Mark Fewer (photo courtesy Ottawa Chamberfest)
Mark Fewer (photo courtesy Ottawa Chamberfest)

Mark Fewer @ 40
Ottawa Chamberfest
Monday, July 30, 2012
St. Brigid's Centre for the Arts and Humanities

Montreal violinist Mark Fewer would run out of hands long before he ran out of all the musical camps he's in.

Early music. Core classical. Ragtime. Improvised new music. Modern jazz. Hot club swing. And more.

Each of these aspects of his musical personality was on display at the Chamberfest concert celebrating his ongoing musical career – in what turned out to be a surprisingly cohesive evening, if a bit of a marathon, and with many pleasures for the jazz fan.

Fewer is best known in the jazz world for his collaborations with Phil Dwyer (particularly as featured soloist on Dwyer's Juno-award-winning contemporary jazz album, Changing Seasons). He is now a professor at McGill University's Schulich School of Music. Before Montreal, he studied and worked in Toronto and Vancouver (including as concertmaster of the Vancouver Symphony from 2004-8), and played with jazz musicians including Dave Young, Brad Turner, Jodi Proznick, and Gene di Novi.

The evening started at 9:30 p.m. with an Early Music and a classical section: two short works from around 1660 by Giovanni Antonio Pandolfi for violin and harpsichord, in a formal duet with Hank Knox; followed by Schubert's Duo in A Major for Violin and Piano, played expressively and dramatically together with pianist John Novacek.

Then a marimba was wheeled on stage – to be played by Montreal percussionist Aiyun Huang, who was introduced as Fewer's partner. The music opened up beyond the strict classical circles, as they performed “Hammer and Bow” by composer Michael Colgrass.

Colgrass describes this piece on his website as a “duet combining a variety of violin and marimba effects to reflect the mysterious and unpredictable mood changes of two people in a close relationship”. This rendition started off delicately, with her simple rhythm on marimba posed against his simple melody on violin, and then moved through waves of tension and release: the marimba defining the space with chimes and single notes and the violin weaving in and through. At times the two instruments echoed each other; at others, one underlaid the other. But the overall effect was magical and beautiful – and while unpredictable, also appropriate.

After a short intermission, Fewer returned with Novacek, to play several of Novacek's own compositions and arrangements – in the ragtime style. One was a bit bluesy, but the remainder were super-fast, with notes whirling out in sprays from the stage, and containing multiple climaxes. All were approachable and fun.

At approaching 11 p.m., clarinetist James Campbell entered, to play with Fewer and Novacek. The two movements from a suite which the trio played were multi-layered, with a blues base but lots of room for each instrument to swoop and spin around the others. The three musicians produced a highly coordinated piece, energetic and smooth.

The scene then shifted to feature Fewer, together with Phil Dwyer on piano and Ottawa jazz and classical stalwart John Geggie on double bass, playing a newly re-arranged version of “Summer” from Dwyer's Changing Seasons. Their playing was unembellished: each note in the ballad was left to speak for itself, and the result was exquisite. I found the sparse simplicity of violin, piano, and bass more appealing than the more orchestrated version on the recording. It was greeted by particularly strong applause from the audience.

Next came a medley of tunes composed by Vancouver violinist Cameron Wilson, performed by Fewer, Geggie, Campbell, and Novacek. Each tune was melodic – often containing tiny nuggets of jazz standards – and ranging from delicate to bluesy. They gave lots of opportunities for swing and for fluid conversations: Campbell's clarinet and Fewer's violin were in fine simpatico at the end of the second song. The applause after this section was extensive.

The last section of this set featured Campbell, Geggie, Novacek, Fewer, and Dwyer (this time on alto sax), playing a piece which Dwyer had written for the Art of Time ensemble. Dwyer had rearranged “Tango à la Burashko” for this concert, and it became a widely-ranging, multi-layered piece allowing all five musicians to interact and contribute. The tango rhythms were audible, but overall it was more of a thoughtful piece with some evocative duets between Fewer and Dwyer.

Then the audience was invited to move downstairs for a “Hot Club” jazz concert, featuring Fewer along with Drew Jurecka on violin, three guitarists and a bassist. They started playing Django-Reinhardt-style gypsy jazz about 11:50 p.m. – initially without Fewer to give him a few minutes to rest. Jurecka was particularly notable (as he had been in a previous concert) for his expressive and full-bodied violin playing, but all of the musicians produced spirited and fast-paced music.

After the first two songs, Fewer joined in for three more numbers, showing intense verve – especially in his duets with Jurecka, where each kept pushing the other to increased speeds and higher heights. It was a scintillating performance.

And then it was 12:23 a.m., and Fewer stood there, shirt soaked with sweat, listening to the substantial applause.

The excellence of the playing on display in this concert deserved a full house. Perhaps because it was held on a Monday, or because of the oppressive (35C+) heat in the (former) church sanctuary upstairs, or because of competition from another Chamberfest concert with actor Gordon Pinsent, it didn't achieve that. The late evening may have encouraged some of the audience to leave before the Hot Club section.

Perhaps it would have been better if Chamberfest had just recognized that this was going to be a long program, and had simply started it earlier and not tried to avoid an overlap. This was not just an end-of-the-evening palate-cleaner of a concert: it was an experience, and deserved a full evening.

    – Alayne McGregor

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