Michel Reis' piano playing moved from delicate and airy to vibrating and intense. ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Michel Reis' piano playing moved from delicate and airy to vibrating and intense. ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Reis Demuth Wiltgen Trio
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Ottawa, Canada
Monday, March 31, 2014 – 7:30 p.m.

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If jazz is an international language – as we were told repeatedly on International Jazz Day – that doesn't mean it sounds the same all over the world. It still can have local dialects and catch-phrases, and listening to musicians from other places can teach us new vocabulary.

If they can get here to perform.

Sadly, we've seen fewer international jazz acts performing here in Ottawa in the last five years. A lot of that has had to do with the continued economic downtown and less government and other support, both in North America and in Europe, for touring musicians.

So it was a pleasure to hear a trio from Luxembourg play here this spring, bringing a more European rendition of jazz – and music well worth hearing – to a tour of four Canadian cities.

Pianist Michel Reis, bassist Marc Demuth, and drummer Paul Wiltgen were born and raised in Luxembourg – and still mostly tour in Europe. The three met and played together frequently as teenagers, but that was interrupted when two of them left to study music in the United States (Berklee and the New England Conservatory for Reis, the Manhattan School of Music for Wiltgen). In 2011, they reunited for a concert back home. They have been playing together since on both sides of the Atlantic, releasing their first, self-titled, CD in 2013.

So here we have three musicians whose initial exposure to music and to jazz was in the European tradition. But then two of them overlaid that tradition with a major and continuing American influence (Reis and Wiltgen have stayed primarily in the U.S.). How did that affect what Ottawa audiences heard?

It was not your standard jazz piano trio. While the solid rhythmic patterns in their music were by no means classical in form, the music nevertheless showed a strong classical influence. Their pieces were shorter, with fewer long solos, with a definite compositional structure that emphasized elaboration of a theme.

And the swinging feel, the blues emphases that creeps into most American jazz, the quoting of jazz classics: that was almost completely missing. It's not as though this was outside jazz – there was substantial interaction and interplay, and many pieces (though not all) included improvisation – but it was a different genre of jazz.

All the pieces they played were originals, the majority by Reis – although their CD's liner notes observed that the pieces were the product of a substantial collaboration and rework by all three. Certainly there was a strong group feel to the music – the pieces worked well together and flowed well through the concert.

Most of their Ottawa set-list was new: only four pieces were from the trio's CD. They ranged from the wistful ballad of “If only you would know” to the strong forward propulsion of “Mirage”, but consistent in all of them was emphatic rhythmic patterns and a large dynamic range.

Their opening number, “272 Bleecker Street” set the mode: its dramatic twists and turns moved from fast, vibrating piano to a sonorous ballad, then to sustained single notes on piano and bass, then a more percussive melody, then a calm, romantic interlude, and then building back up again to a strong accents, and finally an atmospheric close.

Highlights of the concert included Reis' “Cross Country”, a newer piece which featured rapidly-building and mutating patterns, a slower sustained section which turned into a nuanced and passionate bass solo by Demuth, repeated crescendos, and several instances where the music broke from circling intensity to complete silence, and then built up again. And yet for all its changes, the piece had a melodic unity only enhanced by its rhythmic diversity.

I also enjoyed the high-energy “Floppy Disk” by Wiltgen, an accented piece which moved from strong patterns to a more abstract feel, and featured him muting his snare drum by placing a cloth over it, creating a slightly hollow sound that contrasted with Reis' fast, repeated piano notes. In contrast, his “A Block Apart” was simpler and brighter, moving from emphatic to delicate and back again.

Overall, the trio had so much vigour and unity in their playing that you could easily be swept along by the music and its dynamics. Their Ottawa show was an intense focus of sound, like an espresso shot, still memorable days later.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Set list:

  • 272 Bleecker Street (Michel Reis)
  • Night Shift (Michel Reis)
  • Chatham, MA (Michel Reis)
  • Cross Country (Michel Reis)
  • Wishing Well (Paul Wiltgen)
  • Floppy Disk (Paul Wiltgen)
  • A Block Apart (Paul Wiltgen)
  • Mirage (Michel Reis)
  • Kamome (The Seagull) (Michel Reis)
  • If only you would know (Michel Reis)
  • Straight Circle (Marc Demuth)


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