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

John Kelman By

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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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