Michael Blake's Variety Hour
Fred Hersch Trio
2013 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival
Thursday, January 31, 2013
Dominion Chalmers United Church

It was too bad the Dominion Chalmers United Church wasn't even half-full for the first night of the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival. Those who weren't there missed an inspired concert by pianist Fred Hersch, preceded by intricate compositions well-played by Michael Blake's Variety Hour.

Blake has been living in NYC for the last 25 years, but was raised and educated in Vancouver. For this concert, and for his 2012 album, In the Grand Scheme of Things, he teamed up with three musicians well-known on the Vancouver scene: JP Carter on trumpet and electronics, Chris Gestrin on Fender Rhodes electric piano and Moog Micromoog synthesizer, and Dylan van der Schyff on drums.

Their 70-minute set essentially recapitulated the first half of the CD: the same five originals by Blake in the same order as on the CD.

The group opened with “Road to Lusaka”, which featured several contrapuntal duets between Blake and Carter. It opened quietly, in a muted mode, but quickly built up in speed and loudness, with the drums below rolling like thunder. It introduced several features common to Blake's compositions: many textures layered on each other to create considerable depth of sound; and significant electronic alterations in the sound, particularly on synthesizer and trumpet. This was no surprise to the observant listener; you could see up-front that electronic processing was going to be important to the show, with the variety and number of gadgets that Carter was using, completely filling the music stand in front of him.

What was also interesting was how the band's sound echoed and rolled through what is undoubtedly one of the more resonant (and difficult) musical settings in Ottawa – particularly when van der Schyff increased his speed on the drums.

That piece morphed, without stopping, into “The Variety Hour”. It was a stately, anthemic piece, which was most notable for Carter's again electronically modifying his trumpet sound: in particular moving from a slow, evocative solo to one that echoed and was broken up in the upper registers.

Country-tinged, with electronics

“Cybermonk” was most noticeable for Gestrin's strong bass line on Moog, over which Blake played rotating sax lines using circular breathing and Carter alternated strong, clear solos and repeated riffs.

The last two pieces were the most interesting. “Willie (The Lonely Cowboy)” was a sinuous country-tinged melody influenced by Willie Nelson, and strongly supported by low chords on the Fender Rhodes. “The Searchers” was inspired by the John Ford movie; it started with a long low rumble on keyboards accentuated by atmospheric drumming. The thunderstorm effect increased to the point where you could actually feel it through the church floor, while the horns chimed above. The whole tune had a noticeably ominous feel, through the use of repeated riffs in unison on both horns; Carter later altered his trumpet sound like running water, and the piece ended with slow, sparse sax lines with the trumpet in the background.

The crowd picked up for Fred Hersch

Blake received appreciative applause, but the crowd really picked up – both in attention and with a few more seats filled – when Hersch's trio reached the stage.

Hersch brought his long-time trio, bassist John Hébert and drummer Eric McPherson, with him, and their joint efforts produced a wonderful 90 minutes of fluid, melodic music which grabbed your heart and engaged your mind.

The material was almost exclusively from his two of his most recent albums: Whirl [2010], and Alive at the Vanguard [2012] – both of which featured Hébert and McPherson in a trio with Hersch.

The opening piece was a standard, “You’re My Everything” from Whirl, with Hersch taking a relaxed, conversational approach. He followed with three more songs from that album. The title piece – dedicated to ballerina Suzanne Farrell – built from warm and romantic to high-tension, with sheets of notes pouring from the piano, before it resolved into a quiet, sparkling ending with a final flourish.

“Sad Poet”, dedicated to Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, moved to a more melancholy space, with Hersch and Hébert collaborating to produce the deep, resonant tones that defined the piece, and McPherson filling in on cymbals on top. It was vintage Hersch: emotional but never maudlin, multi-layered and with a strong narrative push.

“Skipping”, by contrast, was much faster and brighter in tone. Frequently changing meters while playing with a base piano motif, it kept listeners guessing where it would go. At one point, it was almost classical in tone; at another, interrupted and angular, but it all fitted together.

An inspired collaboration by a trio well-accustomed to each other

A particular highlight of the show was the mash-up of “Lonely Woman” and “Nardis” – featured on Alive at the Vanguard – which fit surprisingly well together. It was a long piece where the bass and drums added far more than accompaniment: McPherson began the piece with a long drum solo which echoed around the room, and which Hébert underscored on bass. Finally, Hersch came in with dramatic, and somewhat disquieting, piano. Hébert increased the ominous feel in a bass solo, and then came the first recognizable notes from “Nardis” on piano, played lightly and simply. The trio then proceeded to deconstruct the tunes with great intensity, switching the lead frequently among themselves, for 15 minutes, ending with a last few notes again from “Nardis”. It was a bravura performance, and was greeted with strong applause.

Thelonious Monk tunes frequently feature in Hersch's repertoire (he released one album of just Monk compositions in 1998), but “A Dream of Monk” is his original dedicated to the iconoclastic pianist. The inspiration could not be in doubt, with the piece's tiny call-outs to Monk originals and its variations on those motifs. However, it was a swinging, happy Monk that Hersch was channeling with this up-tempo composition.

Another mash-up from Alive at the Vanguard followed, this time of two ballads: “The Wind” by Russ Freeman, and “Moon and Sand” by Alec Wilder. These showed Hersch again in a romantic mode, playing fluid piano, sometimes very delicately, sometimes more full-bodied, and sometimes almost bouncing off the keys. It ended with a grand, dramatic flourish. The audience was still for a moment, and then erupted in strong applause.

Dedicated to Jacques

Hersch dedicated the next piece to Jacques Emond, the late programming manager of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. He later mentioned that Jacques had first brought him to the festival 17 years before. “The Song is You” by Jerome Kern was an inspired choice: its romantic sadness underlined the remembrance. Hersch started simply, played around with the melody without showing off, and honoured the music and the man with a vibrant, beautiful interpretation.

The trio ended the evening with a lesser-known Monk composition: “Let's Cool One”, newly arranged by the trio. They again stretched out for this piece, surprising the audience when they might have expected straight swing by moving to a more angular approach. At one point Hébert and McPherson provided a strong, steady foundation while Hersch darted in and out like a butterfly above them – followed by Hersch and McPherson exchanging the lead for an extended period. It was an up-tempo number which thoroughly engaged the musicians and the audience.

What makes Hersch's concerts so memorable? Partly it's his choice of diverse and unhackneyed material, partly his choice of talented musicians with great ears, but mostly his finely-tuned understanding of the music and his ability to interpret it while honouring its core. He is such a good interpreter that the quality of his compositions does not always get the attention it deserves, but the four originals in this concert were, in my opinion, among its highlights.

Right at the end, he embraced McPherson and Hébert and beamed at the audience, clearly celebrating the music they'd just performed together.

    – Alayne McGregor

Set list:

  1. You're My Everything (Harry Warren)
  2. Whirl (Hersch)
  3. Sad Poet (Hersch)
  4. Skipping (Hersch)
  5. Lonely Woman (Ornette Coleman) / Nardis (Miles Davis/Bill Evans)
  6. Dream of Monk (Hersch)
  7. The Wind (Russ Freeman) / Moon and Sand (Alec Wilder)
  8. The Song is You (Jerome Kern)
  9. Let's Cool One (Thelonious Monk, newly arranged by the trio)

See also:

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the 2013 Winter Jazz Festival, but was denied access for our photojournalist; therefore, we are unable to publish photos with the reviews.

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