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Day 1 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 22, 2006

John Kelman By

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After an outstanding 25th anniversary celebration in 2005, the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival's 2006 lineup raised a number of eyebrows when it was announced back in April. Last year's event sported a star-heavy and jazz-heavy lineup on the outdoor main stage at Confederation Park, including Joshua Redman, Diana Krall, David Sanchez and Terence Blanchard. This year the lack of more clearly defined jazz artists on the main stage has been criticized, including a number of undoubtedly strong but hardly jazz artists like Mavis Staples, Maceo Parker and Canada's own Bedouin Soundclash occupying the festival's largest venue.

Still, the 26th Edition has a lot to offer—one simply has to go to the other venues to find them. This year's 4 pm Connoisseur Series at the Library and Archives Canada theatre will feature artists ranging from alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón to rising star pianist Robert Glasper. The National Arts Centre Studio's 10:30 pm series includes artists as diverse as Canadian bassist Michael Bates' Outside Sources and the Swedish superstar trio EST. The 8 pm Improv Series at the Fourth Stage, after a successful first run in 2005, will host Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and Canadian-based drummer Jerry Granelli's marvelous Sandhills Reunion Project, a real hit at last year's International Festival Musique Actuelle Victoriaville.

While guitarist/vocalist John Pizzarelli entertained a receptive audience at the festival's main stage, two diametrically opposed shows on the festival's first day set a high bar for the days to follow.

Puerto Rican altoist Miguel Zenón opened the festival with a ninety-minute set with a heady mix of complex composition and remarkable interaction. While this was not the quartet featured on his two most recent recordings—Ceremony (Marsalis Music, 2004) and Jibaro (Marsalis Music, 2005)—it was no less impressive. The group featured rising star Edward Simon on piano, the ever-imaginative Hans Glawischnig on bass and drummer Henry Cole—a relatively recent emigrant to New York from Puerto Rico who has been in Zenón's quartet for about a year and is another young player to watch.

With material culled from Jibaro, despite the challenge and intrinsic detail of Zenón's charts, there was still plenty of room for improvisation. Zenón opened the show with a solo saxophone spot that seemed about to burst with ideas, yet was more than a display of his inimitable prowess. While Zenón doesn't have the raw power of Kenny Garrett, he's got his own kind of energy, which is more reliant on evolving a solo from clear motifs rather than milking single notes for all they're worth. While he cued the band at various points, there were other times when the other players seemed to intuitively come together for written passages that acted as links between solos.

What's especially significant about artists emerging from Latin America in recent years is how they have managed to embrace the musical traditions of their various cultures while applying modern ideas. Rather than treating traditions as fixed and unmovable entities, artists like Zenón and Simon believe them to be living, breathing things. While Zenón's music clearly comes from his cultural background, it's hardly what one could call conventional Latin music— nor is it anywhere close to the jazz mainstream. Instead, it's a curious hybrid that bears comparison, at least conceptually, to the cerebral approach of saxophone legend Wayne Shorter. Like Shorter, Zenón makes intense demands on his players—something clear during the sound check, when Simon was seen to be working hard at getting a particularly difficult phrase down for the show.

One thing is for sure: if Simon is finding Zenón's music tough, then it's really tough. Over the course of his own growing discography and collaborations with artists including alto saxophonist David Binney and trumpeter Diego Urcola, Simon has been building a reputation as an improviser who's versed in the language of jazz, but equally informed by a certain classical impressionism. Like Zenón, he often starts his solos with the simplest of motifs but manages to take these spare ideas and build them into larger explorations that are spontaneously compositional in their scope.

Glawischnig—using a borrowed bass from Ottawa's John Geggie—combines navigating Zenón's oftentimes episodic charts with a firm yet responsive anchor that let's everyone else take greater liberties. Though he soloed rarely, he demonstrated a wonderful blend of deep tone and vivid lyricism when he did. He worked hand in glove with Cole, who is a remarkably dynamic drummer and, during his own solo spots, a melodic one as well. Almost as impressive was the fact that he didn't require charts to make it through Zenón's complex compositions.


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