Ottawa Jazz Festival 2008: Days 10-11, June 29-30, 2008
Brad Mehldau Trio / Richard Galliano Tangaria Quartet
TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
June 29-30, 2008
As the 2008 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival entered the home stretch, there were choices to be made. Mike Stern or Brad Mehldau? Richard Galliano or Gladys Knight? With an eye on diversity, there was, once again, something for everyone. And while the festival's final day, July 1, 2008, was a special program of free all- Canadian daytime concerts in celebration of Canada Day, its effective end was on June 30 and, looking back at this year's roster, it's hard to deny that this was one of the best programs in recent years. From Wynton Marsalis to Iro Haarla, Return to Forever to Charlie Haden Quartet West, from Tim Berne to Cosmos, 2008 may be the festival's most successful year at balancing itself as a festival with broad appeal and little, if any, compromise.
While it might be considered overkill to bring pianist Brad Mehldau back for the third time in six years performing a special indoor performance at Library and Archives Canadai in 2006 and an unforgettable first appearance at Confederation Park in 2002 his return to Confederation Park for OIJF 2008 was anything but.
Ever since Jeff Ballard replaced Mehldau Trio original drummer Jorge Rossy, there's been a significant shift in the group's dynamic. Contributing more than just greater expressionism and dominance as part of the trio's conversational approach to interpreting originals, standards and contemporary material from artists including Soundgarden and Radiohead, Ballard has in many ways created greater balance within the trio, allowing Mehldau to play with increasing economy. On the show's finalea lengthy take on "My Ship" from the 1941 Cole Porter/Kurt Weill collaboration with author Moss Hart, Lady in the Dark, featuring a mesmerizing piano solo near its endMehldau approached the melody with a spare elegance that's not exactly new, but certainly more pervasive.
Blues also seemed to be a predominant form or, at least, a strong influence throughout the set, with the simplest of thematic ideas driving the set opener, "Kurt Vibe" (for guitarist/friend Kurt Rosenwinkel), one of four new Mehldau originals that dominated the seven-song, 85-minute set. Without denying the importance of Rossy, who was so fundamental to Mehldau's original trio, Ballard is a player with a broader reach, bringing hand drums and his own hands to the trio's palette. He's also a more extroverted and, at times, busy player, ratcheting up the energy and pushing bassist Larry Grenadier to play with greater force than he did in the Rossy trio.
While Mehldau might have been considered the primary voice throughout the set, the true beauty of his trio is its effortless democracy. Ballard and Grenadier each had opportunities for delineated solos, but it was the trio's comfortable but never complacent interplay that impressed the most. Mehldau, Grenadier and Ballard seemed to speak with a single voice, generating a group sound that was at once respectful of form and completely malleable; ever ready to move with each others' inevitable ebbs and flows.
Ballard's ride cymbal drove "MB," another original dedicated, this time, to the late saxophone giant Michael Brecker. Reminiscent of the same kind of gentle but persistent drive of ECM albums like Ralph Towner's Solstice (1975), Ballard pushed the group assertively but not aggressively, giving Mehldau the freedom to let the music breath more than ever before, even when compared to his recent Live (Nonesuch, 2008). With Grenadier and Ballard keeping an unshakable pulse, Mehldau seemed more liberal with time, moving in and out of it to create greater tension that, rather than releasing in a significant catharsis, seemed instead to just organically find its way back to where it began.
Gone were the hypnotic, repetitive waves of Progression: Art of the Trio, Volume 5 (Warner Bros., 2001) that would build to a climax and resolve in more conventional fashion. Replacing them was a defter approach that, at times, was no less virtuosic, but instead approached songs like Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You" with greater fluidity and open-ended dialogue. Improvisation that, at times, built on simple motifs but, with near-perfect instinct, evolved slowly into more complex ideas was a definitive change in approach. Mehldau has often spoken of distancing himself from artists like the legendary Bill Evans, with whom he's often compared. It remains, however, that while he may not sound at all like Evans, his approach to collective improvisationwith Grenadier and Ballard transcending mere support of the form to allow Mehldau to explore its nooks and crannies, but instead equal contributors to the spontaneityis undeniably a pushing forward of Evans' innovation.
Still, Ottawa Citizen music critic and astute Thriving on a Riff blogger, described the trifecta of iconic pianists playing the OIJF this year earlier in the week as: Herbie Hancock, the poet, Chick Corea, the percussionist and Brad Mehldau, the philosopher. It's a concise and perfect way to differentiate the three, with his description of Mehldau especially on the money. Mehldau's music has always born a cerebral nature, and that quality remains a prevalent factor in his music. But with a greater attention to space and trio mates who are at the top of their game, Mehldau's performance was another example of working in the vicinity of the mainstream without falling into any of its inherent trappings. Like the Charlie Haden Quartet West performance two days earlier, the audience was so enraptured by the Mehldau Trio's performance that, once again, surrounding outdoor sounds seemed to disappear, with everyone completely focused on the remarkable performance taking place onstage.
The final show of the 2008 OIJF's Improv Series was also it's best attended. Of course, with a name like Richard Galliano and the project his highly accessible Tangaria Quartet, it's no surprise that the French accordionist drew a larger crowd then more experimental performances like that of Tim Berne's or Iro Haarla, earlier in the festival. Still, while Berne would have been a stretch for some of Galliano's fans, and Haarla would likely have done far better had she not been up against Herbie Hancock in Confederation Park, what Galliano proved is that the Improv Series need not be all about more abstract or jagged music. Like the Flamenco-centric music of bassist Renaud Garcia-Fons at his Connoisseur Series performance, Galliano's Tangaria Quartet was all about passion, playfulness and, at times, instrumental pyrotechnics that, like Garcia-Fons, were never an end in and of themselves but, instead, were constantly in service of the music.
Galliano's seventy-five minute performance drew on material from Live in Marciac 2006 (Milan, 2007) and Luz Negra, and provided plenty of feature opportunities for violinist Alexis Caredenas, percussionist Rafaël Mejias and Jean-Philippe Viret, who did not appear on Galliano's albums but is a renowned French bassist whose longstanding trio has been steadily building a fine discography, including L'Indicible (Minium, 2006), with pianist Edouard Ferlet. Here, with the focus on a curious mix between music reminiscent of the Gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt (but without the strings), that of tango master Astor Piazzolla, a reinvention of early 20th Century French ballroom dancing form musette and, at times, hints of world music from sources further afield.
Galliano's button accordion was nothing short of remarkable in its breadth of color and range. From piercing high notes to in-the-gut lows, and from warm, soft tones to using the bellows to emulate the sound of the wind, Galliano's reputation as one of the living masters of the instrument was indisputable as he raced across it on the more fiery material, and evoked vocal-like expression on ballads and an interpretation of Erik Satie's "Gnoissienne #3" that turned the classical composer's simple melody into a thing of beauty even Satie himself would not likely have been able to conceive. Cardenas' instrument might have been less texturally expansive, but he was equally impressive, especially on songs like the opening "Tango for Claude," where he doubled Galliano's melodies with such accuracy that the two instruments merged into a single tonality.
Mejias, with an almost constant smile on his face, moved around a small hand percussion array that included the cajón, bongos, maracas, a cymbal and wind chimes, was a remarkably sensitive player who was aware of the dynamic effect of playing little...or, in some cases, not at all. His own solos were equally incisive; during a duet spot with Cardenas where the violinist demonstrated remarkable virtuosity, Mejias managed to do more with two maracas than many drummers do with entire kits. Viret also demonstrated a potent ability to say much with less; his solo spot in duet with Galliano, before the accordionist took the stage on his own for a series of solos that ranged from haunting and melancholic to vibrant and fervent.
l:r" Alexis Cardenas, Rafaël Mejias, Richard Galliano, Jean-Philippe Viret
While this was a context where solos strictly worked within the confines of often very detailed song form, where the arrangements were often so complex that they belied their resonance and inherent approachability. Like Garcia-Fons, it's too easy to dismiss Galliano's music as mere expansion of a number of traditions. But by doing so and, most importantly, opening these traditions up for improvisation, he's been an innovator who may well be looked upon in the history books as every bit as significant as his mentor, Piazzolla. Certainly the sold-out performance, that capped off the third year of a still relatively nascent Improv Series that's been getting more diverse and adventurous each year.
As the 28th TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival draws to a close with Canada Day festivities on July 1, the buzz amongst regular attendees is that it's been one of the best festivals in recent years. High praise, indeed, from a discerning crowd who have been quick, in previous years, to find fault with certain ideas that failed to come together as well as hoped. But OIJF 2008 not only brought a wealth of big name acts to draw large audiencesincluding a record-breaking crowd of 11,500 for the Return to Forever show- -it continued to focus on the smaller acts that give the festival not only its variety, but its credibility.
At a time when other festivals are bringing in a significant number of acts that have absolutely nothing to do with jazz, OIJF remains quietly dedicated to ensuring that it continues to be perceived as a jazz festival.