Ottawa International Jazz Festival

John Kelman By

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Every festival has its weaker days, and while day five of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival had its clear moments, it also included some missteps. Still, even less successful performances are worth seeing—invariably a few "eureka moments more than justify the time. The very nature of the inherent risk in jazz means that some shows will work better than others.

After a series of early afternoon performances by local performers at a variety of venues, including saxophonist Nathan Cepelinski at the Rideau Centre and singer Karen Oxorn at the World Exchange Plaza, the Connoisseur Series at the Library and Archives Canada theatre continued to demonstrate why, despite its diversity, it's probably the most consistently excellent run at the festival. Pianist Bill Mays is no stranger to the festival, having played, amongst other times, with his fine trio at last year's Connoisseur Series. Mays continues to surprise, with a seemingly encyclopaedic knowledge and graceful delivery that makes his interpretation of standards familiar yet unpredictable.

Alto saxophonist Bud Shank, like tenor giant Sonny Rollins, who played the evening before, is another jazz giant, and his participation at this year's festival exemplifies how the organizers have raised the bar for the OIJF's 25th Anniversary. His association with Mays goes back many years, and their performance was more like an informal meeting of old friends. The intimacy of the venue helped, but the relaxed way that they approached the material—each one giving and taking, pushing and pulling—revealed a sense of adventure in the mainstream.

Sometimes events transpire to create an unsettling situation that pushes creativity to even greater heights. During the pre-show interview, Shank apologized as he told the audience that his luggage had been lost and had not yet been located. Unfortunately, the music the duo was to play was lost with the baggage and so—like British comedian John Cleese's famous quote, "Adopt, adapt and improve —they decided to present a standards-heavy programme. Improvisation is a necessary component of just about any jazz performance, but being forced into an even more impromptu situation clearly egged Shank and Mays to surprising and greater heights.

Shank is a burly yet lighthearted man with an equally burly tone and the kind of imagination, facility, and exploration that allows him to be surprisingly liberal with the material. The duo's version of "My Funny Valentine was almost unrecognizable until a few minutes in; yet in retrospect, not only did their entry into the tune make perfect sense, it retrospectively revealed a deep reverence that didn't preclude them from finding new modes of interpretation.

Their totally unencumbered outlook on well-heeled standards like "Waltz for Debby and "You Go to My Head kept the set fresh and full of surprises. Their connection was as vivid as that shared by the Moutin Reunion Quartet's twin brothers from the previous day, with Mays and Shank making on-the-spot decisions that would take the material in unexpected directions. While they generally adhered to form, their rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic acumen was so sharp that the audience sometimes had to pay serious attention or stand the risk of getting lost. And yet, as far as they sometimes appeared to stray, they always magically found ways to bring things back into clear focus. People might have thought they knew what to expect from this seventy-minute performance, but they were ultimately as wrong as they could be, with Shank and Mays constantly and cleverly deconstructing and refashioning the often-covered compositions, making this another high point for the festival.

The 6:30 pm main stage performance of Michel Coté's Lapon Balèze's looked, on paper, to have definite potential. With a twin-percussion lineup that included steel drums along with a traditional drum kit and all manner of hand percussion, the front line of saxophonist Coté, trumpeter Aaron Doyle and bassist Allain Bedard—a ubiquitous figure on the Montreal scene who, in addition to performing in a wide range of contexts, is also head of the adventurous Effendi label—looked able to create a kind of post-Ornette Coleman vibe. Without any kind of chordal instrument to strictly delineate harmonic motion, it left Coté, Doyle and Bedard free to define movement through the interaction of their three instruments.

Unfortunately that rarely happened. Most of the Ornette-ish compositions consisted of heads stated by Doyle and Beddard, with the pieces then opening up for extended soloing, followed by a restatement of the theme to signal the conclusion. And while the players clearly had talent, what was missing—and what has made other Coleman-informed groups including saxophonist John Zorn's Masada and bassist William Parker's O'Neal's Porch quartet work so successfully—was the kind of intuitive interplay where all the players listen to each other and respond, reacting spontaneously. The best groups in this arena are those where it's almost as if everyone is soloing and nobody's soloing; the interaction is so strong that virtually anyone can take the material in new and unexpected directions.

The solos from Lapon Balèze, rather than telling any kind of story, felt more like they simply began, continued, and then ended, showing no real signs of construction to give them form. They revolved for the most part around open-ended vamps the group relied to a great extent on Bedard and percussionists Raynald Drouin and Christian Paré to maintain interest. But unfortunately, without any kind of significant group interaction, they were unable to sustain any real sense of engagement. Many of the players in this project have been successful elsewhere, implying that perhaps the project's concept is what's at fault, rather than any deficiency on the musicians' parts.

The opening night of the festival's five-day Improv Invitational series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage—a new series for OIJF, and the first to conflict directly with performances at other venues—was an ambitious project that managed to skirt the line between success and failure. Bassist Normand Guilbeault's Visions of Kerouac took text from beat writer Jack Kerouac and shaped it into a ninety-minute performance. His quartet, also featuring saxophonist Alexandre Cote, drummer Claude Lavergne, and pianist Alexandre Grogg (also heard on day three with Ensemble en Pièces), placed Kerouac's words, delivered by vocalist Nicolas Landre, into a musical context.

Combining original compositions with standards like "Night in Tunisia and "Maiden Voyage, there were some clever inventions. Most intriguing were the brief passages where Guilbeault played along with recordings of Kerouac, remarkably mirroring his every phrase and specific articulation perfectly, truly making his bass "speak. Brash on baritone and more lyrical on alto, Cote was an intuitive and sympathetic player, responding imaginatively to and augmenting both Landre's spoken-word narration and singing. Lavergne's kit work was more orchestral in nature, adding texture where necessary, although he was clearly able to swing and groove when required.

Grogg is a curious pianist. He appears to have a broad musical knowledge—a prerequisite for his work with both this project and Ensemble en Pièces—but he's rarely convincing. While Cote's lines in support of the narration were supportive, Grogg's felt like non sequiturs.

As a narrator—both in English and in French—Landre was a bold performer, successfully evoking a wide swath of emotions from the comedic to the melodramatic. Unfortunately, he wasn't a particularly strong singer, plagued by pitch problems throughout the set.

For a series called Improv Invitational, which implies a larger element of spontaneity and experimentation, Visions of Kerouac was decidedly structured. Sure, there were brief moments of group interaction and there was an almost constant flow of individual instrumentalists responding to Landre's narration, but it felt like a rigidly-defined performance piece, rather than a set of interactive exploration. At times it veered dangerously close to shtick and sentimentality, although Guilbeault's clear reverence for Kerouac prevented it from crossing the line.

Tomorrow: Dave Young's Mainly Mingus; Quatuor Jean-Pierre Zanella Quartet; Evan Parker; Trio! (Béla Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke); and Trio (Derome-Guilbeault-Tanguay).

Visit Bill Mays, Bud Shank, and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit
John Fowler

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