Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-8: June 21-23, 2012
The last time guitarist Bill Frisell was in town it was for a two-night By Invitation run in the same venue, the NAC Studio, where he debuted his then-new Beautiful Dreamers trio and a sublime second evening with his longer-running 858 Quartet. This time, the veteran guitarist was back to promote his John Lennon tribute, All We Are Saying... (Savoy Jazz, 2012). Frisell brought the same group that recorded the album, with the exception of absent violinist Jenny Scheinmanpedal and lap steel guitarist Greg Liesz, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. There were those who felt that Frisell's Lennon project wouldn't be up to his original music, or previous Ottawa shows. How wrong they were.
After a transcendent 75-minute 7PM set that slowly found its feet with "Across the Universe" and, with no particular plan, wound its way through songs including "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Come Together," "Number 9 Dream" and "In My Life," the audience was so spellbound that when it finally returned to earth, the standing ovation was so enthusiastic that, as Frisell returned to the stage for an encore of "Imagine," he asked, in his inimitably gentle fashion, "Would you be able to come back at nine o'clock? We'd really appreciate it." And, sure enough, there were those who did try to find a way to get into that second show, which featured an almost entirely different set list, albeit culled from the same album.
What that demonstrated was how much freedom Frisell creates, regardless of the context, and how much everyone trusts each other in his groups. The recording may be a little more faithful, but no matter how far Frisell and his group stretched the material in concerttaking every liberty imaginablea clear connection to it was ever-present, going beyond respect into the realm of reverence. The group found curious, dreamy ways to segue spontaneouslybut often with great patience and over no small amount of timebetween tunes cued in by someone, anyonewhether it was Scherr, slowly bringing the quartet around to "Come Together" with (barely) recognizable implication that ultimately found its way to the familiar bass line, picked up by Wollesen, channeling his inner Ringo to be sure, but with a lazy behind-the-beat approach, or Frisell doing nothing more than playing a couple of chords to rally everyone for "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which the group extended into a near-anthemic highlight of the set that seemed to build relentlessly, but for exactly the right amount of time.
The simpatico amongst the players, in particular Scherr and Frisellwho, facing each other from opposite sides of the stage, shared a connection so palpable it could almost be touchedwas key to the success of a show that was based on form, but as free as any jazz show at the festival. And while one local festival-goer posted on Facebook "C & W with rock rhythms!," the truth was something else. No, this was absolutely not an in-the-tradition set; and yet, there were times when the group swung joyfully; periods when the group rocked out with abandon; passages when, indeed, Liesz's pedal steel gave it a country and western vibe; and moments when the group headed way out into the ether, with Frisell employing his usual bag of sonic tricks, but Liesz, too, expanding the rich sound of his pedal and lap steelin particular on a commanding, visceral "Come Together." Liesz was, in fact, especially strong without ever actually dominating; this was, after all, a group that rarely took real delineated solos but, instead just kneaded the music, molding it into various shapes shape throughout, with individual players occasionally coming forward in the mix, only to subsume once again in this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole.
A couple of technical matters made the show all the more noteworthy. For the first time in at least a decade, Frisell did not come to town with a custom-build variant on a Fender Telecaster. Instead, he opted for a Gibson ES-335-looking axe that didn't have the twang of a Fender, yet proved, for those in doubt, that it ain't the gear; it's the person playing it. Equally significant was the absence of stage monitors; this was a rare group that, with three amplified instruments, still managed to create a working stage mix without any external assistance. Scherr, after the show, admitted, "If I can't hear everybody then I'm too loud," but the tacit responseto turn down (which is what he did)is not what always happens. That seemingly simple truththat everyone in the group was about hearing each other and communicating with each otherwas undeniably at the core of one of the most memorable Frisell shows this city has seen, in the numerous performances he has given since first coming to town in 1989.
Drummer Jack DeJohnettea living legend who has played with everyone from trumpeter Miles Davis and saxophonist Joe Henderson to his own groups including Special Edition, and the on-again/off-again collaboration Gateway, with guitarist John Abercrombie and bassist Dave Hollandreleased a new record earlier this year, Sound Travels (E1, 2012), right around the time of the NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship Award he discussed in his All About Jazz interview. But for his two OIJF shows at the NAC Studio, rather than bringing that group, DeJohnette chose to come with the same group responsible for the download-only Live at Yoshi's 2010 (Golden Beams, 2011), a tremendous set that shone a spotlight on a number of artists deserving greater recognition.
Of the bunch, saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa may be the best-known, for his work with pianist Vijay Iyer a few years back, and his own recordings including the critically acclaimed Apex (Pi, 2010)a not entirely surprising smash of a record that, in addition to DeJohnette, teamed the Italian-born/American-raised altoist of Indian descent with unsung alto legend Bunky Green, and which the two saxophonists took on the road (with Damion Reid substituting on drums) for a 2011 festival tour that included a stop at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. As expected, his performance with DeJohnette in Ottawa combined fiery modal excursions with the microtonality that DeJohnette's entire group is both capable of pursuing and which DeJohnette suggested, in the interview, is one of its premises: "He's [guitarist David Fiuczynski] also involved with this microtonal system [using a custom-built, fretless electric guitar]. Actually, a lot of my pieces are perfect for applying the microtonal system. So you have Rudresh [Mahanthappa], who's got his Indian concepts with quarter tones, and George [Colligan]he has a program that can detune his keyboards. So everybody can play in microtonal mode."
Keyboardist George Colligan was last seen in Ottawa with clarinetist/saxophonist Don Byron's Plays Junior Walker show in 2007, and if the emphasis there was on accessible groove music but with the kind of depth only players of that caliber could bring, DeJohnette's set was freer, more incendiary, and took advantage of Colligan's broader textures, with three keyboards augmenting his grand piano. Colligan's latest release is a piano trio tribute to Stevie Wonder, Living for the City (Steeplechase, 2011), and it's a shame it's on a label with such poor distribution and visibility, as it's just one more facet of a keyboardist whose other recordings have run the gamut from mainstream-centric on Past Present Future (Criss Cross, 2005) to, the same year, the more fusion-directed Realization (Sirocco), with his powerhouse Mad Science group. Colligan is, in fact, a triple threata trumpeter and drummer who came to piano/keyboards later, but you'd never know it, and if DeJohnette indicated, in his interview, that, "I keep encouraging him to bring his pocket trumpet and play it with us," he's clearly succeeded, as Colligan pulled out his pocket trumpet for the down-tempo swinger "Blue," first heard on Gateway 2 (ECM, 1978), but here taken to surprising extremes by a quintet that moved, on a dime, from fortissimo to pianissimo.
Fiuczynski is another player whose name is by no means unknown, but for whom the full extent of his range remains something of a secret, beyond musicians and a too-small group of fans in the know. The leader of Screaming Headless Torsos, Fiuczynski seems best known as a fusion guitarist, and his own records, including the recent Planet MicroJam (RareNoise, 2012), are unapologetically electric and electrifying. Still, this guitaristmore often than not, seen with a custom-built double-neck guitar that features both a standard six-string and a fretless variant that allows him to explore, like his band mates, the realm of microtonalityis capable of much, much more, as he demonstrated both on Live at Yoshi's and in his Ottawa performance. Not long after Mahanthappa introduced the quirky bump and grind of "One for Eric"firsts heard on DeJohnette's Special Edition (ECM, 1980), but finding itself in the sets of many subsequent groupsFiuczynski let loose a primal scream before delivering a solo that demonstrated frightening instrumental command, in particular the fretless neck, where he leapt across huge intervals with pitch-perfect accuracy.
That left bassist Jerome Harrisa longtime partner of DeJohnette's on albums like Oneness (ECM, 1996), but also heard in bands with everyone from saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins to guitarist Bill Frisell on 1984's classic Rambler (ECM), alongside trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and drummer Paul Motianplaying an acoustic bass guitar. If his role was largely one of support, he did get the occasional impressive solo spot but, throughout the set, justified DeJohnette's generous words, describing him as "multitalented and interested in all kinds of musical genres" and ..."very knowledgeable about the history of many things," as he swung hard on "One for Eric," kept things soft but propulsive on "Soulful Ballad," and demonstrated, on the Latin-tinged "Six to the Four," a clear appreciation for its rhythmic space.
"Six to the Four" was, in fact, the only new piece, and the only track that was not culled from the Live at Yoshi's set list, replacing that release's closer, "Monk's Plum." DeJohnette may have literally run down that album and in exactly the same order"One for Eric," "Soulful Ballad" and "Tango Africaine" (the latter two both from the drummer's 2009 Golden Beams release, Music We Are and "Blue"but it wasn't just the solos that varied from the album. Yes, the overall roadmaps were similar, but how and where the group took them was anybody's guess, with "Tango Africaine" entering Indian territory, courtesy of both Mahanthappa and Fiuczynski's ability to find the notes between the notes. Throughout the 85-minute set, DeJohnettelargely hidden behind a kit that was a little on the large side for a typical jazz drummer but, of course, DeJohnette is anything but typicalpushed the pulse, punctuated with explosive exclamations and moved around the kit like a man half his now-70 years. If reaching 70 in relatively good health, with the acknowledgement of his peers, his fans (plenty of drummers in the crowd) and organizations like the National Endowment for the Arts might suggest, for some, an opportunity to sit back and relax; for DeJohnette, however, this validation has simply freed him from the need to prove anything, though his Ottawa Jazz Festival performance still managed to prove plenty.
Up the stairs and around the corner at the Fourth Stage, French trumpeter, vocalist and all-around madman about town Médéric Collignon brought his "Jus de Bosce" project, responsible for one of the more outrageous electric-era Miles Davis tributes, Shangri Tunkashi-La (Plus Loin, 2010), to Ottawa, closing out another stellar OIJF evening.
Collignon first began to appear on the international jazz radar with performances on reed multi-instrumentalist (and fellow Frenchman) Louis Sclavis and his (sadly) one-off Napoli's Walls (ECM, 2003) project, along with France's revolving door Orchestra National de Jazz, and recordings like 2002's Charmediterranéen (ECM). But if the unfettered Collignon was kept under admittedly loose constraints on both those projectsthough in performances like his 2004 Festival International Musique Actuelle Victoriaville show with Sclavis, doing Napoli's Walls, he was already demonstrating a near-manic but never irrelevant or superfluous comedic sense of timing and humorhere, with his own project, he had full license to go to any and all extremes.
Which he did, with almost exhausting regularity. Still, with an approach that was as unshackled, spontaneous and compelling with the music of Miles Davis as Bill Frisell's Lennon show the night before, Collignon's 75-minute set drew from an almost entirely different series of Davis-related music than heard on Shangri Tunkashi-Lamostly performed as continuous suites, with just two small breaks between medleys. Touring with the same core quartet as the album, the trumpeter (unlike the recording, where he played cornet, heard here exclusively on the brighter trumpet), has also found his own approach to electronics, with an envelope filter creating punctuated wah wah-like sounds which, blended with his natural horn, filled the Fourth Stage. Woeste shared solo space on Fender Rhodes, while double bassist Frederic Chiffoleau and drummer Philippe Gleizes were largely support players, though with unerring energy and commitment.
A trumpeter able to soar into the stratosphere as easily as he explored in the mid-to-lower end of his instrument's range, and employing all manner of extended techniquesincluding singing into his mouthpiece and, at one point, playing without a mouthpieceCollignon may have been Puckishly mischievous, but there was no denying either his technique or his distinct approach to homage. Still, it was when he sang that Collignon truly set the place on fire. Feeding his voice through the same processing as his trumpetin addition to the envelope filter, using a distortion box that ramped up the grit factorCollignon's reckless abandon was remarkable, as he did everything from snore; squeal in a range close to inaudible to humans but which might have set dogs in the neighborhood running to the NAC; babble a kind of madman's konnalol; slap his cheeks and pop his palm over his mouth; and articulate at a rate that would have seemed impossible were it not for the audience watching him do it. He was frenetic; in constant motion on a stage that placed his band to the sides and behind him, leaving him plenty of space to move around.
While the room was only about three-quarters full, the response was as enthusiastic as if it had been a full house. It's been over two years since the release of Shangri Tunkashi-La, and while it's a strong record, it's hard to imagine a follow-up being anything but better for a band that's now had the chance to tour the music and hone its sound (this was, in fact, Collignon's second trip to Ottawa, bringing the same group to the same venue a couple years back, also by OIJF but for its off-season series). Hopefully it's in the works, but for now, Shangri Tunkashi-La will give fans of the Ottawa show a chance to relive the group, if not the exact music.