"He was music," Feven Kidane said of Max Roach from the stage in her band's tribute to Roach last night. "He wasn't just a dude who played music: he really had it tuned in." Feven's sextet played an hour of music before a film screening, Max Roach: The Drum Also Waltzes, at the VIFF Centre co-presented by Tim Reinert's Infidels Jazz.
The band's front line was Feven with John Nicholson on tenor saxophone and Nebyu Yohannes on trombone; the rhythm section was Quincy Mayes on Fender Rhodes-sounding digital keyboard, Bella Fedrigo on bass, and Edmonton-based drummer Biboye Onanuga. They were joined by Yoro Noukoussi on percussion for the last number as well.
A jazz show in a movie theatre has a bit of the uncanny valley, but I didn't mind at all, having sat myself six feet away from the magic in the front row of comfortable seats.
This was the fourth Infidels-VIFF show; the collaboration goes back a year to April 7, 2023 when they programmed Vince Mai alongside a 1940s film, Le Corbeau, followed by the Rocky Horror Music Show on Halloween and Isabel Leong's Ghibli Jazz Orchestra in December. I understand it won't be the last.
Tim's introduction to the set was a strong statement of The Infidels' values. His theme was to compare Feven's attitude with what he felt from Roach: "Neither musician is afraid to be uncomfortable," he said, "and for a jazz musician, that's literally the most important feature you can have. This is exciting music, it's thrilling music, it's dangerous music, and it changes and evolves all the time. That's not a bug, that's a feature. That's the whole point."
Feven's band walked out and without saying a word, they did stretches and invited the audience to stretch their arms with them, up to the left, to the right – and because they were standing, down to their feet.
They followed it up with a body percussion piece where all six members beat rhythms on their chest: both constant rhythms that overlapped with each other, and bursts of improvisation amongst themselves. It was in the style of Max Roach's M'Boom; here's a YouTube video of M'Boom doing it at time 12:51 of the video.
Later, they played a track from a M'Boom album called "January V" which was their chillest number.
A highlight for me was the sextet's faithful version of "Pies of Quincy" from Roach's album Award-Winning Drummer...
In Biboye's drum solos that made up most of the arrangement, he played plenty of the vocabulary that you would associate with Roach. He smiled the whole time and had the posture of welcoming the ensemble into each new direction. He certainly didn't sound like he was the one out-of-towner who hadn't played with the others.
Roach's Award-Winning Drummer has a tuba player, Ray Draper, unlike the trombone that my longtime friend Nebyu Yohannes played last night. Nebyu's ability to fill that role while also playing higher notes than you knew the trombone could play speaks to his versatility and technique. He played patient counterpoint and harmony with Feven.
Speaking of Ray Draper's tuba, the band also played "Filidia" from this Ray Draper record that features John Coltrane. They dove into a more meditative number, "Equipoise" from Members, Don't Git Weary composed by the pianist on that album, Stanley Cowell. At this show, Quincy made the most of playing a digital keyboard, and got an opportunity to rip a fiery solo or two. But otherwise, he contributed a lot of chording, and in some of my favorite spots left-hand bass, turning the ensemble chordless for those moments. Quincy is also an old friend of mine.
Feven said that Percussion Bitter Sweet is her favorite Roach album and thus closed with "Man from South Africa", featuring Noukoussi on percussion, at an even faster tempo than the record. She gave a dedication to what Roach means to her: "He was so unapologetically political [...] so unapologetically black and unapologetically creative."
I haven't put Feven on the cover of a Rhythm Changes article in two years. The feeling I picked up from her performance back then was audacity, and since then she has clearly gained confidence and comfort with the stage. Even if she goes out to play in Montreal or Toronto, or maybe relocates there for a time, I believe she can continue picking up steam as a young community-minded Canadian artist.
I sat close enough to the band that the horn players' music was highly directional to me. When any of the three of them faced me, it was five times louder. Feven in particular scanned all over the theatre, directing her attention across the audience at different times, playing dynamically, bursting out with concise rhythms at high volumes and then tucking away into longer lines. John Nicholson's tenor sax was an ideal foil; he played deferentially but at the same time got multiple long solo features to stretch out with the band.
Bassist Bella Fedrigo, the youngest member of the ensemble, has been one of those consistently supportive bass players who never aims to take the spotlight. She was a good fit in this ensemble, finding a deep tone and anchoring her position sonically in the ensemble.
Biboye plays drums again tonight, leading a late show at Frankie's. Not bad for a random weeknight-into-weekend in February.