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Day 3 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 24, 2006


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Saturday nights at the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival usually mean Afro-Cuban party time, and the performance by Cuban-born/New York-based clarinetist/saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera and his quintet didn't disappoint. But first, the 4 pm show at the Library and Archives Canada Connoisseur Series had a different kind of energy.
Prior to their duet performance, altoist Sonny Fortune and drummer Rashied Ali had two different but complementary things to say about what was to come. When asked if they'd be playing free or playing tunes, Fortune said, "we'll be playing tunes." Ali followed up, however, with "sometimes just one tune." And that's what the festival audience got—a 100+ minute exploration of "Just One of Those Things" that caused some people to leave because they were unprepared for the unrelenting energy of the lengthy set. But for those who stayed, this was the closest thing to witnesssing John Coltrane's latter days, when Ali was a member of his group and the two artists recorded the now-classic free jazz duet record Interstellar Space (Impulse!, 1967).

But unlike Coltrane's explorations with Ali, which were totally free, this performance was remarkable in how, no matter how far out Fortune and Ali took the tune, they always remained faithful to it in some shape or form. Fortune would periodically return to the melody for a jumping-off point in a completely different direction. But regardless of the liberties, the song remained paramount.

Of course, the kind of communication that kept the set gripping throughout is the kind that comes from a bond that goes back many years—in this case, literally a lifetime. Fortune and Ali have been playing duet shows like this for about a dozen years, but they were friends before they began playing together, going back to their school days in Philadelphia. The two rarely looked at each other during the set, but the link that connected them was palpable.

While there's no question that the spirit of Coltrane informs their approach, Fortune is no mere Coltrane clone. Over the years he's developed his own style, which worked equally well in the pop-jazz of George Benson's Other Side of Abbey Road (A&M, 1969) as the dense jungle-funk of Miles Davis' final two releases before his temporary mid-1970s retirement, Agharta (Columbia/Legacy, 1975) and Pangaea (Columbia/Legacy, 1975). In recent years Fortune's records may appear to be more centrist, but listening to his take on Thelonious Monk on Four in One (Blue Note, 1994), one can easily hear a bigger approach. While his roots in tradition are deep, so too is his ability to expand that tradition into outer-reaching explorations.

Ali has remained more within the world of free jazz and the avant-garde, but that doesn't mean he can't swing hard or have his own link to the tradition. The Ben Webster shirt he was wearing at the performance said it all. And so, while the energy level was high, and for some the lengthy examination of the seemingly infinite possibilities of one tune was too extreme, others found it a truly transcendent performance.

Fortune blew long and hard for close to eighty minutes before leaving the stage open for Ali—and downing two bottles of water in less than a minute. While Fortune was capable of cascading sheets of sound that were strongly reminiscent of Coltrane, he also understood the value of space and the meaning of a single note or a simple phrase. He would finish an seemingly endless flurry of notes delivered through circular breathing and return to some variation of the tune's recognizable theme.

Ali was a constant fountain of invention, so in tune with Fortune that the two would magically lock in together before heading off again into places farther afield. But it was all about communication, interplay and give-and-take. Following Ali's solo, Fortune returned for a series of tradeoffs with Ali that gradually decreased in length and built the excitement to a fever pitch. It got so high that by the time they finally finished, the audience jumped to its feet for the well-deserved first standing ovation at this year's Connoisseur Series.

When asked if this duo would be documented, Ali commented that it would be a difficult thing to do. "It's hard to get radio play for an eighty-minute tune, he said. True, perhaps. But Ali turns 71 next week and Fortune is in his late 60s, and while both have many years ahead of them, it's not clear how long they can keep up this kind of frenzied pace. And it would be criminal if this powerful, imaginative and completely unfettered duo were to go unrecorded.

Paquito D'Rivera may be a more accessible artist, and he builds no small component of pure entertainment into his performances, but that doesn't mean he isn't a class act. His quintet featured a host of outstanding musicians, some better known than others.

Sharing the front line with D'Rivera was Argentinean trumpeter Diego Urcola. His latest release, Viva (CamJazz, 2006), is an adventurous record that, like work by other young Latin artists including altoist Miguel Zenón and pianist Edward Simon, demonstrates an intrepid approach, applying a more modernistic bent to his own rich musical heritage. Urcola's style allows for extroverted bursts of energy as well as spare lyricism, but he always focuses on solos with a purpose. It was great to hear his 7/4 minor blues "Tango Azul —which opens Viva—played at last night's show.

Drummer Mark Walker may hail from Chicago, but he has proven himself to be an extremely flexible and adaptable player since emerging on the scene in the early 1990s. His range spans from Afro-Cuban work with D'Rivera and Caribbean Jazz Project to the broader world music inflections of Oregon and the more cerebral work of pianist Jon Weber, whose Simple Complex (Second Century Jazz, 2004) received considerable critical acclaim.

Like Urcola, he's playing much more in the tradition with D'Rivera, but with an authenticity and unerring sense of groove that made the quintet's version of Astor Piazzolla's "Libertango a highlight of the set. Walker may not have the cachet of some of the other, higher-profile drummers of his generation, but one look at his remarkably large discography tells all.

Electric bassist Oscar Stagnaro's command of his six-string instrument was like a Latin version of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones bassist Victor Wooten. While he only took the occasional solo, his remarkable technique was impressive, and his musicality more so. He may have been capable of complex two-handed contrapuntal tapping, but he was just as apt to lay down an unshakable groove, as he did on Urcola's "Tango Azul.

Offering further proof that you don't have to be born to it to play it right, Israeli ex-pat Alon Yavnai's piano work had the perfect combination of modal jazz sensibility and Latin rhythm. He's the least-known member of the quintet, but based on his playing last night, you can expect to hear more from him in the future.

While D'Rivera's show was heavy on Latin rhythms and entertainment—he finally got the audience to sing along with him during the set's final number—it's easy to forget that he also lives in the classical world and is a remarkably broad and accomplished musician. He may be a lithe saxophonist, but his clarinet work is more distinctive and has carved out a unique place for him in the world of Afro-Cuban jazz. In contrast to D'Rivera's surprisingly sharp alto tone, he sounded much warmer on clarinet, and the blend of his clarinet with Urcola's muted trumpet was particularly captivating.

D'Rivera is nothing if not the consummate performer. He ended his balladic tribute to Dizzy Gillespie, "I Remember Dizzy, with a quick and humorous reference to Gillespie's classic "Salt Peanuts. It may have been pure shtick, but it was also great fun. D'Rivera knows how to engage an audience from the first downbeat, and that's what exactly he did last night.

Visit Sonny Fortune, Paquito D'Rivera and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit

John Kelman

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