Impressions in Jazz/Black History Concerts: Ottawa: February 2006
Impressions in Jazz
"Voices in a Strange Land": Thursday, February 23, 2006
"Suite Freedom": Saturday, February 25, 2006
Jazz started out black. The great majority of the innovators and great musicians were black, and the roots of jazz are in early black music. The pictures, album covers and documentaries all show this. What's less well known is the degree to which jazz musicians spoke about the black experience through their music.
That was the inspiration for Ottawa bassist Adrian Cho, in highly ambitious twin concerts in late February in Ottawa. Cho had great success last year with an evening of lesser-known Miles Davis works. This year, he took a much greater risk, with two evenings of music commemorating Black History Month. The first, "Voices in a Strange Land," was a history of blacks in the US and Canada, through traditional songs, show tunes and jazz music. The second, "Suite Freedom," highlighted undeservedly obscure short and longer pieces by musicians like Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
"Voices in a Strange Land" opened dramatically. Led by Mark Rehder on hand drum, the soloists and chorus entered singing call and response. A series of spirituals and work songs followed, illuminating the situation of slaves in the Americas, including "Take This Hammer," "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" and "Hoe, Emma, Hoe."
The two soloists, Ottawa jazz singer Anna Williams and Toronto singer Marcus Nance, worked ably together but still had very different styles. Williams liked to vary tempo and emphasis, whereas Nance showed his Broadway and dramatic training in his song presentation. They were backed by a local gospel chorus, Committed Praise, whose voices blended well together and very competently filled in the musical background.
The performances steadily strengthened as the group moved through a slow and intense reading by Williams of "Strange Fruit" to songs directly from the Civil Rights movement, like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and ended with a brilliant collaboration between Marcus Nance on vocals and Chet Doxas (tenor sax), Rick Rangno (trumpet) and Sandy Gordon (alto sax) on Nat Adderley's "Work Song." The vibrancy and drive of that song left everyone clapping as they started the intermission.
The second half of the evening was devoted to the portrayal of blacks in Broadway show tunes and in jazz, symbolized by the singers switching from wearing black and white to bright colours. Williams' tribute to Nina Simone, "Feeling Good," was slower than the song deserved, but the musicians quickly picked up the pace. Highlights included the duet between Williams and Nance in "Bess You is My Woman" from "Porgy & Bess," and Williams' original song, "The Blacker The Berry," but what the audience gave its greatest ovation to was a controlled and heartfelt performance by Nance of "Ol' Man River." It's a difficult song to sing well without sounding stagy, and Nance made you feel the deep sadness and resilience in the music and lyrics, with his trained bass-baritone beautifully caressing the melody.
The evening ended on a high note with two selections by Canadian jazz composer Joe Sealey from his "Africville Suite," which combined the talents of all the singers. The singers were most ably backed up throughout the evening by Rehder on drums, Vince Halfhide on guitar, and particularly Holly Arsenault on piano.
The first concert was a sell-out in the intimate space of the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre. The second concert, in the larger Dominion-Chalmers Church, was artistically even better, but unfortunately played to a smaller audience. The material was even more challenging, including Canadian premieres of three symphonic jazz pieces. It had been in planning for many months, with Cho having written the transcriptions and charts for the band by the fall of 2005.
Musically, it gelled well: the performers, despite having little joint rehearsal time, took cues well from each other and sounded enthusiastic and professional, and taking their cues well from Cho as conductor. Points in the music where musicians had to play against each other came off without a hitch, particularly a section in one of the Mingus pieces where three saxophones and a trombone all played around and over each other, complementing each other perfectly.
The problems were simple logistics: dropped music, musicians losing their place in the sheaves of paper, awkward seating changes between major pieces, and not enough space on the stage to allow quick ups-and-downs as soloists exchanged places.