Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-8: June 21-23, 2012
If OIJF festival director Catherine O'Grady was responsible for getting the world premier of Prism, she also deserves credit for bringing trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano's nascent Sound Prints groupalso featuring pianist Lawrence Fields, up-and-coming bassist Linda Oh and, perhaps only in competition for the title "happiest drummer in jazz" with Matt Wilson, perennial favorite Joey Baronfor its second of just three North American dates before, like Holland, heading across the Atlantic for a 12-date European tour, followed by a return to the US in August for (so far) an additional two dates, and yet another transatlantic flight for 13 additional European shows, coming home again and finishing up the year with a week-long run at the Village Vanguard.
The NAC Studio was the perfect venue for the group, and if the material was unfamiliarthere's no record, at least not yetit was another case, like Holland and Prism, of a group so new to the material that fireworks began going off from the get-go. Any group that has Baron in the engine room is assured an intrinsic rhythmic unpredictability, as the drummer pushed the pulse but peppered it with unexpected punctuationsat times, all the more dramatic for his complete command of dynamics, as he went from thundering explosions to quiet but fervent swing, all at the drop of a hat.
Sometimes an all-star combination sounds great on paper but is less successful in reality, but if the group's evening show was anything to go byand considering this is still early daysSound Prints has a great future ahead, and with bookings already out into 2013, it's clear that Douglas and Lovano are firmly committed to this project. Both leaders have built strong reputations predicated on an appreciation for and knowledge of the tradition, though Douglas has, for the most part, veered off into greater extensions of that tradition, whether it's on tribute recordings like Stargazer (Arabesque, 1996) and Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000), the Eastern European-informed Tiny Bell Trio and Charms of the Night Sky quartet, or more electronic-centric groups like Keystone. Lovanodespite more outré leanings in a longstanding trio with guitarist Bill Frisell that is, sadly, now at an end with the passing of drummer/leader Paul Motian in 2011has been much more centrist in his own recordings, though not without an inimitable stamp. Just as he was nurtured by older players early in his career, the saxophonist has been paying it forward with groups like US Five, whose 2009 Blue Note debut, Folk Art, was an early indicator that bassist Esperanza Spaldingnow a jazz superstar, thanks to her 2011 Grammy win for Best New Artist (not Best New Jazz Artist, mind you; Best New Artist, period)was someone to watch, and watch closely.
But if Lovano's heart is in the tradition, that's not to suggest he's without riskhis Saxophone Summit group, with fellow saxophonists Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane, has made that perfectly clear, and Sound Prints was a group all about the nexus of predetermined roadmaps and copious happy accidents. Lovano combined with Douglas in remarkable simpatico for a set of largely new material inspired, at least in spirit, by Wayne Shorter. Sound Prints swung hard, to be sure, opening up into freer territory at times, and delivering lyrical yet sophisticated ballads, all with the kind of chemistry that usually takes considerably more time to find. Fields, a pianist who first gained some attention in drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' group six years agoand who may now be in his mid-to-late twenties, but looks like he's barely started shavingwas the group's only weak link. A capable accompanist, yes; but compared to the arson going on around him, a somewhat pedestrian soloist. Still, it's early days and, as the set progressed, he did open up more; clearly Douglas and Lovano see something in him, so perhaps it's just a matter of time before the audience does, too.
Oh, on the other hand, looks just as young but has already racked up some significant accomplishmentsin addition to her own releases, including this year's impressive Initial Here, on Douglas' own Greenleaf Music label, she is also a member of the trumpeter's quintet responsible for last year's fine Orange Afternoons (Greenleaf). Young she may be, but Douglas' confidence in the young Malaysian-born/Australian-raised bassist has clearly been justified, as she worked hand-in-glove with Baron and, in a relatively rare solo opportunity in the set, demonstrated not just virtuosic talent, but a kind of muscular tone that was paradoxical, given her diminutive size and small, delicate fingers.
With Lovano and Douglas sharing composition duties, there was plenty of strong writing to provide the context over which Sound Prints delivered a set that garnered an explosive standing ovation at the end of the set. Hopefully a recording will be coming, and if its Ottawa show was any indication, Douglas and Lovano might well consider the idea of making it a live one.
Moving to the Fourth Stage for a 9PM show, trumpet was the thread that joined it to Sound Prints, but Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick couldn't have been more differenteither as a writer or a player. If there's a specific touchstone to Eick as a trumpeter, it's Canadian expat Kenny Wheeler, though beyond a kind of lyrical melancholy, there's more separating the two than there is commonality. The barely 30 year-old Eick has, after all, been working beyond the jazz purview with everything from rock groups to the inestimable and category-averse Jaga Jazzist, which blew away audiences in Ottawa and Montréal last year. But if Jaga was defined by its weird amalgam of jazz, classical minimalism, progressive rock and, like Frank Zappa, a predilection for tuned percussion, Eick's quintet felt more definitively Nordic in tone.
It's been a little more than a year since catching Eick and his group in Bremen, Germany as part of Jazzahead! 2011, but if there have been some personnel changes since the trumpeter's second ECM set, Skala (2011), with bassist Auden Erlien and drummer Erland Dahlen replaced, respectively, by Elephant9's Nikolai Eiletsen and Espen Eriksen Trio drummer Andreas Bye, the core of Eick, drummer Gard Nilssen and, particularly, keyboardist Andreas Ulvo ensured plenty of continuity.
The set drew heavily from Skala, but also from Eick's more acoustic ECM debut, The Doorbut with Ulvo augmenting his grand piano with Fender Rhodes and synth, and Eick employing, along with his own small keyboard, a variety of effects that included looping and pitch shifting, songs like "Williamsburg" took on considerable more weight. Even darker tunes like "Cologne Blues" (not, in any way, a blues, but certainly blue in tone) were delivered with a greater dynamic range.
With two drummers and Eick and Ulvo's expansive gear, the Fourth Stage's normal stage footprint was simply too small to contain the group, much as happened in 2006 when trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer played the same room. With the power of two drummers, and a bassist with a huge sound, there was a lot of sound blowing off the stage; that said, the sound in the room was surprisingly good, thanks to the NAC engineers, collaborating with the group's traveling soundman; clearly, however, this was a group that needed to be in a bigger hall.
Ulvo shone; a member of Eple Trio, he's a pianist with broad dynamics, great ears and tremendous sensitivity, even when the volume of the group cranked up to nearly eleven. He spent considerably more time inside the piano box, strumming the strings, or muting them to create a more staccato sound, and soloed with great invention, garnering huge rounds of applause from an audience in which many people were hearing Eick for the first time but, based on the show, clearly not the last. Byewhose work with Espen Eriksen Trio is similarly lyrical but far gentler and at far lower volumeswas perhaps the show's biggest surprise, attacking the kit with finessed energy and locking in with Nilssen in ways that seemed scripted but, in conversation after the show, revealed that, in fact, these moments of synchronicity were completely unplanned and a sign of just how well these two drummers worked together. Two drummers is a risky proposition, especially if there are any egos and competitive natures involved; but they way in which Nilssen and Bye worked together, allowing each other plenty of space and joining together for some absolutely thundering grooves, was nothing short of remarkable. And Eick gave them some well-deserved solo space, both a cappella and playing over repetitive motifs from the rest of the group.
Eick was, as ever, inspired and inspirational, his intrinsic lyrical sense and seamless command of technology allowing him to create small horn choruses over which he layered lines both improvised and scripted. This may be Eick's first visit to North America as a leader, but hopefully it won't be his lastand if the response is as enthusiastic elsewhere as it was here in Ottawa, a return trip seems an absolute certainty.