©Brett Delmage, 2019
The jazz community came out in force for the CD launch of Appleface, following two sold-out, pre-release shows at GigSpace last September before it was recorded. ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Ferguson/Tremblay/ Young/Clarke
Appleface CD Release Concert
First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa
Tuesday, June 11, 2019 – 8 p.m.

There was an expectant audience in the Unitarian Church as Ottawa jazz musicians Mark Ferguson and Mike Tremblay unveiled Appleface, their first jazz album together in a decade. And their quartet, with the renowned rhythm section of Dave Young on bass and Terry Clarke on drums, did not disappoint.

The show had a down-to-earth and friendly vibe, with congenial introductions and the occasional shared joke. The audience contained many musicians who had played with Ferguson and Tremblay, and listeners who had heard the two over the years. When Ferguson asked the audience if anyone had been at their launch event for his and Tremblay's Home CD at the same church 10 years almost to the day before, hands were raised around the hall.

But it was also all music, with the musicians clearly playing with heart and determination.

The quartet played the entire Appleface album – all originals by Ferguson and Tremblay – in two sets at the concert, omitting only the album's two brief interludes. They'd had enough time to get comfortable with the pieces: Ferguson and Tremblay first introduced the tunes to an Ottawa audience (and to Young and Clarke!) at two concerts at GigSpace last September. The group played them again in November, and recorded and performed them in Toronto in December.

All four musicians can swing hard, and they demonstrated that in their opening number, “Fair Skies”. It was a jubilant piece in which each musician had the opportunity to stretch: Tremblay powerfully on tenor sax, Ferguson with effervescent piano, Young conversationally on double bass, and Clarke providing a strong underlying drive. Near the end I had this wonderful “What is he doing?” realization as I heard Clarke trade 4's with each of the other musicians in turn – but completely change his drumming style with each iteration.

Ferguson's “Monday Morning in Montreal” was a reflective piece with an underlying feeling of tension, with Tremblay's soprano sax lead moving from quiet and reminiscent to scintillating and spiraling. Young's melodic bass solo deepened the emotion in the piece.

Tremblay created a reminiscence of his father, whom he described as complex and many-sided, in “HTT”. That complexity was reflected in the piece, from its opening repeated patterns to its intense close with fast tenor sax lines over propulsive bass and drums. It was a portrait in vivid tones.

“Effsharp” first appeared on Ferguson's own album The Next Chapter in 2015. The sharp vibraphone notes in that version were in this concert replaced by vibrating double bass, trembling light piano, flurries of cymbals, and thoughtful soprano sax. The overall effect was dramatic (especially in the middle as drums crashed and the saxophone soared), yet peaceful. The audience responded with loud applause.

For the album's title tune, Ferguson moved to trombone and Tremblay to tenor sax. They opened the song together, in a duet around its inviting melody, and all four continued in a trotting beat to create a slightly bluesy and nicely swinging rendition. “Truth or Dare” opened even more strongly, with the melody rolling out on tenor sax, supported by robust piano chords and emphatic bass and drums.

Pianist Brian Browne left a giant hole in Ottawa's jazz community when he died a year ago, as an educator, as a performer, and as a memorable musical personality. He was a valued part of the Carleton University Jazz Camp, which Tremblay co-founded. With donations from pianist Brittany Clayton, who studied with Browne, and from Browne's wife Carol Banens, the camp was able to offer the first Brian Browne scholarship to the camp this year. Tremblay and Banens awarded it to young pianist Kaveh Mehrtash at the beginning of the second set, along with a bag of Browne's CDs.

The quartet opened that set with a tribute to Browne written by Ferguson. He introduced it by saying “Brian would have hated this tune!” but rephrased that afterwards to say that “Brian wouldn't have hated it – but he would have told me he did!” It mirrored Browne's favourite jazz standards, with a bright, swinging intro followed by an expressive melody on piano, tenor sax, and double bass – both joyful and ruminative.

Ferguson said his “Fake Blues” got that title because “just when you think it's a 12-bar blues, it changes!” Another trombone/tenor combo, it had lots of forward momentum and exploratory solos. “Flower” was written for his daughter; it was a lyrical and heart-tugging piece with the melody taken up on both soprano sax and piano.

The church's sanctuary is all hard surfaces, with a giant wall of glass behind the stage, and high ceilings. That can pose a challenge to a jazz group, but it was partially offset by a good turnout for the concert (we couldn't get an exact number but guessed around 200) and listeners seated right to the back pews.

I appreciated how Clarke used the characteristics of that space in his drumming, and particularly in the closing number, “Leo's Mood, with Snacks” by Tremblay. He opened that piece with a resounding and echoing drum solo, building up from light taps to thundering cymbal and drum crashes, but also featuring tiny treble notes like light raindrops followed by faster hard notes like hail. As the other musicians entered, the audience responded with very strong applause. The tune developed into a vibrant bebop number, with rollicking and happy piano, a fast and complex bass solo, and upbeat tenor. The audience greeted the final notes with intense applause and then a standing ovation.

It was an evening steeped in the jazz tradition but with a fresh vibe. There was a feeling of good fellowship on the stage, and community in the hall, and lots of smiles on-stage and off at the close.

The quartet returns on Wednesday, June 26, performing an hour-long early evening show at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Set List

Set 1

  1. Fair Skies [Mark Ferguson]
  2. Monday Morning in Montreal [Mark Ferguson]
  3. HTT [Mike Tremblay]
  4. Effsharp [Mark Ferguson]
  5. Appleface [Mike Tremblay]
  6. Truth or Dare [Mark Ferguson]

Set 2

  1. Song for Brian Browne [Mark Ferguson]
  2. Fake Blues [Mark Ferguson]
  3. Flower [Mark Ferguson]
  4. Leo's Mood, with Snacks [Mike Tremblay]

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