I haven’t reviewed albums for some time on this site but one crossed my desk recently that I feel seasonally inspired to write about.
It’s a wonderful new Christmas album by Victoria’s own Bob Watts Trio recorded in the sanctuary of St. Philip Anglican Church in Oak Bay and featuring the piano work of the sublime and fiery Pablo Cardenas.
Many of you will know that drummer Watts moved to Victoria a few years ago from Winnipeg (although he still spends a lot of time there for business and music) and established a monthly jazz vespers series at St. Philip. During his tenure at the church he’s worked with the likes of Karl Roessingh, Joey Smith, Rob Cheramy, Tony Genge, Bruce Meikle and Tom Vickery.
Watts most often appears with Cardenas and bassist Ross Macdonald in a trio and indeed they are the personnel on Jazz for Christmas 2.
Before you say, ‘do we really need another jazz Christmas album?’ you should know there’s something unique about this one and its companion Jazz for Christmas 1, recorded in Winnipeg in 2010. According to Watts, these are the only two jazz albums around devoted strictly to interpreting Christmas carols.
That’s right, all the other jazz seasonal albums – there must be thousands of them – offer the odd carol but mostly feature arrangements of popular Christmas songs like that old Mel Tormé classic – you know the one I mean.
This new album includes a deeply blue and soulful Silent Night, a lively jazz waltz version of It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and a fast-swinging Good Christian People Rejoice which burns along at 220 bpm – a tempo which apparently left Watts exclaiming an unprintable and unreleasable (but humorously appropriate) “Holy s–” when they made it through what turned out to be a gem of a first take.
You’ll want this one on top of your Christmas CD stack. The tunes may be familiar but the arrangements are fresh, original, and deeply swinging.
Whitaker, supported by an A-list of west coast players, delivers the real thing with her signature dark, husky voice that seems made for jazz.
And while that voice thins now and then under the load of these demanding tunes and arrangements, Whitaker makes up for any tonal challenges with sensitive phrasing that respects the lyrics and knows when there should be sound and and when there should be silence.
Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry is a fine example with the gorgeous interplay between her muted trumpet voice and Dwyer’s sweet, supple sax. You’ll also hear it in My Foolish Heart as she plays off rich horn lines and Dwyer’s spare piano work.
Fact is, all the songs on this album are delivered with style, not the least of which are the Stevie Wonder tunes Overjoyed and Creepin’, well-chosen contemporary contrasts to the standards that are at the core of the album.
Speaking of Phil Dwyer, is there a better musical mind anywhere in the country? He, along with the other masterful players he’s recruited, including Brad Turner on trumpet and flugelhorn, Ian McDougall on trombone and Ken Lister on bass, has given Whitaker an expansive musical sandbox in which to play.
Just listen to the percussive fun and excitement on the opening The Song is You and you’ll know you’re in for a treat. This album is a winner vocally and instrumentally.
Note: Sadly the CD arrived too late for me to review it in time for Whitaker’s Victoria show this past weekend, but you can catch her tonight (Wednesday) at The Cellar in Vancouver at 8 pm. And the album is now available on disk or digital download through Whitaker’s website. It would make a great Christmas gift.
There were times last night when I thought the Wayne Shorter Quartet, triggered by Brian Blade on drums, would levitate right through the roof of the Royal and soar into the evening sky.
Blade was that astonishing and they were that good.
Before I say more, a caveat: they weren’t for everybody. The guy beside me, who left early with his partner, held his head sometimes as if in pain.
The dude who thought he was at a rock concert and shouted, “Play Birdland!” was probably disappointed.
One avid jazz fan I know spent the concert making up funny show titles to cope. The one she shared with me was brilliant: “What Fresh Hell Is This?”
But I think it’s safe to say that most of the audience, once they abandoned all expectations of conventional harmonic structure and melody, were dumbstruck. Evidence: the spontaneous standing ovation and shouts for more that erupted at the end of the 90-minute set.
(Note: this was not one of those obligatory standing O’s, where a few people get up, and others, self-consciously thinking they should join in, rise slowly from their seats. This was instant, explosive, and sustained enough to bring the group back on stage for an encore after a long delay).
I confess, I was one of the shouters.
What triggered my response?
It was the ability of these great musicians to create in the moment with pure abandon.
To play as if the pages of their charts were filled with questions.
To play as if they were blank.
To experiment and stumble only to rise on a wave of exalted improvisation.
To perform as if they were discovering music for the first time.
To know where they were going but not know.
To play with deep beauty.
To dare to play with chaos.
To be so fully attuned to each other that at times they were one musician not four.
To spin off into four separate worlds and then awake to each other and come together once again.
To play with humour.
To be deeply serious.
To answer the Birdland dude with the most hesitant and unpracticed of beginnings. (I love it that Shorter felt free enough to make the warming up and tuning of his sax part of the music).
To go crazy (witness Blade leaping off his stool and laughing as he drummed like a madman while John Patitucci’s right hand became a blurr on his upright bass).
To be still and silent and play little or nothing at all.
To love what they were doing so much that it didn’t matter what they were doing.
To play until they could play no more.
Watching these guys was like watching a painting come to life:
Danilo Perez on the grand piano stage right peering at the charts and then looking at the others intently as he sent single notes or extended chords their way and waited for a reaction.
Shorter, standing casually beside the piano in his Indian-style kurta, playing one phrase on his soprano sax and then, enough said, putting it down.
Patitucci swaying and twisting with his bass in the wind of Blade’s drumming.
Blade, stage left, exploding into the most impossible of drum riffs and then settling quietly into the tinkling of a few bells.
This was art, not entertainment.
In its own way the Wayne Shorter Quartet did rise into the night sky.
For those who missed it, here’s a taste from a concert in Vienna:
Jazz fans could be excused for thinking they died and went to heaven last night at Alix Goolden Hall.
Two groups took us there in totally different ways.
First up was Montreal’s DBLT, performing a tribute to Bill Evans of such range and beauty that to describe it seems ridiculous. How do you explain perfection?
Volumes could be devoted to the impossible bass playing of Michel Donato, the sublime piano work of Francois Bourassa, the transformative tenor saxophone of Frank Lozano, and the dynamic drumming of Pierre Tanguay.
A few words come to mind – space, light and fire – but the truth is you had to be there, and if you weren’t, the best you can do is sample their musicianship through this clip which will give you a small taste of the sonic banquet they gave us:
Phil Dwyer Sextet featuring Laila Biali
Next up was Vancouver Island’s own Phil Dwyer and his breathtaking compositional tribute to classic Canadian composers like Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, and Joni Mitchell.
On the magical Canadian mystery tour with Dwyer were Jodi Proznick on bass, Rob Piltch on guitar, Vince Mai on trumpet and Davide Direnzo on drums, as well as special guest Laila Biali who, as Sting has recognized, plays piano like a demon and has a voice from the gods.
In an Ottawa Citizen review of this show, Peter Hum suggested that in a fair world Dwyer and Biali would be as famous as the musicians behind the popular songs they were performing.
He’s right, particularly when we’re talking about Dwyer, who last night demonstrated that he is one of our great Canadian composers, albeit in a vein that the majority of music fans will likely never approach or recognize.
Those looking for the familiar melodies and simple chords of the original tunes would be disappointed since Dwyer transformed the songs – among them Robbie Robertson’s Down By the Lazy River, Gordon Lightfoot’s Beautiful and Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds – into sonic landscapes of such beauty and chaos that it was like hearing The Group of Seven transfigured through the musical imaginations of Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett and Ornette Coleman.
Crazy, I know, but that’s what heaven sounded like.
Here are some samples, albeit with a septet and slightly different personnel. Make sure you listen to Lightfoot’s Beautiful: Phil Dwyer
Hermann’s was jammed to the rafters last night for guitarist Michael Occhipinti’s Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon. We arrived later than most but managed to grab a table dead centre at the front – a blessing but also a curse since we were right in the line of fire of Occhipinti’s Fender amp, which was cranked. I don’t know how the balance was elsewhere in the club but from that vantage point the guitar was far too loud, often drowning out Elizabeth Shepherd on piano and even Kevin Turcotte on trumpet who was five feet in front of us. Occhipinti played well but it would have been nice to hear guitar levels more akin to those found on the album, which by the way is superb (more on that in a moment).
Despite that complaint, the music was fabulous, particularly on quieter tunes like Across the Universe and Working Class Hero when we could hear all the musicians and fully appreciate Occhipinti’s creative re-imagining of these songs, not to mention (in the case of those two songs) Elizabeth Shepherd’s sublime vocals.
Jazz arrangements of pop songs can go awry, particularly with a songwriter like Lennon and a group like The Beatles, where the musical bar is high and we hear the tunes in a particular way. They can be too saccharine or stray too far from the original, pitfalls Occhipinti has avoided through his choice of musicians and vocalists, his arrangements, and his fine guitar work.
This was a great show and they’ve produced a superb album that I highly recommend. Have a listen courtesy of the CBC: