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With the kind of broad-scope programming that the Ottawa International Jazz Festival has delivered for this, its 25th anniversary, it's almost a futile effort to try and isolate one show as the best of the season. But with only three days left, it'll be very difficult for anyone to top trumpeter Terence Blanchard's headlining 100-minute main stage performance on day eight.
A number of local performances in the early afternoon featured, amongst others, guitarist/vocalist Steve Grove's trio performing an easygoing set of standards including Stanley Turrentine's "Sugar," "All the Things You Are," and "That Old Black Magic." The 4 pm Connoisseur Series at the Library and Archives Canada theatre presented yet another outstanding performance, this time from Canadian expat pianist Jon Ballantyne and his outstanding quartet featuring drummer Jeff Hirshfield, bassist Boris Kozlov, and alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Douglas Yates.
Library and Archives Canada has the distinction of owning one of the late Glenn Gould's Steinways, a piano that every performer who has come through that theatre, including Harry Connick, Jr.who normally brings his own piano to every performanceseems thrilled to play. But there was an even greater sense of history on stage for Ballantyne's show: Kozlov was using a double-bass originally owned by the late Charlie Mingus, courtesy of the Mingus estate. (Kozlov is, not coincidentally, the bassist in the Mingus Big Band that recently released I Am Three.)
As Ballantyne suggested in his open interview just before the performance, the set consisted of a real mixed baga little swing, a little free, a little bop, and a lot of texture and modernity. Ballantyne, who first made his name working with the late saxophonist Joe Henderson, is an advanced player who favours a dense harmonic approach. The set included tunes from Lennie Tristano and Ornette Coleman, but consisted primarily of Ballantyne compositions. The group hit the stage at a gallop and kept the energy level up most of the way. In terms of pacing, while there was one composition that relaxed things slightly, the only real criticism of the performance was its almost unrelenting density. If it wasn't Ballantyne creating close clusters of notes, it was Yates delivering a flurry of ideas.
But that's not to say it wasn't a powerfully compelling set. Ballantyne's purview clearly extends beyond the jazz traditionalthough on tunes like Tristano's "Lennie's Pennies" and Coleman's "When Will the Blues Leave," his roots, while well-subsumed into his personal style, are clearly evidentand some of his own compositions, most notably the moody and visual "Anne's Dream," displayed an interest in contemporary classical composition, with the quartet creating a broad array of textures and timbres.
"Anne's Dream" wasn't the only composition to exhibit a vivid visual sensibility; "Go Local," inspired by a New York City subway line that Ballantyne and his wife use regularly, evoked images of being on a trainfrom Kozlov and Ballantyne's rolling rhythms to Yates' musical imagining of ambient surroundings. The tune ultimately resolved into a slow, harmonically altered blues, but with the audioscape already defined, the impressions of being on a train remained throughout.
Ballantyne's set was not complacent, or aimed at providing an easy-going experience for the audienceit made its own set of demands, challenging the listener to accept a broader interpretation of contemporary post bop that ultimately paid big dividends.
The evening's main stage event kicked off with a 7 pm performance by guitarist/vocalist Doug Wamble, his first appearance in Ottawa and hopefully not his last. His road-tested quartet featured pianist Roy Dunlap, bassist Jeff Hanley, and drummer Peter Miles, and the 90-minute set was drawn primarily from his recently-released sophomore effort, Bluestate. But as strong an album as that was, in performance Wamble's interpretive abilities are in even greater evidence.
Wamble's music is hard to define. Elements of country, folk, blues, gospel and soul are there with, of course, a strong disposition to the jazz tradition. But somehow, as diverse as his material isand there's a world of difference between the contemporary post bop of "The Homewrecker Hump," the relaxed soulfulness of the of Stevie Wonder's "Have a Talk With God Today," and the gone-to-church of the traditional "Rockin' Jerusalem," a highlight of both Bluestate and the performanceWamble's loose interpretive vocals and surprisingly astute guitar playing provided a distinct centre that prevented these sometimes disparate elements from becoming unfocused.
Wamble's quartet has done some significant touring and it shows. Interaction between everyone is a given, but it's the relaxed and unforced way that the players find and latch onto musical suggestions coming from all directions that give the group its weight. Miles was especially impressive, able to shift gears from straight-ahead swing one moment to New Orleans second line rhythms the next. Hanley is unobtrusive but absolutely essential, and Dunlap is a strong soloist and sympathetic accompanist.
But it's Wamble who's centre stage and, with his acoustic guitar being a somewhat unusual lead instrument in an essentially jazz context, his ability to find inventive phrases to tie together the sometimes surprisingly difficult changes is remarkable. His slide work brings a roots element to the music, yet the melodic choices he makes are often pleasantly unpredictable. As a singer he's expressive but never melodramatic, with both his range and ability to sing more abstruse melodiesas he did on the set-closer (and Bluestate opener) "If I Live to See the Day"indicative of broader musical interests.
One of the most lamented changes in the jazz scene today is the gradual loss of the concept of jazz as an oral tradition, the idea of older, more experienced artists mentoring younger musicians by bringing them into their bands. Art Blakey did it; Miles Davis did it; and Gary Burton continues to do it. But with the marginalization of the club scene, where younger players could sit in and sometimes ultimately end up in the working group of a more established artist, the whole concept of paying dues has taken on a different meaning. An unfortunate byproduct of this change in the landscape of jazz is that more and more young artists are becoming leaders too early, releasing albums that may demonstrate promise but, at the end of the day, often lack the experience and maturity that would come about with the handing-down tradition that occurs through working with legacy artists.
One of the few established artists who still believes in the value of mentoring is trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who emerged as one of the young lions of the early '80s along with Wynton Marsalis. His group of young players included pianist Aaron Parkswhom Blanchard met when he was 15, recruited when he was 18, recording on Blanchard's Blue Note debut, Bounce, and is now barely into his 20s; African guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke, whom Blanchard met when Loueke was a student at the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Studies, and who also had a smaller role on Bounce; saxophonist Brice Winston, another young player who's been working with Blanchard for five years; and bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Kendrick Scott, two relative newcomers to the scene. Blanchard has assembled arguably the finest group of his career. Certainly it's the most capable group to deal with Blanchard's ever-broadening interestshis latest album, Flow finds Blanchard moving ever further away from traditional post bop and into a more eclectic mix of African influences, electronics, and a more forward-looking approach.
From the first notes of the opening tune, "Transform"a piece by the group's previous drummer, Eric HarlandBlanchard's signature warm tone throughout the registers was instantly recognizable. The composition is one of those rare pieces that manages to be completely transcendent, lifting the emotions and yet somehow with a slight bittersweet quality. In the hands of Blanchard and the sextet it evoked the limitless possibilities of jazz as a cross-cultural melange, and the real power of music to transform and transcend all barriers.
While there wasn't a weak leak amongst all the players, Loueke was a clear highlight. Feeding his nylon-string guitar (and his voice) through all manner of electronic processing, he brought his folkloric African roots into the 21st century, blending them with a broad jazz vocabulary. Parks also demonstrated a breadth beyond his young years. And Blanchard was a generous leader, spreading the solo space, not to mention compositional duties, around democratically to every member of the sextet.
The mettle of a real leader is the ability to see potential, and Blanchard has not only seen it in his group of young players, he's seen it realized as well. This is a working band where interplay is a constant, energy and commitment a given. Any artist worth his or her weight has the humility to realize there is always more to learn; while one aspires to get to a certain place musically, it often turns out to be ultimately only a way station to yet another level. Blanchard has finally left behind the restricting trappings of earlier convention Although there's still a clear place for inescapable traditional roots in his music and his personal voice has always been distinctive, Blanchard has finally found a broader vision to pursue with this group.
If his totally inspired performance in Ottawa is any indication, Blanchard is entering a new phase in his career that combines vivid compositions, outstanding playing, cross-cultural fusions, and a touch of electronics into an accessible blend that made converts of the large and appreciative crowd in attendance. His sextet's performance will go down as the highlight of this year's main stage programming, if not the entire festival.
Tomorrow: Tom Posgate Hornband, Bik Bent Braam, and Queen Mab.
Visit Jon Ballantyne, Doug Wamble, Terence Blanchard and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.