Review: Brian Katz & James Brown

On Friday June 19th at Baka Gallery Café, the dynamic Brian Katz and James Brown duo performed together for the first time in nearly twenty years. The quaint, dimly lit gallery showcased their incredibly synchronous sound for an intimate room of avid listeners. The crowd swayed and grooved with the rise and fall of the tempo, snapping along to their soulful melodies. The duo’s true passion for music was exemplified by the phenomenal speed and precision of their playing, and a harmonious display for fans.

Katz and Brown performed tunes from their albums, solo work and a few expertly crafted improvisations. They began with a soft, jazzy jam, followed by a bouncy piece by Katz inspired by the rolling hills of the countryside. Twangy jump cuts had the crowd traveling through the fields. James dedicated a song to a school he attended, blending eastern and western tones in sweet-sounding melancholy. Upbeat standards, Brazilian inspired pieces and a postmodern Italian renaissance solo were just a few of the delectable choices on the evening’s menu.

The duo performed an excellent rendition of Steve Swallow’s "Falling Grace" in the second set. With a vast tonal range, Katz and Brown added a unique and original bounce to the already popular piece. A highlight was the back-to-back performance of Brown’s "Toronto Folk Song" and Katz’ "Montreal Folk Song". Brown had performed "Montreal Folk Song" with Katz before and enjoyed it so much he decided to write a Toronto version. The musical choices each musician associated with the particular city made the piece snap. Their exceptional guitar playing made for a compelling and powerful set.

As compatible as these two are on stage, there are clear artistic differences between the two. Katz is a Toronto jazz veteran with years of performance experience, while Brown is a newer, hip addition to the local jazz scene. Katz' experience was clear as his fingers strummed steadily at his guitar strings. He was feeling the vibe of the calm, relaxed atmosphere as told by his soulful moans and groans, as if to express tempo as an emotion. He delivered an impressive mix of jazz and free range improvisations coupled with random sporadic tempo changes that kept the audience on its toes. Brown pulled on the heart strings of the audience as he softly grappled his guitar to produce beautiful dynamic sound. He executed soft melodic tones that at times could have been mistaken for the soft sounds of a flute or other wind instrument. A gentle, smoothing sensation shone through the performance that kept their refined technical skill from taking over.

“Therapeutic” was the word that continued to surface when asking audience members what they thought of the show. Katz and Brown frequently interacted with fans, sharing opinions on the musical conversation. This is a collaboration based on a passion for playing, and after 20 years of separation, here’s hoping they reunite sooner next time.

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