John Geggie/Bill Carrothers/Nick Fraser 5 Shades of Geggie
Fourth Stage, National Arts Centre
May 13, 2006
It's been a strong year for Ottawa bassist John Geggie and his 5 Shades of Geggie series of concerts, where he brings in artists from around the world to play in configurations that have rarelyif everworked together previously. With little rehearsal, the stylistic purview may be wide but the unifying link is the risk inherent in playing without a safety net. Some shows may work better than others, but you can always count on some interesting things to happenand, on occasion, some real magic.
And there was some definite magic at Geggie's final show of the 2005/2006 season where he teamed up with Ottawa ex-pat drummer Nick Fraser (now living in Toronto), with whom he's worked over the past few years. Some may recall last year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival, where Geggie and Fraser were recruited at the last minute to cover for bassist Stanley Clarke at the Béla Fleck/Jean-Luc Ponty/Stanley Clarke show, when Clarke encountered difficulties crossing the border into Canada. There are few players, and even fewer rhythm sections, who could fill in on such short notice and do the kind of job that proves that, while Ottawa may not be any kind of jazz mecca, it does have its share of world class players, with Geggie and Fraser two of its strongest and most flexible.
Rounding out the trio was pianist Bill Carrothers. Carrothers, an American wholike his friend and sometimes musical companion Marc Coplandseems curiously better-received in Europe than he is in his own country, he's been building a consistent yet diverse body of work over the past decade. In the past couple of years he's released projects including Armistice 1918a sweeping two-disc set marrying period songs from World War I with a distinctive improvisational approachand the all-improvised Shine Ball featuring bassist Gordon Johnson and Bad Plus drummer Dave King. Both discs ranked high on critics' top picks for 2004 and 2005, yet Carrothers remains on the periphery of most Americans' musical radar. Like Copland, Carrothers' approach is often impressionistic and abstract, but in contrast to Copland's innate romanticism, Carrothers can sometimes be considerably darker, though optimistic rays of hope often cut through.
Carrothers' approach supports the idea that an artist's work reflect the times in which he/she lives. This becomes immediately evident when comparing the more positive ambience of The Blues and the Greys (Bridgeboy, 1997) and the bleaker Civil War Diaries: Solo Piano (Illusions Music, 2005), where the same material becomes considerably more unsettled.
The music for the Geggie/Carrothers/Fraser show was a mix of archival songs that Carrothers has covered over the yearsincluding It's a Long Way to Tipperary and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia and a smattering of standards, including Thelonious Monk's "Evidence, Duke Ellington's classic "Mood Indigo and Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade. The familiar melodies seemed to flow in and out of consciousness, often creating the feeling that you'd heard the songs before but weren't quite sure what they were. That is, in fact, one of the beauties of Carrothers' playinghe may radically reharmonizing the material, but there's almost always a core melody threading its way throughout.
While the influence of Keith Jarrett on Carrothers is unmistakable, he's less an overt stream-of-consciousness player. And while his technical facility is undeniable, Carrothers avoids the trapping of being chops-oriented. Instead, he looks for the core of a song, and then filters it through his viewpoint. Speaking with Carrothers and then hearing him play makes the link between personality and style completely self-evident. He possesses an almost mischievous sense of humour, and there were times at the performance where he seemed to be egging Geggie and Fraser on with a wry turn of phrase or particularly obscure voicing.
One of the most striking features of the two hour-long sets was a clear sense of searching. There were times when Carrothers' hands would hover over the keyboard, and one could almost feel him considering his options. Still, despite a more considered approach, Carrothers was never short of completely evocative and, occasionally, provocative. His style may be approachable, but it's never complacent, and he consistently challenges the audience to reconsider the familiar in new and unexpected ways.
With a brief rehearsal, a Toronto gig two nights earlier and a Canadian Broadcast Corporation radio date the day before, some comfort level was to be expected. But the chemistry was so intense yet paradoxically subtle that it felt as though they'd been playing together for much longer. Leveraging on the connection between Geggie and Fraser that's developed over the past few years helped, but their ability to anticipate Carrothersand his ability to do the same in reversemade for an evening filled with deep communication, but often in the most understated of ways. And while there were few sharp edges to be found in the trio's performance, there were plenty of skewed perspectives, making it eminently listenable yet, at the same time, demanding of the audience.
Fraser can swing hard when necessary, but he's equally a colorist with all manner of unusual tricks up his sleeve. Placing cymbals on the drums and pushing on them while striking them created a sound akin to a water gongs. His brushwork was impeccable, asserting time while, at the same time, creating richer texture, And his solos were clearly focused on the musical rather than macho displays of dexteritythough in order to do what he does, it's clear that he possesses all kinds of technical facility.
As relaxed as he's ever been, Geggie focused largely on lyrical excursions that took full advantage of some unusual techniques of his own. He possesses a rich tone that doesn't quite resonate in the gut, but is more rarefied. In a context that juxtaposed melodicism with more abstract impressionism, Geggie managed to both keep things focused and participate as an equal member of the trio's three-way conversation.
And it was a conversation. Eye contact was strong between the three players. While the mood was sometimes dark, it was also clear that they were having a lot of fun. And there were those magical moments when the trio would connect on such a deep level that they appeared as surprised and inspired as the audience bearing witness.
What Carrothers has been proving throughout his career is that it's possible to be free without losing a sense of purpose, and that there's plenty of good source material out there that's outside the typical Great American Songbook repertoire. Teamed with Geggie and Fraser he demonstrated that it's possible to honour the essence of a song while, at the same time, taking it to new places. It was a terrific way to close off this season's 5 Shades of Geggie, and it's good news that the series will pick up again this fall, with Geggie hinting at other intriguing musical collaborations to come.
Visit John Geggie and Bill Carrothers on the web.
John Geggie & Mark Dresser at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (Concert Review, 2005)
John Geggie, Donny McCaslin & Jim Doxas at The Fourth Stage, Ottawa, Canada (Concert Review, 2005)
John Geggie/Sunna Gunnlaugs/Justin Haynes Ottawa, Canada May 22, 2004 (Concert Review, 2004)
John Geggie, 'No Boundaries' Series with Mike Murley and Jim Doxas (Concert Review, 2004)
Bill Carrothers: Content in his Corner of the Jazz World (Interview, 2004)
Photo Credit: John Kelman