After a paradigm shift in 2011deserting its largely "pure" approach to programming for one that acknowledged how, in order for it to survive, it needed to (a) attract a larger percentage from the youth demographic, and (b) find ways to bring some big bucks into the coffers, in order to fiscally support the many fine "real" jazz acts it was programming at a number of venuesthe TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival is back for another year and with another stellar lineup. For those who want to question putting comedian Steve Martin on the main outdoor stage at Confederation Park with a bunch of bluegrass players with whom he has worked since the release of Rare Bird Alert (Rounder, 2011), along with reggae icon Bob Marley's son Ziggy and his Wild and Free (Tuff Gong, 2011) tour opening, why not consider French clarinetist Francois Houle
But first, to kick the festival off, a programming choice that reflects, perhaps, the festival's decision to marry its purer jazz programming with something not exactly outside the sphere, but certainly tangential. The blues is, after all, a jazz tradition cornerstone, and if the double bill of British legend John Mayall
following a lovely opening to the festival's Great Canadian Jazz series with saxophonist Phil Dwyerwasn't exactly jazz, there certainly were hints of the language, especially in Cray's performance, which was almost scuttled by a very threatening thunderstorm that magically passed the festival by, but released nary a raindrop.
Mayall has been around a lot longer than Cray, but if there is one word to connect both acts beyond "blues," it would have to be: class. In Mayall's case, not only was the near-octogenarian (next year, in 2013) showing no signs of slowing down, but in encouraging the audience to give another round of applause for Dwyer and his fine sextet before heading into a set that covered much of the bluesman's 45-year career, Mayall proved both gracious and broad-minded, given there was little to link his music with Dwyer's other than a clearly shared passion for music, period.
Mayall has, of course, helped launch the careers of a number of fine musicians, the most famous being guitarist Eric Clapton
and beyond. It's a different time, and breaking artists the same way is a lot more difficult, but Mayall still knows how to pick a crack group, in this case guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. Unlike Cray, a Fender man all the way, Athas was clearly a Les Paul kinda guy, making his axe sing sweetly at times, and growl with grease and grit elsewhere. Davenport rarely got any solo space but was as solid as a rock, pushing the groove alongside Rzab, who delivered a late-in-the-set showstopper during Mayall's classic "Room to Move." Jazzers in the audience familiar with fusion supergroup Weather Report
, he sure knew how to drive the crowd into a frenzy, alone and in some powerful tradeoffs with Mayall who, by that time, had left his piano behind to engage in some howling harmonica interplay.
It was pretty much a meat-and-potatoes set of blues and blues-centric material, but Mayall's engagement with both the audience and his bandand a set designed with the years of experience by someone who knows how to sequence itmade it a perfect lead-in to Cray's set which, as has been the guitarist/vocalist's strength since hitting it big with the Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader (Mercury, 1986), combined blues with heaps of soul. Cray didn't engage directly with his audience beyond plenty of "thank you very kindly" and band introductions, but he didn't need to; with two Stratocasters and three amplifiers allowing him to get a variety of tones, from punchy to gritty, his solos said plenty. Cray clearly has chops to spare, but what he proved again and again throughout his 105-minute set, was an unerring instinct to play just what was needednothing more, nothing less. Sometimes it was a near-relentless bent string, repeated and repeated the way saxophonist Kenny Garrett
milks a note for all it's worth; other times it was a funkified chordal passage; and elsewhere still, it was a brief demonstration of speed, all the more powerful for its rarity in Cray's vernacular.
Cray's group was part of the reason why the guitarist could play with such intuition and risk. It's hard to believe, in these times of quick shifts, that some of Cray's band goes right back to the 1980s. Richard Cousins was with Cray from the very startright back to Cray's debut, Who's Been Talkin (Mercury, 1980)though the bassist did take a break from the band, returning more recently for This Time (Vanguard, 1990). Cousins didn't indulge in any real soloing, but his lithe yet absolutely rock-solid grooves were delivered with effortless precision and behind-the-beat accuracy. Keyboardist Jim Pugh came to Cray a little later, on Midnight Stroll (Mercury, 1990), but he's remained with the band ever since; a fine keyboardist, his textural command of Hammond organ was what gave the group much of its grease. Tony Braunagel may be a more recent recruit, but the veteran drummer who has spent significant time with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal
, felt like he'd been with the band as long as his partners.
The set was well-oiled, with nary a misstep. If it lacked some of the visceral grunge of Mayall's set, it more than made up for it in its own kind of energy, which lit up later in a set that went right back to the up-tempo minor blues "Phonebooth," from Bad Influence (Mercury 1983), through a blistering version of Strong Persuader's title track and a slow, simmering version of "The Things You Do To Me," from Midnight Soul that demonstrated the band's restraint and tasteful use of space. Cray has a new studio set due out later this summer, Nothing But Love (Mascot, 2012), and if the guitarist is showing a little gray around the edges and a hint of thickness around the middle, those are the only signs of a performer who, at nearly 60 years old, was singing as well as he ever has with uncompromised range, and doing instrumental work that is a marvel of technique and feel, as he closed out the Ottawa International Jazz Festival's well-attended first nightan enthusiastic audience screaming for morewith style, soul and grace.