Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 1-3, June 20-22, 2008
Following a light but substantive mainstream set from clarinetist Buddy DeFranco at Confederation Park that featured three of Canada's finest (who make regular stops at the OIJF)pianist Bernie Senensky, bassist Neil Swainson and veteran drummer Terry Clarkewith the added surprise of impressive guitarist Joe Cohn, six- piece a capella vocal group Cosmos delivered a performance at the 10:30 PM Studio Series that may be an early runner for one of the festival's sleeper hits.
Then again, sleeper hit sometimes implies a less than substantial crowd, and the Studio was not just completely sold out, the festival had to turn people away. Hailing from Latvia, it was clear that the local embassy had done its job to let the Latvian community know about the show.
Ranging from 22 to 28 years old, the members of Cosmos may have looked like a boy bandand had the choreography and dress to go along with itbut they were all talented vocalists who comfortably married a pop sensibility with classical training, folk music and the subtlest hint of jazz harmonies. With Reinis Sejans providing a contemporary pulse through most of the set with his uncanny array of vocal percussionand a crowd-pleasing Michael Jackson dance impersonation during the group's encore, the classic hit "Billie Jean"- -Cosmos may not be a jazz act, but it didn't matter to the enthusiastic crowd.
Tenor Juris Lisenko acted as the group's primary voiceand spokesperson, introducing many of the songs- -but everyone had their moment in the spotlight, notably bass Jonis Strazdins, who led the group on a lighthearted but impressive arrangement of Bobby McFerrin's hit, "Don't Worry Be Happy." The majority of the set was, in fact, largely spirited and aimed at entertaining the crowd, with a hilariously (and accurately) choreographed version of Genesis' "I Can't Dance" another highlightnot because of its almost iconic familiarity, but because of the remarkable way in which Cosmos adapted not just the musical parts of the original song, but the textures and timbres as well.
Lisenko reminded the audience, more than once, that they were listening to nothing more than human voices (well, with the exception of a jew's harp on one song, Sejans' use of looping on another and the soundman's use of delay and reverb to broaden the sounds of the voices), but it was often hard to believe. Sheer fun may have been the emphasis, but there were also unexpected passages of deep and profound beauty, where the six voices came together for a rich and expansive whole that was equally difficult to accept as the sound of only half a dozen singers.
Ranging from Strazdins' at times near subsonic voice to the piercing falsettos of Janis Sipkevics and Andris Sejans, Cosmos' range seemed limitless. Doo-wop mixing with beatbox; material ranging from original music from Turbulence (Cosmos, 2008) to innovative arrangements of popular pop tunes; it all added up to a show from a group that is already gaining ground in Europe and deserves to find its way to the public's ear in North America as well.
He may have moved from his hometown of Toronto to the United States a number of years ago, but drummer Harris Eisenstadt still keeps ties with his Canadian friends. For his afternoon performance at the Connoisseur Series he brought his Toronto Quartetdespite none of the group actually coming from there. Bassist John Geggie is a local fixture on the Ottawa scene, keeping experimental jazz alive and well with his annual concert series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage. Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck is also US-based, amongst many projects working with composer/woodwind multi- instrumentalist Anthony Braxton, with whom she performed with his 12(tet)+1 at FIMAV in Victoriaville, Quebec in 2007. Baritone saxophonist David Mott is, indeed, the only Toronto resident (the group did have its germination with another Toronto player, cellist Matt Brubeck, who Geggie replaced for the Ottawa performance).
The 85-minute set consisted of seven original compositions, written by Eisenstadt and Mott. Ranging from basic structures that provide a form around which to improvise (Eisenstadt's swinging "Convergence") to brief musical phrases that acted as focal and rallying points for more unfettered free play (Mott's "Phrases"). With a set that began in relative accessibilitythough one of the remarkable aspects to the performance was that regardless how free the territory was, it was more about rounded surfaces than sharp edges, making it entirely approachablethe set gradually took off for more exploratory turf, whichdefined by so many low-end instruments (perhaps the only high frequency range instruments in the group were Eisenstadt's cymbals)was kept remarkably clear and defined in the room by soundman David O'Heare.
Eisenstadt's percussion was textural as he was rhythmic, a small kit with enough diversity on the cymbal front allowing him to evoke a rich variety of colors. But as open-ended as much of the music was, he was equally a part of suggesting soft pulses and more fervent backbeats, as he did later in the set with a riff- driven groove from Mott. If body language helps define how a drummer plays, Eisenstadt is relaxed, often leaning back, but occasionally leaning into the kit with deep concentration. Locked, tongue-in-groove with Geggie who, like Eisenstadt, ran the gamut from anchor to more intimate conversationalist, the drummer's writing was equally diverse, often involving irregular or shifting meters. While a generally freer player, Geggie was at his most Dave Holland-like on the gentle, but persistent groove of "Convergence." Intuitive, Eisenstadt's playing recalls the blend of pulse and color of Barry Altschul; no surprise, given Eisenstadt has studied with him.
Geggie's been growing at a more rapid pace in the past couple of years, and here his increasingly distinctive mix of spare lyricism and more abstract ideation worked particularly well. The quartet normally uses a cellist, and having an instrument with a lower range to compete with Mott's baritone and Schoenberg's bassoon had the potential for getting in each other's way, especially during the freer sections. But the group managed to interact and interrelate in ways that created a lush low-end texture that made the absence of higher register instruments unimportant. Geggie's experience playing with an increasingly impressive list of musicians including Myra Melford, Marilyn Crispell, Cuong Vu, Craig Taborn and Jon Christensen, along with his own studies and a dual career that's gradually blending classical and improvisation/jazz aesthetics into a personal whole, only makes it more important that he get the two records he has in the can out to the public.
Mott, whose focus on baritone has created its own niche that's been a big plus on projects like Jerry Granelli's Sandhills Reunion (Songlines, 2005)also seen with that project at the Ottawa festival in 2006and more mainstream affairs like the Nimmons 'N Nine Now Tribute Band, which will play Ottawa later in the festival on June 29, appeared to be in his preferred element here. From deep, growling bass riffs to more expansive excursions at the high end of his horn, he was part of a trio of low end instruments that seamlessly passed around the role of change-keeper when needed, jumping from a support role to lead voice at the drop of a hat. With a clear history in the tradition that brought a bluesy edge to one of his solos later in the set, it's clear that Mott's reach and inherent and near-immediate chemistry in virtually every situation makes him one of Canada's most eloquent and important saxophonists.
If there was a star of the show, however, it was Schoenbeck. Playing what may be the most difficult instrument on which to improvise, while other bassoonists like Dan Smith are making perhaps a bigger name for themselves to a mainstream audience, Schoenbeck is inarguably the more virtuoso and creative improviser. While opportunities abound in her work with Braxton, in the smaller, more intimate setting of a quartetand especially one with the ability to move organically from form to freedomfrom the audience perspective there was certainly a greater chance to hear what she could do. One of the highlights of the set was during a solo where, singing above her long, rich bassoon lines, it sounded very much like Tuvan throat singing, her voice creating subtle, overtone-like melodies to contrast the lower end of her horn. And while her instrument could be percussive at times, her tone was more often than not, warm and appealing.
Eisenstadt's performance may be one of the more avant-tinged performances to play the Connoisseur Series, and it may well have been a more appropriate group for the Improv Series. But by keeping things accessible even during its most outer-reaching collective improvisations, in no small part due to the attractive blend of the instruments, the Harris Eisenstadt Toronto Quartet put on a show that will undoubtedly go down as one of the best of the series.