Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 10-11, July 3-4, 2010
The Wide Alley / Neil Cowley Trio
Christian Scott / Tomasz Stańko
TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
July 3-4, 2010
As the 30th Anniversary of the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival wraps up, there's been more than the festival's normal good share of great performances. The weather cooperated overall, with only a few minor glitcheseven the normally brutal heat this time of year only made an appearance for a couple of days. As ever, the festival's group of volunteers did a terrific job at keeping things running smoothly, and its core staff, in particular Director of Marketing, Sponsorship and Media, Suzan Zilahi and Media Consultant James Hale made sure that transparency for the press was provided without sacrificing the artists' privacy, or the bond between those performers and their audience.
As Jacques Emond retires this year, after programming the festival for its entire history, Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady, who has taken an increasingly active role in program, year-after-year, has ensured, by placing a greater emphasis on left-of-center and more Euro-centric programming, a festival that more accurately reflects the increasingly global nature of jazz. Her personal baby, the Improv Invitational series, experienced the best overall attendance in its five-year history, with some of its best programming to boot.
If anything, O'Grady's series is at something of a crossroads in 2010. With some people having to be turned away for some of the performances on half of its eight evenings, it is starting to look as though the series has become too successful for its location. The National Arts Center Fourth Stagea club-like venue that seats approximately 150-175 peoplehas always been a wonderfully intimate venue for this adventurous series, but with performers like pianists Tord Gustavsen and Neil Cowley, trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and Katzenjammer attracting more people than the room can hold, and more than a handful of others coming darn close, it may be time for the festival to consider a large venue for 2011, like the NAC's larger Studio.
2010 also saw the introduction of the new Friends series, and while attendance did varyguitarist Bill Frisell's two nights were jam-packed, while drummer Matt Wilson's were woefully under-attendedclearly the festival is on the right track. Gone are the days when it was possible to attend each and every show, but if the worst thing that can be said about the festival is that it has too much from which to choose, that's a small quibble. With entry fees still amongst the cheapest to be found anywherethe $250 Gold Pass provides access to nearly 70 ticketed showsOIJF is not only a terrific bargain for locals, it's a festival that deserves to draw jazz fans from greater distances. It'll need to address a few logistical issues if it truly wants to appeal to an audience that lives up to its name as much as its roster does, but there's little doubt that the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival continues on an upward trajectory.
"Was it jazz," bassist Robert Davidson asked in a brief chat after The Wide Alley finished its mesmerizing performance at the Improv Invitational series. The bestand onlyanswer has to be another question, "Does it matter," and it's unlikely that anyone who was at the performance was spending any time worrying about what to call the music. A project that has taken a decade to come to fruition, thanks to the efforts of Australians Erik Griswold (piano) and Vanessa Tomlinson (percussion), and Chinese percussionist/vocalist Zou Ziangping, The Wide Alley is exactly the kind of programming that makes the Improv Invitational series so essential to the OIJF. With plenty of performances by better-known artists, it's shows like these that turn into sleeper hits, ones that audiences continue to talk about, long after the festival is over.
From left; Erik Griswold, Robert Davidson, Zhou Yu, Vanessa Tomlinson, Shi Lei, Zou Xanping, Peter Knight, Zhong Kaizhi, Adrian Sherriff
A 10-piece ensemble equally divided between Australian instrumentalistsin addition to Griswold, Tomlinson and Davidson, also including trumpeter Peter Knight and trombonist Adrian Sherriff, who delivered a stunning a capella bass trombone solo during the set's opening number that, if any were needed, established all the jazz cred this group requiredand Chinese musicians from the Sichuan province, The Wide Alley married Orient and Occident, but went further still, creating a rich tapestry of sound that was equal parts education and entertainment. Singer Tian Linping demonstrated just how utterly different the traditions were, her voice on "Picking Begonias," transcending cultural differences to include off rasping sounds, an odd (to westerners) high-pitched voice and a delivery that, for those linguistically challenged, told the story in gesture rather than words. "Bicycle Groove," on the other hand, with The Wide Alley's Chinese contingent emulating the sound of a busy Sichuan street, was an instrumental feature for Knight, driven by Tomlinson's percussion and the gentle sounds of Shi Lei's bamboo flutes and Zhou Yu's erhu, or Chinese violin.
Throughout the set, Griswold introduced the songs, and conducted much of the music, though the set's centerpiecethe 16-minute "Sichuan Opera Overture," was conducted, from across the stage, by percussionist Zhong Kaizhi, whose rigorous instructions to the tentet were essential to navigating this challenging piece of writingand because, according to Griswold, in Chinese Opera, it's the percussionist who is always the musical director. Tuned gongs and ethnic hand percussion blended with erhu, flutes, piano, brass and bass for a sound that was both reverential and forward thinking, true world music without the baggage of commercial labeling.
The Wide Alley's performance was received, at first, with some curiosity, but by the end of its hour-long set Griswold, Tomlinson and Ziangping, along with the rest of the members of the group, had thoroughly captivated an audience that may have largely been on-hand for the Neil Cowley Trio show to follow, but which was clearly happy to have arrived early to catch what will go down as one of the 2010 OIJF's most unique and thoroughly compelling performances.
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 Esbjorn 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.
At the other end of the generational spectrum, but demonstrating the same kind of clear growth, was Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and his group, whose 2009 performance at Molde Jazz was nothing short of exceptional, but whose show at the 2010 OIJF's Improv Invitational bore no shortage of change, and all for the better. When Stańko played at Molde in July 2009, his groupfeaturing two Danes (guitarist Jakob Bro and electric bassist Anders "A.C." Christensen"), and two Finns (pianist Alexi Tuomarila and drummer Olavi Louhivuori)had only recorded its ECM debut, Dark Eyes, three months prior in April. With very little gigging under its belt, the performance was strong, but at times a tad tentative.
There was no sign reluctance at the quintet's Ottawa performance, but its chemistrya clear promise at Molde but now deliveredwas as palpable as that of Christian Scott's earlier in the day. Drawing on a mix of material from Dark Eyes and a preponderance of new songsrecorded recently during the group's show at Birdland in New Yorkthe entire group played with energy and commitment, as well as greater space to let the music breathe, even at its most intense. Stańko's raspy tone has never sounded better, his solos more ardent, and his encouragement of his younger players more apparent. With the concept of mentoring in jazz becoming a thing of the past, Stańko is one of the fewer older players who is trying to continue the tradition. This the second time in a decade that the trumpeter has put together a group of younger players, though this time not as inexperienced. Unlike the group that recorded three albums for ECMSoul of Things (2002), Suspended Night (2004) and Lontano (2008) Stańko's current quartet features players who are leader in their own right.
Bro, in particular, has an already sizable discography as a leader, including his most recent Balladeering (Loveland, 2009), a terrific all-star disc including Bill Frisell, Lee Konitz, Ben Street and Paul Motian. A player who favors economy and care over overt virtuosity and reckless abandon, Bro nevertheless delivered solos that were filled with significance; he even fills a decaying note with meaning, avoiding a guitarist tendency to use vibrato to sustain it, instead holding it pure and true with just the slightest pull at the end of a phrase to give it tension. Building long, methodical soloswith the notes added in the lower register to create a sense of harmonic motion, even when the group was working modal territory with a propulsive pedal tone from A.C.an a capella solo mid-set was more air than sound, but remained impressive in its focus and sense of construction, drawing a huge round of applause from the over-capacity and enthusiastic audience.
From left: Anders "A.C." Christensen, Olavi Louhivuori, Jakob Bro
At Molde, Tuomarila was, with the possible exception of Stańko himself, the group's most vital player; if anything, a year of gigging has encouraged him to lay back more, making his last solo of the night stand out even more. Two chordal instruments in a group can often be a recipe for disaster, but with both Tuomarila and Bro communicating on a deep level, they managed to push the group harmonicallylargely working with modal material based on propulsive pedal tones, but also change-heavy on a couple of tuneswithout ever getting in each other's way.
A.C.who, in addition to his own releases as a leader, including Dear Someone (Stunt, 2009), was member of Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Bandonly played one solo early in the set, on Stańko's "The Dark Eyes of Martha Hirsch," but anchored the group throughout the set with the same kind of upper register pulse so definitive of Steve Swallow. Louhivuori, on the other hand, was a firebrand; playing with a combination of restraint and abandon, he created a turbulent underpinning during rubato passages, but swung mightily in the latter part of "The Dark Eyes," supporting both Stańko's visceral solo and Bro, who combined gritty tone with avant-Wes Montgomery-isms and a lyrical bent turned on its side with curious bends and dissonant touches. The drummer's own solo, during the set-closer, "Euforila," was a master class in touch, technique and musicality; ever humble, when the crowd roared with applause at the end of his solo, looking skywards, smiling and, almost with a sense of relief, mouthing "thank you" to the crowd.
Not only was the group a more empathic, connected unit than it was a year ago; Stańko's music also demonstrated a fundamental shift, at least during part of the set. The melancholic, ambiguous or minor-keyed harmonies were still there, but some rare excursions into major territory gave his music a sense of optimism that's been rarely heard his careercertainly not since he returned to ECM in the mid-'90s with Matka Joanna (1995). The music ran from lengthy improvisational explorations to brief, compose miniatures, but throughout his 90-minute set, Stańko played with energy and power that belied his nearly 68 years (his birthday is on July 11). His group proved unequivocally that the trumpeter's commitment to mentoring younger of musiciansand the unmistakable and unfailing trust he clearly has in them, as evidenced by the freedom he clearly provides them to continue evolving their own voicesis born out by the evolution that has taken place in the past year. If Lontano demonstrated a remarkable growth of his last quartet, there's little doubt that this quintet's forthcoming live album Stańko's firstwill not only capture where this group is today, but where it's headed tomorrow as well.
All Photos: John Kelman