A smooth sax, a sassy drummer, and a bass whose rhythm is as relentless and as vital as a heartbeat… This is the stuff that jazz is made of.
ABTrio’s performance at Lit Italian Wine Bar on Thursday night was almost, but not quite, chill mood music for a hot night. Their style was just a hair too in-your-face to fade into the background. Like any good jazz band, they slipped easily from a straight off-beat to a swing to a triple to a hemiola and back, mixing in cross-rhythms without missing a beat. Whether it was a sudden Latin beat or A and B dropping back to give C a quick solo, they kept insisting on the audience’s attention.
They played a wide range of music, from smooth “white jazz” to an edgier late-Coltrane but pre-fusion style. Drummer Thom Bennett in particular helped to alter the style drastically, changing the weight of his strike or the intensity of repetition in subtle yet definitive ways. There was almost always a bit too much snare for my taste, but with such a small band it’s not a surprising move to fill in the gaps. After all, even with the help of bassist Keith Rempel, who was truly phenomenal at leading the harmonic direction while matching the melodic rhythms – or so it sounded to me – there is only so much ruckus a plucked acoustic instrument can make. The bass is meant to anchor the rest of the band, not to elevate it or increase its volume.
I always enjoy a frontman who doesn’t steal the spotlight. Especially in a group with only two other members, both of whom are rhythm, it seems to be hard for the melodic instrument to give them room, pay attention to them, and generally not showboat (Kenny G, anyone?). ABTrio’s saxophonist Dan Davis was a classy performer, dropping back as often as either of the other two, sitting out sections, and coming in relatively well balanced. When he picked up the melody it was with a sweet tone, never breaking between notes, except to add a little ornamental flourish or blip. The saxophone was my favourite. And the sangria wasn’t half bad either.