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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 4-6

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 4-6
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Days 1-2 | Days 4-6 | Days 7- 9

Tedeschi Trucks Band
Bill Frisell Guitar in the Space Age!
Julian Lage & Nels Cline / Bill Frisell Go West
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 20-July 1, 2014

While not necessarily an intentional decision, the next three days of the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival were a guitar lover's dream: two performances by festival stalwart Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
b.1951
guitar
; the return of Julian Lage
Julian Lage
Julian Lage

guitar
(by this time, no longer an up-and-comer) in an eagerly anticipated duet with Nels Cline
Nels Cline
Nels Cline
b.1956
guitar, electric
, the more avant-leaning guitarist who has, in the past decade, brought a different kind of edge to alt-country/alt-rockers Wilco; and the first appearance of the Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Tedeschi Trucks Band

band/orchestra
juggernaut at the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

There were other performances going on as well, but for three evenings that ranged from hot and humid to an all-day torrential downpour that, sadly, decimated what would otherwise have been a very well-attended main stage show from Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois
b.1951
guitar
, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival provided the city with a chance to experience some of the finest guitar players on the scene today—and not just the jazz scene: any scene.

June 22: Tedeschi Trucks Band

Since joining forces, guitarist Derek Trucks and singer/guitarist Susan Tedeschi have pretty much managed the impossible: create a permanent 11-piece band that has managed to be successful at a time when so many others are struggling, even when touring with smaller, less expensive groups. The costs of taking such a large group on the road are far from insignificant, and that TTB has, against the odds, managed to transcend what ultimately killed big bands in jazz half a century ago is a testament to both the group's tenacity and its ability to attract a broad demographic. While TTB had undeniable appeal to the jam band community, there were plenty of gray and no hairs up dancing to the group's set at Confederation Park.

Trucks—beyond being the nephew of Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band
Allman Brothers Band

band/orchestra
drummer Butch Trucks, and beyond beginning to play onstage at nine and tour as a headliner at eleven—is, quite simply, the heir apparent to the late, great Duane Allman
Duane Allman
Duane Allman
b.1946
, except that with a life that has not been cut short as Allman's was, Trucks has been afforded the opportunity to suggest where the late slide guitar legend might have gone, had he not been killed in a motorcycle accident, just a month shy of his 25th birthday in October, 1971. Trucks—who has, along with Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes
Warren Haynes

guitar
, been part of the twin-guitar front line of the current Allman Brothers Band for over a decade—has not just honed an instantly recognizable sound on slide guitar that's as expressively vocal-like as any who's ever come before, but has expanded his purview well beyond the rock and roll/blues vernacular to include hints of everything from jazz to Indian music, the latter demonstrated in his stunning solo intro to "Midnight in Harlem," one of a handful of down-tempo tunes that provided TTB's set with the kind of arc that began with a blast and ended on an even higher note, with plenty of variety in-between.

Both Tedeschi and Trucks had successful solo careers before joining forces, but when they came together—personally (as in married) and professionally—the result was something far greater than the sum of its many parts. Tedeschi has long been considered one of the most significant blues/rock singers since emerging in the mid- '90s, and while she's often mentioned in the same breath as Bonnie Raitt, she's long since transcended such superficial comparisons. Based on her Ottawa show, her grit, range and sheer power were completely her own, whether belting flat-out rockers like the title track to the group's second studio album, Made Up Mind (Sony Masterworks, 2013), soul-drenched songs like "Do I Look Worried," gentler ballads like "It's So Heavy," or funkified jams like "Space Captain," the second of two encores.

Tedeschi and Trucks' recorded version of "Space Captain" demonstrates just how far their reputations have carried them since first beginning to work together. Originally recorded by Joe Cocker on Mad Dogs and Englishmen (A&M, 1970), it was reworked by Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
for the pianist's pop-centric The Imagine Project (Herbie Hancock Music, 2010). One of that album's clear high points, In addition to featuring Tedeschi and Trucks, it also included Derek Trucks Band regulars (and future TTBers), keyboardist Kofi Burbridge and harmony vocalist Mike Mattison—DTB's lead singer, but now one of TTB's harmony singers, though he still gets a little time in the spotlight, in addition to co-composing some of the group's music. Live, TTB amped up Hancock's version even more and, as the second encore following Made Up Mind's more folkloric "Idle Wind" (with Burbridge making a rare switch from keys to flute), demonstrated another way that TTB bucked convention: rather than ending on a more low-key note that would be less likely to encourage an audience to demand even more, the group once again pulled out all the stops, ending as powerfully as it began, left the stage...and that was it.

In between, there were songs culled from the group's three recordings: the studio Revelator (Sony Masterworks, 2011) and Made Up Mind; and the live Everybody's Talkin' (Sony Masterworks, 2012). In most cases the songs were expanded well beyond the original tracks lengths to allow for plenty of soloing—everyone in the group getting some spotlight time but the primary focus still on Trucks' staggering ability to build solos to peaks of climactic frenzy (while avoiding any of the typical guitar posturing), but also turn more spare and lyrical as the songs demanded.

The group—which also featured bassist Tim Lefebvre, drummers/percussionists Tyler Greenwell and J.J. Johnson, background vocalist Mark Rivers, saxophonist Kebbi Wiliams, trumpeter Maurice Brown
Maurice Brown
Maurice Brown
b.1981
trumpet
and trombonist Saunders Sermons—was a well-oiled machine, tight as a drum yet totally loose at the same time, whether kicking things off in high gear with "Keep on Growing," a nod to Duane Allman culled from his collaboration with Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton
b.1945
guitar
on Derek & The Dominos' classic Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (Polydor, 1970), moving into gospel territory with "Bound for Glory" or ratcheting things up to eleven in the extended, blues-drenched "The Storm," where Trucks' grittily overdriven guitar was so dense as to almost—but only almost—overpower the rest of the band.

It's hard to imagine how Tedeschi and Trucks manage to keep a group this size on the road and viable, given today's climate, but after experiencing the group at full power for close to two hours at Confederation Park, maybe it was not so difficult to understand, after all.

June 24: Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age!

Since 2010, guitarist Bill Frisell has been making regular appearances at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival every two years. His last appearance in 2012, performing the music of John Lennon, was so utterly transcendent that it's still being talked about as one of the best shows local Frisell fans have ever seen.

Which set the bar high for his latest project, Guitar in the Space Age! . Whether or not it reached the sheer heights of his Lennon tribute, Frisell's 2014 appearance was a contrast in that most times he tours he's touring a record that's already out. In this case, with the album not due until October, fans were walking into the music cold...but by the time the 90-minute set (including encores) was over, there's no doubt that things in the National Arts Centre's Studio were much, much warmer, as Frisell worked his way through a set of material culled from the '60s, guitar-based groups that were important to him during his formative years ranging from rock groups like The Byrds and The Kinks to country pickers Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, surf music legends The Beach Boys and The Ventures, and a host of others.

Bringing back the same group from 2012—bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz—this time also spending plenty of time playing an old Fender Jazzmaster guitar that had at least one guitarist in the crowd trying to figure out a way he could take it home with him after the show—Frisell approached his set the same way he did the Lennon tribute: with a book of songs from which to cull, but with little defined in the set list; other, perhaps, than the opening and closing tunes and a couple of occasions where transitions were clearly planned, nobody, not even his band mates, necessarily knew what was coming next. It kept everyone, including the audience, on their toes and was, as ever, a marvel to experience, as the slightest turn of a phrase could signal a shift from one song to the next.

With Leisz playing a lot of guitar in addition to pedal steel, he proved a more grounded alternative to Frisell's ever-idiosyncratic approach to even the simplest of triads. Somehow, the way Frisell phrased, the way he moved chords up and down his neck, there was always something distinctly him, but if Guitar in the Space Age! was different from past performances, it was in that there were often more delineated solos, times where both Leisz and Frisell were front and center in the mix. It was also the first time in memory that Frisell has used a guitar with a whammy bar—a prerequisite for this kind of music, really—so that when both he and Leisz were leaning on their own individual bars, there were some seriously psychedelic moments to be had amongst the instances of country, blues, surf and rock that formed the basis of their set.

"I have to apologize to you guys," Frisell said, early in the show, as looked to one part of the jam-packed, sold-out audience but then changed his mind, continuing "actually, to everyone for having to look at my ass...I've gotta look at these guys," referring to his band, "or I lose my concentration...," pausing, and then adding, "See? It just happened." If anything, this was one of the most relaxed shows Frisell has given in recent memory, and if there was lots of eye contact going on, there were even more smiles...sometimes, even, some real, flat-out laughter. Clearly this was a band that enjoyed more than just playing together, and that's really how the best music is made, an unmistakable connection to the previous night's Tedeschi Trucks Band show.

Some of the highlights of the set were a relatively faithful—at least, initially— version of Link Wray's thundering "Rumble," featured prominently in Quentin Tarrantino's 1994 film, Pulp Fiction; a look at The Kinks' "Tired of Waiting" that went places its writer, Ray Davies, likely would never have imagined possible as it turned more psychedelic, with Frisell's overdriven, whammy bar-inflected playing moved into Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
Jimi Hendrix
1942 - 1970
guitar, electric
territory while never losing the quirky approach to phrasing that makes everything he plays so instantly recognizable, before suddenly leaping into a more classically funky look at the Junior Wells classic, "Messin' With the Kid"; a version of The Byrds' classic, "Turn, Turn, Turn" that while, faithful to form—and driven with total credibility by Scherr and Wollesen's in-the-pocket groove—turned into another extended excursion for Frisell and Leisz; and a rousing closer, The Chantays' classic "Pipeline," also covered by The Ventures.

It may have been rock 'n' roll, country, blues, surf and a whole lot of music not associated with jazz but, as ever, Frisell managed to open the music up while, at the same time, being completely reverent and respectful. There were moments of lush ambient clouds; passages so wry that you didn't need to see the faces of the group to know they were laughing; gritty excursions into extremes Frisell has rarely explored in recent years; and songs, songs and more songs that may not have been in the DNA of some of the younger folks in the audience—and there were many. Still, for those born anytime before 1960, this was the music of their childhood, their teenage years or early adulthood—those times when music often makes its most lasting impression. Clearly, irrespective of where Frisell's career has led him over the past four decades—from skronking noise to lush Americana—this music, this Guitar in the Space Age! , has been a seminal part of who he is, something he and his group made patently clear with their first of two 2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival performances.

June 25: Julian Lage & Nels Cline

If the 23rd and 24th of June were a guitarist's dream, then the 25th was even more heavenly, featuring not just one, but two terrific shows from guitarists spanning two (maybe two-and-a-half) generations.

First up, at the Fourth Stage's Improv Invitational series, guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage delivered a duo set that was all the more remarkable for the relatively short time that the two have been working together.

Cline's career dates back 30 years, but his star in the jazz world, while already firmly established for his own projects like the ongoing Nels Cline Singers last heard on Macroscope (Mack Avenue, 2014), has also been built on his participation in other groups, like former Cryptogramophone label head/violinist Jeff Gauthier
Jeff Gauthier
Jeff Gauthier
b.1954
violin
's Goatette, violinist Jenny Scheinman's Mischief & Mayhem, drummer Scott Amendola
Scott Amendola
Scott Amendola
b.1969
drums
's group and more. But it was around 2004, when Cline was recruited by singer/songwriter and bandleader Jeff Tweedy to join Wiico, that his profile took a sharp turn towards an upward trajectory. That jazz purists accused Cline of "moonlighting" couldn't have been further from the truth; as a 2004 All About Jazz interview made clear, Cline is as happy to play The Byrds as he is Jim Hall
Jim Hall
Jim Hall
1930 - 2013
guitar
, as comfortable in the world of punk rock as he is left-of-center spontaneity.

Still, that his ongoing tenure with Wilco has raised his visibility is undeniable; all that means, though, is that people who might never have given him the time of day before are now following his extra-Wilco career with almost as much interest as they are his work with Tweedy's trendsetting group. It means that he's got the means and the profile to continue his own activities with far great chance of them being heard. If his relatively new duo project with Lage—a guitarist who, at less than half Cline's age, has already established himself as not just a guitarist of note—is but the most recent of a spate of projects that also include a recent collaboration with Medeski, Martin & Wood
Medeski, Martin & Wood
Medeski, Martin & Wood

band/orchestra
on Woodstock Sessions Vol. 2 (Woodstock Sessions, 2014), then based on the duo's Ottawa performance, the November release of their first album together, Rooms (Mack Avenue), can't come soon enough.

A guitarist who could have taken an easy route after first showing up on the radar as a member of Gary Burton
Gary Burton
Gary Burton
b.1943
vibraphone
's band—beginning in 2004 with Generations (Concord), when the now-26 year-old six-stringer had just gotten his driver's license (and seemed to have only recently started shaving, and continuing right up to present day on the vibraphonist's Guided Tour (Mack Avenue, 2013)—instead, Lage has proven, beyond being a tremendously talented player and conceptualist, to be one who is, like Cline, all about risk, about personal growth, and about music without compromise, as his two recordings as a leader— Sounding Point (EmArcy, 2009) and even more reaching follow-up, Gladwell (EmArcy, 2011)—have amply demonstrated.

Certainly there was no shortage of risk at the duo's Ottawa performance. Wandering onstage in a relaxed manner—with an informality that made the intimacy of the Fourth Stage more like being a fly on the wall while the two played for each other in a living room somewhere—the sold out audience (this show might easily have filled the NAC Studio) was treated to a set that harkened back to great guitar pairings of the past, a configuration that seems less prevalent than it once was, when players like Joe Pass
Joe Pass
Joe Pass
1929 - 1994
guitar
, Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
Barney Kessel
1923 - 2004
guitar, electric
, Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
Herb Ellis
1921 - 2010
guitar
, Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
1925 - 1999
guitar
and others would regularly come together. But whereas those pairings of old were often firmly planted in the mainstream, Lage and Cline were as freewheeling as it gets, playing music that, while largely predicated on some kind of structure ranging from detailed to sketch-like, was truly free; music that could be jagged, angular and aggressive, to be sure, filled with idiosyncratic lines and cued changes, but could also be gentle, lyrical and flat-out beautiful. While, for some, free playing means music without any limiting definers like time, changes or melody, true freedom means being able to play what you want as the spirit moves you and as the music demands.

In a set ranging from original material from both guitarists to a cover of Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
Jimmy Giuffre
1921 - 2008
clarinet
's "Brief Hesitation," from the undervalued reed multi- instrumentalist's Fusion (Verve, 1961)—later rescued from obscurity by ECM Records, along with another session recorded the same year but released the following (Thesis) as 1961 (1992)—it turns out the duo actually came to know each other through another Giuffre connection, Jim Hall, an early mentor for Lage. The spirit of Hall—who passed away less than a year ago at 83—loomed large over the set, in fact, though more in spirit than anything resembling style or execution. Cline's own "Blues, Too," first heard on his The Giant Pin (Cryptogrammophone, 2004), was a dedication to Hall, and it's not insignificant that when Rooms is finally released later this year, Cline told the audience that it will be dedicated, in its entirety, to a guitarist who may have influenced more modern players than any other, beyond Lage and Cline including names like Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
Pat Metheny
b.1954
guitar
, Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell
b.1951
guitar
, John Scofield
John Scofield
John Scofield
b.1951
guitar
, Vic Juris
Vic Juris
Vic Juris
b.1953
guitar
and John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
John Abercrombie
b.1944
guitar
.

Both Cline and Lage demonstrated much more instrumental prowess and overall stylistic breadth than Hall did during his sixty-year career, but never to excess and never sacrificing substance for style. There were plenty of smiles onstage, and almost constant eye contact, even the introductions were relaxed and informal: at one point Cline unplugging one of just three effects pedals (a far cry from his usual arsenal) and adjusting the reverb on his small Fender amp, with Lage quipping "Reverb is a big thing with our duo," and Cline quick on the comeback with "Either it's on or off...and it's gotta be on."

The communication between the two was palpable; the smallest head nod enough to cue a return to form, and both Cline and Lage's ears so wide open as to easily catch the smallest motif from each other and either respond to it briefly, or take it as a stepping stone to somewhere else entirely. Both proved capable of light-speed playing, but it was the way the two managed to bring together complex voicings on the fly, in tandem soloing where the two seemed more to be four arms connected to the same body, and an effortless ability to pass soloing amongst one another like a baton in a relay race...except that there was nothing competitive about the way the two played— or in their ability to turn from sharp reds to softer indigos, sometimes at the drop of that hat—and which contributed to making their set so consistently captivating.

With Cline switching between a hollow body Gibson electric six-string and unidentifiable solid body electric twelve-string, while Lage stayed solely with his electric hollow body guitar, custom built by Torontonian luthier Linda Manzer—who, amongst many others, was the woman behind Pat Metheny's 42-string Pikasso guitar—the duo delivered an uncharacteristically long set by Improv Invitational standards at a little over 90 minutes with the encore, as Cline revealed, after the set, that they'd actually cut a couple of tunes and intentionally trimmed another couple back. Nobody seemed to mind.

June 25: Bill Frisell Go West

While Bill Frisell's relationship with movie soundtracks is a longstanding one—most recently collaborating with filmmaker Bill Morrison on The Great Flood (Icarus Films, 2014), caught in performance at the 2013 Enjoy Jazz Festival in Ludwigshafen, Germany—it's been some time since he last performed music for Buster Keaton's 1925 feature-length film, Go West. If not quite 20 years—if he's done so since the last time it was performed with the original trio of Kermit Driscoll
Kermit Driscoll
Kermit Driscoll
b.1956
bass
and Joey Baron
Joey Baron
Joey Baron
b.1955
drums
at the Canadian Festival International de Musique Actuelle Victoriaville (FIMAV), the music released the same year on CD as Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: Go West (Nonesuch, 1995) but taking another 14 years to find its way to DVD release as The Films of Buster Keaton (Songline/Tonefield, 2009)—it's certainly been a long, long time, even though he has delivered live performances of Keaton's shorter films also documented on the DVD and on the companion CD to Go West, The High Sign / One Week (Nonesuch, 1995), with current trio mates Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen.

Relocating from the air conditioned comfort of the NAC Studio (where Guitar in the Space Age! took place the previous night), Frisell, Scherr, Wollesen and, for the first time performing the Keaton music, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, relocated to the Laurier Avenue Canadian Music Stage for his 10:30PM performance as part of the festival's OLG After Dark series. A tented venue, there was no protection from the muggy weather that settled into the city after the previous day's day-long torrential downpour. With a line already starting to form 45 minutes before the show, it was clear the Ottawa audience knew it was getting the chance to see a rarely performed piece of music...but what came as the biggest surprise was that there was no music from the original Frisell soundtrack to be found. Instead, with just one four-hour rehearsal taking place the day of the performance, the guitarist put together a completely different set of material—material that the members of his group have been playing for years, culled from Nonesuch albums like 1999's Good Dog Happy Man ("Monroe"), 1998's Gone Just Like a Train ("Blues for Los Angeles"), and 1996's Nashville ("Keep Your Eyes Open").

Still, while the music consisted of charts largely culled from other sets, how Frisell and his group put them together in support of Keaton's 69-minute feature—the heartwarming story of a man, a woman...and a cow—was not just remarkable in how it was malleably reshaped to suit the subject matter, but how together the whole thing sounded, with some very quick cuts between songs articulated in the "road map" charts sitting in front of each musician, along with a monitor so they could follow the film that was being projected on a larger screen above them.

While everyone performed well—better, even, when considering how little rehearsal there was and how, as always, Frisell left plenty of room for collective interpretation—if there was a star of the show it was Wollesen. Nailing so many cues, as he did, it was hard to believe, as he explained after the show, that he'd only watched the movie that morning, followed by two run-throughs at rehearsal. Whether it was Keaton falling off the westbound train in a barrel that smashed to pieces after rolling down a hill, a bull aiming straight for Keaton, only to be stopped from running into him at the last minute by the cow he'd by this time in the film befriended, a gunfight with some would- be train robbers and the chaos that ensued when the train arrived in Pasedena and the slaughterhouse where Keaton's bovine friend was due for an untimely end, or the huge number of cattle ("hundreds!" one policeman reports to his chief; "thousands!" says the next; "MILLIONS!!" says another), before the police run outside and pandemonium ensues, Wollesen somehow managed to maintain the grooves, locked in with the similarly responsive Scherr while, at the same time, catching so many of the film's hilarious slapstick moments.

By the end, as Keaton—dressed in a red devil suit, ultimately corralling the cattle into the pens and, taking off the costume as he catches the tail on a wooden gate and pulls hard to get his last foot out of the suit to one final crash from the drummer— saves the day for his cattle farm employer and, in the process, not only wins his bovine pals freedom but gets the gal, too, the four of them driving off in a car for a closing image that must surely have been the inspiration for the old 1960s Beverley Hillbillies television show—the entire group was clearly having a blast, each of them contributing their part to bringing this silent film alive to an audience laughing its way through the entire 70-minute performance. From Leisz's atypical colors on pedal steel—at one point, with tremolo and well-chosen notes, sounding like the plaintive bawl of Keaton's cow—to Frisell's quirkily constructed lines and specific themes that represented specific characters in the film, Scherr's split-second shifts and Wollesen's absolute nailing the visuals, it may actually have surpassed the original soundtrack from '95.

Perhaps it was because it wasn't so rigorously rehearsed or played so many times as to be totally familiar that the quartet's delivery was so fresh— and, as the film progressed, everyone seemed to loosen up and have more and more fun with it—that this was such great fun. While the original soundtrack is still available, Frisell's Ottawa performance of Go West was the kind of one-off show that would be a great addition to his ongoing Live Download Series, which has made performances dating back to some of the guitarist's early shows as a leader in 1989, right up to more recent sets from 2011, available for download in lossy and lossless compression formats.

One can only hope.


Photo Credit: John Kelman

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