John Geggie, Donny McCaslin & Jim Doxas at The Fourth Stage, Ottawa, Canada

John Kelman By

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5 Shades of Geggie: John Geggie/Donny McCaslin/Jim Doxas
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage,
Ottawa, Canada
Saturday, March 12, 2005

The month of March has been an unusually good one for jazz in Ottawa, Canada. Local audiences were already treated to the Milligan-Eagles Project CD Release featuring drummer Adam Nussbaum and an outstanding performance by Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell. So, when local bassist John Geggie took to the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage on Saturday, March 12, with New York saxophonist Donny McCaslin and Montreal drummer Jim Doxas—most recently seen in the same venue as part of bassist Adrian Cho's The Magic of Miles Davis performance—expectations were high. Not only did the trio not disappoint, but this may well be the best show of Geggie's ongoing 5 Shades of Geggie and No Boundaries series—where he has invited artists including pianists Marilyn Crispell and Myra Melford to join him.

Unlike most of Geggie's shows, where they are one-off events, he was able to book a short tour with this trio. By the time they hit Ottawa they had two nights under their belts, although the kind of interplay and intense communication that was going on between these three players must have been immediately evident from the first moments they played together.

McCaslin is a player who has been gradually acquiring a stellar reputation as a fearless improviser in any context. Nominated for a Grammy this year for his performance with Maria Schneider, and a member of Dave Douglas' recent quintet—although those two gigs only scratch the surface of the significant musical associations McCaslin has had since emerging in the early '90s—one of McCaslin's early positions of prominence was as a member of the cooperative quartet Lan Xang with alto player David Binney. His tenor tone is robust, and he thankfully eschews the nasally sound so prevalent with soprano players, instead going for something warmer and more full-bodied.

Capable of blinding speed and articulation McCaslin, nevertheless, demonstrates a remarkable sense of construction and firm understanding of the value of space. Most of the pieces played at the performance hovered around the 15-minute mark, and yet his sense of invention and strong sense of thematic development kept the audience on the edge of their seats throughout two energy-filled sets. McCaslin currently has three releases under his own name, and while Chris Potter has been garnering wider acclaim as, perhaps, the tenor player of his generation, there is no doubt that McCaslin is in the same league as a player of significance, equally deserving of a broader audience.

Doxas, based in Montreal, Canada, is another player with a fierce sense of discovery and imagination. Having appeared in Ottawa a few times in the past year, it's clear that he is a confident drummer, never intimidated by whatever is thrown at him. While his performance at The Magic of Miles Davis was one of the clear highlights of the show, there was the feeling that he was somewhat forcibly confined by the stylistic demands of the music. In the more open context of this trio, however, there were no such limitations, with the closest references to Doxas' playing being Joey Baron and Jim Black. Like Baron, Black and Tom Rainey, whose propulsive drumming anchored Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell less than a week previous, Doxas views the entire kit as a kind of percussion mini-orchestra. Coaxing a surprisingly wide array of sounds out of the kit—using conventional and not-so-conventional means—Doxas' style is imbued with a certain dry wit that, as deeply intense as the music sometimes got, kept things from becoming too serious. A player from whom more will most certainly be heard in the future, Doxas has his own project in BYPRODUCT, another sax-bass-drums trio with its own take on blending acoustic instruments with more modern conceits.

Geggie is, quite simply, a world-class player that Ottawa is fortunate to have. While he is sadly under-recorded—although displaced Ottawa native D.D. Jackson has taken advantage of his talents on a number of releases—he has the ability to reach out to artists the world over, making connections and, if timing and opportunity avail themselves, arranging for musical meetings that have established him as the heart and soul of the Ottawa jazz scene. Equally comfortable as a classical bassist, his creative instincts and stylistic earmarks have seen him fit into a variety of contexts, always asserting his personality while, at the same time, melding into whatever stylistic rigours are presented. For the past few years Geggie, alongside an active playing and teaching schedule, has led the nightly jam sessions at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, where his broad reach has been tested on a nightly basis.

While the trio gave the audience the occasional moment to catch their breath, they were few and far between. With a repertoire consisting of original compositions by McCaslin and Geggie, along with a couple of standards thrown in that were so loosely interpreted as to ultimately be almost unrecognizable, the sheer power of the trio was palpable. And the three players shared the kind of instantaneous simpatico that most groups dream of. The interplay was so rich that, at times, it was difficult to tell who was leading and who was following. But, in the final analysis, that's exactly the kind of empathic interaction that makes the best jazz so exciting. When one has the chance to hear three players so clearly in tune with each other that collective motifs seem to mysteriously appear out of the ether, only to dissolve and move on to other territories, that's the kind of magic that keeps the tradition alive. Even at their most free, Geggie, McCaslin and Doxas were so in synch that their liberated exchanges felt imbued with a clear sense of purpose, rather than just being a cacophony of sounds.

To discuss individual solos is pointless. Each player demonstrated the kind of focus and intention that made their individual contributions both sing and dance. McCaslin seemed to draw from an almost endless source of inspiration, making each solo different and yet indicative of consistent musical philosophy. Geggie went from richly lyrical to abstruse, sometimes within the space of a few bars. And Doxas found ways to enrich, with punctuations that always made sense and were never musical non sequiturs. That, in the midst of a McCaslin solo for example, Geggie and Doxas were able to diverge and converge at will, playing loosely with the time and then somehow coming together into a locked-in groove, made for a memorable evening of improvisation at the highest level.

Ottawa audiences, who attended the Acoustic Hard Cell show earlier in the week and then the Geggie/McCaslin/Doxas performance, were treated to two different views of improvisation. As free as Acoustic Hard Cell could become, Berne's idiosyncratic and somehow mathematically-precise compositions lent a structure that gave a centre to the proceedings. The compositions of Geggie and McCaslin were less rigidly structured, but provided equal opportunities for free play and unencumbered exploration.

Some groups work for years to develop a distinctive group sound, but within the short course of a few days John Geggie, Donny McCaslin and Jim Doxas found common ground that created a unique and immediate chemistry. Leaving the audience exhausted but satisfied, this was a performance that will not soon be forgotten, unquestionably a highlight of the 2005 jazz season in Ottawa.

Visit John Geggie, Donny McCaslin and Jim Doxas and BYPRODUCT on the web.

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