Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 5: June 25, 2007
With the opening night of the genre-busting four-day Improv Invitational series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, and an exhilarating performance by Finland's UMO Jazz Orchestra at the 10:30 PM Studio Series at the NAC's Studio, the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, once again, demonstrated that the definition of jazz is a far-reaching one that includes crossing over into areas of contemporary classical music, world music, and more. The Concert Under the Stars series at the outdoor Confederation Park may be targeted at a more general audience, but both the Improv Invitational and Studio series are clear evidence that the OIJF is about much more than simply following the mainstream tradition.
Bassist John Geggie is well-known, not only to locals, but to AAJ readers as well, for his annual series of concerts at the NAC's Fourth Stage, where he brings in artists from across Canada and abroad to participate in performances that define the concept of music without a safety net. In past years he's collaborated with artists including Ben Monder, Craig Taborn, Bill Carrothers and Mark Dresser. So it's only fitting that, along with returning after a two-year absence to host the late night jam sessions, he should kick off this year's 8:00 PM Improv Invitational series with a show that, once again, demonstrates his commitment to unorthodox instrumental groupings and musical concepts.
Percussionist Pierre Tanguay is another well-known name to Ottawa audiences who has already performed with bassist Alain Bédard's August Quintette as part of the 6:30 PM Great Canadian Jazz series. He's a flexible percussionist, as comfortable with traditional swing as he is creating an expansive orchestral palette with the simplest of drum kits, a plethora of subtly different sticks and mallets, and vocalizations that, at times, resemble his own take on the Indian konnakol (vocal percussion) tradition but elsewhere add melodic ideas to the mix. He's a widely recorded artist, appearing on no fewer than thirty-four albums this year alone. Geggie has worked with Tanguay before, and for a concert based largely on free improvisation, with only a triptych of rallying tunes, he couldn't have picked a better percussion partner.
Pierre-Yves Martel may be less-known than Tanguay, but he's no less innovative. He's a skilled bassist whose Engagement & Confrontation (Actuelle, 2006) is an album of solo improvisations that demonstrates limitless potential through use of prepared techniques. For the past three years, however, he's been honing his skill on the viola da gamba, a stringed instrument that preceded the cello and was used extensively during classical music's Baroque and Renaissance periods. The instrument normally has six strings, though Martel's instrument has seven. Tuned like a guitar with the added string at the high end, this gut-stringed instrument has movable gut string frets at its lower end which, unlike the guitar, are delicate enough to still allow the microtonal potential of stringed cousins, including violin, viola, cello and double-bass. It can be bowed and plucked like its relatives, but in Martel's hands there's the potential for even more unusual textures.
Geggie, whose own playing this year has represented a significant breakthrough to another level, introduced the performance by describing the improvisations and a small selection of three tunesCharlie Haden's often-recorded "Silence"; "Sippu," a song from John Zorn's Masada songbook; and Dave Holland's "Hazad," from the bassist's 1998 ECM collaboration with oudist Anouar Brahem and saxophonist/bass clarinetist John Surman, Thimaras largely melodic and contrapuntal. While things occasionally became more extreme, it proved an accurate description of a show that proved free music needn't be inaccessible.
The chemistry was deep and immediate, all the more uncanny since this was a first meeting of the three as a unit. The subtlest (or, at other times, more direct) idea could cause the trio to shift instantaneously, giving the impression of prearranged structure when there was none. Everyone worked his instrument in unexpected ways: Martel using a bottleneck slide on his viola da gamba, while Geggie attached a series of clips and other devices to his strings to make them more percussive. Even the conventional use of a bow was taken to other places, used to create scratching sounds and strange whispers on strings below the bridge. Tanguay moved his overhead microphones close to the cymbals to make the slightest of touches resonate like a gong. The breadth of textures was remarkable for such a small group of musicians using only acoustic instruments.
l:r: Pierre-Yves Martel, Pierre Tanguay, John Geggie
There were many lessons to be learned. At one point Tanguay told the audience that music can be more than sounds emerging out of silence. An equally important aspect to the 70-minute performance of three extended pieces was that being non-participative is, in fact, an explicitly participative act. Each musician would, at various points, cease playing, letting the other two drive where the music was to go. Tanguay, at one point, while singing a repeated melodic fragment, only pretended to be hitting his drums. As the vocal phrase drew to an end and the room sat in rapt silence while he continued to move his sticks around the kit, never touching them, he created a strong sense of visual and aural drama when, finally, he did hit the kit and the trio resumed its exploration.
Each improvisation traversed a wide musical landscape, from the dark and spare to the jagged and, for a trio, the surprisingly dense. All manner of references could be found: Geggie and Martel, at one point bowing a repeated pattern reminiscent of classical composer Steve Reich's minimalist phases; at another Tanguay playing a gentle funk groove with Geggie locking in empathically, providing a foundation for Martel to experiment more liberally. For those wondering where the "jazz" was, there was even a brief segment where the trio actually swung.
Despite familiar melodies that either emerged in the middle of long improvisation or provided a way out of the three compositions, the trio approached the recognizable in unexpected ways. The elegiac "Silence," in particular, was familiar, but with Martel playing the changes and Geggie soloing, they made it their own.
As is the case with all of Geggie's performances (and improvised music in general), the only drawback is that they're rarely documented. That one-time, real-time uniqueness only makes them more special for the audiences privileged enough to attend. With a performance marked by fearless exploration, strong simpatico and textural diversity, Geggie, Martel and Tanguay opened this year's Improv Invitational series by raising the bar for the shows to follow.