the jazz authority; random dubiously zappy rants about 'the musicians music'.: Concert Review - Don Thompson Quartet

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Concert Review - Don Thompson Quartet

Concert Review of the Don Thompson Quartet – Canadian Tour 2008

The October 20th evening concert at the Knox United Church in Parksville, British Columbia, was a “must see” for serious jazz fans and musicians of any and all kinds. The material performed was entirely original compositions by Don Thompson. Over the course of two sets, lasting about 45 minutes each, the audience was treated to a night of some of the very best Canadian jazz in existence. With a band comprised of Don Thompson on vibes and piano, Phil Dwyer on saxophone and piano, Terry Clarke on drums and Jim Vivian on the upright bass, one would expect to see a venue full of keen fans eager to be hit with a night of fantastic jazz compositions and improvisation. The audience seemed as serious about the show as the performers, yet there was a sense of playfulness and calm in the demeanour of everyone in attendance, including the performers. It was a rare treat to have the opportunity to hear this band live. These musicians are all award winners, and their collective effort has produced two CDs. The CD entitled Ask Me Later, (CBC Records) – was released in 2005 and won a Juno award in 2006 for best traditional jazz album. The recent CD entitled For Kenny Wheeler (Sackville Recordings) was recorded, produced and released in 2008. This tour was tied into the release of the second CD.

No concert review would be complete without a thorough description of a number of the pieces that were performed. Two that stuck in my mind were Another Rainy Day and Hot Chocolate. Interestingly, both were recorded on Ask Me Later, but not on For Kenny Wheeler - the album they were touring. Another Rainy Day is a ballad, with the meter often switching between 4/4 and 3/4 time. Unless you’re looking for the changes in meter, it’s unlikely that you’d notice them. The collective feel and level of communication between the band members is so comfortable that the music just seemed to flow with little thought or effort. As the band performed this piece a hush come over the crowd. The audience gave the musicians their full attention, and I can’t recall listening to a ballad performed live where the entire room was so captivated by the music. As I listened to Don perform on the vibes (Phil Dwyer was at the piano for this piece) I noticed that the rest of the band wasn’t just supporting him as the soloist; they were actually creating a great deal of rhythmic complexity at points where the energy in Don’s solo peaked. Jim Vivian and Terry Clarke were in nearly constant contact with each other visually, which is a great way for them to ensure that they are constantly paying attention to what the other one is doing. Not only was the composition so wonderful that I decided to ask Don for the score the next day (which I did and he graciously provided to me only a few days later, while they were still on tour!) but the level of skill with which it was performed was so high that it left me feeling a richer person for having witnessed it.

The stage presence of Don Thompson is certainly unique. With a gentle and relaxed demeanor he introduced the members of the band and the individual pieces, and his stories behind the music were always entertaining, adding to the experience of attending the show and hearing the music performed live. While Don Thompson’s introduction to Another Rainy Day was funny (“while in Banff it rained every day except for one… and it rained that day too!”) the way he introduced Hot Chocolate was perfectly appropriate in its simplicity. Knowing that his audience was fairly hip, Don explained that this piece was based on the changes to an old jazz standard entitled Cherokee. He altered the bridge to include some chord changes borrowed from John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, but the resolution ended up in a key different from the rest of the piece, so he did the most obvious thing: he wrote the last section in a different key, with a short turnaround (a set of chord changes) to take it back to the top of the form and the original key. While that might sound straightforward, and the musicians were perfectly comfortable with the composition, it’s the opinion of this musician that one would have to be either a sucker for punishment, a show off, or an extremely accomplished improviser to want to attempt to play this music! The tempo was quite brisk at over 200 beats per minute, and the level of musicianship in this ensemble was again apparent. Throughout the solos the rhythm section provided a steady platform for improvisation. Phil Dwyer played saxophone for this tune, and when it was his solo I could tell I was in for a treat by the way Terry Clarke and Jim Vivian were locked in with each other. Not only did Phil Dwyer provide musical material for the rhythm section to pick up on and make use of (which they did handily) but each of the other performers offered up rhythmic, melodic and harmonic gems that each person managed to capitalize on in some way, nearly every time. The level of listening and communication was unbelievably high. It was an inspirational experience that will stick in my memory for a very long time.

Don Thompson (myspace)

Phil Dwyer

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