L – R: Randy Brecker, Mike Downes, Tim Ries, Robi Botos, Larnell Lewis
Photo credit: Robi Botos
by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON May 5th 2019
A trio of Botos, Downes and Lewis opened the first set with a joyful rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love”. Botos began with a meditative introduction, supported by the elegance of Downes’ bass playing and the sensitive drumming of Lewis. As the tune progressed, it morphed into an easy swing, and the incredible ability of these musicians to explore a world of what I would call metrical improvisation established itself and would define the overall musical texture of the evening for this listener. By this I mean that their ability to break down and sub-divide rhythm is staggering.
Botos then brought out saxophonist Ries for a stunning performance of “Unanswered”, a Botos original ballad from his award winning album Movin' Forward released in 2015. It won a June in 2016. As with many of his compositions, the piece opened with an achingly haunting melody on the soprano sax, with a rich chordal background. Botos would develop the theme with his usual thoughtful touch and interpretative power. Following this, the legendary Brecker joined the group on flugelhorn for “Bitter Sweet”, the only piece that Botos claimed to have written in the troubling year of 2018. This piece, and the set’s closing number - “Old Soul” - are testaments to Botos’ maturation as a bona fide composer. “Bitter Sweet” featured yet another beautiful melodic hook, characterized by unexpected intervals and clever minor/major modulations befitting the title. The incomparable drumming artistry of Lewis was matched by Brecker’s virtuosic flugelhorn playing. “Old Soul” is a rhythmic tour de force that makes great demands on the skills of each musician.
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Robi Botos; Photo credit: Tracy Nolan Studios
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The concert’s second half consisted entirely of Botos’ original compositions, starting with “Budapest”, a shimmering tribute in 3/4 time to “the city I grew up in and the city I left”, to come to Canada. Another exquisite opening melody led to an equally exquisite solo by bassist Downes. It is always refreshing to hear a bass solo that seems to emerge organically from the structure of the piece as opposed to being just the bass player’s turn. Brecker, at age 73, showed that his chops are as solid as ever with technically brilliant and rapidly soaring passages and dazzling tone colour. The piece ended with a marvellous interplay between all the soloists.
Another composition from the album Old Soul followed, called “Diamond”, which we learned was the nickname of an old friend who provided early piano instruction to the largely self-taught Botos. This was a kind of rock stomp with a strong “jamming vibe”, and one could hear the influence of this style in much of Botos’ original music.
The closing number, called “Heisenberg”, from Movin' Forward, as well as the encore number “EurOrleans” from the same album, speak to the expansive range of Botos’ compositional style, which goes well beyond his melodic gifts to featuring complex rhythmic variations and superb ensemble arrangement, at times verging on the avant garde. This listener would have enjoyed at least one solo piano number from Robi. However, the evening seemed to be less about Botos the pianist and more about Botos the composer. A rare swing segment in the middle of “EurOrleans” reminded this listener that there is quite a bit more to appreciate in Robi Botos’s evolution as a jazz artist.
The jazz concert of the year so far occurred last night at Koerner Hall, showcasing the great Robi Botos on piano with an all-star quintet consisting of Mike Downes, bass, Larnell Lewis, drums, Tim Ries, saxophone and Randy Brecker, trumpet. This magnificent performance was an awesome conclusion to this season’s TD Jazz series, part of Koerner Hall’s 10th Anniversary season, sponsored by BMO Financial and the Toronto Star. The concert, which had been sold out for months, was live-streamed worldwide, allowing those who could not get a ticket to share in this experience of an artist whose 2018 album, Old Soul, won a Juno award for best jazz album of the year.