Ottawa International Jazz Festival

John Kelman By

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One of the great things about the Ottawa International Jazz Festival is its support of local talent. Throughout the festival's eleven-day run there's a wealth of local performers giving concerts during the day at five venues. No, they're not all prime spots like the main stage at Confederation Park, the National Arts Centre, or the theatre of Library and Archives Canada, but they still provide significant exposure to acts at a time when the city is at its most jazz-aware. The late-night jam sessions at the downtown Holiday Inn Hotel, hosted by Ottawa pianist/trombonist Mark Ferguson, provide an opportunity, not only to local players looking for a place to sit in, but also to visiting talent. Past years have seen some exciting impromptu collaborations and this year promises to be no different.

Kicking off the second day's programming of local talent, the Bitches Brew Tribute Band performed for an appreciative audience at the World Exchange Plaza. The plaza is built with a kind of outdoor pseudo- amphitheatre on its east side, with a bevy of tables and chairs, as well as plenty of steps where folks can grab a seat and catch some good music on their lunch hour.

The group features guitarist Wayne Eagles and acoustic bassist Mike Milligan—whose recent collaboration, The Milligan-Eagles Project featuring Billy Kilson, has been garnering positive reviews—as well as well-known home-grown talents Bruce Wittet on drums, Rob Frayne on electric piano and Mike Tremblay on tenor saxophone. Focusing mainly on material from Bitches Brew, In a Silent Way and Jack Johnson, the group paid tribute to Miles— oddly enough without a trumpet player. (They also took Miles Davis' '80s anthem "Jean-Pierre, retaining the familiar child-like theme but breaking it down into moments of pure abstraction.) Still, they managed to imbue their extended jams with some of the loose experimentation that was characteristic of Miles' music of the era, although with only a quintet, they were considerably less dense.

The festival runs a series called the Commuter Series at 5 pm during the week at the main stage in Confederation Park. To open that series for the 25th Anniversary of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival, the festival brought guitarist Mike Rud—a veteran player who seems to have lived in just about every major Canadian city, but has recently relocated to Ottawa. And that's good news for Ottawa, because Rud is a talented mainstream player with an inviting tone and a clear sense of melodic construction in his solos. The idea of scatting along with one's solos is nothing new, but if it's completely extemporaneous—as it was in this case— such a conceptualization reveals a player who truly envisions a solo as a thematic whole, with a clear narrative arc.

Rud's quartet also featured John Geggie—a local bassist who has brought in renowned artists with his now-regular series of year-round shows at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, including bassist Mark Dresser and saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Mike Murley, for outstanding experimental shows. Fleshing out the quartet were tenor saxophonist Ian Babb and Phil Bova Jr., a young, stylistically diverse drummer who's establishing a strong reputation on the local scene. Babb was last heard from on these pages on alto as part of bassist Adrian Cho's Impressions in Jazz: The Magic of Miles Davis show last February, a performance that will be reprised on Saturday, July 2, at the festival's Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives Canada.

The material was decidedly mainstream, but the players' strength was their ability to create a relaxed sense of swing and open lines of communication that, for example, found Bova at times seeming to anticipate Rud's every move. One can tell a lot about a player from their physicality on stage, and Rud's behind-the-beat phrasing was mirrored by his gentle movement. Geggie's arco work on Rud's "A Man of the World was a highlight; elsewhere he was a strong foil for Rud's soloing, peppering just enough chords throughout to imply a larger ensemble sound.

Attendees can typically either purchase festival passes at various levels or day passes from between $20-$35 to both main stage evening performances. In an unusual move for the festival, a special event with a relatively high, albeit still under $50, ticket price was held at Library and Archives Canada, featuring two evening performances by pianist Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis.

The performances were remarkable for more than one reason. First, these shows are the first time Connick and Marsalis have performed together in public, to mark the release of Occasion, Connick's new release on Marsalis Music. Second, the shows were being recorded in high definition for future release on DVD.

The venue could not have been more perfect. Library and Archives Canada's theatre is an intimate, acoustically warm room seating just under 400 people. Many of the shows held there during the festival's Connoisseur Series are performed without use of a PA. Connick himself commented on the beauty of the room. Additionally, Library and Archives Canada is in possession of a piano originally owned by the late Glenn Gould, an instrument with which virtually every pianist who plays the room falls in love, and it was clear from Connick's performance that he was no exception.

Connick opened the show with two solo pieces, demonstrating that yesterday's review—recognizing his clear talent, even when wearing his crooner hat—was, if anything, an underestimation. Here, in a more intimate setting and a different set of expectations, Connick demonstrated an even broader stylistic reach. While he's clearly a product of New Orleans, some of his music reflects interest in the kind of indefinably but distinctly American music that Aaron Copland wrote. It was refreshing to hear a pianist who didn't come from the college of the usual suspects—Hancock, Evans, Tyner and Jarrett. In fact, if anything, Connick finds ways to bring roots in Scott Joplin, Erroll Garner and Art Tatum into the 21st Century. His feet were equal participants, often loudly tapping out a rhythm to which he responded on the keys.

Connick's improvisational acumen comes less from a Jarrett-like stream of consciousness approach and more from a focus on compositional construction. Still, when Marsalis took the stage, the interplay between the two was so vivid that it was often difficult to differentiate between improvised and composed passages. And the charts—mainly Connick's, although there were a couple contributed by Marsalis—were exceptionally demanding. Connick may have loosened up with his between-song patter, but when he was playing it was obvious that he was highly focused, as was Marsalis.

From his first note, the saxophonist demonstrated his instantly recognizable tone—muscular, yet at the same time warm and round. One of the finest tenors of his generation, Marsalis' purity of tone, complete confidence and immersion gave his solos the kind of arc that, while undeniably virtuosic at times, was never superfluous or indulgent. The same could be said of Connick, who even found his way into surprising levels of abstraction and impressionism at times, although for the most part his New Orleans roots drove his approach.

What made the show such a treat was the clear bond between Connick and Marsalis. They have been friends for thirty years, which is a long time for anyone, but even more so when one considers that Connick is only 37, and their musical and emotional rapport was constant and palpable. Whether delivering gospel grooves, complex and intertwining themes, or more poignant ballads, Connick and Marsalis felt completely connected. And while Connick's larger audience may seek his talents as a singer and interpreter of standards, last night's show made it clear that if Connick were to lose his voice tomorrow, he'd still have a long career ahead of him as a pianist and composer.

I arrived late, but just in time for Canadian pianist/trombonist/composer Hugh Fraser's "The Canadian Suite back at Confederation Park. Fraser and his fourteen- piece Vancouver Ensemble of Jazz Improvisation (VEJI) big band had already captured the crowd. The eight- part suite was commissioned specifically for the 25th Anniversary of the Ottawa International Jazz Festival and the well-charted extended work revealed not only Fraser's inestimable talents as a composer, but also the VEJI as an ensemble that can compete on any stage. It's clearly possible to discern performers at different levels, but virtually everyone in the VEJI is a world-class soloist.

The suite covered a lot of musical territory, at times reminiscent of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler's big band efforts, if only for the inclusion of Christine Duncan's wordless vocals. But where Wheeler's writing leans to the melancholic, Fraser's suite was for the most part joyous and celebratory. From straightforward swing to Afro-Cuban inflections, Fraser's broad reach made "The Canadian Suite consistently compelling, with evocative solos from everyone—most notably Duncan, who, after spending most of the set providing soft, Norma Winstone- like vocals, adopted a greater edge in her a solo spot, evoking deep-throated growls, wild yells and odd percussive effects that came as something of a surprise. Clearly she's someone to keep an eye on.

Closing out the night at the 10:30 pm National Arts Centre Studio Series, Toronto guitarist Andrew Scott delivered a sextet performance that, while having its moments of excitement, was a good way to wind down the day.

Scott's tonal and harmonic conception is deeply rooted in Charlie Christian, by way of more evolved players like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery; he's got a firm command of his instrument, with a solid ability to navigate the changes of this largely standards-based set. But as facile as he is, he still needs to find a voice. There are plenty of solid trad-based guitarists and, while Scott can clearly match many of them, he needs to find a stronger personal identity if he wants to emerge from the masses.

Still, that being said, Scott and his sextet—with a tenor/trombone front line and a rhythm section featuring Canadian legend Bernie Senensky on piano—delivered the goods in a nearly two- hour set that included standards like "The Days of Wine and Roses and Grant Green's "Matador, along with Charlie Christian's "Swing to Bop, Hank Mobley's "An Aperitif and the Scott-penned "Friends. Senensky stood out with a more adventurous way of approaching the mainstream material. When everyone but Senensky, bassist Duncan Hopkins and drummer Joel Haynes left the stage to give them the opportunity to stretch out on a radically reharmonized version of "My Romance," Senensky's more modern approach and distinctive voice became crystal clear.

Senensky's playing illustrated the difference between being completely reverential to one's roots and finding ways to expand those influences in new and original ways. Still, Scott may be young, but Senensky has been on the scene for thirty years, playing with renowned Canadians Lenny Breau and Dave Young, as well as internationally known artists including Eddie Henderson, Harvie Swartz and Akira Tana. Greater experience and opportunity may well give Scott the chance to develop the individual voice he needs to get to the next level.

Tomorrow: Ottawa's Pete Brown Trio, the Ed Thigpen Scantet, Quebec's Lorraine Desmarais Big Band and Ensemble en Pièces, and headliner David Murray and the Gwo-Ka Masters Creole Project.

Visit Wayne Eagles, Mike Milligan, Harry Connick, Jr., Branford Marsalis, Hugh Fraser and VEJI, and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit
John Fowler

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