Harri Stojka delivered a high-energy performance at Arts Cafe  ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Harri Stojka delivered a high-energy performance at Arts Cafe ©Brett Delmage, 2011

Harri Stojka Quartet
Arts Court
Friday, February 18, 2011

Harri Stojka, an Austrian guitarist and virtuoso "gypsy swing" player à la Django Reinhardt, made his first Canadian appearance Friday, February 18. In a free concert sponsored by the Austrian Embassy (part of the embassy's monthly Arts Café series), he attracted an overflow house and an enthusiastic response.

Stojka is actually of Roma ancestry, but that's not the main reason he got into swing music in particular and jazz in general. In fact, he heard a record of Pat Martino playing "Sunny" – a quintessential Sixties song ("Sunny, one so true, I love you...)" –  and just fell in love with the guitar solo.

He got the audience's attention immediately, with an unnamed warm-up song. It displayed his characteristic triple-speed playing: notes sparking out in a constant stream  and yet each individually audible. Nothing was slurred. He'd insert six eighth-notes where a normal guitar player would put in three quarter-notes, in a very percussive, swinging manner. He could also play slow and bluesy – and did – but he loved putting out these flurries of notes and getting exactly the effect he wanted.

Both he and second guitarist Claudius Jelinek were playing guitars optimized for this music: boxier-looking than most, and with small, elliptical sound holes. Together with bassist Karl Sayer, they formed Stojka's regular trio. They clearly had great rapport and the two guitarists played off each other in duets.

Jesse Stewart solos.  ©Brett Delmage, 2011
Jesse Stewart solos. ©Brett Delmage, 2011

Joining them was Ottawa drummer and percussionist Jesse Stewart, better known in Ottawa as an improviser and soundscape experimenter. But Stewart fit in easily with only a short rehearsal, playing along with and adding background texture. Partway through, he got inspired, and actually shook his snare drum to get the effect he wanted (I guess you can't completely take the free jazz-lover out of a percussionist), And then, near the end of the last song, the lights dimmed, the other players left the stage, and he was left to perform a long drum solo on "Sunny" (which beautifully fit the rhythm of the song) for several minutes before everyone showed up again for the finale.

It was a high-energy performance, consisting primarily of standards (swing, ballads, sambas), with a few gypsy jazz pieces thrown in. In "Bie Mir Bist  Du Scheen", dedicated to "my lady", Stojka played the famous big band piece as swinging but a bit stately, with lots of syncopation.

But most impressive was a Stojka original called "Song for my Daddy". Stojka dedicated the sweet, sad ballad to his father, whom  he wished he could have told about his trip to Canada. But his father has Alzheimer's and has been in a coma for the last five years.

The musicians produced accessible, crowd-pleasing music that brought everyone up, regardless of whether they were jazz lovers or not. It was infectious and played with verve; I could see this band being a great hit at a 10:30 p.m. show at the Jazz Festival. Stojka said his philosophy was "enjoy your life", and both the musicians and the audience embraced that idea during the concert.

    — Alayne McGregor

©Brett Delmage, 2011
©Brett Delmage, 2011

Anita Malhotra at Artsmania interviewed Harri Stojka after the show.  You can read her interview here.