In the days leading up to the 2008 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, the forecast was: rain, rain, rain and more rain, not a good situation for a festival that, while running a number of series at indoor venues, places its biggest acts on its main outdoor stage at Ottawa's Confederation Park. Thankfully, at least for the first two days, fortune was with the festival, with warm, clear and summery conditions kicking the festival off in high gear.
At the 2007 festival the best shows were to be found offsite at the indoor series including the late afternoon Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives Canada, the early evening Improv Series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage and the late night Studio Series at the NAC Studionot to mention local bassist John Geggie keeping the even later night jam sessions exciting. This year's main stage program, however, is unusually strong and consistent, with something for everyonebig band repertoire with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra (LCJO), Buddy DeFranco's small group swing, Charlie Haden's noir-centric Quartet West and mainstream piano trio excursions are only four of the festival's top shows.
But it's the trio of pianists Herbie Hancock, bringing his River: The Joni Letters (Verve, 2008) to town for one of only two Canadian dates; Chick Corea, whose electrically charged Return to Forever reunion tour has already been thrilling audiences in the United States; and Brad Mehldau, who follows up his 2006 trio performance at Library and Archives Canada with a return to the main stage, that will likely prove to be this year's biggest draws.
Still, there are plenty of exceptional shows programmed in the indoor series, most notably Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla, who brings her quintet to the Improv Series to perform the music from the outstanding Northbound (ECM, 2006), the reed triptych of Tim Berne, Lotte Anker and Chris Speed, also at the Improv, bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons and drummer Harris Eisenstadt's Toronto Quartet at the Connoisseur Series, drummer Joel Haynes and the Davidson/Braid/Murley Quintet at the Studio Series and the remarkable Nordic Connect at the Great Canadian Jazz Series (at Confederation Park, held before each evening's headliner).
Plus, of course, there are always the surprisesgroups little known or unknown, who manage to turn into sleeper hits for the festival. 2008 is a strong year and, in a time when most jazz festivals have to acknowledge the need to diversify to bring in a larger audience, while there are some deviations (but good ones, like Mali's Salif Keita), the festival remains surprisingly pure. It's jazz of a broad spectrum, but it remains undeniably a jazz festival. Chapter Index
June 20: Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis
Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis may be one of jazz's most visible spokespersons, but he's also one of its most controversiala dividing line between a reductionist view of jazz and a broader, more all-inclusive definition. Outspoken and opinionated, mention Marsalis at any online jazz bulletin board and watch it heat up. But forget about whether or not jazz is an American art form or if the inclusion of cultural influences from farther abroad are strengthening or diluting it. Marsalis is still a powerful technician and soloist, inventive arranger, democratic bandleader and engaging stage presence. But while the trumpeter did do all the introductions, in many ways he was just another member of the fifteen-piece big band, sitting with the trumpet section in the back row and drawing attention to himself only when speaking, which he did eloquently, or playing, which he did with precision and clarity.
With a crowd of 9,000 happy to be there (and in good weather), LCJO put on a set that was like a history of American jazz. Reaching back to the earlier part of the 20th century with a little New Orleans Dixie, the band most often stayed firmly in the center of the mainstream jazz tradition with material ranging from John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" to a particularly beautiful take of Billy Strayhorn's "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing," Lee Morgan's "Ceora" and Jackie McLean's "Appointment in Ghana." LCJO may not be a progressive big band that's pushing the tradition forward, but nor is it a museum piece, concerned only with faithful recreation. The arrangements were sharp, the solo space plentiful and the groove swinging and irresistible.
It's hard to beat a band that features players like reed players Ted Nashlast seen in Ottawa in 2006 as part of local bassist John Geggie's annual concert seriesJoe Temperley, whose baritone work was especially thrilling, and Victor Goines, whose tenor solo towards the end of the LCJO's nearly two-hour set was equally energizing. Marsalis wasn't alone as a standout in the trumpet section eitherRyan Kisor delivered his own distinctive solos that placed Marsalis in sharp contrast. Drummer Ali Jackson was the perfect blend of restraint and extroverted push, texturally painting "Ceora" but swinging hard on "Giant Steps."
There are those who are quick to dismiss Marsalis, based on his own view on jazz advocacy, but there's no denying the vibrant relevance of his playinginside and outside the context of LCJO. When the music's this compelling, it's hard not to put aside personal issues with Marsalis' view of what jazz is, was and should be. When the music's this goodas the majority of the audience at Confederation Park, rising to their feet at the end of the set to demand an encore, would attestthe best thing to do is forget about thinking and just kick back and enjoy.