Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 10-11, July 3-4, 2010
While most groups have to come up through some kind of scene, there are those who somehow manage to transcend the normappearing, relatively suddenly, as fully-formed and garnering almost instant media and popular attention. Sweden's e.s.t. was one such group, though it would be an untruth to suggestafter becoming one of Europe's most successful young jazz groups, only to be cut short as it began to make serious inroads in North America when pianist Esbjörn Svensson died in a tragic diving accident two years agothat the pop-centric piano trio was an overnight success. The success of British pianist Neil Cowley and his trio, on the other hand, truly did seem to come out of nowhere. e.s.t. had to release a handful of albums before showing up on critical and public radars, but Neil Cowley Trio seemed to leap into public awarenesscertainly in England, anywaywith the release of its 2007 debut, Displaced (Hide Inside). Three years and two more records later, Cowley has begun forging inroads outside of the UK, something his first Canadian tourhitting Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawais sure to help.
While much of the advance press has linked it to The Bad Plus, Neil Cowley Trio's albumsand Ottawa performance, as part of the Improv Invitational series at the NAC Fourth Stagehave rendered such comparisons superficial at best. It's true that Cowley, bassist Richard Sadler and drummer Evan Jenkins bring unmistakable rock energyand, at times, near-rock volumeto the music, but comparisons could just as easily be drawn to e.s.t.better, in fact, given the group's focus on original music (as opposed to TBP, who first garnered attention for covering rock groups like Nirvana, Black Sabbath and Blondie. Cowley's may well hammer the keys fiercely at times, but the trio is still far more finessed than the oftentimes clunky Bad Plus...except, that is, when it's trying to be.
Emphasizing material from its latest CD, Radio Silence (Naim, 2010), Cowley's self-effacing introductions were as entertaining as the group's performance. Introducing songs like Displaced's "She Eats Flies" as being about a spider in his garden the "size of a kitten," and referring to the trio's appearance in Toronto as an "almost appearance""we arrived on the train and nobody was there; we took a cab to the hotel, and nobody was there; we played the show and, well, a few people were there, and then we left"there was a comfortable and palpable sense of camaraderie between the pianist and his trio mates. Their playful approach to the chord-heavy "His Nibs," from Loud...Louder...Stop! (Cake, 2008)a song described by Cowley has "our hit; thanks to a UK TV show it made us famous...for about two weeks"belied the challenge of a song which constantly slowed down and sped up. Elsewhere in the set, the trio took the concept of "false endings" to a whole new level; after more stops and restarts than the audience could count, when the group finally appeared to be done, it wasn't, as Cowley looked up at the crowd, saying "we're not done yet."
As hard-hitting as some of the music was, and as much as, for the most part, it seemed to eschew normal conventions when it came to delineated soloing, there was little doubt that everyone on the group could play, and play extremely well. Cowley may have used a ham-fisted approach on "His Nibs," but on "Box Lily," the hidden track at the conclusion of Radio Silence ("I hate hidden tracks," Cowley said, "so we have one"), he also proved capable of greater subtlety and intuitive control over dynamics. Higher energy music rarely succeeds well without something against which it can be compared, and the entire trio demonstrated a unerring ability to shift gears, whether it was with the mixed meters that imbued some of the material, or in the way it moved from a whisper to a roar, sometimes at the drop of a hat, other times, graduallyrelentlessly, even. The dark-hued title track to Radio Silence also demonstrated a freer approach and more oblique compositional approach that kept the set from ever settling into monotony (not that there was ever any real risk of that happening anyway).
From left: Neil Cowley, Richard Sadler, Evan Jenkins
While the focus in most piano trios is on the pianist, Sadler and Jenkins were equally noteworthy. Jenkins, in particular, was especially impressive, his kit sounding greatespecially a snare which, according to Cowley, he purchased earlier in the day at a local drum store. Whether it was because he was happy with it or this is the way he always plays, he seemed especially focused on it in his fills, and during two brief solo spots. And while he could be as busy as Cowley, he never lost sight of groove, whether it was a brighter rock beat on the up-tempo "Gerald," another tune with the tempo slowing down and speeding up, the funky groove of Displaced's "Kenny Two Steps," or the dervish-like polka beat of "Ginger Sheep," a brief but well-deserved encore that proved, along with the entire set, that the piano trio tradition is alive and well, and will remain so as long as there are groups like Neil Cowley Trio around to keep it youthful, fresh and vital.
The final day of OIJF 2010 had a themewhether or not it was actually planned that waybringing some of the world's finest trumpet players and spanning three generations. As was the bane of OIJF's 30th anniversary, however, it was simply not possible to attend every show.
Trumpeter Christian Scott may still be on the north side of 30, but he's already established a name for himself as one of the hottest, most intelligent and outspoken players on the scene, with four albums to his name that just keep getting better and better. His shows do, too: his 2008 2008 performance at de Jazz de Montreal was stellar; his 2010 OIJF show incendiary. While there's an important interest in promoting younger artists at a time when ensuring there's a younger demographic to replace the aging baby boomers who seem to be, at least in North America, the primary attendees of jazz festivals during the summer season, all too often these musicians are thrust into the spotlight far too soon, without a well-formed concept and clearly defined voice. Scott is one of the exceptions; a leader with a mature and recognizable approach.
He's also a warm, funny and generous guy. His name may be on the marquee, but he's quick to make sure his audiences know that his guitarist, ex-Torontonian Matt Stevens, is not just his musical director, but the person singularly responsible for putting him on the path he's ona guitarist whose closest reference point may be Kurt Rosenwinkel, but he's no imitator. He may be cerebral in the clear consideration going into every note, every chord; but, with an impassioned sense of commitment, his solos built with a burning combination of inevitability and sheer unpredictability.
Scott and Stevens met at Berklee, and couldn't appear to be more diametrically opposed: Scott, the most stylish looking trumpeter this side of Miles Davis, Stevens as conservatively dressed as they come, in a white button-down shirt and blue jeans, sporting what Scott called, at one point during his hilarious but loving introductions, "the cat with the World War I haircut," as he explained to a capacity crowd at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage what "doing the dozens" is. "Is nobody here from the 'hood," he joked as he tried to explain a variety of other terms.
But as much as Stevens and Scott appear different, they're family where it counts. He's also the only member of Scott's band that has been with him since his critically acclaimed debut, Rewind That (Concord, 2006), as powerful an announcement of intent as any young American artist has made in recent years; the only exception, perhaps, being pianist Aaron Parks and his equally significant Invisible Cinema (Blue Note, 2008). Parks, in fact, played with Scott on the trumpeter's sophomore disc, Anthem (Concord, 2007) and the following live set, Live at Newport (Concord, 2008), but with both players clearly up-and-coming, it's no surprise he decided to head out on his own.
And so, Scott's current group has come together gradually, with drummer Jamire Williams, first appearing on Live at Newport, lighting a serious fire under the group ever since. He was no less incendiary at the Ottawa performancea combination of Brian Blade's loose expressionism, Tony Williams' thundering power and his own distinctive approach, which included a second snare drum up where rack toms usually go, allowing him to play brushes and rim shots on the balladic "Isadora," a tune which first appeared on Newport, but received the studio treatment on Scott's latest, Yesterday You Said Tomorrow (Concord, 2010).
Pianist Milton Fletcher is even newer to the group, though the two go back to Scott's days at the Berklee College of Music. Scott introduced him, referring to the statue of Oscar Peterson, recently unveiled by Britain's Queen Elizabeth, just outside the National Arts Centre, as "one of the baddest piano players on the planet," telling the audience that "one day you're gonna see a statue of Milton." When Fletcher shook his head, laughing, Scott admonished him, "What, you don't want a statue, Milton? Can't you see I'm trying to start a petition?" Whether or not Fletcher gets a statue, his playing certainly suggested another band member to watch; a combination of thoughtful support and improvisational abandon, whether on grand piano or Fender Rhodes.
From left: Milton Fletcher, Kris Funn, Christian Scott
But it wasn't all about levity. Scott introduced "K.K.P.D.," Yesterday You Said Tomorrow's opening track, explaining how it came from an experience in New Orleans, when Scott was stopped by police one night, going home from a gig, who were doing what he called "sweeps," where they "go into the 'hood and can do what they want without probable cause." After a confrontation where, when he resisted, the police told him that his mother was going to have to pick him up at the morgue, Scott went home and, "instead of going back and doing something stupid," he wrote the song"Ku Klux Police Department." Beginning with Stevens' jagged, swelling guitar and Williams' turbulent kit work, it's as angry a tune as Scott has written, featuring some of Scott's most visceral playing of the set as he yelled in between phrases, soaring into the stratosphere with effortless virtuosity.
With inevitable comparisons to Miles Davis, the closest comparison would be to mid-'60s Miles, when he was at one of his playing peaks. Like Davis, Scott demonstrated remarkable prowess while never moving towards excess. Lengthy phrases flew fast and furious, but as he pushed towards greater power he could be seen leaning back and forth towards the microphone, but not playing...waiting for just the right moment to reenter, and creating a remarkable sense of tension. He's also one of the few trumpeters who isn't using a microphone attached to his horn; instead, he uses a microphone as part of his instrument, sometimes pulling far back, other times leaning right into it.
Bassist Kris Funn is also another newcomer to Scott's group since Yesterday You Said Tomorrow, although Ottawa festival goers who were at Kenny Garrett's 2006 performance at Library and Archives Canada will remember him for having contributed to a set that virtually blew the roof off the theater. His playing was no less incitingand insightfulas he created a firm but pliant anchor around which Williams could orbit, locking in when the time was right. Called "The Funndamentals" by Scott because of his encyclopedic knowledge, he was the final piece in the puzzle that has, based on the changes since his 2008 Montreal appearance, taken Scott's quintet to the next level.
Largely focusing on original material by Scott and Stevens, the quintet did divert into other territory, closing the set with a medley of pianist Herbie Hancock's "Dolores" and "Eye of the Hurricane" that went positively nuclear, Scott delivering a solo that made clear that there are few who can touch him, in any age group. Stevens' episodic and rock-edged "Rumor" was the encorewhen introduced by Scott and asking the guitarist for some background, Stevens said "it's complicated; a work in progress," to which Scott replied, shaking his head, "A work in progress that we've recorded on two albums." It was this kind of of easy camaraderie, running as a constant undercurrent throughout the set that drove the group, with a palpable vibe of collective encouragement and support. If Scott and his group have moved this far forward in two years, it's almost frightening to imagine where they'll be this time in 2012.