25th Ottawa International Jazz Festival - Day One, June 23, 2005

John Kelman By

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Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Ottawa International Jazz Festival may not be the biggest festival around in terms of overall attendance, attracting primarily a local audience. But in a time when more and more so-called jazz festivals are broadening their purview in order to attract a larger audience—what are Alice Cooper, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the Corrs doing at Montreux this year?—Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady and Programming Manager Jacques Emond have programmed eleven days of music without compromise—from June 23 through July 3—all jazz and nothing but jazz, demonstrating its full potential for musical breadth and depth.
Sure, jazz elitists will question the inclusion of relatively lightweight and mainstream musicians like Diana Krall and Harry Connick Jr., and some attendees with conservative tastes will be left scratching their heads at performances by more outré artists like Evan Parker and Roscoe Mitchell. But one look at the programme—over seventy acts at eight venues, ranging from the large main stage in the city's Confederation Park to the more intimate indoor venues of the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage and Studio, and the theatre of Library and Archives Canada—and it becomes clear that the festival organizers are completely committed to creating an event that celebrates jazz from its most mainstream to its most experimental.
There's no shortage of big name draws, including Sonny Rollins, Terence Blanchard, Joshua Redman, and Trio! (Bela Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke), but there's also continued support of the vibrant Canadian jazz scene, including Hugh Fraser, Jean-Pierre Zanella and Denzel Sinclair. The festival also gives a number of local acts a chance for greater exposure, including the trio of Duschene, Fraser and Wittet, plus bassist Adrian Cho—whose sold out Impressions in Jazz performance earlier this year so impressed the festival organizers that they've given him a coveted spot in the festival's late afternoon Connoisseur Series. All this for an unbelievably reasonable price, ranging from the $90 Bronze pass, for access to the Confederation Park performances only, to the $175 Gold Pass, which gives access to all shows.

Perhaps the only legitimate complaint is that the festival has chosen to break one longstanding tradition this year. Previously it was possible to attend virtually every show if one wanted to. This year the festival introduces its 8 pm "Improv Invitational Series," which conflicts with main stage events at Confederation Park for the course of its five-day run. Still, when compared to festivals like Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, where one often has to make extremely difficult choices, this is indeed a small quibble.

Singer/pianist Harry Connick, Jr. opened the festival with his octet, augmented by Ottawa's own National Arts Centre Orchestra, and drew a huge and appreciative crowd. Some might consider Connick, at least in this context, to be more of a pop singer, and the ballad-laden first portion of his two-hour performance went a long way to justifying that belief. But the truth is that Connick is not only a fine pianist, but an outstanding interpretive singer with his own relaxed interpretation and phrasing. Tomorrow night he'll be back for two duet shows with saxophonist Branford Marsalis that will likely be more improvisational and experimental in nature.

And Connick is equally relaxed as an entertainer. With so many performers working off scripted between-song patter, Connick's constant and spontaneous interaction with the audience lent the polished performance a more down-to-earth quality. While Connick's celebrity status is unquestionable—few pianists travel with their own Steinway grand piano and a team of eight to ensure that the setup goes off without a hitch—he also comes across as an approachable personality with an unassuming sense of humour.

Connick's choice of music—ranging from his own hits to well-heeled standards, including Stevie Wonder's "You are the Sunshine of My Life" and "Only You"—may have been lightweight, but the undeniable talent of his group was on display from the most elegant ballad to more infectious New Orleans-style romps. When taking solos—most notable on his a capella version of "Sweet Georgia Brown"—Connick demonstrated strong roots in the jazz tradition and remarkable facility, even taking things just the slightest bit out on occasion, but not so much as to disconcert the decidedly mainstream audience.

His group—featuring saxophonists Ned Gould and Jerry Weldon, trumpeter Mark Braud, trombonists John Allred and Lucien Barbarin, bassist Neal Caine, and drummer Adonis Rose—may have been working from a well-rehearsed musical script, but each player proved to be incredibly well-versed. Allred delivered arguably the finest solo spot of the evening next to Connick's "Sweet Georgia Brown": impeccable, finely-detailed, and rich-toned, with not a wasted note.

While the NAC Orchestra did a fine job in supporting Connick, there were times when one could have easily imagined the performance stripped down to just Connick and his group. He quickly established a strong rapport with the Orchestra members, joking with Concertmaster Walter Prystawski and Musical Director/Conductor Jack Everly.

Some people balk at the idea of jazz as entertainment, demanding that it be more serious, more "artful." But the truth is that there's nothing wrong with making the music approachable, as long as it's well-conceived and well-played, as it was here. Connick certainly doesn't rattle any musical cages, but in our time of Michael Bublé and Jamie Cullum, Connick stands out as a distinctive vocalist and masterful interpreter who takes his incontestable skills and (at least when he's wearing his pianist/vocalist hat) uses them to create something that dispels the myth, to a larger demographic, that jazz has to be inherently difficult to approach.

Opening the 10:30 pm National Arts Centre Studio Series, Swedish tenor saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar and his quartet delivered a 75-minute performance that had its flaws, but ultimately its strengths outweighed its weaknesses. Kullhammar's writing served more as a vehicle for extended soloing, light on changes and heavily reliant on a modal post-bop approach. Yet it was also characterized at times with a taste of folkloric naiveté most notably the balladic "4X." His quartet, also featuring pianist Torbjorn Gulz, bassist Torbjorn Zetterberg, and drummer Jonas Halgersson, clearly comes from a European impressionist space, but they are equally capable of more intense swing, as evidenced by the opening piece, "Snake City East," and the unannounced set closer.

Kullhammar's tone has nothing of the icy Nordic cool of Jan Garbarek, but he demonstrated a similar attention to detail with respect to tone and the nuance of each note. Still, while Garbarek has moved farther and farther away from any kind of traditional jazz aesthetic over the course of the past 35 years, Kullhammar is clearly working within that arena. Lithe and capable of gradually building excitement in his solos, he received the strongest response from the audience.

Halgersson may not have received a lot of solo space throughout the set, but his loose polyrhythmic approach brought to mind Elvin Jones at times—in particular on the new piece that Kullhammar, a closet comedian if ever there was one, called "I Wish I Was Born in Ottawa." Able to keep things moving ahead with strong forward motion, Halgersson managed to inject all kinds of musical thrusts, never resorting to blatant non-sequitur.

Gulz is a capable pianist, but relative to Connick's performance earlier in the evening, he lacked a certain assurance. Still, his close-voiced harmonic approach and clearly considered ideas made for solos that, while feeling somehow lacking of full commitment, had their charms as well.

Zetterberg was clearly the weak link in the group. As a rhythm section member he was adequate enough, but while Halgersson seemed to be actively listening and responding to what was going on around him, Zetterberg felt strangely disconnected at times. His solos often lacked focus, rarely telling any kind of story. Still, despite its shortcomings, Kullhammar's quartet managed to engage the audience. Derivative perhaps, but this is a young group, and it has plenty of time to evolve.

Tomorrow: Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis duet; Bitches Brew Tribute Band; Michael Rud Quartet; Hugh Fraser and the Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation; and the Andrew Scott Sextet.

Visit Harry Connick, Jr., Jonas Kullhammar, and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

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