Ottawa International Jazz Festival

John Kelman By

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The 25th anniversary of any festival is a significant landmark and a remarkable accomplishment. And while the relatively few jazz festivals which have made it to that mark usually try to make it a special event, the 25th year of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival has been truly memorable for the sheer number of legends that Programming Manager Jacques Emond and Executive Director Catherine O'Grady have brought to celebrate this major milestone. From higher profile artists like Diana Krall, Sonny Rollins, Branford Marsalis, and David Murray to less well-known but equally iconic musicians like Evan Parker, Dave Young and Roscoe Mitchell, the festival has maintained a broad purview that has turned this year into a real celebration of all things jazz.

The evening of day seven couldn't have represented two more diametrically-opposed viewpoints of where jazz is today. On the main stage Canadian singer/pianist Denzal Sinclaire and the headlining act, megastar Diana Krall, brought a more accessible, mainstream version of contemporary jazz to a capacity crowd. For those who like their jazz lightweight, but not necessarily without substance, this was a great double bill, an example of the kind of perfect programming that Emond has been doing for many years.

The real sparks, however, flew at the National Arts Centre, where woodwind multi-instrumentalist Roscoe Mitchell brought his quintet to the Fourth Stage for the third of five shows in the festival's new "Improv Invitational series. O'Grady, who has been at the Fourth Stage all week introducing the acts, has clearly been excited by the response to the fledgling series. With Mitchell playing to a full house, O'Grady encouraged everyone to write in to support the series so that the festival can continue to deliver this kind of adventurous programming in the future.

Mitchell, a fixture on the Chicago scene and one of the founding members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, is such a diminutive figure that it's almost hard to believe he can push enough air to create the big sound he did on alto and soprano saxophones, let alone keep up the circular breathing that, like Evan Parker the night before, allowed him to create seemingly endless waves of sound. But as powerful as he was on saxophones, he was also capable of dark beauty on both alto flute and piccolo, with the opening number a dark and enigmatic piece that, like many of Mitchell's compositions, constantly blurred the line between form and freedom. With subtle queues, Mitchell helped direct his quintet, featuring trumpeter/flugelhornist Corey Wilkes, pianist Craig Taborn (making his second appearance in Ottawa in the past four months, last time with Tim Berne's Acoustic Hard Cell at the same venue), bassist Jaribu Shahid, and drummer Tani Tabbal, through a complex chart that was as much about European postmodernism as it was more traditional jazz roots.

Elsewhere things were more chaotic, with the second number an extended piece more in line with the kind of music Mitchell writes for the Art Ensemble of Chicago. With the rhythm section creating a rolling maelstrom underneath, Mitchell, Taborn, and Wilkes delivered powerful stream-of-consciousness-style solos where nothing was forbidden. Wilkes began his solo blowing trumpet and flugelhorn simultaneously, managing to punch out unison and harmonized passages. Later he began deconstructing his instrument, at one point removing the valves of the trumpet, blowing through the mouthpiece and using his finger to alternately block and expose the hole where the valve belonged, while at another point he removed the mouthpiece and blew it into the bell of the horn. Creative extended techniques seem to be de rigeur for a lot of free improvisers, but many of Wilkes' approaches were truly unique.

Taborn, who is fast becoming a truly ubiquitous player, working with everyone from Tim Berne to David Binney, Dave Douglas, and Susie Ibarra—not to mention his own fine records, including Light Made Lighter and last year's Junk Magic—seems able to fit into almost any context, yet still remain true to his own personal vision. Some players who work in a broad range of contexts lose sight of their own personalities—becoming great chameleons but, at the end of the day, somehow generic—but Taborn's quirky style, blending the cerebral aspect of Andrew Hill with a more visceral Cecil Taylor-esque attack, is steadily developing into something unique and instantly recognizable.

Shahid stayed with double-bass until the encore—a short and surprisingly get-down-and-funky composition that, like the rest of the set, drew from the real breadth of all the players. Then he picked up his electric bass and demonstrated a stylistic link between this group and his performance with David Murray's Gwo-Ka Masters on day three. Tabbal is as at home using his kit as a palette as he is in swing mode and more deconstructed chaos. Powerful, yet equally capable of surprising restraint, Tabbal soloed with the kind of rare imagination that explains why he is in such demand with artists including Mitchell, Murray, and James Carter. Yet it's something of a mystery why he's not better known outside those circles.

Covering a lot of ground—from pure freedom to detailed composition, from powerful anarchy to swing and funk—Mitchell and his quintet found a place for experimental and exploratory jazz at the OIJF. Hopefully the success of this new series will permit future seasons to feature more of the same.

The Belgian jazz octet Octurn—featuring a trumpet, alto, and baritone saxophone front line along with electric guitar and bass, drums, and two pianists (one on Fender Rhodes and the other on grand)—made its mark at the nightly 10:30 pm Studio Series, where festival goers should go to hear groups that for the most part are off the radar, but equally up-and-comers who deserve the attention.

Octurn's long-form compositions revolve around a curious blend of irregular meter grooves, spacious textures from the pianos, and themes from the horns that are more about texture than strong melody. There's often a lot going on at once, and the group is as rooted in progressive rock as it is in jazz, with some compositions demonstrating the kind of defined, orchestrated chaos of seminal Rock in Opposition (RIO) group Henry Cow, albeit with a different textural palette.

Unfortunately, after about half an hour, their pieces start to run together with a lot of the same core concepts in use consistently. Ethereal beginnings led into riff-based and often irregular-metered grooves that provided the foundation for textural horn lines and soloing. While some of the solos were intriguing, most of the players revealed a distinct lack of authority, with two notable exceptions: drummer Chander Sardjoe, whose confident polyrhythmic approach both anchored and dove the entire ensemble; and bassist Jean-Luc Lehr, whose flexibility and fluid bass lines worked in tandem with Sardjoe to create the most compelling aspect of the group. One has to question the reason for guitarist Pierre Van Dormael, a seemingly tentative player who spent more time sitting on his chair taking in the surroundings than contributing anything to the music.

Still, there was something appealing about Octurn. Maybe it was the late hour, maybe it was the abstruse grooves, maybe it was the rich textures. But while Octurn's performance certainly won't go down as one of the more memorable performances of the festival or the series, it was engaging enough at the time to be worth attending.

Tomorrow: Steve Groves, Jon Ballantyne 4Tet; Doug Wamble; and Terence Blanchard.

Visit Octurn and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

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