©Brett Delmage, 2019
Pianist John Roney in full flight at the Tevet Sela Quartet's show at Record Runnet. (l-r Roney, Olivier Babaz on bass, Tevet Sela on sax, Martin Auguste on drums) ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Tevet Sela Quartet
Live @ Record Runner
Record Runner Rehearsal Studios
Saturday, June 1, 2019 – 8 p.m

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Swirling melodies, bright rhythms, and influences from multiple traditions: all those contributed to a spirited and well-received concert by Montreal saxophonist Tevet Sela and his quartet Saturday in Ottawa.

Playing in the intimate Record Runner listening room, the quartet – Sela on alto sax, John Roney on keyboards, Olivier Babaz on electric bass, and Martin Auguste on drums – performed Sela's own compositions, some recent, some from previous albums. All four are well-known in Montreal's jazz scene; Roney and Sela released a duo album together in 2017, while both Auguste and Roney played on Sela's 2014 quartet album, Lying Sun.

The quartet opened with “Sha'atnez”, from Sela's 2019 album Mizmor. The Hebrew title means “a mixture of things that don't go together, such as oil and water”, but the tune in fact showed off the band's cohesiveness. Over a lightly rumbling and thumping groove, it twisted and twirled with assertive sax lines and fast, repeated piano motifs – but regardless of the tune's frequent variations and strong momentum, the group stayed together and never lost sight of its essential feel.

It was greeted with enthusiastic applause, as was the entire show.

Sela is from Israel, where he began playing professionally at age 16, and worked in many groups and performed on many recordings. When he moved to Montreal in 2010, he recounted, it was winter. He was fooled by the bright winter sunshine – and thought it meant a warm, beautiful day as it would in Israel. “I almost lost my nose!”

That frigid experience inspired a song called “Lying Sun” – a warm, approachable number with an elastic tempo which soared high before resolving in a contemplative melody with occasional classical motifs. “Always Too Far” was similarly meditative, a bit melancholy with ornamental variations on sax and rippling piano, as was “Over the Mountain”, a ballad which built from calm and hopeful to anthemic.

Sela told the audience that it was his mission in life to mix influences in his music: “the Middle Eastern and the Arab and the Jewish and the you-name it! The classical music, the jazz, the blues, everything to put into one pot and make a nice mixture. That's what I try to do, I guess, with all my songs.”

You could hear that in “Genesis”, which combined a Middle Eastern melody with bebop intensity. The intense and high-velocity punctuated rhythm from Sela on sax and Auguste on drums was matched by Roney's impassioned bursts of notes on keyboards.

Similarly, “Sweet Tears” (a new tune) opened with vibrating alto sax lines over a steady rhythm, which soon had the audience clapping along. It combined a funky groove with klezmer motifs in the melody to create an arresting and exploratory tune.

“I Feel Ya”, another recent composition, was the result of Sela comparing modern music with that of “the founding fathers of jazz”. Much modern music is complex and not always accessible, he said, whereas classic jazz tunes have simple one-page melodies which allow “enough freedom for the improviser to put their personality on it. Sometimes when a piece is very, very complex, it's hard for a player to find himself or his voice in it. Not impossible, but it just takes more getting used to the piece.”

Even more now than ever, he said, he wanted to write songs, which could carry lyrics and with melodies people could hum – and that approach was clear in “I Feel Ya”. The ballad opened with a lovely sinuous melody expressed first on sax, and then in a mellow and rounded bass solo from Babaz.
Roney interpreted it with a bluesier and more assertive feel, and streams of sparkling notes from his keyboards. The whole felt like like being immersed in serene ocean waves.

The quartet closed with “Genie is Out” (from Mizmor), a fast and almost chaotic composition with a dancing beat and lots of energy. The audience responded with strong and extended applause and a partial standing ovation, and immediately called them back for an encore.

“Pahon”, a tune which Sela has included on both his most recent albums, was inspired by music created by poor Jewish immigrants from Arab countries who came to Israel in the 1950s. They improvised percussive instruments from leftover tin to play their traditional music, which became highly popular in Israel. Sela said the tune is “sad but it's not sad. It's actually happy.”

It was an evocative closer for the show, the Jewish melody being continually reinterpreted by reminiscent saxophone and rippling piano and building in strength before ending in a ringing flourish, and another partial standing ovation.

It was a memorable concert: vigorous, varied, and original. The quartet nicely fitted their music to the smaller space, avoiding over-playing it but filling it to the back, and left me feeling uplifted and energized. Audience members we talked to afterwards told us they were also impressed with the music.

Set List

(All songs by Tevet Sela)

  1. Sha'atnez
  2. Lying Sun
  3. Always Too Far
  4. Genesis
  5. Over the Mountain
  6. I Feel Ya
  7. Sweet Tears
  8. Genie is Out
  9. Pahon

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