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Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 4-6, June 28-30, 2009


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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

Amina Claudine Myers / Gary Burton Quartet Revisited
John Roney Silverbirch Project / Julian Lage / Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Duo
Andy Milne/Benoît Delbecq Crystal Magnets / Sylvain Kassap Quartet
TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
June 25-27, 2009

With hot, humid weather hovering over Ottawa and a threat of rain that, other than one brief shower, failed to materialize during the first three days of the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival (OIJF), it was inevitable that at least one show would see a torrential downpour. That it had to be the hotly anticipated Gary Burton Quartet performance, featuring über-guitarist Pat Metheny, bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Antonio Sanchez was unfortunate. But more about that later.

As the festival moves into its second quarter, one of its busiest most exciting days was coming up on June 29, with more "can't miss" shows in one day than anywhere else during the festival. And with two lunchtime "Jazz Matters" panels at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage kicking off on the same day—featuring journalists and authors including Mark Miller, Ashley Kahn, Ron Sweetman, Jesse Stewart and others—moderated by Ottawa's own James Hale, there's the opportunity to sit in on roundtable discussions about modern jazz piano and the seminal year of 1959, when artists including Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, Dave Brubeck and Charles Mingus contributed breakthrough works or performances that would change the shape of jazz forever.

OIJF is also running another new series at the new OLG stage on three days during the festival. The Jazz Workshops series features sessions that will provide a window into such areas as how artists develop individual voices, the worlds of percussion, saxophone and guitar and more, featuring leading improvisers interacting and exchanging ideas for an educational look at how the musicians of today work towards making the music of tomorrow.

And, of course, the late night Jam Sessions continues to be the after-hours place to be. Hosted by local bassist John Geggie and his trio, featuring Toronto pianist Nancy Walker and drummers Nick Fraser and Ethan Ardelli, it's a chance to see some of the festival's artists in a looser, more relaxed context where the only thing that can be expected is the unexpected.

Chapter Index
  1. June 28: Amina Claudine Myers
  2. June 28: Gary Burton Quartet
  3. June 29: John Roney Silverbirch Project
  4. June 29: Julian Lage Group
  5. June 29: Enrico Rava- Stefano Bollani Duo
  6. June 30: Andy Milne/Benoît Delbecq Crystal Magnets
  7. June 30: Sylvain Kassap Quartet

June 28: Amina Claudine Myers

After three days of virtuosic and often complex interaction in the Connoisseur Series at Library and Archives Canada, pianist/organist/vocalist Amine Claudine Myers delivered a solo performance lighter on technique and heavier on spirituality.

Born in Arkansas, and living in Chicago for a number of years, where she was a member of the heralded Association for the Advancement of Creative Musician (AACM) before moving to New York in 1976, Myers has led a career largely outside of the mainstream working with artists including the late Lester Bowie, Henry Threadgill, Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra and James Blood Ulmer. Her own work has been characterized by a diverse set of influences ranging from the avant-garde to the blues of Bessie Smith. Her performance integrated many of her interests into a set that was, perhaps, the most oblique of the Connoisseur Series. TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival / Amina Claudine MyersBeginning with a song called "God," which led, as she explained, into "Prayer" and "Ritual," Myers on piano was dark, with her innate classicism meshing with a freer approach to interpretation and more percussive attack. Soundman David O'Heare commented, during the sound check, how there had been four pianists in four days and how remarkable it was that, with the same piano and the same room, each one sounded completely different. Transcending ideas of style, it was all about touch and Myers' was immediately distinct and separate from those who came before her in the series, as she sang a simple prayer before heading into what sounded like some Native American chanting.

Myers' passionate approach imbued "Be I" with a deep melancholy; yet she played boldly as she approached more angular free territory with hard block chords and angular lines that suddenly coalesced and juxtaposed with consonant counterpoint demonstrative of her stylistic breadth. Even though the piece revolved around just two chords and a modal approach, Myers found expressive ways to work around them and keep them fresh and interesting. "Arms" was another song of almost naïve lyrical simplicity—direct in its sincerity as well as its touching sentiment.

The high point of her set, however, was a trio of songs from her Salutes Bessie Smith (Leo, 1980), the best of them being "Dirty No Good Blues" on which, as she sang the line "Have you ever loved a man who was no good," she engaged the audience by first saying "Bessie Smith said that—I didn't," and then urging "Everyone raise your hand who's had this experience." It was the first direct connection with her audience and, between that and her unassuming and heartfelt delivery, set the pace for the rest of the concert as she moved to the Hammond organ for a few tunes.

Myers has an intriguing double-disc coming out soon that features music with a vocal group, music for pipe organ, and more, most recorded live in Europe. Choosing the road less taken, Myers may operate on the periphery, but she's contributed some significant work to the jazz canon and her OIJF performance was an intimate window into the gospel, blues, jazz and classical references that coalesce to make her who she is.

June 28: Gary Burton Quartet

As the skies darkened during opening act of Dave McMurdo's set, it was clear that there was going to be no avoiding a weather storm for vibraphonist Gary Burton's much anticipated set with Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow and Antonio Sanchez, revisiting material from the late-'60s and '70s. But a torrential downpour that began virtually moments after the quartet took the stage and lasted 30 minutes into the group's two-hour set before finally abating tested the dedication of an audience there to hear music that, while it may not have been played for 30 years or more, remains fresh today. But just as in 2003, when a similar downpour kept up for the entire set by Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Dave Holland and Brian Blade, Burton's dedicated crowd remained largely faithful, putting up umbrellas, throwing on hooded coats and, in some cases, just plain sitting there and getting wet.

The reward was a set that began with the four opening tunes from Quartet Live (Concord, 2009), but soon deviated to include a broader selection of material, including a lovely duet spot for Burton and Metheny in the second half of the performance—first, with Metheny on his unwieldy (for anyone but him) 42-string Pikasso guitar, and then on baritone acoustic guitar for a driving version of the George Gershwin classic, "Summertime."

Highlights were many. Carla Bley's dark ballad, "Olhos de Gato," featured some of Metheny's most lyrical playing of the set, and an early indicator that he was going beyond some of his trademarks into new territory. Swallow's own classic, "Falling Grace," remains an elegant yet gently swinging inspiration that featured the bassist's own unadorned approach to soloing. No slapping, popping or tapping pyrotechnics here; just wonderful melodies, played with a perfect sense of time and placement. "Syndrome," another Bley classic that's been covered a number of times over the years by Burton, featured a barnstorming duet feature for the vibraphonist and Sanchez—who may be the only non- original member of the quartet (as Burton pointed out, he wasn't even born when some of the material they played was written) but plays with the same attention to detail, interplay and energy as the rest of his band mates.

As for Burton, he was nothing less than his usual impeccable self. A soloist of near-perfection, he made it clear from the first tune, longtime musical partner Chick Corea's "Sea Journey," that Metheny may have a larger name—and attract audiences coming from as far away as Edmonton, Alberta and farther abroad—but he was and remains a relentless innovator and encourager of young new talent, including guitarist Julian Lage, who will be opening for Maria Schneider's Orchestra the following night. Sanchez's position has yet to be determined—though he's been off to a terrific start, since emerging with Pat Metheny Group on Speaking of Now (Warner Bros., 2002)— but Burton, Swallow and Metheny are all important musicians in their own right. Their respective popular profiles may differ, but their contributions and significance are of comparable quality.

The set's second-to-last song, Metheny's "Unquity Road," was another high point in the group's performance, a fiery and change-heavy tune that challenged all the soloists. Metheny's solo was especially compelling, showing how far he's come in over 30 years while, at the same time, making a brief reference to the solo he played in the original version on Bright Size Life (ECM, 1976), his debut as a leader. The set may have lasted two hours, but despite the rain it seemed over almost as quickly as it began, leaving a dedicated audience wet, but more than happy.

June 29: John Roney Silverbirch Project

Canadian pianist John Roney has been making a name for himself, first in Toronto and now in Montreal, over the past few years. In addition to playing with artists including Canadian monster bassist Alain Caron and French saxophonist Jean- Christoph Beney, he's been hosting the jam sessions at the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. His work with saxophonist Chet Doxas on Sidewalk Etiquette (Justin Time, 2006) demonstrates his ability to play in more modernistic electric contexts, while his own disc, Rate of Change (Effendi, 2006) is a more introspective affair that might easily have found its way to ECM Records, had the German label been accepting unsolicited material.

Roney's performance at the afternoon Connoisseur Series with his latest project, Silverbirch, finds the intrepid pianist collaborating with Silverbirch String Quartet first violinist Christopher Robinson, looking for new ways to integrate their shared interests in classical music and jazz. Documented on Silverbirch (Effendi, 2008), it features a combination of original material by Roney and imaginative covers of everything from John Coltrane's well-heeled "Giant Steps" to the inspiration for the string quartet's name, the traditional "Land of the Silverbirch," which featured a particularly moving solo feature for violist Jane Russel (subbing for regular Silverbirch member Jamie Arrowsmith).

Continuing the streak of largely virtuosic performers at the Connoisseur Series, Roney's command of the piano is impressive. He possesses an uncanny ability to merge various vernaculars into a seamless whole, including clear references to American composers like Charles Ives and Aaron Copland, tango, folk and country sources—even turning in, at one point, a solo piano version of John Denver's enduring "Take Me Home, Country Roads" that was a nuanced tour-de-force of passion and grace. Roney also demonstrated an unmistakable command of the jazz language that turned the lengthy and complex arrangement of "Giant Steps," with the group elaborating on the tune's relatively simple theme over completely reharmonized but equally complex changes, before heading into a more jazz-centric solo segment for Roney, capably supported by cellist Alexandra Lee's walking pizzicato.

A democratic leader, Roney, who was featured as an unaccompanied soloist on "Take Me Home, Country Roads," saw the Silverbirch String Quartet go it alone on his "American GSus," an at times haunting, elsewhere strangely hopeful, composition for the survivors of the 9/11 disaster. Ranging from curious moments of stasis to more fervent motion, by focusing exclusively on Roney the composer, the work created an even more impressive view of this rising young pianist. Still, his playing throughout the set was consistently moving, as he played with effortless precision, unequivocal virtuosity and refined elegance, qualities that could easily be applied to Silverbirch String quartet—who operate out of Sudbury, Canada.

All-in-all a stunning performance that, by completely avoiding the potential for saccharine often inherent in "jazz meets classical" ventures, suggests new possibilities for merging the two genres with greater success.

June 29: Julian Lage Group

Since emerging as the subject of the 1997 Academy Award- nominated film, Jules at Eight, guitarist Julian Lage has racked up an impressive set of credentials, including lessons from Jim Hall, records with mandolinist David Grisman and time spent as a member of vibraphonist Gary Burton's band, documented on Generations (Concord, 2004) and Next Generation (Concord, 2005). Striking out on his own with his debut as a leader, Sounding Point (Decca, 2009), what's perhaps most remarkable about Lage is just how technically advanced and stylistically diverse he is. All expectations for his first album were quickly dismissed as the guitarist delivered an eclectic album featuring trio collaborations with banjoist Bela Fleck and Nickel Creek mandolinist Chris Thile; duets with another young up-and-comer, Taylor Eigsti; a couple of unaccompanied solos; and six tracks featuring members of his touring group—Ben Roseth (saxophone), alongside South Americans Aristides Rivas (cello), Jorge Roeder (bass) and Tupac Mantilla (percussion).

While an unfortunate circumstance stopped Rivas at the Canada-USA border, trimming Lage's group down to a quartet, the guitarist did a fine job at compensating in his main stage performance at Confederation Park, opening for Maria Schneider and her Orchestra. His hour-long set featured Lage's original compositions from Sounding Point as well as two new originals—the opening "Working Title," with the quartet's close-knit composure making clear that it was having fun from the get-go. Both Lage and Roseth took inventive solos, while on the aptly titled "Bluegrass Underscore," Lage referenced his bluegrass interest, but stretched them into new territory with Mantilla's cajón-driven groove.

An effortless player who wound his way through complex changes and hung on a groove with equal aplomb, live Lage was more energetic than on disc, where his playing is a little more restrained. The entire group generated a youthful excitement and just plain "happy to be here" vibe that was infectious yet would have likely worked better in an indoor venue. Still, the interaction and camaraderie on songs like the Midwestern-tinged "Clarity," the fierier "Ode to Elvin" and somehow Oregon-esqure closer, "Motor Minder," made the set a winner from start to finish.

Lage utilized a hollowbody electric guitar and adopted a tone clearly inspired by Hall. He may possesses a similar ability to find and mine simple melodies in the most challenging of circumstances, Lage also proved to be a player unafraid of aiming for higher octane, both in solos and in call-and-response passages with each member of his band. And the pleasure he clearly had in being able to bring his music to an audience, many of whom hadn't heard him previously, was a joy to watch.

June 29: Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani Duo

Sometimes it's necessary to make a choice, and it was a tough call between a mainstage performance by Maria Schneider's Orchestra and the Enrico Rava-Stefano Bollani duet. Still, it's the bane of festival-goers everywhere that it's simply not possible to be everywhere at the same time, despite the opening 15 minutes of Schneider's performance boding well to actually surpass her last Ottawa performance.

Not that it's likely, based on their performance at the 10:30 PM Studio Series in the Studio of the National Arts Centre, but if music doesn't work out for Italian trumpet master Enrico Rava and pianist Stefano Bollani, there's a career in comedy waiting for them. While the duo entered with the kind of poignant lyricism for which Rava is known, Bollani's encyclopedic ability to shift on a dime and incorporate more influences from more generations of jazz and classical music than can be listed, and a duo approach that may revolve around form but is as free as it gets assured that, by the end of the song, a Puck-ish sense of playful mischief began to emerge, especially from the pianist.

Impressions that the audience was in for more than just an exhilarating performance of unpredictability and telepathic interplay were confirmed when, after two tunes, Rava took to the mike. As he began his introduction, Bollani—after running to a large chair that sits at the back of the stage as part of the staging for the Studio Series to drop his jacket—began to leave the stage, to which Rava responded, "We're not finished yet." Bollani's response: "We're not finished?" Rava's reply: "No, we play more...we get paid less." As he went on to introduce the duo and the first two tunes, Bollani began to translate the entire monologue into Italian, until Rava informed him that this wasn't "an Italian audience," though that didn't stop him.

The mischief continued into a cover of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Retrato em branco e preto," which Rava introduced as an important number for three people: Jobim, who wrote the tune; the late trumpeter Chet Baker, who played it and remains one of Rava's influences, and Gilberto Gil, who still sings it. Rava and Bollani demonstrated an important aspect to all music: at some point it stops being about how well you play and becomes all about the song, all about the music, and nothing more. That both are tremendous talents is a given; what made their performance so captivating was not just hearing how they could twist and turn a known tune, taking it in directions as surprising to them as the audience, but seeing how completely different were the personas of the pair. Rava was the somewhat dry, elderly humorist who suggested a new direction with a single note, while Bollani was the impish youngster who brought an unexpected physicality to his playing, suggesting his own deviations by, at one point, looking at his left hand as it repeated a difficult pattern and then turning to Rava while waving his right hand as if to say "help me stop this crazy thing!" Fortunately Rava did, first by slapping the pianist's left arm and then by delivering a flurry of notes that ranged from almost flugelhorn-like warmth to tart upper-range bursts.

But for all the levity, this was unspeakably deep music. As playful as the two were, the facade almost—but not quite—masked the profound level at which the two interact. Finishing their eighty-minute set with two original tunes—one from Bollani, the other from Rava—the duo received an immediate standing ovation and were clearly expected to come back for at least one more tune. The choice was perfect: the same "Estaté" that singer Roberta Gambarini sang on the first night of this year's festival, but with an unfettered approach that contrasted greatly from Gambarini's more faithful delivery while still remaining absolutely true to the essence of the song. It was a tender way to leave the audience perhaps wanting more, but satisfied at the rare opportunity to hear two musicians perform with the kind of chemistry that's all too rare but results in a show of at times demanding but always compelling music. Attended by an all- too-small audience, this is a show that will, no doubt, be talked about for years to come.

June 30: Andy Milne/Benoît Delbecq Crystal Magnets

Since its introduction in 2006, the Improv Series, taking place at the National Arts Centre's intimate Fourth Stage, has expanded from a mere six concerts to, for 2009, double that number, with as many as three performances in a single evening. It's a good idea, as its more experimental nature often appeals to a different contingent than those who attend the more crowd-friendly main stage shows at Confederation Park. But while improvisation is a component of the acts that perform at the Improv Series, it by no means implies that it's all about free improv. Pianists Andy Milne (known for his groundbreaking work with Steve Coleman and his own Dapp Theory and pianist Benoît Delbecq (whose Phonetics (Songlines, 2005) also mined new turf) performed all but one track from their collaborative release, Where is Pannonica? (Songlines, 2009), at their 7:00PM show; certainly a rare approach.

But after listening to the two talk—banter, more like it—with a rapport not quite as overtly comedic as that of Enrico Rava and Stefano Bollani the night before but certainly funny and with a relaxed demeanor that made the music, somehow, less serious than it appears on record—the approach made perfect sense. With the amount of care and attention that not only went into the making of these prepared piano duets and the sequencing of the 11 compositions—written by Milne and Delbecq either alone or together— the album possesses an overriding arc that demands replication in performance.

Although the pianists performed these sometimes oblique, often minimalist- informed pieces in the same running order as the CD, they also took greater improvisational liberties, often stretching things considerably from the miniature settings on disc. With all kinds of implements attached to strings inside the piano to create buzzing, percussive sounds rarely heard from the instrument, Milne and Delbecq passed repetitive rhythmic motifs between each other like a tag team, allowing the other to take some space to evolve solo passages of recondite beauty.

There was no shortage of structure being used as the foundation for more expansive improvisation, though the pieces strayed significantly from any kind of conventional song form. Almost mathematical in its precision and intent, the nearly 90- minute set felt, at times, more like a contemporary classical recital, were it not for the ample exploration going on within that context. And while many of the pieces featured repetitive patterns, they maintained a strong sense of movement as Milne and Delbecq layered strong voicings and occasionally jagged melodic lines over, around and under them. The two pianists possess their own styles—Milne's harmonic control over chordal development particularly notable, while Delbeqc is a master at evolving sinuous lines.

A performance that crept up and captivated in an almost hypnotic fashion rather than in a more immediate and direct way, it was certainly an inspiration to check out the recording, which also features a 5.1 surround mix created, in an unusual move, as part of the recording process, not later in post-production. But whether it's heard in 5.1 or conventional stereo, Milne and Delbecq's recorded document of music performed at their Fourth Stage performance is but a taste—albeit a very good one—of what their music becomes when it hits the stage in front of an appreciative audience.

June 30: Sylvain Kassap Quartet

Sylvain Kassap's 9PM Improv Series performance was a strong contrast to the one that came before; a show where structure drove the music but was often far more tenuous, allowing the French clarinetist's quartet—longtime bassist Hèléne Labarriere, along with cellist Didier Petit and percussionist Edward Perraud—to play with far greater freedom and intensity. And, like Milne and Delbecq, there was a comedic element to music that might, unseen, seem to be overly serious.

It was difficult to draw attention away from Perraud, who used all manner of finger bells and cymbals to evoke strange colors by bowing them and rubbing their edges along his drum skins. Kinetic and highly interactive, he may have been a tumultuous presence at times, but he was equally capable of battening down a firm, backbeat-driven groove. Petit was no less charismatic, finding unusual ways to play his cello by bowing its endpin and body, but was even more interesting when he began to vocalize, ranging from guttural sounds to plaintive screams and soft yet clearly audible whispers. Labarriere appeared, at the start of the show, to be more about sharp attack in the midst of a sonic maelstrom, but as the set evolved she began to assert herself as an obliquely melodic soloist and, in passages with more propulsive rhythms, an unshakable anchor.

Kassap—who stayed with bass clarinet most of the time, only occasionally playing the more conventional instrument—was a wildly interpretive player who also queued the group through many of the compositions' more complex roadmaps. Like his band mates, he evoked a multitude of sounds from his instruments, including popping percussive tones and wild screeches, not to mention even more unusual textures when he took his bass clarinet, broke it into two pieces with mouthpieces on both, and played them simultaneously à la Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

As free as the compositions were, there were passages of near-prog rock propensity, the whole performance feeling a little how Univers Zero might sound if its complex, contemporary classicism were opened up into freer improvisational territory. It was an exciting performance that wowed the Fourth Stage audience; despite running overtime (the festival aims to have the last Fourth Stage show wrapped in time for festivalgoers to head downstairs to the 10:30 Studio Series), there was no way the quartet could leave without an encore, which turned out to be one of the set's high points.

Festival coverage will pick up again on July 3, when AAJ contributor Marcia Hillman takes the reins. In the meantime, if the second half of the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival—which features artists including Wayne Shorter, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Charles Lloyd, Chuco Valdes, André Leroux, Patricia Barber, Al Di Meola World Sinfonia '09, Lenore Raphael and much more—has proven to be one of the best festivals of its nearly 30-year run. The staff, as ever, have made it a pleasure to attend, and special thanks are due to Suzan Zilahi (Director of Marketing, Sponsorship and Media) and James Hale (Media Advisor), for ensuring that every need was met in the most pleasant and transparent way possible.

The only question is: with such a strong year, how will OIJF top it? Tune in April, 2010 to find out.

Visit Amina Claudine Myers, Gary Burton, John Roney, The Silverbirch String Quartet, Julian Lage, Enrico Rava, Stefano Bollani, Andy Milne, Benoît Delbecq and the Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web. <

Photo Credit: John Fowler

Days 1- 3 | Days 4-6

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