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.


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