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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, 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.


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