Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 10: June 30, 2007
While the 2007 edition of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival technically wraps up on July 1 (Canada Day), an agreement with the National Capital Commission requires that shows in Confederation Park be free to all on that day, making Saturday, Day Ten, the last day of ticketed/pass-required shows at all venues. From pianist/vocalist Freddy Cole's mainstream quartet to a Confederation Park Latin double bill that's become an institution of the festival's closing hours, it was a terrific final full day, demonstrating the stylistic diversity but strong jazz-centricity of this year's successful OIJF. This year the grand finalé featured Cuban-born/Canada-based pianist Hilario Durán's exciting Latin Jazz Band and Cape Verde singer Cesaria Evora, as well as a final show at the National Arts Centre's Studio series with the musically weighty (but often absurdly funny) Arts & Crafts group of drummer Matt Wilson
The 5:00 PM Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives Canada closed out with a performance that might have been more chill and less burn, but pianist/vocalist Freddy Cole and his crack quartetguitarist Bruce Edwards, bassist Elias Bailey and drummer Curtis Boysdelivered a set of what Cole called "Invitation to Relaxation," which kept the capacity crowd entertained throughout the quartet's ninety-minute set.
The 74-year-old Cole is the younger brother of legendary pianist/vocalist and pop star Nat King Cole, who achieved considerably greater success during his brief life (he passed away of cancer at the age of 45 in 1965) but, as Cole sang at the close of his set following a medley of brother Nat's big hits, "I am not my brother, I'm me." With a soft delivery but age-worn voice that was far grittier than brother Nat's suave, velvety sound, Cole's set was a straight down-the-center mix that included a number of songs from Because of You: Freddy Cole Sings Tony Bennett (HighNote, 2006). A spare and graceful pianist, Cole may not have torn up the keyboard, but his solos, self-accompaniments and interaction with his band were strong and his delivery light-hearted. He engaged the audience throughout, in particular AAJ festival photographer John Fowler, whose front-row seat made him a prime target for Cole's humorous jabs, practically reversing the roles of subject and object.
Playing with such a mainstream group might seem incongruous for Edwards, who got his start with Sun Ra in the 1980s and played with the controversial innovator-eclectic's Space-Is-the-Place Arkestra until the leader's death in 1993. Playing "outside" may be his preference, but here he was an intuitive, relaxed and imaginative contributor, whose solos added a touch of heat to the generally relaxed set. A master of his instrument and a clear student of multiple traditions, Edwards delivered a number of outstanding solos, each focused and beautifully constructed, with a chordal acumen that, at times, recalled the late Wes Montgomery.
While largely remaining an unmovable anchor within the quartet, Bailey's few spotlights, in particular his lyrical arco solo on "All for You" (a vocal adaptation of guitarist Django Reinhardt's melody, "Nuages") were a winning combination of robust tone and, like Edwards, purposeful ideas. Locked in tightly with Boys, a drummer whose dynamics were so subtle that when, on occasion, he did inject greater energy it lifted the band without any sense of forced exaggeration. In fact, his ability to swing hard, but in the most easygoing way, recalled the elegance of Ray Brown.
Throughout the set the eye contact amongst the quartet represented exactly the kind of communicative moments lacking in pianist Matt Savage's show the previous day. The way that Cole and the other three members interlocked was rarely overt but a connection producing many small but magical moments during which everyone seemed to realign in ways so understated as to be more felt than heard.
With the seemingly endless number of current young artists tackling standards, a performance like Cole's highlighted why so many of them come up short. Cole is the real deal, as his audience discovered throughout a set that was also sequenced beautifully in terms of the program. He may not be his brother, but he doesn't have to be.
Cuban expat Hilario Durán was last in Ottawa for bassist Robert Occhipinti's smoking quintet performance at the 2006 OIJF. This year Occhipinti returned the favor, playing with Duran's Latin Jazz big band, which brought together some of Toronto's best Canadian and Cuban musicians. It was an exhilarating set of challenging charts, providing ample opportunities for everyone in the seventeen-piece band to shine.
Hilario Durán and His Latin Jazz Band
Performing material from From the Heart (Alma, 2006) as well as other sources, the band was as compelling to watch as it was to hear. With drums and two percussionists, the action became all the more entertaining when two female dancers hit the stage for a number of songs towards the end of the set. And there were plenty of non-payrolled dancers in the cordoned-off dance area of the park. But visuals aside, it was the energy and high-powered velocity of the soloists' statements layered over visceral Latin grooves that maintained a strong pace throughout.
Durán continues to be a national treasure, a player of great depth who maintains a strong cultural connection while remaining a significant part of the Toronto scene. The Ottawa audience ate up what he brought to the table and, while the standing ovation seemed hell-bent on an encore, time wouldn't allow it, leaving the crowd wanting morealways a good note to end on.
The line-up may have changed with drummer Matt Wilson's Arts & Crafts, with pianist/organist David Berkman replacing Larry Goldings and trumpeter Mike Rodriguez taking the place of Terell Stafford, leaving bassist Dennis Irwin as the remaining original member, but the same combination of adventurous playing and humorous delivery that have been there since the beginning remained intact during the last show of the 2007 Studio series.
Wilson, who'd experienced flight delays on not one but two flights between his home in Connecticut and Ottawa, was remarkably nonplussed by a day that began at 4:30 AM and finished long after the group's hundred-minute performance ended well after midnight. Appearing onstage with a construction helmet, he dedicated the show to "the mechanics of Air Canada because they couldn't fix two planes." Any other artist would arrive in a less jovial mood, but Wilson later quoted alto legend Phil Woods, remarking "you don't get paid to play, you get paid to get there, making my hourly wage pretty low today."
Culled largely from Wilson's The Scenic Route (Palmetto, 2007), it was a characteristically eclectic set that ranged from Pat Metheny's lyrical ballad "The Bat" to Wilson's "Free Range Chicken," a symmetrical tune that moved from a free opening to a slapsticky Western theme and loosely funky solo section, only to back out to the theme and free outro at its conclusion.
Berkman, whose own Palmetto discs have demonstrated the stylistic breadth and open-mindedness necessary to work with Arts & Crafts, was a double threat on piano and B-3. Locked in tightly with Wilson, he sprang plenty of surprises in both his solos and accompaniment. Rodriguez is the relative newcomer, not just to Arts & Crafts but to the New York scene, but he consistently delivered solos that demonstrated technical breadth though never at the expense of attention and responsiveness to the rest of the group. Irwin, a pillar of strength if a quiet legend, has played with everyone from Art Blakey to John Scofield and Joe Lovano. Always a firm but flexible support player, he was also a strong soloistand a fine clarinetist. It's a little-known fact that clarinet was his first instrument, and that it's still a part of his arsenal, having recently appeared in a classical performance featuring another bassist, the ubiquitous, ever-in-demand Marc Johnson. After a brief clarinet solo spot, Irwin doubled up with Rodriguez for the theme to Don Ayler's "Our Prayer," before returning to bass for an extended version of the iconic Beatles song "Give Peace a Chance" that closed the set.
It was on that final piece, as well as Wilson's own "Feel the Sway" from earlier in the set, that the drummer- leader went from humorous front man to rabble-rouser. On the latter he encouraged the audience to stand up, saying, "To sign a contract in Canada you need to break to let the audience stand every forty minutes," then chanting "Canada Day, Canada Sway." He had already rehearsed the audience on the former number, getting them to clap and chant, then giving three teenagers in the front row percussion instruments and encouraging them (as though they needed much) to follow him as he walked throughout the audience, snare in hand.
l:r" David Berkman, Mike Rodriguez, Dennis Irwin, Matt Wilson
Audience participation and comedy aside, Wilson's a remarkably loose and intuitive drummer, capable of powerful grooves and experimental free play. That he seems to be having so much fun doing it is part of the charm, and it's that combination of seriousness about his chosen art and a complete irreverence towards same that makes Arts & Crafts such a unique bandone, moreover, that's genuinely hard to "get" until seen in performance.
Tomorrow: Free shows for Canada Day and Festival Wrap-Up.
Visit Freddy Cole, Hilario Duran, Matt Wilson and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.