Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 8: June 28, 2007
Marking the beginning of the home stretch, Day Eight of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival was yet another lesson in diversity and the need for open-mindedness when it comes to accepting the broader spectrum that jazz has become. Yet, as demonstrated by the performances of organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, P.J. Perry (one of Canada's foremost reedmen), and oudist/vocalist Dhafer Youssef, there were other lessons to be learned as well.
His first appearance in Ottawa in a few years, organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, complete with turban and long robe, started out at an apparent disadvantage. While drummer Anthony Pinciotti made it to town, there were travel problems for guitarist Peter Bernstein. When the ensemble is a trio and you've lost one-third of it, what can you do?
Fortunately, Ottawa has someone capable of stepping in at literally the last minute. Called at 3:00 PM for this 5:00 PM Connoisseur Series show, guitarist/educator Roddy Elias arrived at Library and Archives Canada about twenty minutes before show time, armed with a guitar and no music. That might be daunting if not well nigh impossible for some younger musicians, but for a veteran like Eliasa guitarist who knows the Songbook without the help of musical notation or lead sheets, who has released a number of fine albums, and who lives equally comfortably in the classical world and the jazz sphere it was just another day, another gig (albeit with a high-profile leader).
It took Elias a few songs to warm up, but from the start he delivered insightful solos treading the inside/ outside line, and demonstrated a huge set of ears capable of picking up on virtually everything that the others threw his way. By midpoint in the set he was on fire, swaying in his chair as he delivered soulful and energetic solo after solo, and began to toss back a few quips at Smith, who acknowledged him gratefully throughout the set.
Pinciotti, who has also worked with the legendary James Moody, was the perfect foil for this largely funky and fiery set. The volume in the room was a little on the expansive side, and as the set evolved Pinciotti hit the kit harder, delivering some impressive solos of his own as well as demonstrating ears like Elias' but also exuding the chemistry that comes from having played with Smith.
Smith may have walked to his center-stage seat at the Hammond organ with the help of a cane, but the minute he started to play he became energized, diving straight into the soul/jazz hybrid that's been his domain for over fifty years. With exclamations ("Yeah!" "Woa!" "Alright!"), Smith exhibited a facility with the pedals as impressive as his digital dexterity with the Hammond B3's double-decker keyboard. For the most part his ninety-minute set consisted of a mix of standards and originals, with emphasis on material from Jungle Soul (Palmetto, 2006). A showman as much as a player, Smith not only maintained strong eye contact with Elias and Pinciotti, but with his audience as well, dramatically raising his hands at times and attacking the organ with a youthful vigor belying his chronological age.
While his flamboyant flailing of arms and facial gesturing were an entertaining part of the whole package, a few songs into his set he began to make one of the biggest mistakes an artist can makespeaking to the audience in a manner guaranteed to insult and alienate a not inconsiderable share of those on hand. The result was a gradual bleed from the near-capacity crowd, though he still managed to receive a standing ovation at the show's end.
Smith first began a series of tasteless impressions of singers "who have covered my songs through the years." His Johnny Mathis impression wasn't bad, but his Stevie Wonder take was a miscalculationin especially bad taste if not offensive when he stopped playing to put on a pair of dark sun glasses to complete the image. Things got worse when he suggested to the audience that the decline of jazz in the clubs began with John Coltrane. With an unexpected and inappropriate rant against free players, Smith's gratuitous, simplistic assessment of a complex art merely persuaded some listeners to head for the exits while contributing nothing to the standing ovation he received at show's end from those who'd remained.
It was an unfortunate situation, especially given how well Elias performed with no notice, no rehearsal and no charts. Smith is undeniably a talented player, but he'd have done better had he kept his opinionated views to himself. It's one thing to speak of such things in an interview; but at a festive and inclusive international event where people have paid good money to see not just him but artists covering the entire jazz spectrum, it's not only disrespectful to his audience but would seem to be a career-limiting move. There's little doubt that no small number of potential fans, after witnessing part or even all of the show, will never pay to see him again.