Day 5 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 26, 2006

John Kelman By

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While the experience of seeing iconic jazz performers is part of what makes any jazz festival great, sometimes it's more exciting to come across talent you haven't heard of (or, at least, heard) before. Day five of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival may have featured the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band on its main stage, but the real magic happened off-site.

The 4 pm Connoisseur Series continued its winning streak with French saxophonist Jean-Christophe Béney and his quartet. Béney, a fine tenor player from France who is known to some Canadians for his two records on the Montreal-based Effendi Records label— Polychromy (2004) and Cassiopée (2000)—is, in fact, moving to Montreal later this summer. Based on yesterday's performance, that's great news for the Canadian scene in general, and the Montreal scene in particular.

Unlike those two recordings, which teamed Béney with artists from France, his Ottawa performance featured a quartet of outstanding Canadian musicians. Pianist John Roney is no stranger to Ottawans, having played with local bassist John Geggie, as well as bassist Adrian Cho and his Magic of Miles Davis show at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage back in the winter of 2005. He's recently released his first record as a leader, Rate of Change (Effendi, 2006), and since moving to Montreal from Toronto a few years ago he's established himself as a fixture on that scene.

A remarkable pianist, Roney brings together a multitude of sources into a style that can range from pensive introspection to overt expressionism. Yesterday's performance found him splitting his time equally between acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes, and he clearly appreciates the difference in approach that each instrument demands. His solos, as harmonically complex as they often were, always told vivid stories, and the audience's response to his playing was considerably more energetic than the reaction to Robert Glasper the day before.

Bassist Fraser Hollins is an Ottawa ex-pat who has also made the move to Montreal. He's a player with a rich tone, an unerring sense of groove, and ears open enough to respond to his surroundings without losing the core of Béney's deceptive compositions. Hollins received few opportunities to solo, but when he did, he was, like Roney, a player with a narrative in mind.

The surprise of the set was drummer Greg Ritchie. Even though he looks like he's just started shaving, Ritchie's playing was reminiscent of the late Tony Williams, but filtered through Brian Blade's even more liberated and highly fluid approach. Capable of providing a rock-solid rhythm, he remained nevertheless unpredictable in the best possible way, injecting surprising and sometimes powerful shots that may have seemed like non sequiturs at first, but ultimately and always made perfect musical sense.

Béney's writing couched complex harmonic changes in simple melodies. He understands the meaning of space, which made those moments when Béney and the rest of the quartet really let loose and became collectively denser all the more meaningful. Béney plays with a strong tone, but also appreciates how dynamics can sometimes suggest greater power, occasionally blowing so softly as to be nearly a whisper.

The set list was comprised exclusively of Béney's challenging to play but listener-friendly writing. The entire quartet was completely committed from the first note, again in contrast to Glasper's show the previous day. Hopefully when Béney relocates to Montreal later this summer, he'll be able to continue working with this quartet. The chemistry was strong and the performance was filled with many magical moments of pure synchronicity.

A stage filled with more electronics than you'd find in most local stores and a large banner filling the back of the stage are not the norm for the festival's 8pm Improv Series. (However, you can expect something similar at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage on June 30, when Norwegian trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer brings his group to the same venue.)

The Norwegian group Wibutee is as far removed as it could get from Brad Turner and Dylan van der Schyff's free improvisations of the previous night. Wilbutee's performance (at rock concert volume) was accompanied by a light show that occasionally featured a jarring strobe light—and dry ice would also have been part of the show, had the NAC not prohibited its use. This sort of ambience is not what most people who come to the Improv Series expect.

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