Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 4-6, June 27-29, 2010

Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 4-6, June 27-29, 2010
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6 | Days 7-9 | Days 10-11

Kenny Garrett Presents / John Scofield and the Piety Street Band Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu / Medeski, Martin and Wood John Geggie and Friends / Youn Sun Nah / Manu Katché
TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival Ottawa, Ontario, Canada June 27-29, 2010 As the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival continues to grow, with new series and more choices than ever before, that very growth creates one problem, though it's not exactly a bad one: so many great shows, so little time. Life could be worse than having so much great music to choose from that it's impossible to catch it all. Still, it meant hearing only a portion of Israeli-born, New York- resident clarinetist Anat Cohen at the National Library and Archives of Canada theatre on the afternoon of June 27. Cohen brought almost the same group to Ottawa that she did the 2009 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, with the exception of drummer Daniel Freedman. Sitting in for Freedman was Obed Calvaire, who wowed trumpeter Etienne Charles' audience at the same venue only two days prior and is clearly a player to watch. Of special note was guitarist Gilad Heckselman, who was impressive in Montreal, but has come a long way in a year, burning through his first solo of the set in Ottawa and providing firm but constantly imaginative support. Cohen was, as ever, a fountain of ideas as she tore through a combination of originals by herself and Heckselman, as well as some well-known standards. It was a shame to have to leave early, but better to have caught even a few songs rather than none at all. Meanwhile, after a strong opening set at the 6:00 PM Great Canadian Jazz Series by Montreal-based pianist Min Ranger, the stage was cleared and the audience grew for a night of soulful, funky jazz. <

Chapter Index
  1. June 27: Kenny Garrett Presents
  2. June 27: John Scofield and the Piety Street Band
  3. June 28: Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu
  4. June 28: Medeski, Martin & Wood
  5. June 29: John Geggie and Friends
  6. June 29: Youn Sun Nah
  7. June 29: Manu Katché
June 27: Kenny Garrett Presents The 'hood came to Ottawa on June 27, as saxophonist Kenny Garrett hit the stage, encouraging the audience, "Yo, come on," as his crack quartet laid into some serious funk, driven by bassist Kona Khasu and drummer Nathan Webb. Khasu and Webb locked in tightly for the entire 75-minute set—no surprise given the two have also been working together with the Jtr3, a new group that, combining jazz, R&B and hip hop, will be honing its sound at some US dates this summer, including New York's Iridium in July and Philadelphia's Chris' Jazz Café in September—and whose first release, Love Passion Correspondence (Self Produced, 2009), makes clear why Garrett chose this rhythm section for a group so heavy on groove. Garrett's Ottawa performance was the only one for this group in June—he'll be on the road with pianist Chick Corea"s Freedom Band for most of July and part of August—but Kenny Garrett Presents was on the road for most of May, and they'd lost none of the simpatico built during the course of a week at the Iridium and 11 days across Europe. Kenny Garrett Garrett tends to alternate between more funk-driven projects and straighter jazz efforts, although his most recent release, Sketches of MD: Live at the Iridium (Mack Avenue, 2008) did marry the two more than albums like Standard of Language (Warner Bros., 2003) and Beyond the Wall (Nonesuch, 2007), projects that leaned far more heavily on a kind of burning, modal traditionalism. Regardless of the context, however, Garrett can always be counted on for a kick-ass band that brings whatever's on the table with serious attitude and plenty of intent. Few saxophonists can milk a note for everything it's worth as well as Garrett—whose Ottawa show a few years back nearly blew the roof off the Library and Archives Canada theater—or whip his band or a crowd into a frenzy as well as the saxophonist, who played alto, his main axe, for most of the set, with the kind of lithe dexterity and screaming physicality he's become known for since his days with trumpet icon Miles Davis in the 1980s.

Despite laying down some serious, booty-shaking groove for most of the set— though there were moments of surprisingly ethereal atmospherics at one point—he had his work cut out for him with an appreciative but overly sedate audience at OIJF's main stage in Confederation Park. Still, while his early attempts at getting the crowd involved were met with relatively deaf ears, by the time he closed the set, asking if the crowd was "Happy People"—the only song to make a return appearance from his last Ottawa performance—he did manage to get people clapping, and some of them up on their feet doing what this music was meant to for.

Keyboardist Johnny Mercier, another relative unknown who ought to be on the radar, provided gospel-tinged support throughout the set, taking the audience to church during an organ solo near the end of the set, laying into a stop-start repetition that mirrored Garrett. But while the grooves ranged from relaxed and chilled to fiery and funky, Garrett's entire group brought it to an Ottawa crowd that had no idea what to expect (there was no advance notice of his lineup, or what kind of show it was going to be. With guitarist John Scofield following with his gospel/New Orleans-informed Piety Street Band coming up afterwards, it was a pretty good bet that OIJF had programmed Garrett before him because the two sets would dovetail nicely. And dovetail they did, with Garrett warming up the audience so that, by the time Scofield took the stage, they were good and ready.

June 27: John Scofield and the Piety Street Band Speaking with Jon Cleary after Scofield's show, the British-born keyboardist/singer—born in the UK but moving to New Orleans in his late teens and, consequently, retaining his accent...at least when speaking—said that it would have been great to have had the chance to hit the road before recording Piety Street (EmArcy, 2009) with Scofield. As good as the album is—one of the guitarist's best fringes-of-jazz albums in recent years, where he has regularly alternated between those and more decidedly jazz dates—live, the guitarist took the material to far greater heights, stretching out on eight of the album's thirteen tracks, and adding a couple of new songs to the mix. Also on hand from the album was bassist/vocalist George Porter Jr., who laid down an unshakable anchor that, at the same time, was incredibly pliant, working tongue-and-groove with drummer Terrence Higgins.

Beginning the set with the same one-two punch that opens the album—the bright, gospel-inflected "That's Enough" and greasier "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," Scofield demonstrated his remarkable and distinctive ability to take the most "inside" music out, with solos that, by moving "outside" just enough to build some serious tension, ultimately released when they resolved back in. Surprising some of the guitar geeks in the audience by playing a Fender Stratocaster on "That's Enough," he alternated with his usual Ibanez semi-hollowbody— also playing, for the most part, with his fingers, and only resorting to a pick when he cranked up the velocity later in the set, on songs like "Gloryland," where he played a lengthy a capella intro that also brought some of his effects, built into a massive pedal board, into play.

For a guitarist who came to an arsenal of effects relatively late in the game—when he formed his Überjam (Verve, 2002) band—Scofield has managed to create an electronic soundscape all his own. He employed circuitous loops and reverse delay on "Gloryland," and created a lengthy loop of tremelo'd chords to support more soloing at the start of "Angel of Death"—a ballad introduced at great length as the guitarist, clearly—and comedically—searching for ways to articulate just how scary its lyrics were, finally broke things up saying "So, how's the whole repartee thing going? I think it's working..."

Porter largely contributed background vocals for the smooth-voiced Cleary, whose soulful but restrained delivery was a treat throughout the set, but the bassist did take lead mike for the funky "Never Turn Back," with a grittier voice that, like Cleary's, sat well behind the beat to give it a relaxed vibe that pulled in rather than pushed out. Without soloing, Porter—a founding member of The Meters and, since then, a busy session player—proved why he's such a legend on the New Orleans scene, with lines that seemed to stretch the pulse without ever losing it. Higgins has equal but different cred, a member of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, but he delivered one of the most unusual solos from a drummer in recent memory, eschewing the usual multi-limb, "look at me" pyrotechnics in favor of nothing more than a bass drum and a tambourine during the uplifting set closer, "It's a Big Army"—though what he did with just those two instruments was plenty more than enough.

The only thing to mar the performance was rain, which began as a drizzle half-way through the set, but turned heavier towards its end. Still, a sign of a great show is when the audience sticks it out, and relatively few people left the park, with those remaining on their feet and demanding an encore. Scofield introduced Cleary—the youngest member of the group (under 50), who'd already acquitted himself as a singer, pianist and organist—as a great guitarist and, after the show, he confirmed that he actually started on the instrument before moving to piano in his teens. Picking up a Strat for the encore—"I Don't Need No Doctor," from Scofield's Ray Charles tribute, That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles (Verve, 2005)—Cleary engaged in some thrilling trade-offs with Scofield, belying his later comment that, playing only one song a night, he felt a little clumsy. Nobody but Cleary would have noticed any missteps, and if there was one complaint, it was that his volume wasn't quite equal to Sco's and so while his solos were plenty soulful, they lacked some of the "oomph" that that would have made them truly stand out.

That said, Scofield clearly admires Cleary, introducing the song by telling the crowd that "Cleary does all the things that I can't...but that's ok because the Angel of Death is coming and I'm a soldier in the army of the Lord!" Scofield may have wondered how his repartee was doing partway through the show, but between his endless ability to bring a more sophisticated harmonic sensibility to his soloing on songs rooted in New Orleans, gospel and funk, the exhilarating support of his Piety Street Band, and the soulful vocals of Cleary and Porter, he had absolutely nothing to worry about.

June 28: Ralph Towner and Paolo Fresu

It seemed like an odd billing: sublime chamber jazz duo Ralph Towner and trumpeter Paolo Fresu bookended by powerhouse Montreal soul/funk unit Papagroove and perennial jazz jambanders Medeski, Martin & Wood. How would a crowd predominantly looking for a party handle a duo so subtle, so understated? Nobody need have worried. Guitarist Towner and trumpeter Fresu had more than enough of an audience to draw people to Confederation Park on the strength of their appearance alone; and for those looking for an evening of grooves and jamming, the duo acted as a lovely palate cleanser.

But to reduce Towner and Fresu's set to nothing more than a sorbet between courses would have been to diminish the strength of their hour-long set, which was not only extremely well-received, it actually managed to somehow eliminate all the ambient noises outside the park, commanding the full attention of the audience and creating a kind of insulated microcosm in the middle of the city. Other than rounds of applause following solos—and a standing ovation at the end of the set that actually took the artists by surprise—the crowd was rapt; devoting its complete attention. On paper, it seemed as though the music would have been better positioned in a smaller, more intimate indoor venue, but in practice it absolutely worked in the larger outdoor performance space—in no small part thanks to the superb mix provided by the festival's soundman, which was so good that Towner made a special point of acknowledging him to the crowd at the end of the set, as well as to OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady backstage, after the set was over.

With material culled largely from the duo's ECM debut, Chiaroscuro (2009), Towner and Fresu opened with "Punta Giara," a tune that immediately focused on Towner's distinctive harmonic language. Initially dark and spare, it gradually picked up steam, introducing the duo's remarkable ability to suggest time while oftentimes staying away from a fixed pulse. Fresu's warm flugelhorn floated atop Towner's nylon-string guitar, which was as warm and big as ever. While there was, indeed, a PA system pushing the sound out to the park, in more intimate and acoustic surroundings it's more inherently clear that Towner's tone is expansive all on its own. And with a combination of hard nails and the soft flesh of his fingers, Towner's tone ranged from soft to sharp, but always possessed a warm sustain, even when he played more delicately.

Chiaroscuro may be only a couple years old (recorded in the fall of 2008), but Towner and Fresu have been playing together for fifteen years, with "Punta Hada" inspired by the Sardinian festival where the two first collaborated. Flipping the opening two tunes and continuing with "Wistful Thinking," a tune first heard on Towner's 1994 solo album, Open Letter (ECM), and Chiaroscuro's opener, the chemistry between the two was even more evident, on a rubato tone poem that was all about feeling where the two should come together to move the song forward. In lesser hands it might sound tentative or not quite unified, but Towner and Fresu managed to coalesce effortlessly, Fresu's lineage to Kenny Wheeler, though his approach to lyricism is equally informed by Enrico Rava, with whom he's collaborated over the years. Unlike either of these trumpeters, however, Fresu also uses a mute on occasion, as he did on Towner's "Sacred Place," a gentle but majestic tune written for the Chiaroscuro session. Fresu also had a small rack with some sound processing gear; used rarely but to great effect on a song towards the end of the set, his repeating lines mirrored by Towner.

In addition to a conventional classical guitar, Towner also used a baritone guitar, also nylon stringed and tuned lower, but still with the same relative tuning. Used on the brighter but still somehow emotionally dark "Doubled Up," it's even richer texture allowed Towner even greater latitude both in support of Fresu and when he soloed. While both players were featured individually, it was the interaction between them that made the set so compelling; that, and both musicians' effortless virtuosity, an acumen that never got in the way of the music.

From left: Ralph Towner, Paolo Fresu

It was a set that, in its understatement, elegance and lyricism, remained a powerful example of spontaneity in action, with the two entering into some particularly deep—angular, even—free play halfway through the set. The duo's take on Towner's "Zephyr" was another highlight; a gorgeous tune first heard with Oregon on Ecotopia (ECM, 1987), but later arranged for an orchestra on the criminally overlooked Oregon in Moscow (Intuition, 1999). Here, reduced to a duo, Towner's ability to compose for guitar, but farm out portions of the arrangement to other players—altering the complexion but retaining the core of the song—was brought into sharp detail. His own role varies, depending on the context; here, despite being shouldered with a lot of responsibility, Towner (and Fresu) were always aware of space, and left plenty of opportunities for notes to naturally decay, without feeling the compulsion to fill the gaps.

It may have been an odd choice to open up for the more electric and high volume Medeski, Martin & Wood, but it ultimately turned out to be a great one, not just for existing fans, but for those who were new to these two profoundly talented musicians.



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