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Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 21-23, 2012

Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 21-23, 2012
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-8

TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 21-Jul 1, 2012

After a paradigm shift in 2011—deserting its largely "pure" approach to programming for one that acknowledged how, in order for it to survive, it needed to (a) attract a larger percentage from the youth demographic, and (b) find ways to bring some big bucks into the coffers, in order to fiscally support the many fine "real" jazz acts it was programming at a number of venues—the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival is back for another year and with another stellar lineup. For those who want to question putting comedian Steve Martin on the main outdoor stage at Confederation Park with a bunch of bluegrass players with whom he has worked since the release of Rare Bird Alert (Rounder, 2011), along with reggae icon Bob Marley's son Ziggy and his Wild and Free (Tuff Gong, 2011) tour opening, why not consider French clarinetist Francois Houle at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage, or what will, no doubt, be a powerful duo of saxophonist Branford Marsalis and pianist Joey Calderazzo at the NAC Studio? Or, if Big Sam's Funky Nation and the "Hall" half of white soulsters Hall and Oates seems outrageous, how about Canadian bassist Chris Tarry's outstanding group at the Studio or Britain's Get the Blessing at the OLG Stage, which has been relocated across the street from Confederation Park, near City Hall?

The truth is, there's more than enough "real" jazz, for those who feel they need to remain untarnished by the "other stuff." There's a one-two punch with vibraphonist Stefon Harris' Ninety Miles project, with saxophonist David Sanchez and Nicholas Payton (he of this past year's #BAM! conspiracy, more than capably standing in for original trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, followed by The Fellowship Band, originally under drummer Brian Blade's moniker, but now truly reflecting its egalitarian nature by leaving his name off the marquee. For trumpet fans, there will also be some heavy lifting going on when Dave Douglas brings his Sound Prints quintet, co-led by saxophonist Joe Lovano; Trombone Shorty will be back for his third consecutive year; and saxophonist Tim Berne will also be making a repeat visit to the festival, but this time in his own collective, Big Satan, with the remarkable (and undervalued) Marc Ducret on guitar, and longtime Berne collaborator Tom Rainey on drums.

Drummer Jack DeJohnette, hot off his NEA Jazz Masters fellowship award earlier this year, brings his current group—an incendiary quintet with saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, guitarist David Fiuczynski, keyboardist George Colligan and bassist/guitarist Jerome Harris; and if that weren't enough firepower, the festival has invited bassist Dave Holland for a three-day residency that includes a duo with Kenny Barron, Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem's much-lauded Thimar (ECM, 1998) trio with saxophonist John Surman, and—a real coup for the festival—the debut of the bassist's new Prism group, with guitarist Kevin Eubanks, keyboardist Craig Taborn and drummer Eric Harland, making its world debut here before heading off for a summer tour of Europe. And back, after his own two-night By Invitation series run a couple years ago, guitarist Bill Frisell is bringing his All We Are Saying... (Savoy Jazz, 2012) John Lennon Tribute to town.

Beyond bringing younger artists like Grammy Award-winner (2011 Best Artist of the Year) bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, as well as a series of edgier, younger acts like Kneebody, Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick (who was in Ottawa last year for Jaga Jazzist's OLG Stage performance), there will be a taste of Brazil with pianist Eliane Elias, two shows by vocalist Gretchen Parlato and, for those more disposed towards the smooth side of things, trumpeter Chris Botti performing, in what is becoming a near-annual collaborative tradition, with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

Sounds like plenty of "real" jazz, doesn't it?

Chapter Index
  1. June 21: John Mayall and Robert Cray
  2. June 22: Joel Miller Quartet, Ninety Miles and The Fellowship Band
  3. June 23: Anouar Brahem/John Surman/Dave Holland, Thimar


June 21: John Mayall and Robert Cray

But first, to kick the festival off, a programming choice that reflects, perhaps, the festival's decision to marry its purer jazz programming with something not exactly outside the sphere, but certainly tangential. The blues is, after all, a jazz tradition cornerstone, and if the double bill of British legend John Mayall and multi-Grammy Award-winning guitarist Robert Cray—following a lovely opening to the festival's Great Canadian Jazz series with saxophonist Phil Dwyer—wasn't exactly jazz, there certainly were hints of the language, especially in Cray's performance, which was almost scuttled by a very threatening thunderstorm that magically passed the festival by, but released nary a raindrop.

Mayall has been around a lot longer than Cray, but if there is one word to connect both acts beyond "blues," it would have to be: class. In Mayall's case, not only was the near-octogenarian (next year, in 2013) showing no signs of slowing down, but in encouraging the audience to give another round of applause for Dwyer and his fine sextet before heading into a set that covered much of the bluesman's 45-year career, Mayall proved both gracious and broad-minded, given there was little to link his music with Dwyer's other than a clearly shared passion for music, period.



Mayall has, of course, helped launch the careers of a number of fine musicians, the most famous being guitarist Eric Clapton, who cut his teeth in Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the mid-'60s before heading on to greater fame, fortune and notoriety with Cream and beyond. It's a different time, and breaking artists the same way is a lot more difficult, but Mayall still knows how to pick a crack group, in this case guitarist Rocky Athas, bassist Greg Rzab and drummer Jay Davenport. Unlike Cray, a Fender man all the way, Athas was clearly a Les Paul kinda guy, making his axe sing sweetly at times, and growl with grease and grit elsewhere. Davenport rarely got any solo space but was as solid as a rock, pushing the groove alongside Rzab, who delivered a late-in-the-set showstopper during Mayall's classic "Room to Move." Jazzers in the audience familiar with fusion supergroup Weather Report, might have recognized a solo based on saxophonist Wayne Shorter's "Elegant People" from 1976's Black Market (Columbia); but if Rzab lacked some of the finesse of that record's Alphonso Johnson, he sure knew how to drive the crowd into a frenzy, alone and in some powerful tradeoffs with Mayall who, by that time, had left his piano behind to engage in some howling harmonica interplay.

It was pretty much a meat-and-potatoes set of blues and blues-centric material, but Mayall's engagement with both the audience and his band—and a set designed with the years of experience by someone who knows how to sequence it—made it a perfect lead-in to Cray's set which, as has been the guitarist/vocalist's strength since hitting it big with the Grammy Award-winning Strong Persuader (Mercury, 1986), combined blues with heaps of soul. Cray didn't engage directly with his audience beyond plenty of "thank you very kindly" and band introductions, but he didn't need to; with two Stratocasters and three amplifiers allowing him to get a variety of tones, from punchy to gritty, his solos said plenty. Cray clearly has chops to spare, but what he proved again and again throughout his 105-minute set, was an unerring instinct to play just what was needed—nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes it was a near-relentless bent string, repeated and repeated the way saxophonist Kenny Garrett milks a note for all it's worth; other times it was a funkified chordal passage; and elsewhere still, it was a brief demonstration of speed, all the more powerful for its rarity in Cray's vernacular.

Cray's group was part of the reason why the guitarist could play with such intuition and risk. It's hard to believe, in these times of quick shifts, that some of Cray's band goes right back to the 1980s. Richard Cousins was with Cray from the very start—right back to Cray's debut, Who's Been Talkin (Mercury, 1980)—though the bassist did take a break from the band, returning more recently for This Time (Vanguard, 1990). Cousins didn't indulge in any real soloing, but his lithe yet absolutely rock-solid grooves were delivered with effortless precision and behind-the-beat accuracy. Keyboardist Jim Pugh came to Cray a little later, on Midnight Stroll (Mercury, 1990), but he's remained with the band ever since; a fine keyboardist, his textural command of Hammond organ was what gave the group much of its grease. Tony Braunagel may be a more recent recruit, but the veteran drummer who has spent significant time with Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Keb' Mo', and B.B. King, felt like he'd been with the band as long as his partners.

The set was well-oiled, with nary a misstep. If it lacked some of the visceral grunge of Mayall's set, it more than made up for it in its own kind of energy, which lit up later in a set that went right back to the up-tempo minor blues "Phonebooth," from Bad Influence (Mercury 1983), through a blistering version of Strong Persuader's title track and a slow, simmering version of "The Things You Do To Me," from Midnight Soul that demonstrated the band's restraint and tasteful use of space. Cray has a new studio set due out later this summer, Nothing But Love (Mascot, 2012), and if the guitarist is showing a little gray around the edges and a hint of thickness around the middle, those are the only signs of a performer who, at nearly 60 years old, was singing as well as he ever has with uncompromised range, and doing instrumental work that is a marvel of technique and feel, as he closed out the Ottawa International Jazz Festival's well-attended first night—an enthusiastic audience screaming for more—with style, soul and grace.

June 22: Joel Miller Quartet, Ninety Miles and The Fellowship Band

If the first night of the festival was only tangential in its relation to jazz, the second night was proof that the Ottawa Jazz Festival is committed to bringing top quality jazz to the big stage at Confederation Park; they couldn't have put together a better triple bill. Still, if Canadian saxophonist Joel Miller, the all-star Afro-Cuban Ninety Miles project and The Fellowship Band had more than enough in common to make it a winning combination, there were also plenty of differences that spoke to the breadth of the music and gave the audience more, perhaps, than it bargained for.



Winner of coveted Grand Prix Jazz Award at the 1997 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the city that the Maritime-born saxophonist has called home for nearly two decades, Miller has been releasing his own music since 1996. Since 2004, however, with his folk and African-influenced Mandala (Effendi), and the even more ambitious Tantramar (2008)—Miller's first crack into the American market with release on the co-op-style ArtistShare imprint—he's been slowly building a following and a discography of considerable merit, one that has brought together some of the cream of the Canadian crop, including bassist Fraser Hollins, drummer Thom Gossage and saxophonist (and now spouse) Christine Jensen, with notable non-Canucks like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. What makes the just-released Swim (2012)—his first for Seattle's Origin Records—different? Well, for one, Miller has given some of his regular collaborators a rest, specifically Gossage, trumpeter Bill Mahar and saxophonist/clarinetist Bruno Lamarche; only Hollins remains, while this time Miller has recruited Halifax-born, longtime Montreal-based, but now Brooklyn-resident drummer Greg Ritchie, and San Diego-based pianist Geoffrey Keezer for a lean and mean quartet project.

Quartets are, of course, much easier and inexpensive to book, though finding a way to get these four busy musicians together must have been no small challenge—nailing down Keezer, in particular, who has been (amongst other things) busy in both the Storms/Nocturnes trio with vibraphonist Joe Locke and British saxophonist/clarinetist Tim Garland—last heard on 2011's superb VIA (Origin)—and, this year, back together with Locke in the positively incendiary Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group, releasing the studio follow-up, Signing, and closing the six-year gap since its powerful debut, Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006).

The quartet's Ottawa show comes after a first-night engagement at The Rex in Toronto, and the group was already demonstrating the kind of chemistry that made Swim such an impressive record. Miller focused exclusively on music from the record—all originals, with the exception of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans' "Time of the Barracudas," from the trumpeter's largely (and unfairly) overlooked Quiet Nights (Columbia, 1962). Original music it may not have been, but Miller's quirky, yet effervescently swinging arrangement was so distinctive, so personal, that it was hard to distinguish it from his own writing.

In a quartet with absolutely no weak links—Keezer, an effortless wellspring of ideas, Hollins, a visceral combination of groove and unfailing lyricism, and Ritchie, a fluid player with eyes and ears clearly open to the music around him—Miller's occasional virtuosic flights were impressive, as was his upper register control at the start of his solo on the balladic "Drop Off"—so pure and clean that, with eyes closed, his tenor sounded more like a soprano.

The set came to a close with "Nos étoiles"—a tune that belies Miller's Quebecois home, instead evoking images of Midwestern plains à la guitarist Pat Metheny—and the idiosyncratic funk of "MarkAdamDrum." Compositional twists and turns, including the occasional tight knot, lent plenty of depth to Miller's music even as it provided plenty of space for the quartet to stretch out, with Ritchie's closing solo on Time of the Barrcudas an early highlight of a set that, while played on a marginally cooler day than the festival's opening night, was still hot and sweaty, with the sun beating down on the stage throughout the quartet's 70-minute set. The festival's decision to move the start time of the Great Canadian Jazz series to a half hour earlier at 6:00PM seems, based on the first two evenings, to be one that may need to be reconsidered. As audiences began to arrive later in the set, it certainly seemed as though the earlier start just might be a problem for folks trying to get to the park after a day's work.



It may have started a little later in the evening, but just two days away from the summer equinox, the sun was still pretty high in the sky when Ninety Miles took to the stage. "How are you all doing," asked vibraphonist Stefon Harris, after opening the set with a bright take of his complex "Brown Belle Blues," the penultimate track on the group's lauded eponymous 2011 Concord release. "I'm hot," he countered to the audience's response, before introducing a touring band that also included tenor saxophonist David Sanchez from the CD, but with trumpeter Nicholas Payton taking the place of Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, who is busy on the road promoting his own new release, aTunde Adjuah (Concord, 2012), an album that will, no doubt, show up on plenty of "best of" lists when the 2012 is tallied.

Payton's been getting his own press this year, though more for notoriety with his #BAM (Black American Music) campaign than for his recent release, Bitches (In + Out, 2012), but one thing is certain, based on his performance with Ninety Miles: the dude can play—though that will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career, first as a sideman for luminaries like the late drummer Elvin Jones, later as a leader whose roots remain largely in the tradition—but whose playing is anything but retro or reductionist. It was great to see that, even though Payton was a relative latecomer to this group, he was still given the chance to contribute a tune to a septet that, beyond Sánchez, didn't include anyone else from Ninety Miles' collaboration with Cuban musicians like pianists Harold López-Nussa and Rember Duharte. The trumpeter's balladic "The Backward Step" was more mainstream on his 2008 Nonesuch set, Into the Blue, but here, driven by bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Henry Cole and percussionist Mauricio Hererra, it fit in with the group's Afro-Cuban purview as if it were written for the occasion.

The rest of the set drew on Ninety Miles, though if the album largely compartmentalized the solo space in the interest of relative brevity in the studio, Ninety Miles live adopted a different tack, with just five tunes in a set that also featured characteristically astute support and carefully developed solos by pianist Edward Simon. In addition to "Brown Belle Blues" and "The Backwards Step," the 75-minute performance also featured a lengthy look at Harris' ambling "And This Too Shall Pass" and López-Nussa's bright "E'cha." Sánchez's set-closing "City Sunrise" unfolded slowly, gradually growing from gentle groove to simmering pulse and, finally, a positively on-fire climax that got a well-deserved standing ovation when it was all over, from a crowd who also may have been hot, but with the spicy music delivered by Ninety Miles, was feeling just fine about it.



The sun was below the buildings by the time The Fellowship Band took the stage for a nearly two-hour performance that was the perfect capper to a great evening. What started as a solo project for drummer Brian Blade, with his 1998 debut as a leader, Fellowship (Blue Note), soon became Brian Blade Fellowship for the 2000 Blue Note follow-up on the stellar Perceptual. Eight years passed before the group's next record, and by that time two things had happened: Dave Easely, whose pedal steel guitar was a defining texture for a band whose roots are as much in folk music and the church as it is in jazz of the most modern kind, was gone; and, whittled down to a sextet, the group was now called Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, an indicator that this was a collective, especially considering keyboardist Jon Cowherd's compositional contributions. If Season of Changes was an apt title for many reasons (not the least being the year Barack Obama was elected to the White House), the one surprising change was that, while Easley's participation on the two earlier albums was essential, Fellowship Band as a sextet remained just as strong.

More change came when Rosenwinkel, moving first to Switzerland and then Germany, left the band to focus more on his own work. It's not insignificant that, when people leave Fellowship, they are not replaced, the chemistry and camaraderie of the remaining members more than compensating for the lost of first one, and then two voices. Still, for the first time, the group's 2009 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal performance suggested that Fellowship as a quintet—with just two frontliners (alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Myron Walden and tenor/soprano saxophonist Melvin Butler), along with Cowherd and bassist Christopher Thomas—may have whittled down too much. One of the defining qualities of Fellowship, after all, had been its tremendous interlocking of horn and guitar lines, and while the remaining group had no problem on the performance front, it seemed that, perhaps, attrition had gone a little too far in diluting its frontline strength.

A thought completely dispelled by the group's closing performance at the 2011 Oslo International Jazz Festival in the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, where the quintet demonstrated that it had finally found a way to retain the harmonic approach that so defined the band, but with a leaner lineup that has placed more responsibility on Cowherd, a pianist who just seems to be more impressive with each and every performance.

Now, a year later, Blade has completely removed his name from the marquee, leaving the group simply as The Fellowship Band. If its Ottawa performance proved any one thing (it proved many), it was that Oslo was no fluke. The Fellowship Band, with a new album coming later in the year, has clearly found its voice, its strength and its premise. Walden and Butler may be only two voices, but somehow the way they intertwine suggests something bigger, while Cowherd manages to create a harmonic context and melodic foil simultaneously. It's hard to imagine blowing a roof off an outdoor venue like The Fellowship Band did in Oslo last year, but believe it; blow the virtual roof off it did, with the audience responding to its energy and sheer commitment from the start of the set.

The Fellowship Band played a set of almost entirely unheard material to the crowd, only "Return of the Prodigal Son" coming from one of the group's recordings (Season of Changes). But familiarity didn't seem to matter with a group that somehow managed folkloric simplicity—even performing a short, relatively faithful version of the traditional tune "Shenandoah" as a kind of mid-set release and relief, before launching into "Return of the Prodigal Son" and a set-closing "King's Highway"—that was the closest thing to church this festival has ever seen. There's a spirituality that imbues The Fellowship Band, driven by Blade's tumultuous ability to drive rhythms while injecting massive bursts of power. And while every member of the group is clearly a virtuoso, that isn't what the music is about. Thomas' solo could have been about look-at-me pyrotechnics and furious note-play, but instead, he hung onto simple motifs, repeating them with the kind of perfect intuition that has made him such a cornerstone of this band, especially given Blade's maelstrom-like tendencies when the music and the group achieve lift-off.



But as much as there were periods of profound intensity, The Fellowship Band is also capable of keeping it simple and driving a singable melody with the same kind of commitment. "Stoner Hill," the song-like track from Season of Changes, was nowhere to be found in the set, but amidst these longer, often episodic compositions, there were plenty of strong themes. In recent years, Blade has proven himself as capable a singer/songwriter as he is a drummer, as on Mama Rosa (Verve, 2009), but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to his music with The Fellowship Band since its inception. It's also no surprise that he writes much of his material for The Fellowship Band on guitar; while the collective improvisational energy of this group takes them to some far-out places; indeed, at their core—and the same can be said for Cowherd's writing—are the kind of compelling themes that make them instantly appealing and accessible.

Anticipation for the new record is already high, and with its Ottawa Jazz Festival performance running a very close cousin to its nuclear Oslo set. It may only be the second night of the 2012 edition, but the entire evening—and The Fellowship Band's performance in particular—has already set a high bar that will be difficult to match.

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