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Over the last decade, Hugh O’Connor has been playing a lot of great jazz saxophone for people who aren’t particularly listening to him. This CD should remedy that.
For the past four years O’Connor has played every Sunday at a nice restaurant-bar in Ottawa’s Byward Market called Chez Lucien. The drinkers and diners applaud respectfully and some of them listen intently, but mostly it’s a drinking-dining place and the music is background to the chatter. Before this, O’Connor worked for five years at another Ottawa restaurant in the same kind of environment. There were others before that. And yet, when you walk into the restaurant and hear Hugh singing his way through a standard or a jazz classic with an old friend on piano like Mark Ferguson or J.P. Allain, you know that this music needs undivided attention.
Given the quality of music on display whenever O’Connor performs, it is astonishing that this is his first recording as leader in a 60-year career. In a way, it recreates, without the tinkling of glasses, the atmosphere at Chez Lucien. Listening to How About You or Triste, you can picture O’Connor, seated beside the piano, working his way easily through the chord changes, not a sheet of music in sight, playing a chorus or two, then looking up to signal the end of his solo. At the end of the song, after the applause — there’s always applause — O’Connor nods and says, “Thank you, thank you,” almost to himself. There is no microphone, no showiness, just an unassuming but confident man playing music he knows by heart and in his heart.
Born in 1928, Hugh O’Connor remembers being knocked out by Coleman Hawkins’ famous version of Body and Soul, recorded in 1939. He began playing tenor in high school and was greatly influenced by Don Byas. O’Connor’s high school years coincided with the birth of bebop, the language of which issues fluently from his horn. Did he listen to Charlie Parker? O’Connor smiles, during a break at Chez Lucien, and answers with a scatted Bird line.
The live music scene was strong in the Ottawa area in the ’40s. O’Connor played in a dance band at Lakeside Gardens, beside the Ottawa River. Later he spent five years at the Gatineau Club across the river, backing up all sorts of acts — dancers and jugglers but also jazz musicians, such as the Hi-Los with Clare Fischer.
In 1953 he began a 25-year stint with the Central Band of the Canadian Forces, during which he frequently travelled abroad. O’Connor remembers playing baritone sax in the band. There was little jazz to be had, but lots of time to develop his technique and reading ability. One member of that band was O’Connor’s long-time friend, Don Johnson, who plays drums on this CD.
Since retiring from the forces band, O’Connor has gigged around Ottawa. He has travelled across the country in a National Arts Centre theatre company pit band (along with the pianist on this CD, Mark Ferguson). At the age of 60, O’Connor played a cruise ship, stopping off at what was then Leningrad just at the time the Iron Curtain was dissolving.
Always there have been the jazz gigs, in a succession of Ottawa clubs, some more jazz-oriented than others. In the ’80s he was a frequent sideman with visiting American stars at the Chateau Laurier’s much-missed Cock and Lion club. Those in attendance noticed O’Connor more than holding his own beside such giants as Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper and Ernestine Anderson.
For this CD, O’Connor chose his sidemen from among Ottawa’s A-list. The fact that they were also old friends didn’t hurt. “It helps to make better music together when you’re friends,” he says.
Pianist Mark Ferguson has more than 20 years of experience in the music industry, working as a pianist, trombonist, composer, arranger, producer and educator. A tasteful accompanist as well as a swinging player, he has worked with many great jazz artists, including Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, and Holly Cole, as well as Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass, the Funk Brothers and the world beat band Manteca. He teaches in the jazz program at Carleton University and leads his own big band.
Ottawa bassist John Geggie curates and performs in a series of concerts at the NAC Fourth Stage. In the series, now in its ninth year, Geggie has played with such people as Ted Nash, Marilyn Crispell, Nancy Walker, Ben Monder, Sheila Jordan and David Murray. He has recently recorded with Marilyn Crispell and Donny McCaslin. Geggie teaches double bass and improvisation at the Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam and for many years has hosted the late night jam sessions at the Ottawa International Jazz Festival. He also plays classical music with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and 13 Strings Chamber Orchestra and the Orchestra of Northern New York.
Drummer Don Johnston, who appears on five tracks,
To say that the band went into the studio with no rehearsal is only technically correct. “I feel that we’ve been rehearsing for this recording for about 20 years,” says Mark Ferguson. Besides that, adds Ferguson, “John and Don are such experienced professionals that they fit in beautifully with no need for rehearsal.”
The casual atmosphere was reinforced by the absence of sheet music. “It impedes,” says O’Connor. The one exception is the obscure standard, The Night We Called It a Day, which Ferguson and Geggie didn’t know well. The Thomas Adair-Matt Dennis tune isn’t played by a lot of people. I remember hearing it on a Four Freshman album about 50 years ago, and rarely since.
“I have played with Hughie quite frequently over the years,” says John Geggie, “and I have always been struck by his impassioned and melodic gift.” That gift is on display here. O’Connor has a knack for finding beautiful melodies (and interesting harmonies) that fly a bit below the radar. A Portrait of Jenny is one such melody. O’Connor thinks he might have been struck by the Clifford Brown with strings version, recorded in the early ’50s. The O’Connor version features a melody respectfully played over some lovely comping by Ferguson, followed by double-time feel on the second chorus, with Geggie and Johnson pushing O’Connor into a swinging, although still melodic solo.
Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Triste, although not one of his best known compositions, is played by a lot of Ottawa musicians, who are drawn to its interesting chord progression. O’Connor plays it a bit faster than most others and has no trouble at all with the changes. There are no drums on this tune, but Ferguson and Geggie provide lots rhythmic spark.
Never Let Me Go was brought to O’Connor’s attention by Mark Ferguson some years ago and the two men do it as a duet until Geggie enters halfway through the first chorus.
In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning, a tune most often associated with Frank Sinatra, is another one not performed often by jazz musicians. O’Connor plays it unsentimentally, with jagged lines in his solo. Typically, he ends the tune without the kind of flourish you often hear at the end of ballads. That is reflective of the man. “I love the lines that he plays and the way he phrases and the fact that all the notes mean something,” says Ferguson. “You don't hear Hugh play a lot of licks or extraneous notes. As you’ve probably noticed, Hugh has no interest in self-promotion and I’ve always felt that he’s been under-appreciated. I don’t think Hugh particularly cares about that. It’s all about the music for him.”
It’s taken many years to put Rex Harrison out of their minds, but jazz musicians have recently begun to appreciate the harmonic and structural challenges of the Lerner and Loewe ballad I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face. Ferguson has a nicely swinging solo on this one.
The Schwartz and Dietz ballad Alone Together is taken at a bright tempo here, with O’Connor entering all by himself for the first four bars. You can sense his comfort with the tune as he plays the first half chorus of his solo supported only by Geggie’s strong bass. When Ferguson and Johnson enter, the drummer using sticks, the quartet does its hardest swinging on the album. Geggie also contributes a strong half-chorus solo.
Ignunt Oil, another tune nobody else plays, was written by Milt Jackson and first recorded in 1957. It has a bluesy feel with a tricky bridge which everybody clearly enjoys playing. The blues feeling established by O’Connor spreads to Ferguson and Geggie as well in their solos.
The More I See You, by Harry Warren and Mack Gordon, is another tune that is not played enough. On the melody you hear a little bit of the growl O’Connor likes to use from time to time. You also hear some bebop double-timing in his solo. And is that a grunt of satisfaction at the end?
My One and Only Love demonstrates O’Connor’s ability as an interpreter of melody. Here, he lags nicely behind the beat on the in-chorus. Ferguson’s double-time feel solo is a highlight.
Another gem from the American Songbook, How About You?, swings easily without drums thanks to Geggie’s powerful walking. Geggie adds a thoughtful solo.
The closest thing to a too-familiar song on the album, My Funny Valentine, gets a refreshingly different persona by being played up-tempo in a version inspired by the Bill Evans-Jim Hall recording. The melody statement opens with some interesting alto-piano counterpoint. The solos get a strong push from Johnson’s sticks.
Assessing the recording, O’Connor is typically self-effacing, saying of his sidemen, “I feel honored to know these people.”
John Geggie puts it in better perspective. “It was a pleasure for me to record with him, Mark and Don,” he says. “This recording is long overdue.”