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Day 8 - Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 29, 2006

John Kelman By

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Day eight of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival saw the welcome return of one artist, the first time appearance of another, and an exciting and spiritual performance by a jazz legend.

When guitarist Rez Abbasi played at The Bayou eighteen months ago, the performance was marred by assorted technical problems—all the responsibility of the club. Organist Gary Versace was situated so far back that it was difficult, if not impossible, for him to hear what was going on in front of him. Drummer Danny Weiss was provided with a drum kit that might have been a good starter kit, but for an accomplished player was almost an embarrassment. Sing Kiran Ahluwalia struggled with the single monitor mix available on stage and, like Versace, often either unable to hear the rest of the band clearly—or, for that matter, herself. Abbasi struggled with similar problems—a stage mix that simply wasn't conducive to the kind of interplay that defines Abbasi's remarkable fusion of Indo/Pakistani music with western jazz harmonies.

Still, despite the numerous roadblocks, they delivered a strong performance, but it was great to see the festival invite Abbasi and his quartet to play in the more acoustically sound theatre of Library and Archives Canada at the 4 pm Connoisseur Series. This time Weiss and Versace were provided with proper instruments, and all four were afforded separate monitor mixes, allowing everyone to hear what was going on around them. The result was a performance that was everything their first Ottawa appearance should have been—and more.

Still drawing primarily off Abbasi's most recent release, Snake Charmer (Earth Sounds, 2004)—there's a new record due out in the near future—what the group demonstrated is that, no matter how often a repertoire is played and replayed, in the right hands a fresh approach can be found every time.

Of course you have to have a group with the skill and imagination of Abbasi's quartet. Abbasi is a player who is well-versed in the jazz language, but studies in India have given him an appreciation of the lengthy, snakelike themes that wind their way through ragas, and equal respect for the metric complexity of traditional Indian music. Brought together, and with a powerful fusion edge that, refreshingly, doesn't rely on a stereotypically distorted guitar sound—if anything, Abassi's thick, warm tone is reminiscent of players like John Abercrombie and Pat Martino—Abbasi has the dexterity to deliver lightning-fast phrases and staggering intervallic leaps. He also, on occasion, plays in a more vertical fashion that's the opposite of so many guitarists' horizontal approach to the guitar neck, creating phrases that are distinctive because they wouldn't work any other way.

And while he clearly has the chops, his compositional approach to soloing means that even when he's pushing out lines with blinding speed they always make contextual sense.

Versace, gaining recognition with each passing year and just off a busy tour with guitarist John Scofield and his Ray Charles Tribute tour, is an advanced musical thinker. While, with Scofield he's proven himself capable of a more soulful approach to the organ that stems from Jimmy Smith, when left to his own devices he's a far more abstract player, more akin to organist Dan Wall—who he's replaced in recent years in John Abercrombie's organ trio. At yesterday's show he would often start solos with abstruse chordal shots or convoluted phrases but, like Abbasi, would evolve them into cogent larger-scale improvisations that were rife with intent.

Weiss is the hot young drummer on the New York scene, seemingly popping up everywhere these days. He's an intriguing blend of jazz looseness and rock energy. He's also no stranger to the Indian tradition, having released his remarkable solo album Tintal Drum set Solo (Chhandayan Production, 2005), transcribing a lengthy tabla piece to the conventional drum kit. At times playing with his fingers as if his drums were tablas, his ability to intuit what was going on around him was remarkable, sometimes driving things, other times responding so immediately it seemed as if he was linked telepathically with Abbasi and Versace.

Ahluwalia, with a number of records out under her own name, including Kiran Ahluwalia (Artemis Records, 2005)—her first international release, where she brings Punjabi folk songs into the 21st century—is a less frequent participant in the quartet, singing on only half of the set's seven tunes. But her wordless vocals were an integral part of the group's sound, and her improvisational acumen proved every bit as remarkable as those of her band mates, and her contributions no less important.


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