WPAC theatre, 11pm, Friday, October 29
Oliver Lake alto saxophone, Jared Gold on Hammond B3, Chris Beck drums, Russell Gunn trumpet
GERRY Koster of ABC radio’s Jazz Up Late was our smooth host for the first concert by an overseas ensemble, easing the expectant audience into a live broadcast.
There were three concerts by this quartet during the festival, as well as a solo set by Oliver Lake — featuring poetry — in Holy Trinity Cathedral. I heard the quartet on Friday and Saturday nights, but not the solo gig and not the quartet’s Sunday outing. Saturday seemed to really heat up, and I enjoyed that more. I’ll comment briefly on individual pieces, but in general I found these concerts a display of virtuosity — amazingly skilled players who seemed to do it so easily. My reservation was that, while I marveled at the technique on show, I was not often moved. Pianist Marc Hannaford may argue that the emotion or affect experienced in a performance is in the ear of the beholder, so therefore my reaction says more about me as observer than about the artists’ work. That may be true, but I do like to be moved. I prefer to be affected rather than merely to admire. And this outing often seemed to be more about dynamics rather than melody, harmony or emotion. Another feature was that the quartet did not often depart from the traditional — and a bit boring — structure of solo after solo after solo.
Enough preamble. Makin’ It (Lake) was a dry piece with little melody. Gunn must have great chops, as shown in his searing, shining, blaring notes. There was plenty of smash and bash from Beck. In Aztec (Lake) volleys of serrated sound emerged from the alto before the horns built a tangible sculpture, with Lake “smacking his lips” on sax to Gunn’s horn salvos. The piece gradually changed and developed, as if life was being drawn away, its loss being reluctantly resisted in a struggle to survive.
I was expecting to hear more from the organ, given the power of the B3, but it did not often assert itself in this concert. In Lake’s early solo of Move Groove he embarked on long, twisting, convoluted runs of notes that he elongated and smoothed out just before handing over to Gunn for a fiery, forceful burst driven from behind by Beck. Gold’s solo seemed unnecessarily restrained, but eventually built momentum to catch and run with the rhythm into the finale of the piece.
In Walked John, by trumpeter Malachi Thompson in dedication to John Coltrane, was swinging from the word go. Gunn let out a cry of enthusiasm before sending notes soaring, backed by organ bursts, but again the B3 under Gold seemed muted rather than incisive. Lake’s solo was virtuosic and strong. The organ did fire up a bit before Beck went beserk, setting off a duel with Gunn that eventually involved Lake. It really was swinging in the end.
The organ was punchier in Yo Dance, which opened with some nice horn harmonies. Lake did some screeching and scratching with the alto, Gunn did some muttering on trumpet and some notes from the horns almost hurt the ears they were so piercing. This was quite out-there stuff — a marvellous melee. Lake’s alto seemed to be alive in that wonderful way saxophonists have of being barely able to contain their instrument, his body shaking and shimmying. At last there was some deep organ input, then the B3 sounded like a flock of nasty seagulls fighting over fish and chip wrappings. The organ shimmered delightfully before the horns joined in dissonant unison and proceedings closed like a barely audible breath. Great stuff.
Fire Waltz brought more virtuosity, as Lake effortlessly negotiated complex arpeggios and then the drum-backed organ built speed and intricacy. Gunn wanted in, but Lake motioned for him to wait so that Beck could blast away. The finish was frenetic as Lake displayed finesse and dexterity.
The closing piece, I Want to Walk With Jesus, began with soulful sax over glowingly full organ. This was slower, simpler and had much more expression. Things hotted up once Gunn entered the scene and the horns seemed to be aiming for the rafters of the new performing arts centre.
There are no star ratings here, but my picks were Yo Dance and the closing number. And there is no doubting the consummate skill of these musicians.