Ottawa International Jazz Festival - Day Eleven, July 3, 2005


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With the number of truly outstanding performances at this year's Ottawa International Jazz Festival, it's hard to imagine how the organizers could schedule a final day to act as climax and fitting conclusion. This year the festival has seen Terence Blanchard, the Moutin Reunion Quartet, Evan Parker and Dave Young raise the bar on what festival goers can expect to see in future. But the evening's double bill of saxophonists David Sanchez and Joshua Redman did just that, as did vibraphonist Matthias Lupri's cerebral performance at the afternoon Connoisseur Series.

As remarkable as the festival has been, mention needs to be made of the 450 volunteers and the small, but dedicated, full-time staff—including Executive Director Catherine O'Grady, Programming Manager Jacques Emond, Media/Marketing Representative Sui-Ling Leung and Media Representative Scott Ledingham—who made sure that everything ran smoothly. There were challenges, as always, but some of this year's have to be considered amongst the greatest, specifically Harry Connick Jr.'s stringent needs that included demanding the festival bring in a new stage to meet his very specific requirements, and helping facilitate a last-minute save of the Trio! performance, featuring Béla Fleck, Jean-Luc Ponty and Stanley Clarke, by local bassist John Geggie and drummer Nick Fraser when circumstances prevented Clarke from being admitted into the country. Randall Ware, of Library and Archives Canada, also deserves mention for ensuring that the Connoisseur Series—at the Library's 386-seat theatre—continues to be the most consistent series of the festival.

Performing material culled primarily from his most recent disc Transition Sonic, vibraphonist Matthias Lupri joined the other members of his quintet—guitarist Nate Radley, bassist Evan Gregor, drummer Jordan Perlson and, notably, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, whose trio performance earlier in the year with John Geggie and Montreal drummer Jim Doxas was a highlight of Geggie's ongoing series at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage. They delivered a set that combined heady intellectualism with spirited soloing over Lupri's often challenging forms.

Like his primary influence and teacher Gary Burton, Matthias Lupri's approach is more chordal and pianistic, utilizing four mallets as opposed to the two-mallet horn-like approach of Milt Jackson-informed artists like Joe Locke and Stefon Harris. Still, he's able to deliver linear lines in addition to the rich harmonies that infuse his compositions. Seeing him live—and in a context where he and his group can stretch out—it was clear that while he came relatively recently to the instrument, he's evolving at a rapid pace. While he utilizes some sound processing, running his vibraphone through an amplifier in addition to sending an acoustic feed to the PA, the colourations are extremely subtle, more about broadening and warming up the sound rather than anything more direct. His technical facility may be growing in leaps and bounds, but Lupri's playing is as much about texture and colour as it is about melody.

While his performance on Transition Sonic was certainly strong enough, Radley's playing in concert definitely confirmed that he's an emerging player to watch. While he has his own approach, it's equally clear that he's spent time studying with Boston legend Mick Goodrick. Not so much in what he plays, but how he plays. Goodrick, who was also a strong influence on Pat Metheny in his younger days, has a very specific yet completely open approach to both the use of voicings and developing a spontaneously-composed approach to soloing. Goodrick is also about mindset rather than specific technical concerns, and so small motifs would become the foundation on which Radley built his solos, with careful consideration to gradual development, rather than immediate and short-lived intensity.

Donny McCaslin, on the other hand, combined a greater sense of power with an equally strong narrative sense. Watching McCaslin play is like peering into an open window into his mind; you can see him reaching and taking risks that almost always pay off; and on the rare occasion when they don't, it's really incidental. His constant search lent his solos weight and his unerring ability to dramatically build them from the simplest beginnings to a fever pitch garnered the audience's most vocal response.

Lupri and the group also performed a new composition, "Glass Stairs," that featured Lupri's penchant for irregular meter and dense harmonies that, curiously, still manage to retain a certain air and ethereal quality. Following a performance in Montreal, the quintet is off to Holland's North Sea Jazz Festival and then back home to record the followup to Transition Sonic, with an eye to releasing it in the spring of '06. With the evolution that Lupri's group demonstrated in performance, this will clearly be something to anticipate.

Opening the evening's main stage event, Puerto Rican-born saxophonist David Sanchez delivered a passionate set that, while reflective of his Latin roots, was clearly about something greater. In the same way that pianist Luis Perdomo, on his remarkable debut Focus Point, proved that artificial cultural barriers can be dissolved, resulting in a new fusion, so too does Sanchez find ways to stretch more traditional Latin material into a broader context. Performing compositions primarily from Coral and Travesia, Sanchez and his quartet, featuring pianist Edsel Gomez, bassist Hans Glawichnig, and drummer Adam Cruz—all of whom have worked with Sanchez on and off over the past few years—played with intensity and inventiveness.

Gomez, whose work with clarinetist Don Byron has been almost career-defining, eschewed the blocky pianism he has used with Byron for a more openly impressionistic approach that found him, at times, surprisingly abstract, even as he demonstrated a rhythmic intuition that lent its own sense of swing. Glawichnig, yet another fine player whose talents have yet to be fully utilized, was consistent in his impeccable choice of notes and ability to interact with the others, while at the same time ensuring a supportive and full- bodied bottom end. Cruz, who has played with everyone from Eddie Palmieri to Chick Corea, demonstrated the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that, along with Glawichnig, kept things fluid yet comfortably solid.

David Sanchez, too, was a lateral-thinking player who took equal pleasure in the more energetic demands of the post-bop workout of "The Elements II" as he did the gentler balladry of "Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar." Sanchez's sense of exploration was so palpable that one could almost feel the ideas forming before he played them.

While plenty of artists focus their attention on the inherently limited scope of specific cultural musical concerns, musicians like Sanchez—along with his equally broad-minded quartet—are pushing jazz into new areas where labels become unimportant. Collecting everything—from the swing of the American tradition and the more subjective evocation of the European tradition to the pure passion of the Latin tradition—into an amalgam that eliminates as much as it encourages, Sanchez's growth can be vividly experienced through his recordings, but in performance he takes things to another level entirely.

When saxophonist Joshua Redman emerged in the early '90s, seemingly out of nowhere, he was arguably more promise than delivery. But his development over the past decade, and in the past few years in particular, have demonstrated a commitment to personal growth that has seen him emerge as one of the leading saxophonists of his generation. His earlier projects with artists including Brad Mehldau, Pat Metheny and Brian Blade may have been filled with potential, but it has only been recently, specifically in his collaborations with keyboardist Sam Yahel, that possibility has become reality.

While Redman's Elastic Band, featuring Yahel and drummer Jeff Ballard, has been touring with the addition of guitarist Jeff Parker in order to realize the broader textures of the group's latest release, Momentum, Parker wasn't able to make it to the Ottawa performance, so the group became a trio once again. Redman spoke before the show about how playing as a trio tends to open things up a little more and that was definitely the yardstick for their nearly two-hour concert.

Bassist John Geggie, arriving late to watch the show, commented, "Now that's a jam band," and there couldn't be a better description. While the show was a little lighter on the groove-centric material current fans might have expected, there was still enough funk, especially on the down-and-dirty "Greasy G," to keep them happy. But what made Redman's Elastic Band performance so much better than guitarist John Scofield's Uberjam Band performance from a couple of years back was the fact that, unlike the Uberjam band—where Sco was clearly on a higher musical plane than the rest of his group—the players in the Elastic Band all spoke the same language with the same facility.

Ballard has emerged over the past decade as one of the most versatile drummers on the scene, playing with everyone from Chick Corea and Maria Schneider to Ben Allison and Kurt Rosenwinkel. His elastic approach, ability to blend power with nuanced subtlety, and distinctive approach to straight eighths were all on display as he navigated the up-tempo funk of Redman's "Sweet Nasty" and the post-bop energy of "The Gambit."

Yahel, looking like he belongs in an alternative rock band more than a jazz trio, nevertheless demonstrated the kind of improvisational skills that belie his apparently young age. He used what looked like an incredibly complex array of keyboards and processors that Redman called "The Rig," and Yahel's effortless mastery of all this technology resulted in a sound that was at once nostalgically retro and completely contemporary. Some of his best work, however, was on the Hammond organ that was set up across the stage from the Rig, and was used by both himself and Redman who sat down at times to accompany Yahel's own imaginative soloing.

Joshua Redman also used a lot of technology to create a sound that, when coupled with Yahel's broadly-textured rig, was larger than one would expect from a mere trio. Like Yahel, Redman is clearly intimate with his sound processing equipment, managing to trigger all kinds of effects—from metallic guitar emulation to dissonant harmonizing and delays to widen his own palette. He put all the real-time processing to good use—notably on a harmonically, rhythmically and texturally open version of Ornette Coleman's "Lonely Woman" that was even more liberated than the version on Momentum. But at the end of the day it was about integrating all this technology with sound expression and unfettered imagination. Redman's voice has become significantly stronger in the past few years, and his confident ability to solo with unerring attention to conceptual development made for a performance that rivalled Terence Blanchard's show as best main stage event.

Advance word is that the 25th Anniversary of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival was a resounding success, in terms of both artistry and attendance. With its steadfast devotion to putting on a jazz festival that's nothing but a jazz festival, it's turning Ottawa, Canada into a destination that any jazz fan should consider. And, equally remarkable, it's managed to keep its prices down so that attendance is surprisingly affordable. After all, where else can you see nearly 80 shows for under $200 CDN?

Visit Matthias Lupri, David Sanchez, Joshua Redman, and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

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