Impressions in Jazz/Black History Concerts: Ottawa: February 2006
"Voices in a Strange Land": Thursday, February 23, 2006
"Suite Freedom": Saturday, February 25, 2006
Jazz started out black. The great majority of the innovators and great musicians were black, and the roots of jazz are in early black music. The pictures, album covers and documentaries all show this. What's less well known is the degree to which jazz musicians spoke about the black experience through their music.
That was the inspiration for Ottawa bassist Adrian Cho, in highly ambitious twin concerts in late February in Ottawa. Cho had great success last year with an evening of lesser-known Miles Davis works. This year, he took a much greater risk, with two evenings of music commemorating Black History Month. The first, "Voices in a Strange Land," was a history of blacks in the US and Canada, through traditional songs, show tunes and jazz music. The second, "Suite Freedom," highlighted undeservedly obscure short and longer pieces by musicians like Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane.
"Voices in a Strange Land" opened dramatically. Led by Mark Rehder on hand drum, the soloists and chorus entered singing call and response. A series of spirituals and work songs followed, illuminating the situation of slaves in the Americas, including "Take This Hammer," "Follow the Drinkin' Gourd" and "Hoe, Emma, Hoe."
The two soloists, Ottawa jazz singer Anna Williams and Toronto singer Marcus Nance, worked ably together but still had very different styles. Williams liked to vary tempo and emphasis, whereas Nance showed his Broadway and dramatic training in his song presentation. They were backed by a local gospel chorus, Committed Praise, whose voices blended well together and very competently filled in the musical background.
The performances steadily strengthened as the group moved through a slow and intense reading by Williams of "Strange Fruit" to songs directly from the Civil Rights movement, like "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," and ended with a brilliant collaboration between Marcus Nance on vocals and Chet Doxas (tenor sax), Rick Rangno (trumpet) and Sandy Gordon (alto sax) on Nat Adderley's "Work Song." The vibrancy and drive of that song left everyone clapping as they started the intermission.
The second half of the evening was devoted to the portrayal of blacks in Broadway show tunes and in jazz, symbolized by the singers switching from wearing black and white to bright colours. Williams' tribute to Nina Simone, "Feeling Good," was slower than the song deserved, but the musicians quickly picked up the pace. Highlights included the duet between Williams and Nance in "Bess You is My Woman" from "Porgy & Bess," and Williams' original song, "The Blacker The Berry," but what the audience gave its greatest ovation to was a controlled and heartfelt performance by Nance of "Ol' Man River." It's a difficult song to sing well without sounding stagy, and Nance made you feel the deep sadness and resilience in the music and lyrics, with his trained bass-baritone beautifully caressing the melody.
The evening ended on a high note with two selections by Canadian jazz composer Joe Sealey from his "Africville Suite," which combined the talents of all the singers. The singers were most ably backed up throughout the evening by Rehder on drums, Vince Halfhide on guitar, and particularly Holly Arsenault on piano.
The first concert was a sell-out in the intimate space of the Fourth Stage at the National Arts Centre. The second concert, in the larger Dominion-Chalmers Church, was artistically even better, but unfortunately played to a smaller audience. The material was even more challenging, including Canadian premieres of three symphonic jazz pieces. It had been in planning for many months, with Cho having written the transcriptions and charts for the band by the fall of 2005.
Musically, it gelled well: the performers, despite having little joint rehearsal time, took cues well from each other and sounded enthusiastic and professional, and taking their cues well from Cho as conductor. Points in the music where musicians had to play against each other came off without a hitch, particularly a section in one of the Mingus pieces where three saxophones and a trombone all played around and over each other, complementing each other perfectly.
The problems were simple logistics: dropped music, musicians losing their place in the sheaves of paper, awkward seating changes between major pieces, and not enough space on the stage to allow quick ups-and-downs as soloists exchanged places.
The first half consisted of jazz pieces influenced by the civil rights movement, including "Alabama" by John Coltrane, and "Petite Fleur Africaine" by Duke Ellington. But what really defined that section of the show were the four pieces by Charles Mingus, culminating in "Better Get Hit In Your Soul." Richard Whiteman (piano), Cho (bass), and Mark Rehder (drums) provided an excellent base for these pieces, allowing Andre Leroux (tenor sax), Rick Rangno (trumpet), Mark Ferguson (trombone), and Nathan Cepelinski (alto & soprano sax) considerable room to solo and cooperate. It was a fine selection, culminating in Marcus Nance performing a reprise of his "Work Song," even more insidiously memorable than on the first night.
The second half consisted of two long pieces by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington respectively, followed by a short jazz version of Tchaikovsky's Arab Dance as interpreted by Gil Evans and Claude Thornhill.
Coltrane had only performed "Africa/Brass" in the studio, and Cho had transcribed it from the recording. It consisted of five movements, each with a separate main saxophone soloist, each with an individual style. The seventeen year-old Cepelinski led off with a variations on "Greensleeves," which both paid tribute to the 16th century melody and added considerable syncopation; Leroux closed with a memorably energetic version of "Africa." Each saxophonist doubled up on flute, clarinet, or bass clarinet when not soloing, and they were supported by ten other musicians on French horn, euphonium, trombone, tuba, trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as those on drums and bass and piano. Catherine Hammond produced some particularly beautiful short passages on bass clarinet. The end result was a rich, full sound with considerable energy and stylewhat would have been a memorable evening on its own.
The next piece, "Liberian Suite," by Duke Ellington, had a disastrous public premiere because of a snowstorm and was rarely repeated afterwards. It was composed in honour of the centenary of the Republic of Liberia in 1947, and its five movements show both classical and bop influences. The first movement had a moving vocal by Nance, the third a fine violin solo by Laura Nerenberg. Both "Liberian Suite" and the "Arab Dance" were well-performed, with Leroux on sax and Ferguson on trombone particular standouts.
Musically, the evenings were both triumphs. Cho took the risk of performing little-known pieces in long programmes, and the musicians more than repaid his faith with intense and careful playing. Certainly those who attended were more than satisfied. If there was any criticism, it was that Cho tried to stuff more music into each evening that there were hoursbut it would be difficult to decide what to leave out.
Particularly commendable also were the pamphlets provided for each concerts, containing extensive notes and historical background. Pastor Deborah Ann Taylor of Ottawa's Mount Calvary Lutheran Church provided the notes for the first concert, and she and Professor Andrew Homzey of Concordia University co-wrote the notes for the second concert. One addition that would have been helpful, though, would have been a short listing of the programme titles at the beginningsometimes it was difficult to follow which order the pieces were appearing in.
Unfortunately, because of the less-than-full crowds, Cho may not be able to continue this series, which would be a great pity: this is music that Ottawa residents simply cannot hear anywhere else. To simply have organized such large ensembles to do rarely-performed jazz pieces is a triumph in itself, and the wonderful music that resulted should heap even more kudos on Cho. This type of ambition and striving deserve to be supported by Ottawa jazz fans.