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Day 10 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, July 1, 2006

John Kelman By

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July 1 is Canada Day, a nation-wide birthday party—this year celebrating the country's 139th birthday. All manner of entertainment goes on from coast to coast, but in Ottawa, the nation's capital, people party especially hardy. A significant portion of the downtown core is closed to traffic and, weather permitting, crowds of up to 300,000 people often make the arduous trek downtown to spend the day attending a variety of free shows. The celebration builds up to a multimedia show on Parliament Hill—the seat of government— that's broadcast nationwide and features some of the country's best talent, culminating in a massive fireworks show.

When the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival pushed its schedule ahead from mid-July to late June a couple of years back—meaning that the eleven-day event would run through Canada Day—the move was made with the agreement that the jazz festival's events on that day would be free to all. There are no shows at any of the indoor venues, and the festival typically brings in a variety of acts—some jazz, some not, but almost always worth catching.

Last year's Canada Day highlight—despite a thunderstorm that threatened to scuttle it midway through—was a performance by Canadian guitarist Tim Postgate's Hornband, featuring tuba and baritone saxophonist Howard Johnson. This year the spotlight shone on Indian singer Kiran Ahluwalia, seen earlier in the week performing with guitarist/husband Rez Abbasi's group at the Library and Archives Canada Connoisseur Series. She put on an engaging show with her quartet at the Confederation Park's Empire Grill Stage that clearly entertained the sizable audience.

Anyone who saw Abbasi's show on June 29 knows that Ahluwalia is a fine singer. What they might not appreciate is how charismatic she is when leading her own group. Like Abbasi, Ahluwalia uses the music of India as source material, but she does it more overtly and puts it into a context that also incorporates more Western harmonies. But whereas Abbasi speaks the language of jazz, Ahluwalia's interested in fusing Indian traditions with contemporary Western folk music. In this performance, supported by Abbasi on acoustic guitar, along with Ashok Badey on harmonium and Niran Budakar on tabla, the music occupied an intriguing middle ground.

Ahluwalia writes her own music around Ghazal and Punjabi poetry. The name of the former style comes from an Arabic word meaning "to talk to women," but it migrated from Persia to India about six centuries ago, and the poetry traditionally speaks about matters of love. Punjab is the region of northwestern India where Ahluwalia's parents came from, and though she was born in northeastern India, the culture of the Punjab region remains significant to her to this day.

Ahluwalia primarily performed songs from her latest album, Kiran Ahluwalia (Artemis Records, 2005), her third release but the first to receive international distribution. She established an instantaneous rapport with the audience through her relaxed manner and humorous introductions to songs where she carried on the storytelling tradition of folk music. She coaxed the audience into singing along with an improvisation at one point, and by making each successive line just a little more difficult, she finally received a collective laugh when she took it over the top, singing an articulated melody that few—if any—people in the audience could copy.

You can take the man out of jazz, but you can't take the jazz out of the man. While Abbasi's accompaniment was nearly always in a folk vein, built on far simpler chord changes than the ones in his own complex compositions, he'd occasionally throw in an "outside note or two on the occasions where he took a solo. Listeners who weren't paying attention might not have noticed, but for anyone familiar with his own work, it was a subtle reminder of his advanced vernacular. Still, the fact that he could simplify his playing so much and work within this context is testimony to his adaptability, though his flawless technique was evident throughout.

Technical problems plagued the band. The sound on stage was challenging, but it sounded just fine out in the crowd. Ahluwalia has a wide range and a voice that can go from whisper-like delicacy to greater strength and power. Despite the obvious problems she and the other musicians had hearing things on stage, her pitch remained accurate, and her ability to articulate not just words but musical phrases was remarkable.

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