John Geggie/David Mott/Andy MilneGeggie Concert Series
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
March 1, 2008
The defining sound of John Geggie's latest concert collaboration was David Mott's baritone saxophone. That's not to underestimate the importance of Andy Milne's piano or Geggie's acoustic bass. But Mott's sax was the more unusual and more resonant sound, moving from short growls to long streams of melody, from deep bass notes to soprano squeaks. Having rarely seen this instrument except in big bands, I was surprised at its versatility and at how appropriate it sounded as a lead.
Mott began showing the big horn's capabilities early in the evening with Milne's "Headache in Residence." Blowing past the mouthpiece of the sax, he set up a steady rhythm that sounded much like brushes on cymbals. He then repeated the rhythm with deep bass notes on the sax, becoming stronger and stronger, with Milne lightly underlining the rhythm on piano. Geggie established the melody with bowed bass soon joined by Milne on piano, with Mott using punctuated notes to maintain the rhythm. Next, the threesome switched roles: Geggie at one point slapping out the rhythm with his hands on the bass while Mott sputtered staccato notes on sax, each higher than the last. Mott then started scatting vocally into the sax, but sounding angrier and angrier, almost like one of the street people outside the theater. Soon he returned to spitting out notes played on the sax, fading out gradually, until the song ended with tiny, whispered notes on the piano.
As Geggie commented afterwards, "Who needs Advil? We have David Mott."
This versatility among all three principals was, in fact, a hallmark of the show. The musicians traded off the role of drummer all evening. Geggie's "View from a Bridge," inspired by the covered wooden bridge in Wakefield, Quebec, was a good example. Milne began with accented, individual notes on the piano: a walking rhythm. Then Geggie took over the lead, using his bow to create long strings of sound, becoming almost screechy before turning deep again, like high winds blowing through the wood slats. Mott punctuated these sonic streams with rhythmic bass notes on the sax, with Milne underlining the whole with child-like simple patterns on the piano. And then it suddenly ended, unresolved, as we reached the end of the bridge.
The concert was one of a long-running series, on which Ottawa native Geggie invites new combinations of musicians from across Canada and around the world to play with him. This one was billed as "a daring evening of genre-bending compositions as well as free improvisation." Quite true, but not in the atonal, screeching manner that "daring" might have implied. The group's avant-garde approach instead showed in the complex rhythms that shifted among the musicians, and in the myriad ways they expanded the sounds their instruments could provide. Melody and harmony remained; in fact, Geggie's "I Wanted More," which he recently recorded with Marilyn Crispell, was played as a straight-ahead ballad.
Buoyed by an appreciative audience, the mood was one of playful experimentation: each musician contributed compositions, but there was considerable freedom within each piece for the introduction of new ideas and their elaboration. This latitude was particularly clear in Mott's "Yesterday's Tomorrow," during which he joked he had provided a really hard part for Andy Milne. In that piece, Mott used the deep baritone notes to full advantage during a flowing, melancholy solo; Milne and Geggie established a pattern that allowed Mott to circle in and around them, with Milne eventually taking over the melody. The song ended as it began, with a slow and deep sax line fading out. Geggie similarly experimented on Milne's "Couch Talk," placing plastic paper clips on some of his strings to add an extra level of buzzing and vibration.
The highlight of the evening was Mott's "Phrases," an almost-15-minute exploration of fear and dread. Mott's deep sax notes, sounding like bells tolling, set the initial tone. That ominous feeling was echoed by Geggie, as he moved his bow up and down the bass strings, at one point making the instrument scream by pressing the bow against the bridge. Mott alternated long, beautiful blues notes on sax with clicks on the valves, sounding like someone running. The song ended with a repeated bluesy riff on sax underlined with chime-like figures on piano; then the ominous sax riff came back one last time as if to dash any momentary hopefulness.
This was the first time all three musicians had played together, although Milne and Mott had known each other since they were teenagers in North Toronto, and Geggie had played with Milne many times, starting with the Canadian jazz group Chelsea Bridge. But given the ease they showed in playing together, it was clear they took great joy in each other's work.
The music forced listeners to pay careful attention but also repaid the effort. Their responsiveness to the music and obvious enjoyment was indicative of the trust that Geggie has built up with his Ottawa audience, even with material as unfamiliar and adventurous as what we heard on this evening.