Larnell Lewis Sextet
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Friday, June 28, 2019 – 10:30 p.m.

“We made it!” Larnell Lewis sounded considerably relieved as he opened his sextet concert at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, many hours after its originally scheduled time. The drummer had played the previous night in Paris with Quincy Jones before almost 20,000 people – an “amazing time”, he told the audience – but had then got caught in an ever-worsening cycle of cancelled and delayed flights back to Canada.

You might have thought the audience would be cranky, too – first having the show moved from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and then have to stand in long lineups as delays mounted up. The doors didn't open until about 10:25, and the show didn't start until 10:35 p.m.

But once they got going, both the sextet and their audience got caught up the rush of the music – played with energy and zest. In the 70-minute-long show, the band was able to play half of Lewis' JUNO-nominated album, In the Moment, expanding and improvising on his memorable and attractive original tunes.

Lewis is a well-respected jazz drummer from Toronto, who has also played internationally with groups like Snarky Puppy. In the Moment, released last year, was his first album as a leader. For this show, he brought together five Toronto-area musicians: Rob Christian on saxophone and flute, Andrew McAnsh on trumpet, Elmer Ferrer on guitar, Jeremy Ledbetter on keyboards, and Andrew Stewart on bass; Christian, Ferrer, and Stewart had played on the album. Unlike Lewis, they came by train from Toronto and had no problems getting to Ottawa.

“Beignets” set the style for the concert: starting with a powerful fusillade of drumbeats and a funky bass beat, it was a hard-driving tune with punchy trumpet and sax lines giving it a fun New Orleans groove.

“Coconuts” (the title is “because I like food”) was a dreamier tune with a lighter hand on the drums, with Lewis hand-drumming, swishing brushes through the air, and contrasting taps against heavier beats. Christian's flute twisted and glided over Ledbetter's shining runs on keyboard and Ferrer and Stewart intertwined expressive guitar and bass lines – before the piece ended with Lewis playing a drum palette like a vibraphone in a classical Chinese mode, to strong applause and cheers from the crowd.

Lewis wrote “The Essence of Joy” for his wife, who is soon expecting their second child: she's “the glue to this current tour and I miss her like crazy.” The piece opened with Christian's fluid flute, sounding like birdsong, over Ledbetter's lightly oscillating keyboard drone. Ledbetter moved to melodica, and he and Christian collaborated in a gentle, sweet melody – which, as Ferrer joined in on guitar, built up and up, before returning to the gentle melody.

“No Access?” was inspired by an incident where Lewis was invited to a show and told he was on the guest list, but was turned away at the door. It was a punctuated and angry piece, insistent with pounding keyboards and drums and fierce horns.

Lewis told the audience that the closing number, “Change Your Mind”, is “actually one of the songs I wrote to remind me what to think of and how to approach my day when I experience a day like this. The very simple message is that if you change your perspective, or if you change your mindset, you could change your outcomes, your possibilities. Right? Can I get an Amen?”

The audience roared back, “Amen!”

“So this song is a reminder to me that no matter how many flights get delayed, and no matter how many times my cymbals get lost, it doesn't matter if I no longer have a priority status at Air Canada, I still am able to make music, I'm still able to express myself and share it all with you.”

The tune galloped out, with Christian on sax and McAnsh on trumpet in full flight, before settling into a strong R&B groove. It slowed for a thoughtful organ interlude from Ledbetter, and then shot off again with Ferrer creating streams of notes on his guitar. It stopped for an instant – “You thought it was over?” Lewis asked, with a smile – and then the sax and trumpet charged out again over propulsive hard drumming. As the stage lights flashed in time to the music, it pushed and pushed, finally ending with a last fanfare and a hard drumbeat.

It was to Lewis' credit that he turned what had been “a difficult day” into a happy, engaging concert. He had an immediate friendly rapport with the audience, was generous with his thank-yous, and played music that was interesting, varied, and approachable. He's by nature a dynamic and forceful drummer, but as several pieces in the concert demonstrated, can also play mindfully and softly. When the audience jumped up directly for an extended standing ovation at the end of the show, that ovation was well-earned.

Set List

All tunes by Larnell Lewis

  1. Beignets
  2. Coconuts
  3. The Essence of Joy
  4. No Access?
  5. Change Your Mind

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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