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Day 6 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 27, 2006


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If day five of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival was about the excitement of new discovery, day six was about affirmation. Even though inclement weather reduced the audience to a mere shadow of what it should have been, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and his Blackout group delivered the best performance at the main stage yet—and perhaps what will turn out to the best main stage event of the festival, period.

Before Harris hit the stage, the festival put on a special ticketed event at the Library and Archives Canada theater for the second year. Pianist Brad Mehldau, who last played the festival a few years ago at the main stage with his long-running trio (featuring bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Jorge Rossy), returned for two trio shows with his new drummer, Jeff Ballard. The group arrived late due to travel problems and may have been stressed by the experience, but you'd never know it based on this transcendent early show.

As good as Rossy was, Mehldau's earlier trio always conveyed a sense that it could be something more. From the first notes on Mehldau's first trio record with Ballard—last year's Day is Done—it was clear that the group had made a significant leap. Live, and with more work under their belts, Mehldau and his partners have taken the piano trio tradition and flexed it with a freer approach that managed to never leave the audience in the dust.

The set list included two new originals, two pieces drawn from Day is Done ("Artice" and "Turtle Town"), and innovative takes on the standards "All the Things You Are" and "I Fall in Love Too Easily." Each player redefined shifts in individual playing and group interaction. While Grenadier and Ballard got but one solo each during the set, Mehldau did not dominate the rest of the performance. Instead, with overt communication maintained by eye contact throughout the set and more abstract, intuitive connections that were nevertheless palpable, Mehldau's trio dispensed with mundane notions like the conventional head-solo-head structure, becoming a more flexible three-way conversation where everyone's say carries equal weight.

When an artist emerges as young as Mehldau was in the early 1990s, quickly rising to prominence as perhaps the most important pianist of his generation, one wonders how he can avoid peaking and continue to evolve. Mehldau more than adequately answering that question in performance, seamlessly integrating his multitudinous musical interests. Classical, mainstream jazz and abstract impressionism have all become part of a greater musical continuum for Mehldau, one whose whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Earlier records (and performances) have placed Mehldau's virtuosity on overt display, sometimes more than necessary. While the passage of time has left him nothing if not even more formidable, in many ways he's simplifying his approach and becoming even more connected with the essence of the material. His ideas may be complex, but his playing breathes better. When he does build into one of those hypnotically elliptical passages where—in a reversal of convention—his right hand creates an underlying foundation while his left hand delivers the melody, it means more, building a tension that demands release. And while Mehldau's playing may be sparer, he's become more harmonically advanced, taking an overdone song like "All the Things You Are," making it totally relevant and allowing it to take on new meaning.

Ballard's approach is so fluid, responsive and energized that even when the trio plays a gentle ballad like "I Fall in Love Too Easily," the performance still has an understated potency. It's not about chops, and it's not exactly about groove. Ballard clearly has ability and an ear for the groove, but his delivery is so much about the music that even the simplest of figures can be profound. As good as Rossy may have been, he was a more direct player. Ballard's playing makes the material more malleable and more capable of going to unexpected places. And rather than defining specific grooves, the combination of the three players makes the pulse happen without any one member of the trio ever clearly stating it.

The liberating element that Ballard has brought to the band has allowed Grenadier to make significant leaps as well. Rossy was always a solid support bassist, but his more orthodox approach restricted Grenadier's role; but with Ballard, anything is possible. Less a timekeeper and more an integral part of the conversation, Grenadier amazed with lines that, like Mehldau's, were sometimes profound in their simplicity, other times staggering in their implication.

While the main set was a combination of standards and original material, Mehldau made it clear during the encore that he's still interested in contemporary sources. The members of his trio have an amazing ability to move as one and find hidden links others that would be hard-pressed to detect. They created a compelling and surprising mix of Radiohead's "Knives Out" and took a rubato look at the Leigh/Richards chestnut "Young at Heart."

Keith Jarrett and his longstanding Standards Trio are often considered the gold standard when it comes to interpreting the Great American Songbook—and there's no denying Jarrett's genius or the incredible interaction he shares with bassist Gary Peacock and drummer Jack DeJohnette. But in light of Mehldau's re-energized trio, Jarrett is running the risk of being too literal, despite his stream-of- consciousness approach to improvisation. While he'll still go down in the books as one of the most important figures in jazz history, I have no doubt that an equal place will be reserved not just for Mehldau, but for his trio. Truly one of the most important and innovative groups in jazz today, it fearlessly combines respect for precedent with a modernistic approach that increasingly avoids delineation and reductionist definition.

While a number of torrential downpours resulted in a poor turnout for Stefon Harris' 8:30 pm show at the festival's main stage, those who were intrepid enough to handle getting a little wet were treated to a great performance. Harris' set took much of its material from Evolution (Blue Note, 2004)—but with a couple of years of road work, he and the band took it to far greater heights.

When Harris first emerged in the late 1990s, he quickly found himself on the vanguard of his instrument, alongside Joe Locke and Steve Nelson. But while his earlier records were uniformly excellent—in particular Grand Unification Theory (Blue Note, 2003), a sprawlingly ambitious large ensemble disc that matched Harris' playing with equally strong compositions—he was often accused of being far too cerebral. Evolution dispensed with such criticism by combining intelligent writing and accessible grooves, not to mention a fusion energy that was intense and exciting at times without the excess.

Bassist Derrick Hodge replaced Darryl Hall, but the rest of Blackout featured the group's original members. Keyboardist Marc Cary has been around since the early 1990s, playing with everyone from singer Abbey Lincoln to trumpeter Roy Hargrove, not to mention releasing a number of fine records under his own name. While his bebop roots are a part of who he is, and he delivered a cogent and powerful piano solo that managed to get the small audience hooting and hollering, he's also a clever sound sculptor, creating lush textures to broaden the group's sound.

More and more young bassists are grooving with an electrified energy on acoustic bass. Hodge, who worked capably in the tradition with pianist Mulgrew Miller on Live at Yoshi's Volume One (MaxJazz, 2004) and Volume Two (2005), clearly has broader interests. His playing on Harris' contemporized and soulful version of "Summertime" was especially moving.

Altoist Casey Benjamin, like Joshua Redman, applies a host of processing to his sax. But also like Redman, he doesn't use it to hide any musical deficiencies— instead, it's a way to expand the reach of the instrument. His solos were powerful, but Benjamin was equally capable of keeping things simple and to the point. He also added keyboards on some tunes and a vocoder solo on the last piece, which got a strong audience response.

Drummer Terreon Gully seems to be showing up everywhere these days. This year alone, he has popped up on important releases by bassist Christian McBride (Live at Tonic, Ropeadope), saxophonist John Ellis (By a Thread, Hyena) and the soon-to-be-released Live in Seattle by the Joe Locke/Geoffrey Keezer Group. Last year he also appeared on pianist Keezer's outstanding Wildcrafted-Live at the Dakota (MaxJazz) and saxophonist Ron Blake's genre-busting Sonic Tonic (Mack Avenue). With each new recording Gully demonstrates his ability to play everything from straight-ahead to deep funk, always with a powerful approach that never overshadows those around him. At last night's show he once again fit organically into any context, whether a more straightforward groove or a mind-bending irregular meter.

Harris, who placed his vibraphone and marimba perpendicular to each other, seemed just as fond of a simple melody as a staggering burst of complex energy. Four-mallet work is hard enough, but Harris took it a step further, sometimes playing with his right hand on the vibes, his left on the marimba. He had a relaxed and affable stage presence, interacting with the crowd. While it would have been nice to have had a larger audience, Harris and the group showed that the music is what matters, playing with the same energy and commitment to small crowd (a couple of hundred people at most) as they would to a capacity audience.

The good news is that, two years down the road since the release of Evolution, Harris has a new disc due out in the fall. While it will involve some members of Blackout, it's to be a larger ensemble work. But he'll also be going into the studio in the fall to record a new Blackout disc, and that's good news, too. As good as Evolution is, it doesn't come close to capturing where the band is now. And if last night's performance was any indication, the next Blackout disc is going to be very exciting indeed.

Visit Brad Mehldau, Stefon Harris and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credits
Brad Mehldau Trio: John Kelman
Stefon Harris & Blackout: Brett Delmage

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