Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-3, June 25-27, 2009

John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

John Stetch TV Trio / Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy / Roberta Gambarini
Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio / Jimmy Cobb's So What Band; S.M.V.
The Botos Brother / Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue / Al Green
TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
June 25-27, 2009

As festivals strive to stay afloat at a time when sponsorships are down due to the global recession, the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival (OIJF) got a much-needed financial boost from the Canadian government—though the funding came in at the last minute. Still, that added funding, along with the unparalleled efforts of OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady, made it possible for a triple bill featuring Toronto flamenco guitarist Pavlo, Ottawa's Souljazz Orchestra and trumpeter Terence Blanchard to be pulled together in just 48 hours, for a free pre-show on June 24, the night before the festival kicked off officially.

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival

But even if that weren't enough to make front page news (it did, in The Ottawa Citizen), when the festival line-up was announced back in April of this year, it was already clear that the 2009 edition had far and away the best roster of any in recent years. With an especially strong main stage line-up at Confederation Park (in downtown Ottawa just minutes from Parliament Hill) that includes Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy, singer Roberta Gambarini, the bass trifecta S.M.V. (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten), Gary Burton Quartet Revisited with Pat Metheny, the Maria Schneider Orchestra, Julian Lage, Al Green, Esperanza Spalding, Chris Botti, Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Charles Lloyd and more, there's something for everyone.

And that's only part of the line-up. At the annual Connoisseur Series, in late afternoon at Library and Archives Canada about a mile away, the festival once again focuses on piano with a series of young pianists including John Stetch, John Roney and Robi Botos and more established artists including Toshiko Akiyoshi. Patricia Barber and Lenore Raphael, while the Studio Series in the nearby National Arts Centre boasts a roster including a special performance by trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani, along with a wealth of lesser known talent nonetheless deserving of broader recognition.

As if that isn't enough, in addition to daytime programming at a variety of indoor and outdoor locations to feature local talent, the Improv Series brings an experimental edge to the festival at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, with double and triple bills including Trio M (Myra Melford, Mark Dresser, Matt Wilson), Andy Milne and Benoit Delbecq Duo, Christy Doran's New Bag and Trio BraamDeJoodeVatcher. With a particularly strong focus on jazz that's nearly unmatchable by any other festival its size, it was strong recognition of that singular eminence when, as Dave Douglas took the stage on the opening night of the festival, the trumpeter remarked, "It's great to be playing at a real jazz festival."

Chapter Index

  1. June 25: John Stetch TV Trio
  2. June 25: Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy
  3. June 25: Roberta Gambarini
  4. June 26: Toshiko Akiyoshi Trio
  5. June 26: Jimmy Cobb's So What Band
  6. June 26: S.M.V.: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten
  7. June 27: The Botos Brothers
  8. June 27: Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue
  9. June 27: Al Green

June 25: John Stetch TV Trio

Opening a six-date Canadian festival tour that will see him cross the country from Montreal to Vancouver, Canadian pianist John Stetch brought his touring group, featuring Ithaca, New York-based bassist Nicholas Walker and New Brunswick, Canada-based drummer Greg Ritchie, to the National Library, kicking off the 4:30 PM Connoisseur Series with a program largely culled from his recent release, TV Trio (Self Produced, 2009). Stetch feels that the '70s was "the golden age for TV music" and, while that contention might be arguable, there's no disputing the music he chose to adapt which, even when the actual shows they supported were less than high- grade television, worked well within the context of his complex arrangements.

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / John Stetch

There were plenty of "it's on the tip of my tongue" moments for the audience, as Stetch and his trio worked through everything from a quirky rendition of the theme to The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show and a George Gershwin-esque take of The Love Boat to a balladic look at Dallas, bright and knotty reading of The Price is Right and fittingly dramatic (and, floridly melodramatic) arrangement of Star Trek.

In covering theme music for The Waltons, Sanford and Son and The Might Hercules, Stetch also broke the program up with three originals. The episodic and appropriately titled "Black Sea Suite" featured an especially impressive, Middle Eastern-tinged arco solo from Walker, and a tough chart that wound its way through multiple meters, feels and keys to make it one of the 90-minute set's highlights. "Oscar's Blue/Green Algebra" was a tribute to Oscar Peterson but, while the late pianist's inerrant precision and incredible virtuosity were being channeled through Stetch, his playing was original and unpredictable throughout, taking simple motifs and working them until they were stretched beyond recognition: indeed, he demonstrated a lighter touch and penchant for the oblique that incorporated many of Peterson's markers into something more contemporary.

It's a good thing Walker works in the classical world as well as in jazz, as some of Stetch's charts were sufficiently complex to challenge even the most accomplished reader. Walker and Ritchie were often reading (though Walker, remarkably, had a surprising amount of the music committed to memory), it didn't stop them from playing "off the page." Still, while soloing and interplay were a part of Stetch's music, the emphasis was on the arrangements, which were filled with stops, starts and punctuations—a particularly entertaining one being a dark, dissonant chord that Stetch injected at the point in The Love Boat theme where the lyrics are "Love won't hurt anymore."

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / John Stetch TV Trio l:r: John Stetch, Nicholas Walker, Greg Ritchie

That ironic sense of humor imbued both the show and Stetch's between-song patter, especially his introduction to the closing Star Trek theme—delivered in his best, over-the-top William Shatner voice. It was a fitting ending to a set that may have leaned largely towards the cerebral, but never lost sight of the fun component.


June 25: Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy

Hot on the heels of recently released Spirit Moves (Greenleaf, 2009), trumpeter Dave Douglas brought his five-piece Brass Ecstasy Band to Confederation Park for an early evening show that wasn't just hot because the temperature was hovering around 30 Celsius as the sun began to set. Much like the album, Douglas and the group— trombonist Luis Bonilla, French hornist (though Douglas refers to it strictly as "Horn") Vincent Chancey, tuba player Marcus Rojas and drummer Nasheet Waits—cut a wide swath across music ranging from the slow, second line-influenced "This Love Affair" to a booty-shaking take on Otis Redding's hit, "Mr. Pitiful."

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / Dave DouglasWhile some of the material was kept relatively close to album length, the quintet stretched out more on tunes like "Bowie," an homage to the late trumpeter Lester Bowie, whose Brass Fantasy group was a clear antecedent for Douglas' group, though Douglas' voice—both compositionally and performance-wise—remains firmly his own. It's a remarkable achievement for the much-heralded Douglas, in fact, that no matter what the context, his voice shines through true and clear. The collage-like "Bowie" ranged from detailed arrangement to moments of pure freedom and some marching band references ("When the Caissons Go Rolling Along"), while "Twilight of the Dogs" grooved more viscerally, though it built up with far greater power during Douglas' impressively serpentine solo.

There was plenty of room for everyone to solo, but some of the hour-long set's most exciting moments came when the trumpet/trombone/horn front-line soloed collectively. With Douglas' embouchure providing a surprisingly broad textural range, the combination was warmer, less brash than might be expected from a brass-heavy ensemble. Chancey soloed less than the rest, but with his horn being an especially difficult one on which to improvise, the challenge made his few features all the more striking. Bonilla delivered a set- defining solo that built to a fever pitch and an abrupt stop during which, it appeared, he considered continuing, then just waved his trombone and walked offstage to great applause and a slap on the back from Douglas.

Rojas, an equally superb player who managed to do things that probably shouldn't be allowed on tuba, was situated upstage, but his sound was a dominant force. Amplified onstage, it was a huge, meaty sound that anchored the group with Waits, capable of laconic melodic counterpoint but also surprising swing, as he walked like a double-bass at a surprising clip during one of the solo sections on "Bowie." He also soloed with surprising dexterity and fluidity. The tuba will never be the same again.

Waits, in addition to rooting the music with a combination of New Orleans funk and more sensitive brushwork, took a couple of characteristically powerful and melodic solos that demonstrated why he's in such demand with artists including Fred Hersch, Jason Moran and the late Andrew Hill.

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / Dave Douglas Brass Ecstasy l:r: Dave Douglas, Luis Bonilla, Marcus Rojas, Vincent Chancey

Douglas continues to evolve, year-after-year. For an artist who has worked with string groups, electronica- tinged ensembles, Eastern European-tinged quartets, acoustic septets and more, it's his impeccable playing that's set him apart in a category of his own making. Demonstrating incredible control—holding long, clear notes within which a soft vibrato occasionally phases in and out—he also displayed constant invention, making him impossible to ignore as one of his generation's most outstanding players. And his egalitarian writing, exploiting fully both the context he finds himself in and the players he chooses, turns every new project into one that may not last indefinitely, but ought to. Brass Ecstasy is Douglas at his most accessible- -even as his charts possess non-pandering harmonic depth and freedom of expression—and was a perfect festival opener to stretch the minds of those who'd come for the more mainstream headliner, Roberta Gambarini.


June 25: Roberta Gambarini

Firmly planted she may be already, but Roberta Gambarini lays waste more popular female jazz vocalists like the oddly iconic Diana Krall, who doesn't possess even half of the Italian singer's range, interpretive skills or onstage personality. With a crack trio featuring Cyrus Chestnut, bassist Neil Swainson and legendary drummer Jimmy Cobb (the last surviving player on Miles Davis' Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959), and who'll be performing music from that album with his own group, Jimmy Cobb's So What Band, the following night), Gambarini delivered a 90- minute set that had the audience so rapt that, during its quietest moments—and there were some incredibly quiet moments for an outdoor performance in the heart of downtown Ottawa—you literally could hear a pin drop.

Unassuming and with an unforced stage presence that connected with the audience immediately, Gambarini and her trio worked their way through a range of standards, focusing heavily on music from her upcoming release, So In Love (Emarcy, 2009), ranging from the warmly balladic medley of a slightly reworded "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" and "I Loves You Porgy," from George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin's enduring opera Porgy and Bess, to a buoyant uptake of "On the Sunny Side of the Street," with a vocal solo modeled after the three instrumental ones on the 1957 Verve album by Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt and Sonny Rollins, Sonny Side Up. Gambarini may be relatively young, but she knows a vast history and repertory of song, culling film music from Ennio Morricone's 1989 soundtrack to Cinema Paradiso, as well as Dave Brubeck's classic "In Your Own Sweet Way" and Billy Strayhorn's often-covered "Lush Life."

TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / Roberta GambariniGambarini has chops, but she knows when and how to use them. Scatting with fluidity throughout her wide range, but never overplaying her cards, as the set progressed the singer became more adventurous, taking things "outside" harmonically on more than one occasion in a remarkable display of vocal acrobatics. But as impressive a technician as she is, it's all about the feel, and her emulated flugelhorn solo on the particularly soft and elegant Bruno Brighetti/Bruno Martino chestnut, "Estaté" was an understated high point of the performance.

Chestnut, whose star as a leader seems to remain in a holding pattern these days, proved himself to be an ideal accompanist, sensitive to Gambarini and the centrist nature of the music while still delivering no shortage of virtuosity and adventure. Swainson, one of Canada's great bassists, is no stranger to the festival and here locked, hand-in-glove, with Cobb, one of jazz's most refined players. And while Gambarini was clearly the focus of her audience's attention, she was a democratic and appreciative leader who was clearly more than happy to be working with such a finely tuned trio.

Despite the straight-ahead nature of the music, Gambarini managed to bring an unexpected sound of surprise to keep even the most familiar material fresh and contemporary. Easy on the years, yes; but with no shortage of substance, suggesting that the accolades being heaped upon Gambarini as one of her generation's great singers are absolutely well-deserved.



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