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.

Winther demonstrated that it's possible to combine lyricism with a more forward-looking approach. His solo on the Ellington classic "In a Sentimental Mood was a prime example, poignant and sweet without being syrupy. Winther's solo, which ended with him blowing his horn into the piano and setting off subtle sympathetic vibrations, literally brought the house down. Franck's sound is reminiscent of Joe Lovano by way of Dexter Gordon—bold without being brash, assertive without being jagged. Closing the set with his own composition "Bombay, Franck was powerful, building his solos with flurries of notes, yet never overbearing or superfluous. Bodilsen, who has been playing with Thigpen for the past seven years, delivered strongly melodic solos, but it was his empathic interaction with Thigpen that truly signaled his abilities.

And what can be said of Thigpen, one of the few remaining masters of his generation? He was constantly finding understated ways to drive the music, creating delicate pushes and always-in-context accents that lent weight to everything going on around him. Eyes closed and often with a smile on his face, Thigpen was clearly having a terrific time. He may be one of the few remaining artists at his level to work with younger players in a mentoring role. He's keeping the oral tradition of jazz going, and Ottawa was fortunate that the festival, along with cooperation from the Danish Embassy, was able to bring him to town.

In her performance at the Confederation Park main stage, opening for saxophonist David Murray, Montreal pianist/composer Lorraine Desmarais showed, as Hugh Fraser did the previous evening, that not only is the Canadian jazz scene alive and well, but it has a surprisingly large community of players deserving of recognition on an international level. Her sicteen-piece big band is comprised of the cream of the crop from the Montreal scene, and her set was loaded with strong charts and outstanding solos.

Desmarais leans towards the romantic, but not in any kind of melodramatic or overly sentimental sense. A fine pianist coming out of the Evans school with clear references to Chick Corea and Lyle Mays, her original compositions ranged from light contemporary fare with nods to Latin rhythms, to a greater energy and intensity that emerged as the set progressed. Still, Desmarais' music remained eminently approachable throughout, regardless of the context.

Tenor saxophonist André Leroux, who raised the bar for contemporary fusion when he played with ex-UZEB guitarist Michel Cusson and his Wild Unit group in the mid-'90s, soloed with an almost reckless abandon, yet he never lost touch with Desmarais' sometimes-challenging arrangements. Alto saxophonist Jean-Pierre Zanella, a hit with his own group in Ottawa a couple of years back and soon to appear with his own quartet on the main stage on June 28, is another outstanding player with the kind of advanced harmonic conception that makes every solo challenging yet wholly compelling. He's also a captivating flautist, able to range from soft gentility to broader-stroked flourishes with riveting self-assurance.

Desmarais's big band, with firm and inventive support from double-bassist Frédéric Alarie and ex-Ottawa native Camil Bélisle on drums, is evidence of a strong Montreal and Canadian scene. The only thing that's curious is why one of the larger record labels based out of Montreal—Effendi or Justin Time—have not picked up on Desmarais and recorded her work. Based on her performance last night, it would be a shame for her accessible yet substantial work to go undocumented.

Saxophonist David Murray has long carried the torch for the more extreme approach to free playing spearheaded by players including Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp in the '60s. Still, with his Gwo-Ka Masters group he's managed to find a way to make his more intense playing palatable to a larger audience by combining it with infectious and danceable African rhythms. His headlining show at the main stage had all the pieces in place—a strong percussion foundation from drummer J.T. Lewis and Guadeloupean gwo ka drummers/singers Klod Kiavue and Francois Ladrezeau; a nimble and multi-faceted bottom end from bassist Jaribu Shahid; and Senegalese guitarist Herve Sambe, who continued to surprise with his inventiveness, as both accompanist and soloist, throughout the set.

While Murray commands extended techniques including multiphonics, a seemingly impossible range, and the occasional squeal, squeak, or growl, he seemed more content to stay closer than usual to the centre, although his playing was consistently (and not surprisingly) imaginative. Given that most tunes revolved around relatively simple vamps, it was, in fact, the responsibility of the soloists to keep things interesting above and beyond the more visceral rhythmic appeal of the music. Murray was, as ever, a fountain of ideas on both tenor saxophone and bass clarinet, merging more left-of-centre concerns with music that has a broader appeal.

Shahid also demonstrated a similar ability to combine the outside with the groove-centric. During the early part of the set it was a little hard to believe that he has been recruited as the new bassist for the Art Ensemble of Chicago; but as the set progressed and he moved from electric to acoustic bass, the breadth of his ability became more evident. Sambe is quite simply a remarkable find, capable of lightning-fast runs one moment, soft and delicate folkloric fingerpicking the next.

On first glance, the one misstep the festival appeared to have made this year was not booking an artist—as they did with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones last year and John Scofield's Uberjam band the year before—with strong appeal to the younger demographic. But judging by the number of twenty-somethings up dancing by the side of the stage, perhaps it was no misstep after all.

Closing out the evening at the National Arts Centre Studio Series was Ensemble en Pièces, a quintet led by pianist Alexandre Grogg and saxophonist/bass clarinetist Philippe Lauzier. The ensemble stretched the potential of classical composition, finding opportunities for more interpretive improvisation within a generally defined structural form. Its chamber-like approach, while sometimes atonal, was never sharp or hard on the ears.

The drummer (not Thom Gossage, as advertised in the festival programme) clearly referenced British free drummer Tony Oxley with his flurried approach and use of found objects; rhythms were rarely directly stated, being more about implication and colour than a traditional approach to the kit. Likewise, double-bassist Christophe Papadimitriou left much to the imagination, adding occasional counterpoint and carefully selected phrases rather than any kind of forward motion. Trumpeter Andy King demonstrated a Dave Douglas-like approach to the avant-garde material, like Papadimitriou finding the right note or the right phrase to inject into Grogg and Lauzier's oblique compositions.

The front line of Lauzier and King tended to dominate thematically, with Grogg layering abstruse harmonies underneath, but Ensemble en Pièces was less about soloing in the traditional sense—and more about everyone finding ways to augment the writing, which was generally abstract but did contain clearly-delineated melodies. After the relatively straightforward post bop of saxophonist Jonas Kullhammar the first night and guitarist Andrew Scott's completely mainstream set the second, Ensemble en Pièces explored the kind of forward-thinking experimentation that the Studio Series is renowned for.

Tomorrow: Tom McMahon Trio, Moutin Réunion Quartet, Blues Gitan, and Sonny Rollins.

Visit Peter Brown, Ed Thigpen, and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credits
Peter Brown Trio by Cyndi Wittet
Ed Thigpen, Lorraine Desmarais, David Murray by John Fowler

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