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Live Reviews

Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 4-6, June 23-25, 2008

By Published: June 28, 2008
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June 25: Mimi Fox

One of the greater challenges facing musicians these days is the cost of touring with a steady group. Travel expenses, often coupled with paperwork and sometimes, as in the case of the United States, exorbitant costs to obtain work permits oftentimes make it difficult or impossible to manage. With CD sales dropping and income from gigging becoming a larger part of the working musician's income, making money on a tour is more important than ever.

Mimi FoxThe problem, however, is that the musician is at the mercy of the venue/festival and the support artists it provides. Thankfully Ottawa has a strong cadre of players to call upon when the need arises. Guitarist Roddy Elias did an outstanding job at the 2007 OIJF, filling in for Peter Bernstein with Dr. Lonnie Smith, while bassist John Geggie and Ottawa expat drummer Nick Fraser managed the impossible by filling in for bassist Stanley Clarke (appearing this year with the eagerly anticipated Return to Forever), when border problems prevented him from making it to Ottawa for his show with Béla Fleck and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Guitarist Mimi Fox—raised in New York, a San Francisco resident for the past 25 years and who, as she said during one of her casual and entertaining intros at her 4:30PM performance at Library and Archives Canada, "ditched the accent but kept the attitude"—has been touring and picking up rhythm sections as she goes. With Ottawa veteran drummer Bruce Wittet and bassist Norman Glaude, she put on a set heavy on the mainstream but filled with energy, invention and a light-heartedness that was immediately engaging.

With a mix of original material and standards, in particular a beautiful take on "My Romance," where she gave Glaude equal space in a duet setting, Fox proved herself a strong torchbearer for guitar icons like Wes Montgomery and Joe Pass. Her Perpetually Hip (Favored Nations, 2006) provided two views of Fox—one, the democratic, keenly attuned bandleader, the other a fully formed solo artist capable, as she did in performance, of taking The Beatles' richly orchestrated "She's Leaving Home" and capturing all the essential parts with only six strings and two hands. Playing it on a borrowed acoustic guitar from soundman David O'Heare, the guitar as orchestra has rarely sounded so good.

Mimi Fox / Bruce Wittet / Norman Glaude l:r Bruce Wittet, Norman Glaude, Mimi Fox

The trio covered a lot of territory, from the opening Latinesque tune that gave Wittet an early opportunity to interact with Fox in a duo setting before Glaude joined in. But it was on Fox's "Blues for Two," written for a longtime musical partner, Harvie Swartz (now just Harvie S), that Glaude and Wittet began to relax and swing with gentle confidence. Fox may sit firmly in the mainstream, but she's developed her own voice, one that includes a curious and unusual intermingling of harmonics with normal picking. Her rich chordal command allowed her to, at times, accompany herself, at other times create hard rhythms for her trio mates to work from.

Fox's relaxed demeanor made it a perfect afternoon performance; much like Lee Konitz's show the previous evening, there was in informal feel that drew the audience in and kept it there for Fox's eighty-minute set.

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June 25: Amir Amiri Duo with Linling Hsu

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 instrument—the 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."

Amir Amiri / Linling Hsu 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). Amiri—who 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 structure—largely 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.

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