Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 1: June 21, 2007
While the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, sponsored by the The Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD), has always taken pride in the breadth of its programming without deviating from a near-exclusive focus on the jazz spectrum, it faces the same annual harsh reality of other festivals devoted to the genre. Supporting a multifaceted program of lesser-known and up-and-coming artists can make it necessary to bring in acts that are, at best, peripherally related to jazz. That said, the 2007 edition, running from June 21 to July 1, is a closer stylistic fit than the 2006 run which, though strong, was not without some missteps. With artists ranging from the well-known and mainstream (Dave Brubeck, Branford Marsalis, Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band) to the left-of-center (Kris Davis, Instant Composers Pool, aka ICP, and New Jungle Orchestras), not to mention some special-event shows (Bill Frisell, Toots Thielemans/Kenny Werner, Roy Haynes), the 2007 OIJF offers a highly diverse and widely appealing program. Yet it's far more than just a little something for everyone.
The OIJF also remains one of the best bargains on the jazz festival circuit. $180 gets you into every show, with the exception of the three special event shows (a nominal additional fee for these), including the 5:00 PM Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives Canada, the 6:30 PM Great Canadian Jazz and 8:30 Concert Under the Stars series (both at the large outdoor stage at Confederation Park), the short but always intriguing 8:00 PM Improv Invitational series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage and the equally diverse 10:30 PM Studio series at the NAC Studio. That's 42 concerts over 11 days, not including a wealth of other free shows by local artists, and the late-night jam sessions, back again in the capable hands of local treasure, bassist John Geggie.
Less expensive passes get you into subsets of the various series, with an economical $40 student pass providing access to the Confederation Park concerts, Studio and Improv Invitational seriesan attempt to face another undeniable need: to attract more young people to jazz festivals.
Day one got off to a great start at the Connoisseur Series, where Danish trumpeter Jens Winther, who last appeared here with drummer Ed Thigpen at the 2005 festival, brought his own quartet, featuring fellow Danes, pianist Ben Besiakov and bassist Jonas Westergaard, and German drummer Dejan Terzic for a set of all-original material that ran the gamut from impressionistic and ethereal to relentlessly energetic. It was the first date of a cross-Canada festival tour for Winther, but the chemistry of his quartet was so potent that it felt more like the end of a run, when communication and interplay are often honed to a greater degree.
Winther exhibited a rich, full-bodied tone on both trumpet and flugelhorn, clearly influenced by mid-1960s Miles Davis. Like Davis, Winther tended to favor the middle register, but when he did venture into the upper end of his instrument, as increasingly occurred as the pace of the ninety-minute set picked up, his robust tone remained intact, never becoming brash. Opening with a spare composition that provided both the trumpeter and Besiakov plenty of room in which to move, the quartet sounded how, perhaps, Miles' mid-1960s quintet with Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter and Tony Williams might have sounded had it incorporated some of the transparency of German label ECM's aesthetic. Terzic was particularly impressivefluid, elastic and responsive.
While the majority of the set maintained a strong pulse, the quartet often distributed it in ways insuring no single instrument was defining it. Instead, it was the combination of a number of rhythmic fragments, a structure resembling a house of cards: if a single instrument dropped out, all forward motion would fall apart with it. It made for an exciting set, regardless of feel and tempo, as the rhythmic emphasis shifted amongst Besiakov, Westergaard and Terzic.
The six-song set featured extended, often episodic, compositions by Winther. The aptly titled "Mercury" was, indeed, mercurial, with a brisk and complex theme that ultimately opened up, traveling from elastic funk to fiery swing. Clearly a group conversant with the tradition, it nevertheless applied a contemporary spin that, at times, made it difficult to know just how much was scripted and how much was the result of the quartet's clear simpatico.
As the energy of the set increased and Winther began to demonstrate a more virtuosic, high velocity approach to soloing, the group opened up even moresounding how Miles Davis' late 1960s work might have sounded had it remained acoustic and less sonically dense. Still, the quartet knew how to create a narrative with its set list, the balladic "Honesty" providing some well-needed relief. Winther, starting the tune on flugelhorn but later switching to trumpet, ended the song a capella, creating a wash of sound by blowing into the piano and causing the string to vibrate sympathetically underneath his spare phrases.
It was a set that housed considerable liberty for all within a multilayered structural frameworkthe perfect start for the Connoisseur Series, long considered one of the festival's best and most consistent features.