Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 4-6, June 23-25, 2008
When OIJF Executive Producer began the Improv Series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, it was a labor of love that allowed her to bring in a handful of artists each year who operate in the outer reaches of the jazz continuum, in addition to some who most might not consider jazz at all. With limitations of time and venue, on two of the evenings O'Grady created unique double bills where, like the old movie theatres of years past, may have had little to connect them, but together created captivating evenings of entertainment that also challenged perceptions of what music can and cannot fit within the jazz continuum. Santour player Amir Amiri's performance, in duet with violinist Linling Hsu, may not have been anywhere close to the traditional neighborhood but, like Cosmos' performance on the festival's second night, was an unexpected treat.
Another engaging artist, Amiri took time between songs to explain the history of his instrumentthe santour, which is often mistakenly called a hammered dulcimer, though it does belong in the family, consisting eighteen sets of four strings, each set tuned to the same note. With a three-and-a-half octave range, and tuned a whole note higher than the Iranian version, there was a joke about the 72 strings relating to another significant number and connotation in Islam, but Amiri was quick to joke, "the instrument was around 2500 years before that, so I'm not going to get into it."
l:r Linling Hsu, Amir Amiri
The music may have been minor-keyed and, consequently, melancholy for the most part, but the joy on Amiri's face, as he first played solo and then, when brought Hsu out for the rest of the set, on the violinist's face as well, made it clear that this was a duo who truly loved what they were doing. The accuracy required for Amiri to manage the metric cross-patterns, often at a high velocity, was astonishing in itself, as was Hsu's ability to create long, winding melodies on occasion, at other times doubling Amiri note-for-note in astonishing but always beautiful and haunting synchronicity.
Ottawa followers of singer/songwriter Ian Tamblyn will be familiar with the tonality of the santour (though Tamblyn does play an Eastern European hammered dulcimer variant and the music is completely different). Amiriwho has studied in India with Ravi Shankar and plans to study in Spain soon to pursue an interest in Flamenco that was redolent on "Ala Tomatito" in both harmony and structurelargely mines the same nexus between Persian and Indian music that artists like kamancheh master Kayhan Kalhor does on albums including The Wind (ECM, 2006) and those with his longstanding group, Ghazal. Amiri's album (also in duet with Hsu), The Tehran Project (Self Published, 2005), is a strong document of the music heard during his Ottawa performance and, with a capacity crowd that was enthusiastic from the get-go, the santourist's performance was another memorable show for OIJF 2008.
During a recent Norwegian trip, Vancouver's Ken Pickering (artistic director of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society) spoke about festival programming going beyond the more obvious job requirements of creating a balanced line-up and being a project manager to deal with the detailed and often constantly shifting logistics to actually creating groups that may not have existed before, much as ECM Records' Manfred Eicher and Steve Lake have often brought musicians together for the first time, with an instinct for what will work and what won't. Pickering, in fact, has been responsible for a number of interesting collaborations over the years, working with other Canadian festivals to arrange for multi-date tours.
This year OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady took a major leap into the same territoryshe's done this before, but on a smaller scaleby asking renegade saxophonist/composer Tim Berne if he'd be interested in doing a show with fellow saxophonist Lotte Anker, recently heard at FIMAV 2007 in a quartet with Marilyn Crispell, Andrew Cyrille and Mark Helias.
It was an inspired idea, and Berne decided to also enlist clarinetist Chris Speed, another fixture on the New York scene and who created, alongside Berne and Anker, a wind trio that combined rigorous form with broad strokes of freedom.
l:r Lotte Anker, Chris Speed, Tim Berne
The music, contributed by everyone, covered a lot of territory but was closer to contemporary classical music in feel, especially when two or three horns came close together for microtonal harmonies that were reminiscent of György Ligeti's work for wind ensembles. Speed was the most visually animated and expressive but, with a performance that was an outstanding combination of near mathematical precision, empathic interaction and individual soloing that, despite the appearance of no parameters (and there were, of course, cases where there were, indeed, few if any), all three transcended one of the trappings of free improvisationmusic that seems to be completely random, with no apparent purpose. The trio's entire one hour set was anything but aimless or haphazard, despite there being plenty of opportunities for surprise for everyone.
Despite Berne's rare improvisational acumen, his solos were always clear and focused. Even if the lines the altoist played were abstruse and the tonalities he managed were unique, there was always the feeling that he was working between two destinations. His route may not always have been direct, but there was a pervasive logic and, at times, apparent inevitability. As ever, as the spokesperson for the group, Berne's comments between pieces were dry and witty.
Anker's own arsenal of extended techniques for both tenor and soprano were equally distinctive, at one point passing the mouthpiece of her tenor side to side past her lips to create a breathy expression that, along with some deep, guttural timbres, provided a contrasting texture to Berne. Speed, who played some tenor, but stayed largely with clarinet, is proving to be a writer of no small consequence, something not heard in his work with percussionist John Hollenbeck's outstanding Claudia Quintet but readily apparent at this performance.
It was a demanding concert that asked nearly as much of the audience as it did the members of the trio. But for Berne, Anker and Speed there was an intensity underscored by a certain effortless ability to navigate directed and open-ended improvisations while working together on scored arrangements that forged a unique meeting point along the New Music continuum.
Coming up on days seven and eight of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival: Return to Forever featuring Chick Corea and Charlie Haden Quartet West.