Thomas Enhco, Solo and Trio
Cinquième Salle - Place des Arts
Montreal Jazz Festival
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 - 7 p.m.

Steve Kuhn, Steve Swallow, Joey Baron
Salle Gésu
Montreal Jazz Festival
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 – 10:30 p.m.

Thomas Enhco is a young pianist from France who will celebrate his 25th birthday this year. Judging from his concert at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and the enthusiastic reception he received there, he already has considerable aplomb and skill playing jazz.

Thomas Enhco  ©Brett Delmage,2013
Thomas Enhco ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The festival placed him in a new venue, the Cinquième Salle, an intimate space which can hold about 400 listeners, in strongly-raked seating surrounding the thrust stage. It had excellent sightlines and acoustics: you could hear the piano from near the back as though you were next to the stage. You could, unfortunately, also hear the photographer who chose to use high-speed continuous shooting in the first five minutes of the show (not from – which audibly angered several audience members. Enhco ignored the interruption completely.

Regrettably, the lighting didn't equal the sound. For much of the concert it was dramatic and harsh rather than clear. The performers were back-lit and half-outlined against black, which made it harder to see them play.

For about the first 20 minutes Enhco played solo: a mixture of originals and a deconstruction of the standard “You don't know what love is”, which only briefly referenced the melody in a few places, creating repeated patterns based on the chords of the song. Partway during the third song, “La fenêtre et la pluie”, he was inconspicuously joined on stage by Chris Jennings on bass (from Alberta) and Nicolas Charlier on drums (from Belgium).

While they added considerable texture and some lovely duet and solo pieces, the style of the music was already set in the solo piano section: highly Romantic (in both the jazz and the 19th century classical senses), with a full, rich sound enhanced by light use of the sustain pedal, and extended improvisation. It was very accessible music, and the audience responded with rapt attention.

Enhco has released three albums so far: Jennings and Charlier appear with him in the most recent, Fireflies, released last October in Europe. They played several pieces from that album in the show, along with another deconstructed standard.

I particularly enjoyed “Wadi Rum”, which Jennings introduced with bowed bass, morphing the sound up and down like tuning a radio between stations. At the same time, Enhco lightly strummed the piano strings and added bright sudden notes on the piano keyboard. Charlier lightly touched the cymbals with mallets, but then added a more strident sound running the wooden end circularly along the cymbals. Later on, Enhco and Jennings had another duet, with deep piano riffs providing texture while the bass bass played the melody.

Enhco's audience was noticeably younger than at a standard jazz concert, with many 20-somethings present. At the end, they greeted the music with strong applause and a partial standing ovation. He played two more pieces as an encore, the first being “You're just a ghost” from Fireflies, a delicate and thoughtful piece. The second, a more intense and rhythmic number, inspired a full standing ovation. The trio ended up playing for 1¾ hours, and while some people left during the encores, kept most of the audience to the end.

What I found most interesting about Enhco was what was missing from his concert. Unlike just about every jazz pianist I've heard (including, for example, Steve Kuhn, whom I heard later that evening), there's no blues influence in his playing. There's no stride style or boogie-woogie or bebop; you wouldn't know that Art Tatum or Oscar Peterson or Charlie Parker existed just listening to Enhco.

Instead, Enhco comes from a classical background – he mentioned partway through that his favourite composer is Robert Schumann and played a composition by him – which strongly informs his sound, along with the Great American Songbook. The result, at its best, can be magical and deeply emotional.

While I've always enjoyed listening to pianist Steve Kuhn and drummer Joey Baron, I must admit that the reason I attended their 10:30 p.m. show at Salle Gésu was bassist Steve Swallow, who is one of my favourite performers and composers.

And it appears I wasn't the only one: when Kuhn mentioned, early in the show, that the next number was by Swallow, there was strong cheering and clapping throughout the audience.

Swallow was in fine form that evening – playing every inch of his electric bass, from deep intense full notes, to high harmonics. At various times he sounded more like a guitar than a bass, playing the upper range of his instrument and in duets with both Kuhn and Baron. When I'd last heard him last summer with Riverside, he'd disappointingly almost completely stuck to the background except for one bass intro; here he was a full member of the trio, and smiling frequently with the joy of the music.

Which was not to underestimate the other two. Baron's range was huge: from hard, sparse sticks-work to the lightest brushes. Near the end, he introduced one song with hand drumming, but not just on the drums, but also on the cymbals. You could have spent the whole evening just enjoying his varied performance.

And Kuhn was in great fettle: he joked with the audience, told amusing stories to introduce each piece, and beautifully and fluidly interpreted the music, from romantic ballads to blues to uptempo numbers. Swallow contributed two pieces, there were several standards, and the remainder were fine originals by Kuhn: one several decades old, another from his most recent album, Wisteria. He even sang (a composer's vocals, as he described them) on one song, "Zoo".

The show didn't finish until after midnight, after two encores and three immediate standing ovations. Clearly it was a simpatico audience, and clearly the trio responded to that energy and played a great set.

    – Alayne McGregor

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