Vartan Mamigonian: circular breathing behind circular motion  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Vartan Mamigonian: circular breathing behind circular motion ©Brett Delmage, 2012

American saxophonist Patrick Breiner has two musical personae – both of which were audible in Ottawa this weekend.

You could hear the first on Saturday, February 11, as he played several extended jazz compositions as the invited guest artist with the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestras (CYJO). The second showed up Sunday night at IMOO at the Umi Cafe in a part-solo, part-trio, and mostly-improvised performance.

view photos of the IMOO concert

Not unusual for jazz musicians, right? But Breiner actually has a separate name for his improvised solo work: Vartan Mamigonian.


Breiner explained to that he first encountered "Vartan Mamigonian" as a minor character – a crook who fleeces the main character's parents – in a 1987 Kurt Vonnegut novel called Bluebeard. And he immediately loved the look of the name, its sharpness, and the rhythm of it.

Later on, he learned that, historically, it was the name of a minor Armenian saint. The contrast between the sinner and saint created a dichotomy which appealed to him, and so he started using it for his solo saxophone work.

At IMOO, Breiner started with a solo saxophone piece. For more than 15 minutes, he oscillated from side to side, creating subtle changes in an uninterrupted stream of sax improvisations, modified by the directional loudness of the swinging instrument. The stream gradually acquired more eddies and tributaries, including Breiner slapping the keys on the side of his instrument, before fading out. He followed that by another slow, echoing improv, blowing on the cymbals of the empty drumset beside him to set them vibrating. He followed those with three compositions. Particularly notable was "Unfinished Business", on clarinet: a slow, simple, melancholy waltz dedicated to the late drummer Paul Motian and to Breiner's dog Shiva, both of whom he felt had left too soon and still had much to give.

For the second set, Breiner teamed up with trumpeter (and IMOO co-founder) Craig Pedersen and drummer Scott Warren for four improvisations. By the end, all three musicians looked exhilarated and delighted after thoroughly exploring (and occasionally knocking over or disassembling) their instruments. Warren also added in loops from a portable cassette tape recorder. The music ranged from delicate, to raw and squawking, to bluesy, to echoing and almost melodic, and kept the audience enthralled as well.

On Saturday, the music was more composed in several senses of the word. CYJO Director Nick Dyson had played with Breiner in the Solomon Douglas Swingtet, and he inveigled him up from Connecticut to perform the solos on Richard Peaslee's "Mulligan Concerto" for Baritone Saxophone and Jazz Orchestra, among other pieces.

Breiner gave an assured and full-bodied performance in the Peaslee piece, his baritone melding well with the 17-piece orchestra (composed of university- and high-school-age musicians from Ottawa). Other concert highlights included Craig Pedersen's "The Baron" and the SoulJazz Orchestra's "Consecration" (by Pierre Chretien), both arranged for big band by the composers especially for Breiner's visit. The combination produced one of the wildest and loudest versions of "The Baron" ever to be heard in Ottawa.

    – Alayne McGregor

Photos from the IMOO concert on February 12  Copyright ©Brett Delmage, 2012