The Romance of Improvisation
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Sunday, June 23, 2019 – 8 p.m.

The National Film Board of Canada has been rightly recognized as a pioneer in short and animated films, but the composers who wrote the music that gave those films much of their vibrancy aren't as well-known. One of the NFB's most prolific and versatile composers was the late Eldon Rathburn, who wrote in many styles – and for several films in the 1950/60s, mainstream jazz, from bebop to Latin to ballads.

Those short films included one film which was nominated for an Academy Award, but others much more obscure (for example, one on how to prevent fish from spoiling). They came to light again when Carleton University professor James Wright wrote an in-depth biography of Rathburn, and Ottawa jazz drummer and academic Allyson Rogers researched Rathburn for him in the NFB archives. She saw the films, recognized the quality of Rathburn's jazz scores, and jointly with band-mate Adrian Matte, unspooled, expanded, and rearranged Rathburn's music into longer pieces for jazz quintet.

The eventual album was called The Romance of Improvisation, a take-off on the Oscar-nominated NFB film which Rathburn scored, The Romance of Transportation. Five well-known Canadian jazz musicians – pianist Marianne Trudel, saxophonist Petr Cancura, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Jim Doxas – performed on the album, which was released on Justin Time Records last November.

It received its live debut, with the same musicians, before an enthusiastic audience at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. The National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage was packed, with every chair taken and listeners perched in the windowsills.

When I first heard the album last fall, I was impressed by its vitality and how it evoked the joy of mid-century jazz in talented performances and interesting arrangements. Sunday's concert had all that, but was played with more of an edge.

Rogers and Matte introduced the show, describing the long and unexpected journey that led to the album. Rogers told the audience that when she first heard Rathburn's jazz scores, “They were just killer,” and they knew they had to do something with them. “We're very excited to present the concert version now of this project.”

The quintet opened with the album's title track, with Cancura and Turcotte playing its upbeat theme together, and then Trudel rendering it in sparkling piano. It was an vigorous and happy performance throughout, with shining piano glissandos, spinning trumpet notes, and smooth tenor sax lines, and was greeted with strong applause.

As I listened, I realized how perfectly Jim Doxas' drumming suited this music, with its crisp and airy vibe and its swinging style. His playing was lively but never over-powering, and kept the tunes on-track and moving even during the most exploratory of improvisations from the other musicians. His own solos were melodic and inventive, using the full capabilities of his drumset and developing organically.

“Police” was a melodic swinger, with Turcotte and Cancura again defining the theme and then using it as a basis for soaring improvisations, following by Trudel and Vedady tossing the melody around in a piano/bass duet. “Fish Spoilage Control” upped the energy level substantially: it was a rushing river of notes, often abrupt and dissonant and very intense, culminating in a head-long thrust of vehement piano. The audience didn't even wait for the music to die out before recognizing it with very strong applause.

The more exploratory approach continued in the three short “Ox Driver's Blues” improvised pieces inspired by cues in Rathburn's music. Cancura kept referring to them as “Ox Cart” during the show. The first was an intimate piano/drums duet. Trudel's piano explorations gradually coalesced into a reflective melody, and Doxas underlined that with constantly-shifting textures: ringing bells, atmospheric cymbals, light hand-drumming including rubbing his hands on the surface of his snare drum, and caressing his drums and cymbals with brushes and then sweeping his brushes through the air. It was a sparse and lovely piece that repaid close listening.

The second featured Cancura and Turcotte in a trenchant and interactive duet, while the third involved the entire quintet. It was not a comfortable number: whether with Cancura's cutting soprano sax, Vedady's groaning bowed bass, Trudel's disassociated piano, or Turcotte's rough-edged trumpet, the effect was almost chaotic. It ended with a bowed bass and light drums duet which faded into the distance.

“Fresh Fish Delish!” was a fast number, very much in the tradition. Turcotte's trumpet reminded me of Louis Armstrong at one point, and Cancura's sweet and singing tenor lines also had a New Orleans vibe, while Trudel's piano was reminiscent of Art Tatum. “The Rathburn Mambo” built from gentle to strong trumpet/sax fanfares and a rolling drum solo, but throughout had a clear and fresh Latin beat, very open and inviting. “Club Café Tango” opened with emphatic and rollicking piano and bass – a very strong tango beat – and retained that accented and upbeat feel throughout.

“The Rockies” was for me the most memorable tune on the album, and in this show the quintet did it full justice. I felt immersed in its hopeful yet melancholy melody, as each instrument – trumpet, sax, piano, double bass – created their own interpretation but never stepped too far away from its essence. The ballad ended with Cancura and Turcotte playing in unison; as their last notes died away, they were replaced by strong cheers and clapping.

The 75-minute concert closed with “Conveyance by Canoe”, a cheerful number whose emphatic rhythms combined traditional swing with a touch of the blues. With Turcotte's muscular trumpet solo and Cancura's probing sax lines, it was a powerful closer – and the audience gave it and the concert a standing ovation.

This was stimulating music well worth unearthing and hearing – and its Ottawa and Canadian connections added an extra level of interest. If you missed this show, NAC Presents is bringing it again on November 7 to the National Arts Centre, as part of a larger Canadian tour this fall.

Set List

  1. The Romance of Improvisation
  2. Police
  3. Fish Spoilage Control
  4. Ox Driver's Blues (part 1)
  5. Ox Driver's Blues (part 2)
  6. Fresh Fish Delish!
  7. The Rathburn Mambo
  8. The Rockies
  9. Ox Driver's Blues (part 3)
  10. Club Café Tango
  11. Conveyance by Canoe

Photos of this performance are not available because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied's request for news media accreditation for founder, journalist and photojournalist Brett Delmage for the 9th consecutive year.

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