Ottawa International Jazz Festival

John Kelman By

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Based on the main stage events, some may consider the Ottawa International Jazz Festival to be a tad on the conservative side. But the fact is that virtually anyone can find something to fit their specific jazz disposition, and day three was a fine example, with performances featuring the more traditional fare of Ottawa's Peter Brown Trio, the inestimable Ed Thigpen and his Scantet, contemporary big band music from Montreal's Lorraine Desmarais, African/Afro-Cuban integrator David Murray and his Gwo-Ka Masters, and the contemporary classical composition-meets-free play of Montreal's Ensemble en Pièces. One would have been hard pressed to find at least one performance that didn't resonate.

Peter Brown, Bruce Wittet, Chris Breitner

Local pianist Peter Brown and his trio with bassist Chris Breitner and drummer Bruce Wittet were operating at a distinct disadvantage. While the shows put on at the central court of the downtown Rideau Centre shopping mall are usually well-attended, as this one was, the acoustics are less than perfect, with hard reflective surfaces everywhere. It's the kind of place where the drums, even when played with an attention to volume, can overburden the mix. So it's a testament to Wittet's light work that it remained remarkably well-balanced, despite the boomy sound in the hall.

Opening with a gospel-inflected version of "Amazing Grace, Brown quickly established that he's a local treasure, demonstrating that solos for him are not just a collection of notes or often-played patterns. He also raised the question of how a middle-aged guy from Ottawa can play with so much soul; with both Breitner and Wittet in gentle but insistent support, the tune was the perfect start to a set that was generally light, but filled with substance throughout.

Brown clearly comes from the Bill Evans school in terms of his chordal approach and romanticism, although on his own tune, "Thelonious, he introduced a touch of quirkiness and dry humour that made it an appropriate tribute. The performance consisted of a number of standards as well as some of Brown's own material, which fit perfectly into the generally ambling lope of the one-hour set.

Breitner lent constant and firm support, and his own solos leaned towards the lyrical, even as he injected his own sense of humour by quoting "Jingle Bells —an odd choice if there ever was one, given that Ottawa is currently in the middle of a heat wave with temperatures, including the humidex, soaring to nearly 40°C. Perhaps Breitner, in his own way, was trying to cool things down with a little mind over matter.

Wittet, as always, is that relative rarity—a listening drummer with strong instincts, making it no surprise that, over the past thirty years, he's been in such high demand around the city. He not only pays attention to the music going on around him, he also reacts to the lyrical content of the material that featured Brown's relaxed and unaffected vocals.

The first of the afternoon Connoisseur Series performances, taking place at the Library and Archives Theatre, featured a living legend in drummer Ed Thigpen. The American ex-pat—who has called Copenhagen home for the past thirty years—has assembled a quintet of Danish players that proves you don't have to be American to know how to swing. Now in his mid-70s and showing few signs of slowing down, Thigpen has brought an elegant rhythmic approach over the years to artists like Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Kenny Drew. His often-understated approach and graceful brushwork was in full evidence during the ninety-minute performance.

While saxophonist Tomas Franck and trumpeter Jens Winther looked like seasoned players, bassist Jesper Bodilsen and pianist Kasper Villaume looked like they may have just begun shaving (although Bodilsen is, in fact, 35). Still, they both performed with assurance, surprising maturity, and a clear understanding of the tradition that informs Thigpen's musical choices—both in his own compositions and the standards he picked to flesh out the set.

It would be difficult to pick out highlights from a set that was at a consistently high level of interaction between the players and in individual solo contributions. The audience was clearly captivated from the first note, where it was clear that Thigpen's Scantet were the real deal; something that can't be articulated, only felt. While informed with a certain degree of European impressionism, it was generally subsumed in the mainstream approach that demonstrated everyone's reverence for the material. And while solos subtly stretched the material—Villaume, for example, interjecting the slightest touch of dissonance, creating a subtle sense of tension that remained smooth-edged—they also showed that it's essential to treat this kind of material with respect, even as one looks for ways to evolve it.


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