John Geggie / Nancy Walker / Billy Hart: February 24, 2007
Geggie Concert Series
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
February 22, 2007
Probably the only thing that one can count on when attending John Geggie's concert series at Ottawa's National Arts Center is to expect the unexpected. For the fourth show of the 2006-2007 season the veteran local bassist recruited Toronto pianist Nancy Walker and drum legend Billy Hart for a show that may have stayed mainly in the modern mainstream but had its share of surprises as well.
The seed for this concert was sown back when Geggie was running the nightly jam sessions at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, with Walker a member of the core trio. A chance musical encounter with Hart, who was in town playing the main stage, left both Geggie and Walker thinking that this would be something worth pursuing on a larger scale. It took a few years but, based on the trio's performance on Saturday night, was worth the wait.
Of course Hart isn't the easiest guy to pin down. Since emerging in the early '60s in the company of artists such as Jimmy Smith, Eddie Harris, Pharoah Sanders and, a little later, Herbie Hancock, Hart has appeared on literally hundreds of records. And that doesn't include the seemingly endless touring. In addition, Hart has a small but vital discography as a leader, including the under-appreciated Oshumare (Gramavision, 1985) and last year's Quartet (HighNote), and so the only disappointment of the evening was that the two setscomprised of originals by Walker and Geggie along with a couple of well-chosen coversdidn't include at least one Hart original.
Still, that's a minor quibble. Considering that, as is often the case with Geggie's shows, rehearsal time was at a premium, the trio sounded remarkably cohesive. Geggie and Walker have the kind of history (and are working together on one of Geggie's two current recording projects) that means an almost immediate chemistry no matter how long it's been since they've worked together. And Hart is the kind of drummer who needs little more than a few words of direction and a few accents on the printed page to find his own way, regardless of the context in which he's placed.
Walker, whose When She Dreams (Justin Time, 2004) was a strong combination of intellectualism, lyricism and heart, continues to demonstrate those qualities in performance. While her solos are always well-constructed and thematically compelling, she's also a rhythmic player, who is just as likely to egg on her trio-mates with a staggered series of chords as she is wiith an inspired line. Harmonically she's an advanced player who may sound accessible but is anything but lightweight. Her contributions were evenly split between material from When She Dreams and more recent tunes, including the wonderfully funky "Positive Spin," which will hopefully show up on the new album she has in the works.
Geggie continues to be a most flexible player. While his rubato tone poem, "Across the Sky," is a tune that seems to show up on almost every set list, it's a beautiful tune that demonstrates just how differently a single tune can be interpreted by the various ensembles he's brought to town. Normally a relatively economical player, there were moments during Saturday's performance during which he was practically virtuosic, proving that it's always been about choice.
Hart wasn't a joy only to hear, he was a joy to watch. Always listening, he made it easy to see when things were working for him, a certain almost mischievous expression flashing across his face as he either responded to something going on around him or pushed the groove a little harder from his end. A deft soloist, he blended equal parts playful rhythmic displacement with a broad dynamic range and, again, a certain playfulness that kept not just Geggie and Walker, but the audience, on their toes.
Along with the original material the trio found time to deliver a fairly reverent take on Thelonious Monk's "Bya," on which Walker for the first time during the concert demonstrated an unexpectedly idiosyncratic side that would continue to be part of what followed. A more liberal look at Wayne Shorter's "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" one of the saxophonist's less-frequently covered tunes originally released on the classic Speak No Evil (Blue Note, 1964)found Walker and Hart coming together on sharp punctuations behind a lithe solo from Geggie that covered a lot of territory and included some remarkably broad intervallic leaps.
The first set was strong, but things really seemed to gel in the second set, especially when the trio finished with a version of Carla Bley's "Syndrome" that used the familiar theme simply as a starting-off point for the most free playing of the evening. Given the more centrist (albeit thoroughly modern) flavor of the rest of the evening, it was just one more example of how, even when it appears that a Geggie show can be pegged, there are still plenty of surprises in store.
Geggie's next show is on March 24, 2007 with Vancouver-based drummer Dylan van der Schyff and New York guitarist Ben Monder. It will most likely be a more consistently experimental evening than last Saturday's program, but it's the breadth and depth of every showand, regardless of the context, an undeniable sense of going for broke without a safety netthat keeps audiences coming back show-after- show, and year-after-year.