Review: Jon Ballantyine plays jazz piano with expert showmanship

·2 min read

Award-winning jazz pianist and composer Jon Ballantyne spends most of his time in the New York area these days — but when he performs in Saskatchewan, he says “it’s good to be home.” And jazz-lovers here are happy to have him back.

On Saturday, the Prince Albert-born musician took to the stage at the University of Saskatchewan’s Convocation Hall as part of this year’s Saskatchewan Jazz Festival.

According to music department head Dean McNeill, who introduced Ballantyne, this is one of the first "official" Jazz Fest performances ever to take place at the U of S in the festival’s 35-year history.

And Ballantyne certainly offered a master class — building melody on melody and changing the mood of each piece on a dime, bringing it from soulful to bright and back again.

From start to finish, his program covered a lot of ground. Ballantyne didn’t just play the standards; he went out of his way to celebrate colleagues, collaborators and mentors, along with showcasing some of his own compositions.

His opening piece — “Bley’s Blues,” for Montreal-born jazz pianist Paul Bley — built on a tune Bley had taught him years ago. Later in the show, Ballantyne also performed a ballad he composed in honour of Hank Jones, who he described as “the most underrated of all the great jazz pianists.”

Those were interwoven with classics Ballantyne clearly loves to play, including pieces by John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, without whom he said “no recital would be complete.”

On stage, Ballantyne performed with few bells and whistles — for most of the show, it was just him, the piano, and occasionally a microphone. But he captivated the auditorium with the kind of expert, understated, comfortable showmanship that can only come from years of experience.

He clearly chose pieces that demand great technical skill and use the piano’s full range, and he played them with a sense of unselfconscious fun that makes him such a memorable musician.

To close out the show, Ballantyne brought McNeill back on stage — this time, with his trumpet — for a couple of duets.

The unexpected addition was an excellent choice to end the concert: As ever, Ballantyne’s collaborative talent, as well as his solo performance skill, is undisputed.

Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix

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