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GuitarNow! 2013, Day Two: Ottawa, Canada, May 4, 2013

GuitarNow! 2013, Day Two: Ottawa, Canada, May 4, 2013

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First Annual GuitarNow! Festival, Day Two
Kailash Mital Theatre
Carleton University
Ottawa, Canada

May 4, 2013

When local guitarist Roddy Ellias—the recipient, that very week, of one of the Jazz Journalist Association's Jazz Hero awards for 2013 (the only Canadian on the list)—created the concept of the first annual GuitarNow! Festival with Carleton University, it's objective was to provide Ottawa guitarists with three days of intensive workshops, the chance to hear a wide variety of world-class guitarists from as close by as their own city and as far away as the UK and United States, and the opportunity to perhaps even play with them at nightly jam sessions. The three-day festival, in its inaugural year, was a tremendous success, though there were a few minor issues that should be adjusted when Ellias and his team put together next year's edition—and, it seems, based on the success of the first year, that there will be a second one.

The three days were loosely divided into an acoustic/folk day, a jazz day and a classical day, but just as music these days crosses those and many more boundaries, there was also plenty of crossover in the subject matter of each day. Still, May 4 was, by and large a jazz day, with workshops by Lucas Haneman (a local guitarist who, in an unprecedented move, won both the Scholarship Award and the Bill Shuttleworth Fund Award as part of the Galaxie Jazz Youth All-Stars at the 2005 Ottawa International Jazz Festival and currently lives in Montreal), Los Angeles-based Brandon Bernstein, Montreal-based Mike Rud and Steve Raegele, New Jersey's Vic Juris and, for its one non-jazz workshop, Ottawa-based classical guitarist Andrew Mah, delivering a densely packed but thoroughly fascinating workshop on the history of the classical guitar and its fight for credibility and relevance.

Juris' workshop was technically deep, but a real, hands-on workshop that gave the attending guitarists a lot to consider. Juris was, until recently, a member of saxophonist Dave Liebman's two decade-old group (recently disbanded), and a guitarist who is one of jazz's best-kept secrets, though he's far from unknown to musicians. A broad-reaching guitarist who easily belongs in the same rarefied group as better-known relative contemporaries like Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell, John Scofield and John Abercrombie—with whom Juris shares the most as a similarly motif-based improviser that seems to sound absolutely fresh with each and every performance, and like nobody but himself without relying on stock licks or devices—Juris' command of his instrument is so complete that when he discussed moving complex chordal patterns up a tone, for example, how the harmonies shifted seemed totally intuitive and effortless.

And while his knowledge is deep, Juris is humble, unassuming and approachable. When asked how he found a certain chord combination, he replied "it found me," suggesting it was simply the inevitable result of years of practice and practical application.

Perhaps the most important lesson learned from Juris was: patience. In many ways a late bloomer, whose gradual but palpable growth can be followed from early recordings with the Liebman Group like Miles Away (Owl, 1994) through to the quartet's final studio recording, Turnaround: The Music of Ornette Coleman (Jazzwerkstatt, 2010), and on recent solo recordings ranging from Blue Horizon (Zoho, 2004) and Omega is the Alpha (Steeplechase, 2010), Juris' personal goal has always been simple: to be a better guitarist today than he was the day before. His approach to achieving that objective: slow, methodical and, by not biting off more than can be chewed, eminently doable. He encouraged his audience to learn just one song a month, but really learn it, backwards and forwards, in any and all keys. "At the end of the year you've got twelve tunes...and when it comes to keys, how many are there," he asked. Responding to the obvious answer of "twelve," he replied, rhetorically "And how many months are there in a year?"

Sage advice...and, based on Juris' career, absolutely practical.

Juris was relaxed, using anecdotes to make some of his points. When he spoke of his friendship with megastar Paul Simon, he recounted, in the context of asking the advice of friends and family, how Simon actually wrote "Bridge Over Troubled Water" and played it for a friend who replied, "It's not one of your best." And so, Simon put it in a drawer for five full year before dusting it off and recording what would become one of Simon & Garfunkel's biggest hits . The lesson: trust your own instincts and take others' opinions with a grain of salt.

Beyond his workshop, Juris was readily available to chat with any of the attending students, and his easygoing, friendly and supportive approach clearly made a huge impact on everyone, and his playing was so deep, so informed by knowledge—not just of jazz, but of everything from rock 'n' roll to classical music and beyond, and a player completely comfortable with using effects to broaden his palette—that his participation at GuitarNow! gave the festival tremendous cred and helped establish its first year as truly inspiring.

Steve Raegele's workshop was, sadly, not of the same standard. Based in Montreal, Raegele has worked with everyone from Thom Gossage and his left-of- center Other Voices group, to more straight-ahead players like saxophonist Rémi Bolduc and Frank Lozano. A guitarist who, these days, seems most often to work in the world of prepared instruments and sonically altered textures, on paper it would seem that there was plenty to offer GuitarNow! attendees. His opening improvisation combined use of alligator clips and wooden dowels on or under his strings to great effect, but when it came to speaking with his audience, he felt somewhat unprepared, in general describing all the various things he did as "cool."

Cool they may have been, but when questioned, if he wasn't exactly dismissive, neither did he provide anything concrete. A question on the relationship between his various preparations and the pedal board he also employed, with a variety of effects, could have been a launching point for discussing how to internalize these things so that the player's knowledge is so intimate as to make them extensions of the guitar—not applying effects to the instruments, but treating them as a seamless part, as instruments themselves, much as Norwegian guitarists like Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhus do on albums like Dream Logic (ECM, 2012) and The Matriarch and the Wrong Kind of Flowers (Rune Grammofon, 2012), respectively. Instead, he dismissed his use of pedals as being secondary to his preparations, and that was that.Steve Raegales

It's not that Raegele was without merit. Perhaps he doesn't do workshops often, but his simply did not offer much that was practical. And it's not that he's got nothing to offer: one important function of prepared guitar that resonated was how using such preparations discourage predictable playing; that some of this unpredictability was still predicated on playing comfortable patterns, which the preparations then altered into something unexpected, didn't really get as deeply as it could have into the actual considered use of preparations. It's all well and good to come up with unusual sounds in an improvisational situation, but if there's no approach behind them or how the instrument is being played beyond being merely random, it doesn't really allow for improvisation with a purpose. Or does it?

Fortunately, for the afternoon's closing workshop, classical guitarist Andrew Mah brought things back into focus in an hour-long explanation of the guitar's struggle to be taken seriously in the classical world. Less a workshop and more a lecture, Mah combined performance with an engaging, informative and enlightening hour that shed considerable light on the challenges of playing classical guitar, how de facto standards have emerged, and how difficult it is to change or evolve them.

Beyond being a superb player who played three impressive pieces, including one of Fernando Sor's well-known Mozart variations, Mah went over the history of the guitar in classical music and how, by the 1970s, three guitarists—Andrés Segovia, Julian Bream and John Williams—were largely responsible for bringing credibility to the instrument in very different ways—demonstrating how by playing a brief piece as each would interpret it.

Mah also went into great detail about how the right-hand approach has changed over the years, in many ways becoming much more rigorous. He discussed such important minutiae as how the arc and density of nails vary from person to person and impact tone. He also discussed how angle of attack and relaxing or tightening the tip joint of each finger can allow, for example, the pinky finger to play a melody with greater attack and power, while the accompanying chords and/or bass lines can be warmer or quieter, creating, in a sense, a natural mix of the various elements being played simultaneously.

Following a brief break, GuitarNow!'s guitar competition brought five young players to the stage, competing for a number of substantial prizes, the winners to be determined by judges, Vic Juris, Matt Warnock and Steve Groves.

Nathan Corr's fine "Blues for Joe," dedicated to guitar legend Joe Pass, won the first prize of 30 hours of studio time—20 hours recording plus 10 hours mixing— courtesy of Shattered Wings Studios, while Alex Tompkins' distinctive look at the standard "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" secured a Sigma 000M-15S steel-string acoustic guitar courtesy of the Ottawa Folklore Centre, with setup done by Weston Instruments. Justin Orok, who has only recently begun playing nylon-string guitar, delivered a gentle Maurice Ravel composition, garnering him third prize, an Epiphone Masterbilt steel-string acoustic guitar provided by Long & McQuades, again with Weston providing the setup. Terry Wright received honorable mention for his arrangement of Bill Evans' "The Two Lonely People," while Patrick McIsaac's original arrangement of a hip hop tune, unfortunately, didn't place, though it had its moments.

While the judges were deliberating, James Dickens and Alex Moxon delivered some half-time entertainment, demonstrating that there is, indeed, plenty of talent right here in Ottawa.

After a dinner break, the evening's performances kicked off with two more local guitarists. Tim Bedner—playing a custom-built guitar shaped, ergonomically, like the Klein guitar that players like David Torn and Bill Frisell have used, past and present—and Garry Elliott—who, unlike the classical guitar used earlier in the week at the Jazz Hero ceremony for Roddy Elias, performing with local bassist John Geggie and pianist Mark Ferguson, came plugged in to GuitarNow!, with a Telecaster-like f-hole semi-acoustic guitar. Bedner and Elliott are both Associate Performance teachers in Carleton University's music program—Bedner for Jazz Guitar and Elliott for Classical and Jazz Guitar , and in their spontaneity and comfortable interaction, set the bar for the rest of the evening.

Brandon Bernstein came next, first on acoustic guitar as he worked his way in, out and around saxophonist Ornette Coleman's classic standard, "Turnaround," together with Liverpool-based guitarist and educator, Dr. Matthew Warnock, whose solidbody guitar was set for maximum warmth. A straight- ahead player of considerable merit, it was when Bernstein engaged Warnock in some mischievous interplay that the tune took off. Bernstein's quick stops, unexpected detuning of his low E string and all manner of odd dissonances lent the piece the kind of unpredictability a Coleman tune intrinsically demands.

Bernstein left the stage, leaving Warnock to perform Antonio Carlos Jobim's bossa nova standard, "How Insensative" in duo with Mike Rud, but it was when Warnock exited and Bernstein returned, this time with a fat hollobody electric guitar, to play the Sammy Fain/Irving Kahal classic, "I'll Be Seeing You," where Rud demonstrated that not only is he a hidden treasure on guitar, but as a vocalist as well. The last time Rud was seen at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, he was a significantly larger man; he may have dropped considerable weight in the intervening years, but it has done nothing to diminish his talent. Effortlessly dropping in unexpected unison scat/guitar lines, Rud was practical support of Vic Juris' suggestion, earlier in the day, that it's critical to become so intimate with a song that there's no thinking involved...just playing.

After a short break, Juris and Roddy Ellias began the second half of the evening, also performing "How Insensative," and demonstrating the value of having worked together (the two have performed in Ottawa a couple times in the past few years) and building both a relationship and a language. Most of the other duets were first-time meetings, and there's no discounting the value of that sense of discovery in such contexts, but there's also value in knowing something about how your partner will play so that a sense of trust can be established. The Jobim tune was a good warm-up, as the duo's set moved into originals by both guitarists. Ellias has, in recent years, focused more on classical guitar and, in addition to jazz writing, composing in the classical sphere as well—featured at the Ottawa Chamber Festival as well as proving his ability to leap into a jazz context with virtually no preparation in 2007 when he replaced the unavailable Peter Bernstein with Dr. Lonnie Smith at the organist's somewhat controversial Ottawa Jazz Festival performance.

Ellias' performance on nylon-string guitar was impeccable, and a more percussive contrast to Juris' warm, reverb-enhanced electric tone; still, it would have been interesting to hear the two together, both on electric instruments. Both players proved more than capable of navigating material that, in sound check, looked like it might have some problems—proof of how the energy of hitting the stage in front of an audience can sometimes, magically, bring everything together, Ellias' "What Did You Think Would Happen" was complex in its construction of changes, while Juris' "Sweet Sixteen"—a tune featured on Omega is the Alpha—had its own set of harmonic challenges, but the two delivered both (and the entire set) with a blend of improvisational élan and the kind of relaxed comfort that almost made it feel like a window into an intimate, private performance rather than a live show.

Guitarist Ben Monder—who had only arrived that day and was set for a workshop the following afternoon—closed the evening with a near-30-minute performance that demonstrated why he's held in such high esteem by critics, fans and other guitarists. It's been eight years since his last solo record, the stunning Oceana (Sunnyside, 2005)— and the good news is his follow-up, "eight years in the making," he said, before the show—and with characteristic dryness, "I'm glad it's over"—is set for release later this year, again on Sunnyside.

But while his upcoming recording will feature his ongoing trio, with vocal contributions from longtime musical partner, Theo Bleckmann, and a number of other singers, here it was just Monder: one man, one guitar and a handful of effects that he used to build his relentlessly finger-picked excursion to an overdriven climax so massive that it could barely be contained by the Kailash Mital Theatre. Monder's ability to build on dense chordal ideas, ebbing and flowing while, overall, building a narrative arc that gave the continuous piece a gradually evolving form, made it the ideal closer.

For many of the attendees, however, this was not the end of the evening, as guitarists packed cars and headed over to nearby Naji's, in the Glebe, for a jam session that went on into the wee hours of the morning. And for those who'd signed up for the whole weekend, there was one more day left, with workshops to come from, in addition to Monder, Sylvie Proulx, Jérôme Ducharme, Julien Bisaillon and Okar Graf, and a late afternoon performance by Bisaillon, Ducharme, Mah, Proulx, Raegele and Guilherme VIncens that would bring GuitarNow!'s first year to a close.

Based on the second day, it was certainly a well-organized and successful start, though it would have been good to see a larger audience for both the workshops and performances. One suggestion already being bantered about to bring in a larger group of younger aspiring guitarists is to recruit someone from the rock world like Guthrie Govan, as well as creating concurrent streams during the day, as one thing that would have certainly been good for the jazz day would have been to identify the level required for each workshop. Juris, for example, was clearly aimed at intermediate to advanced levels, while Mah could have provided value to a guitarist at any level.

But every festival has to find its way, and for a first year, GuitarNow! was an unequivocal success that could well put Ottawa on the map as a serious place to come for a weekend of informative workshops, eye and ear-stunning performances, and the chance to jam with some of these world-class musicians in an informal setting.

Photo Credit

All Photos: John Kelman

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