For eleven days in late June, the traditionally conservative government capital of Ottawa, Canada became a place where risk was de rigeur and chances were liberally taken. With arguably the best line- up in their twenty-four year history, the Ottawa International Jazz Festival delivered a wide range of music. From the West African fusion of Roswell Rudd's MALIcool to the intimate duo of pianist Marilyn Crispell and Ottawa bassist John Geggie; from the fiery intensity of Kenny Garrett to the more post-modern, but no less passionate work of Kurt Rosenwinkel; from the abstract impressionism of Herbie Hancock with Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Brian Blade to the equally cerebral but more grounded work of Fred Hersch and his trio; Ottawa was transformed into a place where nothing was assured except a sense of adventure and discovery.
Along with ticketed performances at three venues, there were a variety of free shows by local artists scattered throughout the downtown core. In addition, John Geggie once again led a trio at the late- night jam sessions that also featured pianist Nancy Walker. Over the course of the festival a variety of artists, including reedman Jeff Coffin from Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, pianist Bill Mays and Kenny Garrett's rhythm section showed up to lend their support to the many local artists who also performed, creating a warm after-hours ambience for those with the stamina to handle music into the wee hours of the morning.
While not all-inclusive, the following report details the wide variety of styles and sounds heard at this year's festival.
Fred Hersch Trio: Library and Archives Canada, June 24, 2004 4:00PM Fred Hersch (piano), Drew Gress (double-bass), Nasheet Waits (drums)
Opening the indoor Connoisseur series at Library and Archives Canada and, indeed, the festival, Hersch and his trio set the standard for which all other shows would be measured. With a set that mixed Monk, Shorter and Coleman tunes with Hersch originals, the trio demonstrated a simpatico that can only come from playing together for a long period of time. One of the things that was to become a signature of this year's festival was the number of remarkable drummers to come through town, and Waits was no exception, with an ability to hang onto every note, every nuance, and push them ever further. A highlight of the set was Hersch's tune, "A Lark," dedicated to Kenny Wheeler and demonstrating the same melancholy and implied swing. The medley of Shorter tunes, "Miyako" and "Black Nile," demonstrated the group's strong time sense, with rhythm often more implied than explicit.
Bob Brough Quartet: Confederation Park, June 24, 2004 6:30PM Bob Brough (tenor saxophone), Stan Fomin (piano), Artie Roth (bass), Kevin Brow (drums)
Canadian tenor player Bob Brough delivered a pleasant straight-ahead set that, while capable, when compared to Hersch's performance was like the difference between eating off stoneware and fine china; both are functional, but there is a difference. Still, Fomin's compositions consisted of clever themes that led into more straightforward swinging solo sections, where Brough played with a dry tone that was somewhat reminiscent of Shorter, but less cerebral. With material largely drawn from Brough's A Decade of Favourites , the group played well, but lacked the inspirational spark. Brow was the weak point with accents and punctuations that seemed, after Waits' sense of empathy with Hersch, to be somewhat arbitrary.
Herbie Hancock/Wayne Shorter/Dave Holland/Brian Blade: Confederation Park, June 24, 2004 8:30PM Herbie Hancock (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor and soprano saxophones), Dave Holland (double-bass), Brian Blade (drums)
The threat of rain became an unfortunate reality as Hancock, Shorter, Holland and Blade took the stage, but a remarkable eight thousand people braved the weather to hear one of the more abstract and adventurous sets of the festival. This being their first performance of the tour, things began somewhat tentatively, with Shorter seeming uncertain as to which horn he wanted to use. The performance had the uncanny feel, despite the inclement weather, of sitting in a living room and watching while the group searched and explored, looking for common ground and finally, after about thirty minutes, finding it.
By no means the "greatest hits" band that some might have expected, even known tunes were twisted and turned in ways that made them barely recognizable. "Footprints" was only clear from Holland's insistent 6/8 figure, as Blade was a veritable maelstrom on the kit, Hancock layered impressionistic harmonies and Shorter flitted in and around the theme, barely settling on it before heading off into uncharted territory. As the set progressed the group seemed to coalesce, at one point building into an ostinato figure with a sharp double stop that kept building in intensity, drawing strong applause from the crowd.
The only moderately conventional piece in the set was their encore of Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," but Hancock and Shorter still played loose and free with it, taking time to get to the familiar theme with elliptical figures that seemed to ebb and flow. Overall the group played in a completely unexpected way, but along with Hersch's performance, was an exciting and challenging way to kick off the festival.