John Geggie / Jon Christensen / Steve Amirault in Ottawa, Canada
Geggie Concert Series
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
November 17, 2007
While John Geggie's annual concert series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage has had its share of significant names in the pastBilly Hart, Bill Carrothers, Craig Taborn, Marilyn Crispell and Myra Melford are but a few of the illustrious artists who have joined the Ottawa-based bassist for an evening of music without a safety netit's rare that he has had a guest as legendary as Jon Christensen.
Over the course of the past four decades Christensenwho has appeared as the drummer on more sessions for the equally iconic ECM label than anyone else with the exception of Jack DeJohnette (whose number has, perhaps, risen higher only because of his longstanding relationship with Keith Jarrett, with whom Christensen also played in the 1970s)has been one of the defining contributors to the often contested, difficult to easily define but undeniably existent ECM sound. Christensen's ability to make time elastic and find new ways to emphasize, reshape and color while, at the same time, remaining a distinctive and personal voice has elevated dozens of records by artists including Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Bobo Stenson, Terje Rypdal, Enrico Rava and Arild Andersen to classic status. Alongside Stenson, Rypdal, Garbarek and Andersen, Christensen was part of the first wave of Scandinavian musicians to help redefine, with the support and guidance of ECM's Manfred Eicher, what jazz is and can be.
When Geggie was approached by local drummer/writer Bruce Wittet with the idea of bringing Christensen to town (with the assistance of the Norwegian Embassy, who helped defray the not insignificant travel costs for the Oslo-based Christensen), he jumped at the chance, and the first name that came to mind to round out the group was another Canadian, pianist Steve Amirault. Amirault, whose Breath (Effendi, 2005) was one of the year's finest records, is ideal because of his ability to play freely and imaginatively, while retaining the same deep lyricism that has been so definitive on the many recordings to which Christensen has contributed over the years.
The beauty of Geggie's series is that there is rarely time for much rehearsal, and Christensenmuch like another well-known drummer who has, in recent years, returned to the ECM fold, Paul Motianeschews sheet music, choosing, instead, to respond completely in the moment. Geggie and Amirault both provided charts, but like the best music written for an improvised setting, they were nothing more than starting points. Geggie's material has been heard in multiple contexts over the yearsin particular his free-time ballad "Across the Sky"and every context brings something different to the material, but it's rare that a Geggie performance has been this free, this unencumberedââ'¬¦and this enjoyable. Many of Amirault's pieces came from Breath, but here, with Christensen's often water-like waves of sound and Geggie's ability to anchor while playing melodic foil, they took on an entirely new complexion.
Perhaps the truest indicator of how much musicians meeting each other for a first encounter are enjoying themselves is how far they stretch the material. Geggie's shows are traditionally broken into two forty-five minute sets, but the first set here lasted nearly seventy-five, and that was without the group making it through the entire set list (Amirault's "Forgiveness" was shuffled to the second set). Opening with a free improvisation the trio took their time, as they moved from abstraction to greater coalescence more than once; ebbing and flowing organically and with surprising simpatico for a group that had only met the day before for a brief rehearsal and an evening workshop. The trio finally found its way to Amirault's lovely "Acceptance," but even then Christensen's unconventional approach, which avoided definitive pulses while, at the same time, being undeniably rhythmical, took the tune to places Amirault likely never expected.
Watching the trio work its way through the first setwhich included two Geggie tunes and another Amirault piecewas nearly as enjoyable as closing one's eyes and absorbing the music. Eye contact was ever- present, and there were many occasions when it was not just possible to hear the trio connect but to see it as well.
During the intermission, when told how long the first set had run, Geggie and Amirault expressed surprise; and while it was a long set, it didn't feel like it. The second set was no less impressive, featuring more inspired free play, including a bass solo intro to Geggie's "Tattamagouche Tango" that demonstrated just how lucky Ottawa is to have an artist of his caliber in town. Amirault, who is preparing to enter the studio for the follow-up to Breathbut this time with a vocal album featuring original music, and the first to feature himself singingsang "Live to Love," an elegant tune on which his rich voice and gentle vibrato suggests that he may be relatively new to singing, but may well turn out to be every bit as strong a singer as he is an instrumentalist.
Watching Christensenwho often sat back, seeming to consider what Geggie and Amirault were doing before injecting his own ideaswas a remarkable experience, and a clear education in how, with music, listening is every bit as important as playing. There's little that's conventional about how he plays: hands were used as much as sticks and brushes, while parts of the kit not normally struck were hit as often as those that are. All with an approach to time that's simply like no other.
The show was a sell-out, and the extremely enthusiastic audience, despite the later than usual ending to the performance, wasn't about to let the trio leave without an encore. With no material left, the group did what they did bestthey winged it (though, by this time, they were functioning so well as a unit that one would have been hard-pressed to know it).
After the show there was talk amongst the group of trying to do this again in future. The good news is that CBC Radio Canada was there to record the concert, which will be broadcast in April, 2008, for those unfortunate to not have been in attendance. There was even some talk, by Christensen, of sending the recording to Manfred Eicher. Whether or not anything more will come to pass is impossible to predict. What is certain is that Ottawa was treated to an evening of world-class improvised music from one of the legends of modern jazz and from two others who, while not having the same reputation as Christensen, were playing at the same high level.