Day 11 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, July 2, 2006
The final day of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival proved a number of points: that it's possible to market almost anything to a position of prominence; that it's possible to entertain without sacrificing musicality and talent; and that sometimes the best artists are not the ones at the top of the bill.
Canadian bassist Robert Occhipinti has long been associated with Afro-Cuban jazz, and his quintet, which opened up the festival's main stage event on its final day, clearly had the background to play with total commitment in the genre. But what makes Occhipinti stand outin the way Paquito D'Rivera stood out early on at the festivalis that he's always been a more diverse player. One of Canada's most important musicians, Occhipinti is as comfortable on the symphony stage as he is in a (no longer smoky) jazz club. In addition to being an exceptional bassist, composer and bandleader, he's also an in-demand producersomething that was acknowledged when the National Jazz Awards chose him as Producer of the Year earlier this year.
In addition to some longtime associates and faces familiar to Canadian audiencesToronto mainstays pianist Hilario Durán and trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, as well as Vancouver-based saxophonist Phil DwyerOcchipinti has also recently begun working with New York-based drummer Dafnis Prieto.
Originally from Cuba, Prieto, who still looks barely old enough to shave, is one of the hottest up-and-coming Latin drummers on the New York scene, and he's already showing a capacity for seemingly exponential growth. While there was much to recommend about his first album as a leader, About the Monks (Zoho, 2005), it seemed almost too precocious. His complex compositions were too clever for their own good, and his playing style, while clearly skilled, bordered on overkill. But in the short space between that disc and Absolute Quintet (Zoho, 2006), he's evolved considerably into not only a more balanced writer, but a more mature drummer as well. Still capable of phenomenal displays of power and polyrhythm, he's learned to breathe more in his playing, allowing more space and applying a gentler touch.
All these skills were well-applied to Occhipinti's repertoire, ranging from burning post-bop workouts to gentler ballads and pure clavé. Occhipinti's latest disc, Yemaya (Alma, 2005), is an ambitious effort that in many ways reconciles his many influences into a cogent personal statement. With a core octet augmented by additional percussion, vocals, horns and a string quartet, the recording covers a broad base of musical styles that include his own vibrant writing, a couple of compositions by bandmates Duran and Dwyer, a traditional tune, and two pieces by Brazilian composer/performer Jovino Santos-Netowho, though he comes from the other end of the musical spectrum, shares Occhipinti's defiance of musical boundaries.
But Occhipinti's Ottawa performance on the final day of the festival proved to be a highlight. His pared down group placed more emphasis on playing, everyone got ample space to solo, and there wasn't a weak link to be found. The set list, consisting of a couple of new tunes and pieces culled from Yemaya and an earlier album, The Cusp (Modicamusic, 2003), was compositionally rich, raising the bar even higher for a festival that featured one of its strongest and most musically intrepid lineups this year.
It's hard to pick highlights when the entire set was so strong. Every solo was clearly focused, striking the balance between abandon and control. Duran is a pianist whose reputation has been building on both sides of the border, but the sad truth is that he'd likely be a bigger name if he lived in an American jazz mecca like New York. But the same could be said for everyone in the band (with the exception of Prieto, who already lives in New York). And Canadians should be grateful that, given jazz's marginalized position in the music world, artists of this caliber choose to remain here.
At the end of a set as alive as this, the audience was looking for an encore. But singer/songwriter Sonya Kitchell and British jazz crooner Jamie Cullum were scheduled to close out the festival's main stage for the season, so Occhipinti and his group were sadly unable to comply. And that's a shame, because while Cullum and his opening act drew some of the biggest audience numbers of the festival, they were in many ways the perfect indicators of just why festivals like Ottawa's, which has resisted for so long, are being forced to incorporate artists who have a peripheral relationship with jazz at best.