Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 2: June 22, 2007
Shanghai-based singer Coco Zhao brought a different kind of stylistic fusion to his 10:30 PM Studio series show. His 2006 debut on the Canadian Effendi label, Dream Situation, brought together ethnic songs with a more jazz-centric improvisational approach. He may sing in Chinese, but the resonance of his interpretive voice makes understanding the words moot. Emotional yet often subdued and restrained, Zhao's set was easy on the ears yet filled layered with substance.
Eschewing the piano-bass-drums format of Dream Situation, Zhao instead brought an unconventional quartet feature guitarist Sylvain Provost, vibraphonist Jean Vanasse and bassist Marc Lalonde. The trio played an opening instrumental reminiscent of the best guitar/vibes pairings of Gary Burton before Zhao took the stage, along with violinist Peng Fei, a member of Zhao's working band in Shanghai. The instrumental combination created a gentle atmosphere, bordering at times on the ethereal, but always kept close to the ground by Lalonde. Fei integrated a distinctly Oriental ambience to his playing through use of soft harmonics and a wide vibrato that, at times, added an almost microtonal aspect.
Zhao's singing was deeply nuanced, oftentimes so subtle that when he raised his voice even the slightest it created vivid drama. Singing softly and with an appealing vibrato, his ability to cross-pollinate an understated kind of scat provided the nexus between two very different musical worlds. A memorable show from a singer with significant potential.
With bassist John Geggie back as the host of the late night jam sessions, taking place at the festival hotel (Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites), it only took two days to return things to the way they were when he last hosted them for a number of years, ending (thankfully only temporarily) in 2004. Geggie's core triofeaturing Toronto-based drummer Nick Fraser, and with fellow-Torontonian pianist Nancy Walker sharing the piano chair with Montreal's Josh Rageris good enough to carry things on quiet evenings and flexible enough to adapt to whatever surprises might come up on busy ones. It's an essential skill for jam session groups, where you never know who will show up looking to play, whether it's local artists or those visiting the festival from farther afield.
Packed to the rafters by 11:00 PM, the jam session was definitely the place to be on the second night the festival. Soulgrass drummer Joel Rosenblatt, banjoist Ryan Cavanaugh and violinist Christian Howes joined the trio on the room's small stage, prompting Geggie to remark, in his usual dry fashion, that the goal was "to see how many musicians we can fit onstage."
But before the sextet (soon to be septet with the inclusion of Ottawa saxophonist Petr Cancura) took off into jazz territory, Howes and Cavanaugh delivered a pair of high velocity bluegrass duets, with Cavanaugh providing a brief history of bluegrass. The connection with Celtic music is clear, but so, too, is the integration of American blues, prompting Cavanaugh to shout "Bluegrass is fusion!" Based on his remarkable integration of traditional banjo finger-picked arpeggios with staggeringly fast lines that spoke of a more expansive language, he didn't have to say much; the evidence was all there for the ears to experience. Howes later mentioned how he was still learning bluegrass, but you'd never have known it from these two duets.
When Rosenblatt joined the stage it became immediately clear that, while he was a hard-grooving funk- meister with Soulgrass, he was an equally flexible drummer, swinging hard and fast alongside Geggie. Bill Evans, who was at the jam but chose to relax and talk to his fans, spoke about how, for this project, he needed to find players who knew bluegrass, jazz and more in order to make a collective capable of taking those roots and somewhere new. Listening to Cavanaugh, Howes and Rosenblatt onstage with Geggie and Rager (a young pianist on the rise, who was as flexible and impressive as everyone else) was further evidence to the argument that artists' personal musical choices don't necessarily reflect everything about them; instead, they simply reflect where they are at a particular point in time.
Staged performances have, of course, their own appeal, but for some of the most spontaneous and unexpected moments at the OIJF, the late night jam session is definitely the place to be.
Tomorrow: Pianists Junior Mance and Dave Brubeck.
Visit Joey Calderazzo, Bill Evans, Christian Howes, Ryan Cavanaugh, Dave Livolsi, Joel Rosenblatt, John Geggie, Nick Fraser, Josh Rager and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.