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Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 23-25, 2011

Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 23-25, 2011
John Kelman By

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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 23-25, 2011
2011 represents something of a gamble—and no shortage of controversy—for the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. After a financial loss in 2010 that wasn't especially large in relative terms, but was nevertheless significant, the festival's Executive Producer, Catherine O'Grady, made the decision to open up the roster of a festival that has remained, until this year, a relatively pure jazz festival, while others have gone down a road of mixed programming that has some jazz fans asking "Is it still a jazz festival?"
A recent All About Jazz opinion piece, When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival suggests one possible answer to that question. Ottawa's decision to bring some distinctly un-jazz—or, at best, peripherally jazz-related—acts to its largest venue has clearly caused concern for some, but the plain truth is that the festival's program remains predominantly jazz. With less than ten percent of the one hundred or so events scheduled during the festival's 11-day run stretching beyond the jazz purview, the festival retains it status, in no uncertain terms, as one of the country's best jazz festivals, while at the same time implementing some changes to not just address its bottom line, but to deal with another immediate problem facing most jazz festivals, if not in the world, then certainly in North America.

OIJF has known, for some time, that its predominant demographic is one of gray-hairs and no-hairs, and as the baby boomer begins entering retirement age and beyond, festivals like Ottawa need to address that problem, and they need to address it now. There's almost as much controversy surrounding the idea of attracting potentially non-jazz fans to a jazz festival, through programming acts that cater directly to them, as there is the debate of whether or not a festival that does so retains the right to call itself a jazz event. Still, anyone who grew up in the 1970s know that bringing fans to a new genre can absolutely happen through tangential exposure. Many rock fans moved, in the late 1960s and early '70s, from the rock of guitarist Jimi Hendrix to the jazz-rock fusion of Mahavishnu Orchestra through to trumpeter Miles Davis, and beyond.

There may be a less-than-obvious connection, perhaps, from ex-Led Zeppelin front man Robert Plant and his current Band of Joy project, but who's to say some of the people attracted to Confederation Park Main Stage shows like Plant, Elvis Costello, k.d. lang, or James Cotton and Lucky Peterson won't arrive early, and find much to enjoy in the Great Canadian Jazz series, running at 6:30 each evening at the nearby Canal Stage, where it's possible to check out some terrific national acts including Ottawa's own Brian Browne and Mike Essoudry Octet, or Montreal's superb Chet Doxas Quartet and Francois Bourassa Quartet?

There are some who bemoan the "relegation" of name acts to the smaller Studio (at the nearby National Arts Centre), but is it really such a bad idea to put acts like the duo of piano star Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Christian McBride's Inside Straight, or pianist Vijay Iyer—acts far more appropriate to intimate venues than the larger scale of an outdoor park stage—in this acoustically lovely and, frankly, appropriate 350-seat space? And by giving these acts two performances each night, addressing the possibility that the venue might be too small for a single show? That, two days before Mehldau and Redman are to appear, the 7:00PM show is sold out but tickets remain available for the 9:00PM show certainly supports the festival's decision to place them in a smaller space.

The success of this radical shift in the festival's programming won't be truly known until it's played out, but it certainly doesn't seem to be a bad idea for jazz fans to see some of their favorite acts in such close quarters. The only real issue is that, for some, the Ottawa Jazz Festival is Confederation Park, and it's a gamble for O'Grady to attempt such a massive paradigm shift, but the truth is that if she doesn't make some changes, then the OIJF is heading in a direction where it could very easily fold, and in just a few short years.

The fact is: OIJF is still, unequivocally, a jazz festival, and there's plenty to be seen, each and every day, for those who want to ignore its few stylistic "transgressions." The Improv Invitational series remains a great choice at the NAC's even more intimate, club-like Fourth Stage, where Norwegian guitar innovator Eivind Aarset's Sonic Codex will shake up preconceptions; Canadian pianist Nancy Walker—also a member of local bassist John Geggie's trio that hosts the Late Night Jam Sessions at the Arc Hotel—brings the quartet responsible for her latest release, New Hieroglyhphics (Self Produced, 2011); British upstart Phronesis is set to post its distinct (and distinctly youthful) version of the jazz piano trio; and Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz brings his latest electric quartet. In addition to more centrist groups like Mehdlau/Redman, McBride and vocalist Kurt Elling, there's also an opportunity to experience jazz on the extreme edge, when OIJF hosts Scandinavian acts The Thing, saxophonist Jonas Kulhammer's Quartet and Atomic to the Studio Series.

Meanwhile, at the OLG stage, introduced in 2010 at the opposite end of Confederation Park, the OLG Late Night Series brings some fresh faces to the festival—and with a distinctly youthful bent—with scheduled performances by groove-meisters Soulive; contemporary big band composer/arranger Darcy James Argue's critically acclaimed Secret Society; and, from Norway, the always-innovative, always-exciting Jaga Jazzist.

So, the "jazz" in the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival may have moved largely indoors, or to another stage, but it's still the predominant face of a festival that, in its 31st year, has decided to shake things up in the interest of remaining viable by both bolstering its bottom line with some large-scale draws, and to reinvent itself as a festival that can, at least, begin building an audience that will allow it to continue and, hopefully, thrive well into the future.

Chapter Index
  1. June 23: Bahamas / Robert Plant Band of Joy
  2. June 25: Atomic


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