Jazz pianist Robi Botos invited the crowd at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre Friday night to go on a journey with him and his trio.
By the end of the almost two-hour set, the gathering of 225 was enlightened, entertained, and left feeling fortunate for having participated in a coming out of sorts for the talented Hungarian-Canadian.
For the third instalment of the Bravo Niagara! 2021 TD Jazz Series, Botos assembled his trio of Mike Downes on bass and Larnell Lewis on drums, along with special guest vocalist Joanna Majoko. It was an evening of Botos originals, versions of well-known American songbook numbers and even a classic 1970s pop hit.
The Niagara-on-the-Lake resident (he moved to town just under a year ago) repeatedly expressed gratitude for the opportunity to perform before a live audience of such a size in a concert hall setting.
The shy, self-effacing Botos addressed the crowd casually, his face revealing the great relief he was feeling for the opportunity to play at Partridge Hall, affirming that performing live was a key factor in promoting mental health for him and the other musicians.
The trio began the set sans Majoko, clearly enjoying the chance to play together in the same room for the first time in months. Downes, a Winnipeg native and Juno Award winner, impressed early on with his fluid, masterful bass solos, his expressive face punctuating both the emotion expressed in his playing and the physicality involved in plucking the strings.
Botos introduced a new composition, called Story, that was obviously informed by his experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a dark, ominous and moody, almost brooding number that expresses many of the anxieties felt across the globe during the past 21 months.
Informing the audience that “we make it up as we go,” Botos shed light on the collaborative process between the three award-winning musicians, each of them amongst the best at their instruments in the jazz world. Though they had never played
Story together before, the performance came off flawlessly.
The communication between Botos and Lewis was key to their improvisatory chops throughout the night. As the masterful musicians began each song, they eventually took their solo turns, with the pianist and drummer locking eyes for cues on when to return to the songs’ chord progressions. At one point, Botos actually asked Lewis which key a song began in (D-flat).
Lewis wowed the crowd with an incredible, powerful drum solo that shook the rafters of the PAC, highlighting the versatility the Grammy Award-winner has developed playing with Brooklyn-based funk-jazz fusion band Snarky Puppy.
The trio welcomed Toronto-based Majoko onto the stage about four songs into the set. The University of Manitoba graduate, whose debut EP No Holding Back was released earlier this year, brought her smooth, soulful vocal style to classic jazz material originally sung by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Dinah Washington and Nat King Cole.
Majoko also added to the improvisation process, scat singing her way through the instrumental sections of many of the numbers.
Autumn Leaves, a song that Botos proudly said was written by a Hungarian, showcased Majoko’s smooth, soft delivery. Indeed, Hungarian-French composer Joseph Kosma is credited as the composer who put the Jacques Prévert poem Les feuilles mortes to music in 1945, inspiring lyricist Johnny Mercer to translate the lyrics into the well-known jazz classic performed
The four continued the autumn theme with a version of September in the Rain, originally written for the 1937 movie Stars Over Broadway. Again, Majoko’s singing mesmerized the audience, who sat in rapt attention as she glided over the romantic lyrics.
Botos introduced the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition (They Long to Be) Close to You, a song he recorded for his 2015 album Movin’ Forward, as their final song of the night. Noting that the trio usually performs an instrumental version of the track the Carpenters took to the top of the Billboard charts in 1970, he invited the audience to see where Majoko’s vocals would lead them.
She put her own dramatic stamp on the song, weaving in and out of the instrumental sections for an extended funked-up jam that brought the audience to its feet.
Bravo Niagara! co-founder and executive director Alexis Spieldenner was pleased with the chance to present Botos, whose stint as artist-in-residence for the organization in 2020 was extended into this season. She promised that Botos will be back on the PAC stage Dec. 20, making an appearance for Molly Johnson’s holiday concert.
Spieldenner hinted that Botos will also play a big part in their upcoming spring, 2022 program, details of which will be announced at that Johnson performance or at the Dec, 16 Pavlo concert, also scheduled for the FirstOntario PAC.