John Geggie / Ben Monder / Dylan van der Schyff: March 24, 2007
Geggie Concert Series
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
March 24, 2007
Following the more mainstream (but stellar) show with pianist Nancy Walker and drummer Billy Hart in February, 2007, Ottawa bassist John Geggie headed into edgier, more experimental territory by bringing guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Dylan van der Schyff to the Fourth Stage of the National Arts Center. It was an evening that combined knotty composition with reckless improvisational abandon...and a little country.
Monder has yet to establish the kind of name that he deserves with the larger listening public, but he's in high demand amongst musicians in the know. In addition to regular duties with Maria Schneider's Orchestra, Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band (now just Paul Motian Band), and the Lee Konitz New Nonet, he's a busy session player with artists including Jon Gordon, Donny McCaslin and Rebecca Martin. A musical chameleon with almost matchless technical skill, he's released four albums as a leader since 1995, the most recent being Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005), one of the year's best and an album that combines detailed, long-form composition with inspired improvisational flights and, at times, a prog-rock attitude.
Van der Schyff, based in Vancouver, Canada, has been equally busy, largely on the new music/improv scene. He appeared in an impressive duet with trumpeter Brad Turner at the 2006 Ottawa Jazz Festival, demonstrating just how much could be done with so little. He's played with trumpeter Dave Douglas on Bow River Falls (Premonition, 2004) and was also a member of Douglas' intrepid mountain-climbing group Nomad that released Mountain Passages (Greenleaf, 2005). Van der Schyff's ability to extract an infinite variety of textures from a simple drum kit is unparalleled.
Geggie continues to prove himself equal to whatever musical context he places himself in, though it's not always a safe one. Geggie's annual concert series has grown in scope since its inception a few years ago, with this season being the most diverse yet. It's a year that has seen Geggie make some very noticeable musical leaps. It's also a year that has finally seen him head into the recording studio as a leader not once, but twice, recording one album with pianist Marilyn Crispell and drummer Nick Fraser and another with Fraser, pianist Nancy Walker and saxophonist Donny McCaslin that should see release later this year.
As is often the case with Geggie shows, the musicians have crossed paths before, just not together as a unit. Geggie has played with van der Schyff before but not with Monder, while Monder and van der Schyff have worked together in the past, most notably on The Distance (Songlines, 2006) with pianist Chris Gestrin. This was, however, the first time all three have played together and, if other Geggie shows from this season have demonstrated solid chemistry, this performance literally lit a fire underneath all three players. It was a show that traveled across considerable stylistic territory, but the three felt as though they'd been doing it for years.
The set list was a combination of original material by Geggie and Monder, as well as a Geggie arrangement of a Gregorian Chant ("Credo ) that demonstrated how anything can be grist for improvisational exploration. There was also that country tune...but more about that later.
The trio opened with Monder's "Muvseevum, from Flux (Songlines, 1995), a tune that begins in dark abstraction but ultimately becomes more powerful and propulsive. Monder is a complex thinker, with a remarkable harmonic knowledge and distinctive approach to both writing and improvising that simply sound like no other guitarist. There are subtle hints of Frisell, especially in Monder's pulling on the neck of his guitar to achieve slight pitch shifts, but if Frisell's approach is skewed, then Monder's is positively twisted. Sharp chordal attacks are interspersed with linear phrases that incorporate broad intervallic leaps, rapid-fire runs and dramatic flourishes that, despite their idiosyncratic nature, are clearly focused. Alternating between finger-picking and rapid flat-picking, Monder sounds like nobody else because, watching him play, his hands move on the guitar like no other.
"O.K. Chorale, also from Flux, was a gentler piece that gave Geggie an opportunity to build a lyrical yet unconventional solo. Perhaps inspired by Monder's extremes, the bassist demonstrated a rare virtuosity, making it clear that it's always been there, and that he simply plays what the music requiresa choice, never a limitation. Geggie also contributed "Scatterbrain Drain, a new piece that brought the first set to a strong close, and "Canon, with a staggered melody spread across the trio.
Van der Schyff is heard so often in free situations that it was a surprise to hear him playing solid groove at times during the two sets. The biggest surprise of the evening was, however, when the trio played an altered and extended version of the Jimmy Webb tune "Wichita Lineman, originally made famous by Glen Campbell. While the melody was never far from the forefront, Monder twisted it on its side, retaining its core while pushing it to the outer limits. Van der Schyff alternated between firm backbeat and more responsive attacks while Geggie anchored the tune without losing the ability to interact with those around him.
While there was plenty of form to work with, there was also equal opportunity for the group to stretch and go where the music led them. There were periods of totally free improvisation, most notably following "Canon, but the trio was never less than completely purposeful.
The only non-surprise of the evening was the enthusiastic response of the audience, who refused to let the group go without an encore. While Geggie's series is always well-attended, this was a show that will be hard to top. Artists like Monder and van der Schyff (and, of course, Geggie, but he's on home turf here) are active players, but ones who deserve greater recognition. For the sold-out audience at the Fourth Stage on March 24, 2007, they're two names that will not soon be forgotten.