Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 4-6, June 28-30, 2009
Since emerging as the subject of the 1997 Academy Award-nominated film, Jules at Eight, guitarist Julian Lage has racked up an impressive set of credentials, including lessons from Jim Hall, records with mandolinist David Grisman and time spent as a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton's band, documented on Generations (Concord, 2004) and Next Generation (Concord, 2005). Striking out on his own with his debut as a leader, Sounding Point (Decca, 2009), what's perhaps most remarkable about Lage is just how technically advanced and stylistically diverse he is. All expectations for his first album were quickly dismissed as the guitarist delivered an eclectic album featuring trio collaborations with banjoist Béla Fleck and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile; duets with another young up-and-comer, Taylor Eigsti; a couple of unaccompanied solos; and six tracks featuring members of his touring groupBen Roseth (saxophone), alongside South Americans Aristides Rivas (cello), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Tupac Mantilla (percussion).
While an unfortunate circumstance stopped Rivas at the Canada-USA border, trimming Lage's group down to a quartet, the guitarist did a fine job at compensating in his main stage performance at Confederation Park, opening for Maria Schneider and her Orchestra. His hour-long set featured Lage's original compositions from Sounding Point as well as two new originalsthe opening "Working Title," with the quartet's close-knit composure making clear that it was having fun from the get-go. Both Lage and Roseth took inventive solos, while on the aptly titled "Bluegrass Underscore," Lage referenced his bluegrass interest, but stretched them into new territory with Mantilla's cajón-driven groove.
l:r: Ben Roseth, Julian Lage, Jorge Roeder, Tupac Mantilla
An effortless player who wound his way through complex changes and hung on a groove with equal aplomb, live Lage was more energetic than on disc, where his playing is a little more restrained. The entire group generated a youthful excitement and just plain "happy to be here" vibe that was infectious yet would have likely worked better in an indoor venue. Still, the interaction and camaraderie on songs like the Midwestern-tinged "Clarity," the fierier "Ode to Elvin" and somehow Oregon-esqure closer, "Motor Minder," made the set a winner from start to finish.
Lage utilized a hollowbody electric guitar and adopted a tone clearly inspired by Hall. He may possesses a similar ability to find and mine simple melodies in the most challenging of circumstances, Lage also proved to be a player unafraid of aiming for higher octane, both in solos and in call-and-response passages with each member of his band. And the pleasure he clearly had in being able to bring his music to an audience, many of whom hadn't heard him previously, was a joy to watch.
Sometimes it's necessary to make a choice, and it was a tough call between a mainstage performance by Maria Schneider's Orchestra and the Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani duet. Still, it's the bane of festival-goers everywhere that it's simply not possible to be everywhere at the same time, despite the opening 15 minutes of Schneider's performance boding well to actually surpass her last Ottawa performance.
Not that it's likely, based on their performance at the 10:30 PM Studio Series in the Studio of the National Arts Centre, but if music doesn't work out for Italian trumpet master Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani, there's a career in comedy waiting for them. While the duo entered with the kind of poignant lyricism for which Rava is known, Bollani's encyclopedic ability to shift on a dime and incorporate more influences from more generations of jazz and classical music than can be listed, and a duo approach that may revolve around form but is as free as it gets assured that, by the end of the song, a Puck-ish sense of playful mischief began to emerge, especially from the pianist.
Impressions that the audience was in for more than just an exhilarating performance of unpredictability and telepathic interplay were confirmed when, after two tunes, Rava took to the mike. As he began his introduction, Bollaniafter running to a large chair that sits at the back of the stage as part of the staging for the Studio Series to drop his jacketbegan to leave the stage, to which Rava responded, "We're not finished yet." Bollani's response: "We're not finished?" Rava's reply: "No, we play more...we get paid less." As he went on to introduce the duo and the first two tunes, Bollani began to translate the entire monologue into Italian, until Rava informed him that this wasn't "an Italian audience," though that didn't stop him.
The mischief continued into a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Retrato em branco e preto," which Rava introduced as an important number for three people: Jobim, who wrote the tune; the late trumpeter Chet Baker, who played it and remains one of Rava's influences, and Gilberto Gil, who still sings it. Rava and Bollani demonstrated an important aspect to all music: at some point it stops being about how well you play and becomes all about the song, all about the music, and nothing more. That both are tremendous talents is a given; what made their performance so captivating was not just hearing how they could twist and turn a known tune, taking it in directions as surprising to them as the audience, but seeing how completely different were the personas of the pair. Rava was the somewhat dry, elderly humorist who suggested a new direction with a single note, while Bollani was the impish youngster who brought an unexpected physicality to his playing, suggesting his own deviations by, at one point, looking at his left hand as it repeated a difficult pattern and then turning to Rava while waving his right hand as if to say "help me stop this crazy thing!" Fortunately Rava did, first by slapping the pianist's left arm and then by delivering a flurry of notes that ranged from almost flugelhorn-like warmth to tart upper-range bursts.
l:r: Stefano Bollani, Enrico Rava
But for all the levity, this was unspeakably deep music. As playful as the two were, the facade almostbut not quitemasked the profound level at which the two interact. Finishing their eighty-minute set with two original tunesone from Bollani, the other from Ravathe duo received an immediate standing ovation and were clearly expected to come back for at least one more tune. The choice was perfect: the same "Estaté" that singer Roberta Gambarini sang on the first night of this year's festival, but with an unfettered approach that contrasted greatly from Gambarini's more faithful delivery while still remaining absolutely true to the essence of the song. It was a tender way to leave the audience perhaps wanting more, but satisfied at the rare opportunity to hear two musicians perform with the kind of chemistry that's all too rare but results in a show of at times demanding but always compelling music. Attended by an all-too-small audience, this is a show that will, no doubt, be talked about for years to come.