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Concert review: Jon Ballantyne
(2007 Atlantic Jazz Festival, Halifax)

Posted in music

Jon Ballantyne
Mon-16-Jul-2007 • Commons Room, Holiday Inn Select • Atlantic Jazz Festival, Halifax, NS
Word count for this review: 534

This year, Saskatchewan-born pianist Jon Ballantyne won his second Juno award. His first Juno was awarded in 1989 for his album Skydance, featuring saxophonist Joe Henderson. This year, he won the Juno for Best Traditional Jazz Album for his 2006 CD Avenue Standard, a recording of jazz standards with a fresh, original approach. At this year’s Atlantic Jazz Festival, he presented the audience with selections from that recording as well as several original compositions from his penultimate album, Ever Since Now. All of his recordings, including the quartet album he made with saxophonist Dewey Redman, are available at CDBaby.com or through his website at JonBallantyne.com.

Ballantyne’s set began with the famed Sam Rivers composition Beatrice. It was a lush, expressive rendering and a fitting tribute to the late Joe Henderson, with whom Ballantyne performed on numerous occasions throughout 1989 and 1990. Ballantyne’s rendition of Joe Henderson’s most often-performed song featured tightly-voiced chords with thick, rich harmonies.

Ever Since Now is an original composition. After the initial statement of the melody and harmony of the tune, Ballantyne improvised a delightful deconstruction and reconstruction of the song. He began with inventive hand-striking of the piano’s strings, followed by a growling, low-end stride piano version, replete with sophisticated polyrhythmic figures that brought to mind images of rushing, swirling water. Seldom is an audience treated to such a thorough exploration of a tune’s theme and its various submotifs.

The original composition Gates was inspired by artist Christo’s unique 2005 installation of 7,500 saffron-coloured fabric-paneled gateways throughout New York’s Central Park. Ballantyne’s playing immediately brought to mind clear visual images; his phrasing actually made me think of the long, flowing cloths of Christo’s installation. The soaring, improvised melodic lines were artfully conceived and impeccably executed. And like all top artists, his concentration and focus were palpable; it felt as though he was channeling the music from some deeper source.

It was also a pleasure to hear the Thelonious Monk tune Bemsha Swing. Many pianists have trouble interpreting Monk without copying Monk’s personal playing style, but Ballantyne didn’t have this problem. He successfully turned in an original rendition that still paid tribute to Monk through its profound basis in the blues (and goodness, can Ballantyne PLAY the blues), underlaid by an intense, hard-driving swing. And then, a most unexpected bridge: vast, soaring lines (watch out, Oscar Peterson) played over an intense, grinding ostenato in the bass. And it swung so hard — Ballantyne threw down tremendous eighth-note lines that went everywhere — they were unrelenting, full of pressure and release, and interspersed with fantastic flourishes and thickly-voiced comping. I felt exhilarated by the end of the tune.

I first met and heard Jon Ballantyne while studying jazz at McGill in 1992. He had recently recorded with my sax teacher at the time, Newfoundland’s John Nugent, and he sat in on a lesson with me. At the time, my ears weren’t developed enough to appreciate all the nuances in Ballantyne’s playing, but I was thrilled to hear him play at this year’s festival. He turned in a tremendous performance befitting the recipient of Canada’s top jazz honours for 2007.

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