Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-3, June 25-27, 2009
Hot on the heels of recently released Spirit Moves (Greenleaf, 2009), trumpeter Dave Douglas brought his five-piece Brass Ecstasy Band to Confederation Park for an early evening show that wasn't just hot because the temperature was hovering around 30 Celsius as the sun began to set. Much like the album, Douglas and the group trombonist Luis Bonilla, French hornist (though Douglas refers to it strictly as "Horn") Vincent Chancey, tuba player Marcus Rojas and drummer Nasheet Waitscut a wide swath across music ranging from the slow, second line-influenced "This Love Affair" to a booty-shaking take on Otis Redding's hit, "Mr. Pitiful."
While some of the material was kept relatively close to album length, the quintet stretched out more on tunes like "Bowie," an homage to the late trumpeter Lester Bowie, whose Brass Fantasy group was a clear antecedent for Douglas' group, though Douglas' voiceboth compositionally and performance-wiseremains firmly his own. It's a remarkable achievement for the much-heralded Douglas, in fact, that no matter what the context, his voice shines through true and clear. The collage-like "Bowie" ranged from detailed arrangement to moments of pure freedom and some marching band references ("When the Caissons Go Rolling Along"), while "Twilight of the Dogs" grooved more viscerally, though it built up with far greater power during Douglas' impressively serpentine solo.
There was plenty of room for everyone to solo, but some of the hour-long set's most exciting moments came when the trumpet/trombone/horn front-line soloed collectively. With Douglas' embouchure providing a surprisingly broad textural range, the combination was warmer, less brash than might be expected from a brass-heavy ensemble. Chancey soloed less than the rest, but with his horn being an especially difficult one on which to improvise, the challenge made his few features all the more striking. Bonilla delivered a set- defining solo that built to a fever pitch and an abrupt stop during which, it appeared, he considered continuing, then just waved his trombone and walked offstage to great applause and a slap on the back from Douglas.
Rojas, an equally superb player who managed to do things that probably shouldn't be allowed on tuba, was situated upstage, but his sound was a dominant force. Amplified onstage, it was a huge, meaty sound that anchored the group with Waits, capable of laconic melodic counterpoint but also surprising swing, as he walked like a double-bass at a surprising clip during one of the solo sections on "Bowie." He also soloed with surprising dexterity and fluidity. The tuba will never be the same again.
Waits, in addition to rooting the music with a combination of New Orleans funk and more sensitive brushwork, took a couple of characteristically powerful and melodic solos that demonstrated why he's in such demand with artists including Fred Hersch, Jason Moran and the late Andrew Hill.
l:r: Dave Douglas, Luis Bonilla, Marcus Rojas, Vincent Chancey
Douglas continues to evolve, year-after-year. For an artist who has worked with string groups, electronica- tinged ensembles, Eastern European-tinged quartets, acoustic septets and more, it's his impeccable playing that's set him apart in a category of his own making. Demonstrating incredible controlholding long, clear notes within which a soft vibrato occasionally phases in and outhe also displayed constant invention, making him impossible to ignore as one of his generation's most outstanding players. And his egalitarian writing, exploiting fully both the context he finds himself in and the players he chooses, turns every new project into one that may not last indefinitely, but ought to. Brass Ecstasy is Douglas at his most accessible- -even as his charts possess non-pandering harmonic depth and freedom of expressionand was a perfect festival opener to stretch the minds of those who'd come for the more mainstream headliner, Roberta Gambarini.
Firmly planted she may be already, but Roberta Gambarini lays waste more popular female jazz vocalists like the oddly iconic Diana Krall, who doesn't possess even half of the Italian singer's range, interpretive skills or onstage personality. With a crack trio featuring Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Neil Swainson and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb (the last surviving player on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and who'll be performing music from that album with his own group, Jimmy Cobb's So What Band, the following night), Gambarini delivered a 90- minute set that had the audience so rapt that, during its quietest momentsand there were some incredibly quiet moments for an outdoor performance in the heart of downtown Ottawayou literally could hear a pin drop.
Unassuming and with an unforced stage presence that connected with the audience immediately, Gambarini and her trio worked their way through a range of standards, focusing heavily on music from her upcoming release, So In Love (Emarcy, 2009), ranging from the warmly balladic medley of a slightly reworded "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" and "I Loves You Porgy," from George and Ira Gershwin's enduring opera Porgy and Bess, to a buoyant uptake of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," with a vocal solo modeled after the three instrumental ones on the 1957 Verve album by Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up. Gambarini may be relatively young, but she knows a vast history and repertory of song, culling film music from Ennio Morricone's 1989 soundtrack to Cinema Paradiso, as well as Dave Brubeck's classic "In Your Own Sweet Way" and Billy Strayhorn's often-covered "Lush Life."
Gambarini has chops, but she knows when and how to use them. Scatting with fluidity throughout her wide range, but never overplaying her cards, as the set progressed the singer became more adventurous, taking things "outside" harmonically on more than one occasion in a remarkable display of vocal acrobatics. But as impressive a technician as she is, it's all about the feel, and her emulated flugelhorn solo on the particularly soft and elegant Bruno Brighetti/Bruno Martino chestnut, "Estaté" was an understated high point of the performance.
Chestnut, whose star as a leader seems to remain in a holding pattern these days, proved himself to be an ideal accompanist, sensitive to Gambarini and the centrist nature of the music while still delivering no shortage of virtuosity and adventure. Swainson, one of Canada's great bassists, is no stranger to the festival and here locked, hand-in-glove, with Cobb, one of jazz's most refined players. And while Gambarini was clearly the focus of her audience's attention, she was a democratic and appreciative leader who was clearly more than happy to be working with such a finely tuned trio.
Despite the straight-ahead nature of the music, Gambarini managed to bring an unexpected sound of surprise to keep even the most familiar material fresh and contemporary. Easy on the years, yes; but with no shortage of substance, suggesting that the accolades being heaped upon Gambarini as one of her generation's great singers are absolutely well-deserved.