to the cozy piece.

The concert closed with “Bop Bounce” from 1948, a typically high-powered number for dancers. It opened with fast sax lines and muted trombones, and featured pointed solos from Renaud on alto sax, Adema on trombone, and Asselin on tenor – in a strongly swinging number which ended the concert on a high note. The audience responded with extended and strong applause and a few cheers.

What I particularly liked about the compositions chosen for this concert was how Benny Carter combined the different instrumental voices in them. While best known as an alto saxophonist, Carter was also a noted trumpeter throughout his career, and also played tenor sax, trombone, clarinet, and piano. You could hear a real appreciation for those instruments' colours and styles in the compositions performed by the OJO.

Carter's pieces frequently contrasted sections, and individual players, to create interesting alignments and was constantly changing the mix throughout a piece. He preferred shorter and punchier solos, and often had the soloists play above sections of the band for a richer sound. I enjoyed how he put together his own pieces, and how he kept them compact and on-topic.

Near the end of the show, Cho asked the audience if the OJO should play more of Carter's music in subsequent seasons. The response was enthusiastic – I expect you may hear more of Carter's music from the orchestra in the next few seasons.

(All Tunes by Benny Carter unless otherwise specified)

Set 1

  1. Doozy
  2. Rock Bottom
  3. Titmouse
  4. We Were in Love
  5. Over the Rainbow  [Harold Arlen]
  6. Prohibido
  7. Come on Back

Set 2

  1. Evening Star
  2. Sleep

    Central City Sketches:
  3. Central City Blues
  4. Hello
  5. People
  6. Promenade
  7. Remember
  8. Sky Dance

  9. Dream Time
  10. Bop Bounce

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