April 2006

Russ Little
Presented by Toronto Downtown Jazz & GMP Productions
April 3, 2006Glen Gould StudioToronto
The intimate trombone of Russ Little
by Dave Barnes with photos by Roger Humbert
Russ Little brought his sextet to Glen Gould Studio for two sets of highly engaging Jazz. It was a concert you could invite friends to — those friends who have grown wary of Jazz's extremes — in the certainty that they would thank you for the introduction. We heard true Jazz standards and others that could readily become so with more airing. One of the final concerts of the Toronto Downtown Jazz 20th anniversary series, this was an evening of finely rendered, "really nice tunes".

As Jaymz Bee of Jazz FM had promised us in his introduction, the material featured was from Little's recent CD, Snapshot, which is up for consideration as Album of the Year in the 2005 National Jazz Awards. For most listeners, it was also an introduction to Russ Little’s work as a leader, following many years as a noted trombone sideman in definitive big bands ranging from the swing to rock eras.

Russ Little (Scott Alexander in background)

For the evening, we had Phil Dwyer sitting in on sax (and contributing some on-the-fly horn arrangements). Accomplished backing was provided by Reg Schwager on guitar, Brian Barlow (who also produced the CD) on drums and long standing colleagues Tom Szczesniak on piano and Scott Alexander on bass.

The Gould is not regarded as an intimate setting, but the enthusiastic clusters of fans made it seem so. Perhaps Russ's promise at the opening that he likes to regard his audience as intimate friends worked the charm. Or, it could have been the stunning solo trombone passages, of such delicacy and restraint as is seldom heard from that instrument. Whatever the reason, the lingering impression from this energetic and varied program is one of the newly revealed capacity of the trombone to weave an intimate musical line we more often associate with the voice or the oboe.

Local air-play from Snapshot may be favouring Eddie Harris' sixties-style "Cold Duck Time", complete with funky plunger mute trombone phrasing but the live band showed its full range of Jazz chops in more traditional material. Yes, from the same art form that is capable of embracing cerebral, edgy explorations, we had the thoroughly melodic, upbeat and catchy, in styles as varied as swing, bebop, bossa, blues and calypso.

Russ and Phil stretched out on Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring" and other tunes to great effect but we saw a confident leader's generosity and respect for his band members according solo time amongst some of Canada's finest. This is music anchored in tradition and craft but not constrained by it. We had some risk taking on solos but with a professional polish. Such spontaneous harmonic and rhythmic interplay from such seasoned musicians can make it look rehearsed.

An especially poignant and wonderfully crafted moment came with Russ' solo in "How Are Things In Glocca Morra?" that transitioned seamlessly via trombone/bass duo into Frank Loesser's "Slow Boat to China". This is an improbable pairing that just worked.

A flood of fine tunes followed, shaped and balanced between a bossa nova treatment of "Boy Next Door" to Horace Silver's hauntingly beautiful ballad "Peace" and back to the energy of Duke Ellington's "Cottontail". With Russ injecting the Calypso-inspired "Little Prince" he wrote for his son, we had a display of some finely honed versatility from the rhythm section. Brian Barlow's 8-bar trades on "Groovin' High" had him dipping into the full sonority of the drum kit including a quick and effective hand drumming interjection on open snare and toms. Alexander contributed some tasty bass exchanges and Schwager's guitar solo shone in "Cottontail". Tom Szczesniak was in his element with tastefully placed chromatic runs, blues motifs and block chord passages on Dizzy Gillespie's rarely heard "Ow!".

Concerts in this CBC setting usually get the full audio treatment, miked and amplified for an on-air performance and therefore balanced for the hall. This evening showed us the natural and unassisted hall acoustics from the Glen Gould Studio and they are surprisingly mushy. Some of the crispness of the arrangements and tight support were masked by the wash of sound. Some further guidance from the Studio technicians might be in order to get the placements and baffles improved and give full benefit to the musicians’ efforts to provide balance and manage the dynamics. A microphone for the leader and for the horns to let us share in the more subdued passages is a must in this hall with its capacity to eat sound and smudge the low register.

No matter. The audience was all smiles and chatter with great bouts of applause between solos, numbers and sets and finishing with an extended burst leading to an encore. Suggesting the impromptu nature of such sessions and the capacity to surprise and pull arrangements together quickly, Little asked if they might finish on a ballad selection that he had been thinking about all day but had decided to add at the last minute, the timeless "I Thought About You". Yes, we all agreed, this is an ensemble that excels in ballads. A very fine ending to a charming and intimate evening.
Russ Little & Phil Dwyer
We welcome your comments and feedback
Dave Barnes
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Roger Humbert
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The Live Music Report

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