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

John Kelman By

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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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