Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 7-8, June 26-27, 2008
Return to Forever / Charlie Haden Quartet West
TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
June 26-27, 2008
It was certainly the most eagerly anticipated show of the 2008 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival and, with 11,500 eager fans squeezing into Confederation Park, it was also the highest attendance for any show in the festival's 28-year history. Keyboardist Chick Corea's reunited Return to Forever is currently on one of the most talked about tours of the year and, nearly a month after its first date in Austin, Texas on May 29, 2008, it's clear that the only other fusion reunion that would generate this much excitement would be if guitarist John McLaughlin were able to bring back the original Mahavishnu Orchestra line-up, responsible for the life-changing The Inner Mounting Flame (Columbia, 1971).
Nordic Connect l:r: Christine and Ingrid Jensen
But as is always the case with the OIJF, the program for June 26 through June 29 was nothing, if not diverse. The slightly left of center Nordic Connect, featuring two of Canada's leading musicians, sisters Ingrid (trumpet, now residing in New York where, amongst other endeavors, she's a member of Mariah Schneider's award-winning Jazz Orchestra, appearing on the sweeping and ambitious 2007 Artistshare release, Sky Blue) and Christine Jensen (who remains in Canada, releasing a series of fine albums including the aptly titled 2006 Effendi release, Look Left), put on an outstanding opener for Return to Forever. The quintet's Flurry (ArtistShare, 2007) was an auspicious debut, and their 2008 tour makes it clear that this is, thankfully, not a one-time affair, as they performed material from the album as well as new material written as recently as the past couple weeks, specifically Ingrid Jensen's tribute to Swedish pianist Esbjörn Svensson, who was killed on June 14 in a tragic diving accident.
For those looking a little more to the left there were strong performances by bassist Carlos Bica's Azul (also featuring drummer Jim Black and the less well-known but profile-ready guitarist Frank Möbius and DJ Illvibe), the Ottawa Composers Collective, who've been working together through the festival in preparation for their June 27 performance. Mainstream fans were given the chance to see and hear bassist Charlie Haden's Quartet West and a Toronto quintet that reunites the Murley/Braid Quartet that wowed OIJF festival goers in 2004 and adds saxophonist Tara Davidson to the mix. And, of course, the Saturday night of the second weekend is a dance party, this year with The Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, featuring three JuniorsTito Rodriguez, Machito and Tito Puente.
Once again the OIJF managed to program with diversity that sometimes skirted the edges of jazz in a broader continuum but, with rare exception, remained so pure that it's gained a reputation across the country as one of Canada's most definitively jazz festivals.
The first person to show up waiting for RTF was there at 1:30PM. Sadly, she had to leave the park for the closed sound check, but she no doubt returned as soon as possible to regain her position close to the stage. Like many of the people in attendance, she grew up on RTF, even though she wasn't old enough to be aware of them when they were around between 1973 and 1976. While everyone expected this reunion tour to be a big event, it seems that nobodythe band includedexpected it to be this big. By the time the group took to the stage, the park was completely packed, with people stretching as far back as the food court that's near the main street at the far end of Confederation Park's stage.
The group wasn't fooling around. This was, after all, a Fusion act, and so the stage was packed with gear. From stage left, Corea was completely obscured by a number of keyboards and monitorsvisible only on the big screen monitor on the same side of the stagewhile on the other side of the stage, drummer Lenny White didn't have a drum kit: he had a drum store. Stanley Clarke may have used only two bassesan electric four-string and self-designed for travel acoustic bass, but it was all fed through a stack of amps and speakers. Guitarist Al Di Meola was equally well-equipped. With fusion being, at times, music for gear-heads., RTF's fans would expect nothing less.
And while there was no small percentage of gray hairs and no hairs who, no doubt, saw RTF back in the day, equally there was a large contingent of under-thirties, proving that it is possible to bring a youth audience into jazz. They may not have been as familiar with the material, but they were clearly moved by the unbridled power, inestimable virtuosity and staggering arrangements, as RTF delivered a set that touched on all four of its albumsHymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), which featured the RTF's first guitarist, Bill Connors, Where Have I Know You Before (Polydor, 1974), which introduced Al Di Meola to the world, No Mystery (Polydor, 1975), where the group became coincidentally more funky and, at times, more acoustic, and its swan song and, for many, high watermark, Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976), an album that may have been the closest a group of jazz musicians in the fusion camp came to approaching progressive rock.
The Anthology (Concord, 2008) was released earlier this year and collects remastered and, more importantly, remixed versions of all the material from their first and last releases, and the best tracks from the other two, and it was from this definitive collection that RTF culled material for its performance. If there's a complaint to be had, it's that up until Ottawa, RTF was performing two setsone electric, one largely acousticand a lengthy, three-song encore; here, the set list was abbreviated, cutting out the epic "Song to the Pharoah Kings"; the funky and, at the time, radio-friendly but rich "Dayride"; and a sing-along version of Corea's classic "Spain." Still, there was enough testosterone and pyrotechnics in the group's hundred-minute set to leave everyone energized...and happy.
The group began in abstraction, with everyone throwing in teasers of classic RTF material, ultimately coalescing for a version of Corea's "Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy" that suffered from just a little sloppiness. Then again, playing this material after thirty years is no small feat, and by the second tune, Clarke's episodic and anthemic "Vulcan Worlds," they were playing together as if no time had passedand having fun doing it. When, in the center of the tune, the group dropped the tempo for a solo from Corea that was surprisingly on the outside, it became clear that even though the group may not be performing new material, it has done some cosmetic work on the existing songs, making them both more contemporary and, for those so familiar with the material that they can hum every part, still a challenge. An extended version of the acoustic "Romantic Warrior" introduced a new series of changes during Di Meola's solo
Recalling the group's last Ottawa appearance in 1974, RTF 2008 was not only able to approach the material with a more open aesthetic, but deliver many of the parts previously impossible to perform because the technology simply wasn't good enough to be able to pull it off in concert. And, despite a persistent break-up in one of the PA speakers during Clarke's fervent bass solo as part of the group's lengthy closing version of Corea's Romantic Warrior," the group sounded far more powerful, more sonically expansive and clear than it did thirty years ago. Clarke's solo was a show-stopper that was but one of a number of standing ovations from the crowd. Whether he was furiously strumming the bass or bowing it with an arco tone that remains uniquely identifiable, he managed to turn excess into success, with an ear to building a solo in a way that could do nothing but excite an already pumped audience even further.
Di Meola has often been criticized, despite having the kinds of hands most would sacrifice their soul for, and there was no shortage of the blinding runs that have polarized fusion fanslike Woody Allen, he's either loved or hated. Some are moved by his undeniable frenetic energy; others find it style without substance. But, based on his performance in Ottawa, he's playing with greater maturity and restraint, even if there were times when he was playing so fast it was nearly impossible to keep up.
From turning White's funky "Sorceress" into a greasier groove to Di Meola's acoustic guitar solo feature- -which began as an unexpected duet version of Hymn's "Space Circus Part I" before heading into an impressive blend of rapid-fire staccato lines, staggering arpeggios and aggressively strummed chord passagesRTF made sure that all the signatures that defined the group's sound were there. Corea's MiniMoog solos, with a deep vibrato, were in full force on "Vulcan Worlds." On the lengthy encore, "Duel of the Jester and the Tyrant Part I & II," Corea's unmistakable Fender Rhodes sound and synth solo, a series of fiery exchanges between Clarke and Di Meola separated by near-impossible shifts, and White's combination of orchestral depth and an unshakable groove that's fundamental to RTF represented the group at its best and, some might also say, its worst.
It's hard to deny that the music of Return to Forever is largely defined by chops, bombast and excess. But while, for some, those terms might seem to be a criticism, when it comes to RTF and their Ottawa performance, they're high praise. Combining incredibly complex arrangements (that had some awed that there were no charts to be found onstage) with unparalleled virtuosity that's been tempered by three decades of experience abroad, and a relaxed, playful delivery that knew what the crowd wanted and made sure it delivered, it was a rare performance, which managed to hit the front page of The Ottawa Citizen, the city's biggest newspaper, the next morning. But when a jazz festival can attract nearly 12,000 people to an outdoor show, that's news, and few but RTF would be able to pull it off. White said, at one point, that "this is a man's band." He was right. The testosterone was flowing, but nobodyman or womanwas complaining. That's what they came for, and that's what RTF delivered.