Subtone at the National Arts Centre (concert review)

Given that its five members are scattered not just in two Germany cities but also as distantly as New York City and St. John’s, Nfld., when the quintet called Subtone is able to reunite and play a few times each year, it’s a special occasion from the get-go.

But the band’s music was all the more impressive and lucid in Ottawa last month at the National Arts Centre’s Fourth Stage because of the big run-up that had preceded the performance. By then, the group had the bulk of its cross-Canada tour under its belt. Over two weeks and a few days, Subtone had made the journey from Vancouver, Revelstoke and Salmon Arm in B.C., to Edmonton, Saskatoon and Regina in the Prairies, to Toronto and then to Montreal and then to Ottawa, leaving only St. John’s on the itinerary. Coincidentally or not, on the program in Ottawa there was a composition called Road Trip.

What’s more, just before playing in Ottawa the band had spent two days in Studio PM in Montreal, recording its fifth album. If the anticipation of that session had created any pressure for the musicians, it had been dispelled, and the Ottawa concert was an opportunity to let off steam on new music that had been properly road-tested.

Founded 13 years ago when its members were in university together in Berlin, Subtone plays high-powered, sophisticated, tautly arranged original music. For trumpeter Magnus Schriefl, reeds player Malte Dürrschnabel. pianist Florian Hoefner, bassist Matthias Pichler and drummer Peter Gall, there was consistently a lot of detailed material to execute. But the music’s thrills came not just from its baked-in richness bur also  from the way in which the band could dive deeply and collectively into improvising while using those compositions as springboards.

Here’s the set list:

Upside Up (Florian Hoefner)
Evif (Magnus Schriefl)
Road Trip (Peter Gall)
Orbit (Florian Hoefner)
Rubulad (Peter Gall)
Lament (Magnus Schriefl)
Alphabet City (Peter Gall)

Although they were the work of three distinct composers, the tunes fit together to form a cohesive, well-rounded program.

Hoefner — the band’s foothold in Canada, so to speak, because the Nuremberg-born pianist has lived for the last few years in St. John’s, where he and his wife are on staff at Memorial University — was well-represented by his two tunes.

The concert’s opener Upside Up was a crisp, swinging waltz with a lot of built-in interest in its arrangement and space for Dürrschnabel’s burly tenor saxophone and Hoefner’s piano to stretch out. Orbit featured evocative writing for Hoefner’s piano and Dürrschnabel’s flute before the tune became more rousing.

Schriefl’s surging tune Evif was a lesson in how to thrive and find freedom in roiling rhythmic waters. The trumpeter’s tune came charging out of the block, stressing rhythmic intensity. Then, when it came time for Schriefl and then Hoefner to carve out their solos, they and bassist Pichler and drummer Gall played with striking spaciousness. On the trumpeter’s austere tune Lament, Dürrschnabel stepped out on clarinet.

Perhaps because I was sitting on the drum side of the stage, and because Gall had contributed three tunes to the set, it felt at times if the collective was his band. His compositions teemed with interesting features and structures. For example, here’s Schriefl navigating through the solo form of Gall’s swinging and harmonically loaded tune Rubulad:

Meanwhile, Alphabet City had that extra sizzle required of a set-closer. Here’s that very hip tune’s charged opening, which set expectations high:

Subtone’s concert, and indeed its entire tour, would not have happened without support from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Embassy of Germany in Ottawa and the Goethe Institute. The latter two, I’m sure, wanted to ensure that Canadian jazz fans got a good glimpse of some prime ambassadors of German jazz. In fact, Subtone offered original jazz at a level that any country would be happy to have as representing it.

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