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Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 15th 2018
Koerner Hall’s 10th Anniversary season, sponsored by BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, continued on Friday, December 14th with a sold-out concert by German-Canadian boogie woogie/stride pianist extraordinaire, Michael Kaeshammer. Having recorded his latest CD, “Something New”, in New Orleans, Kaeshammer brought that marvelous Bourbon St. vibe to the warmth and intimacy of Toronto’s Koerner Hall, much to the delight of an enthusiastic and appreciative audience.
Anchored by renowned New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich and Canadian bassist David Piltch, the band was rounded out with a fabulous horn section consisting of Steve Hilliam, tenor sax, William Sperandei, trumpet and William Carn, trombone. The well-paced and varied show featured two sets, drawing from the new album and previous releases, plus an encore. About half-way through the second set, a patron turned to me and said “just when you think it can’t get any better, it keeps getting better.” That sentiment seemed to sum up the whole evening for all those fans of the 41-year-old keyboard wizard, who has made Canada his home since the early 90s. Host Mervon Mehta dedicated the concert to the memory of the great jazz singer, Nancy Wilson, who passed away the previous evening.
The charismatic Kaeshammer has developed a reputation for engaging his audiences and fellow musicians with impromptu and entertaining repartee and spontaneous musical adventures, often departing, as he did last night, from his set list to pursue the inspiration of the moment, based on whatever vibe he’s picking up from the band and audience. He can be witty and jocular, as when he encouraged people to join in if they wished – “just do it in time!” He is an artist who is clearly comfortable in his skin, knows that he’s good – really good – but who likes to feign a kind of ho-humness about his talent. After all, “playing piano’s not that hard – you just have to press the right key at the right time.”
Kaeshammer opened the first set on the Wurlitzer electric piano, playing a quiet and mellow intro that led into a strong statement from the horns before settling into a slow blues groove featuring a soulful sax solo from Hilliam, whose tone is big-bodied and resonant. Kaeshammer than switched to the grand piano and the band transitioned into “Kisses in Zanzibar” from 2011’s “Kaeshammer” CD, the first of many songs that showcase his pleasing vocals with his prodigious piano skills. He has emerged as one of the jazz world’s best original songwriters in the past 10 years.
After a second tune called “Baby Love” that featured a brilliant trumpet solo from Sperandei, Kaeshammer decided – seemingly spontaneously – to send the band out so that he could play a solo. He began with a classically inspired improvisation on the well-known Brazilian tune, “Tico Tico”, which quickly morphed into a rollicking combination of ragtime, boogie woogie, stride and barrelhouse, the left hand (and left leg) solidly driving the groove while the right hand riffed in that incredible way that makes you shake your head in amazement and wonder how the right and left hands can belong to the same player. The band then returned for a number from the new album called “Who are You”, which called for the horn section to double as back-up singers. The rhythm section, as always, was rock solid but always sensitive to the nuances and quick mood changes that are part of Kaeshammer’s approach. Vidocovich is all arms and legs, with everything in motion and at the ready to complement what he hears; Piltch holds his bass like a ballroom dance partner, and he shifts effortlessly to follow and support Kaeshammer’s lead.
The first set finished with a beautifully lyrical rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s 1965 classic “People Get Ready”, followed by a New Orleans shuffle for which the horns were mischievously informed that they needed to improvise a background because there was no chart. Before long, a rousing Bourbon St. jam session broke out, and in the spirit of the moment, Michael grabbed a tambourine, joined the horns and led them off the stage, up and down the aisles through the audience wailing on their horns, each player never breaking stride or missing a beat, and the audience loved it. Whether this was planned or impromptu didn’t matter – it was great fun and a fantastic way to end the set.
The second set opened with another solo performance, and although he had jokingly (or not) said that he doesn’t take requests, he had decided to play another boogie woogie tune, because someone had requested it. This was “John Brown’s Body”, the well known American tune aka “Glory, Glory Alleluia”. This led into a sort of stomp called “Dixie has the Blues”, from the new album, that got the audience clapping, which was followed by another New Orleans-style jam session featuring all of the horns at centre stage while Kaeshammer meandered about, sometimes visiting with audience members, sometimes cheering on the horns and basically just enjoying himself.
He then told a story of being a young musician earning his chops at an old Vancouver club called “Johnny’s Place”, and he wrote “Broken Down Piano” about that experience. Again, there was no chart for it, but the band went with him all the way, as it was a straight ahead blues number, and Kaeshammer has serious blues chops to go with the boogie woogie and stride skills that are his calling card. There was another sultry tenor sax solo in the middle and some incredibly deft and pulsing brush work from Vidocovich. The set finished with “Hamp’s Boogie”, a tribute to one of his idols, Lionel Hampton from 2009’s “Lovelight” CD that resulted in a standing O.
The trio of Kaeshammer, Piltch and Vidocovich returned for the first encore number, which was prefaced by a story from bassist Piltch about how his mother used to bring him and his siblings to the Royal Conservatory as kids, and now it was such a pleasure to be back home playing in front of them at Koerner Hall, especially when it was his mother’s 92nd birthday. So the whole audience sang happy birthday to Evelyn Piltch, and then the trio played one of the most lovely renditions of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” that you could imagine – a nice, gentle swing with one of the most melodic bass solos I’ve ever heard. The rest of the band joined them for the final encore, a new seasonal piece called “I’m Ready for Christmas”. I would say that for everyone in the audience last night, Christmas came a bit early.
Michael Kaeshammer; Photo credit: www.kaeshammer.com
The Gift that is Michael Kaeshammer