25th Ottawa International Jazz Festival - Day Ten, July 2, 2005

John Kelman By

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Day 10 and it's back to regular programming for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, following the special events on Canada Day, July 1. With the festival's end in sight, it's time to look back and realize just how successful a year it's been. Despite pressures that have been affecting all jazz festivals to bolster numbers, the OIJF remains relatively unique in its steadfast commitment to delivering a programme that is unequivocally jazz. Reductionists might argue with the inclusion of hip-hop experimentalists, The Quartertones, or even the more easy listening sounds of Harry Connick's performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra; but in the greater scheme of things, even these acts have a place in a broader-scoped definition.
Meanwhile, local bassist Adrian Cho's Impressions in Jazz show at the Library and Archives Canada's Connoisseur Series couldn't be mistaken for anything but jazz. Reprising his nonet performance of Miles Davis' legendary Birth of Cool from last February's performance at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, Cho decided to make some changes which made it a more successful performance. By rearranging the pieces more democratically so that his fine group—Nicholas Atkinson on tuba, Ian Babb on baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, Nick Fraser on drums, Mark Ferguson on trombone, Brian Magner on alto and soprano saxophones, Montreal's John Roney on piano, Elizabeth Simpson on French horn, and Jean Trudel on trumpet—would receive more airtime (as opposed to the original performance which, like Davis' original, leaned on the trumpet as primary soloist), Cho both rectified one of the few weaknesses of February's performance and gave the music a different complexion, retaining its reverence but lending it something new as well.
Taking advantage of the theatre's fine acoustics, the nonet's performance was essentially an all-acoustic affair and the blend of the horns in the hall was close to perfect. Soloists were clear and the group was able to recreate the sonic richness that so defined the original group. Tackling any legendary piece of music is always a risk and the success or failure often depends on how willing the group is to take some chances—in the past year, Branford Marsalis' interpretation of Coltrane's A Love Supreme is an example of the former, with his brother Wynton's more self-aggrandizing reading with the Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra being of the latter. Cho's arrangements were more inherently faithful and the soloists tended to stay within the stylistic purview of the piece, but there was enough energy and commitment to give it legs.

Magner may come relatively recently to jazz from an R&B background, but after seeing him develop over the past year with performances at last year's jazz festival, the February Impressions in Jazz show, and now this date, he's clearly working hard at it and it's paying strong dividends. His ability to navigate changes just keeps getting better and he's always possessed an appealing tone, regardless of what horn he happens to be playing.

Fraser, who replaces Montreal drummer Jim Doxas from last February's show, has already proven himself to be a flexible player and a quick study this year, as evidenced by his last-minute inclusion, along with local bassist John Geggie, in the Trio! Show with banjoist Béla Fleck and violinist Jean-Luc Ponty on day six, when bassist Stanley Clarke was mysteriously denied entry into the country. Inherently more confined by the rigid arrangements of Birth of Cool, he managed to stay in context while, at the same time, remaining true to himself.

John Roney, whose playing was a highlight of the February performance, continues to demonstrate stylistic breadth and a remarkable ability to get to the core of whatever's put in front of him. Recently heard on Montreal saxophonist Remi Bolduc's imaginative chamber jazz arrangements of themes from Quebecois children's shows, Cote D'écoute, Roney's playing always has the ring of truth. It's authoritative and commanding when necessary, but equally supportive and suitably restrained when required. He has recently recorded a trio date and is currently shopping it to record labels, so keep your eyes and ears open.

Other ensemble members worth mentioning are Simpson, a classically-trained musician who can swing; and Ferguson—who's been all over this festival, leading the late-night jam sessions and taking his own show with local saxophonist Hugh O'Connor and strings to the main stage—exploited a rich tone and expressive ideas that never lost sight of the spirit of the material. And, of course, Cho himself provided not only a firm anchor this time around, but also a short and sweet solo at one point in the programme.


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