IT was a dramatic weekend of jazz that included a big-band nod to tango and a singer's tribute to the great Billie Holiday.
Art of the Tango, with trumpeter, composer and arranger Michael Philip Mossman and the Winnipeg Jazz Orchestra, was a high-energy look at the popular Latin music.
Vanessa Rubin's show -- Yesterdays: An Evening with Billie Holiday -- featured the dramatic music and life of the talented yet tortured Holiday.
New York-based musician and teacher Mossman, in the Saturday-night opening concert of the WJO season, led the big band through a range of music from classic tango by Astor Piazzolla, to a tango-fied Ellington band trademark, to a Kurt Weill tango (Youkali), to a selection of his own compositions.
Yet, the first of three WJO concerts over the weekend opened with something closer to home: Tango para Rosalba, written by baritone saxophone player Ken Gold for his Argentine wife and arranged for the big band by trombonist Jeff Presslaff.
Presslaff and Gold played a great duet with just the rhythm section in what supported Mossman's declaration that "tango is all about mystique and drama."
Mossman has a close connection to tango -- his wife is a tango dancer -- and his composition Mayte's Allen Room Caper was a workout for the trumpet section and for Mossman, who illustrated his trumpet chops as well as directing the orchestra.
Singer Sheena Rattai, more often heard in folk group Red Moon Road than in front of a big band, did a great job on Mossman's La Justicia de Oy°, Piazolla's classic Libertango, Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave (perhaps her best of the night) and a version of Caravan, a staple of the Duke Ellington orchestras, performed with Mossman and the rhythm section.
Percussionist Scott Senior and drummer Rob Siwik were the driving force for the Latin music, and Mossman's compositions and arrangements showcased the band's tight ensemble playing and soloing expertise.
Rubin, performing Sunday afternoon in the second of three weekend concerts, evoked the drama and pathos of Holiday's life.
Rubin nailed the essence of Holiday's singing: the blues roots and improvisation that made her stand out from her peers, so much so it took a while for fans and record companies to catch up.
If you want to illustrate Holiday's world, what better composition than her own God Bless the Child, a tour de force with Rubin's heartfelt vocals and Derrick Gardner's muted trumpet soloing.
Rubin went into Holiday's character after that song, complaining about her mother and explaining how her neglect spurred Holiday to write Child, one of the songs most associated with her and much covered since its recording in 1941.
But most of the concert was Rubin and a crack band of Gardner, pianist Will Bonness, bassist Steve Kirby and drummer Quincy Davis, all faculty members in the University of Manitoba jazz studies program, rather than reprising her Holiday stage show.
Gardner carried a lot of the load on trumpet, but bassist Kirby dug deep on the bluesy music, especially in Don't Explain, and Bonness and Davis turned in great solos in their turn. Mostly, they were the tight band needed for a show featuring so many iconic songs.