Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: June 26-28, 2011

Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-6: June 26-28, 2011
John Kelman BY

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T D Ottawa International Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 23-July 3, 2011
Well, the numbers are in, and the opening weekend of the 2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival has broken all previous records, despite a day of heavy rain severely impacting attendance for Elvis Costello's show on June 24. Only time will tell if the festival's decision to move into mixed programming will actually solve the issue of recruiting younger people to a festival largely populated by an aging demographic, but there's little doubt that if the rest of the festival is as successful as the first four nights, then Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady's gamble will have paid off financially, lifting the festival out of an $80,000 shortfall in 2010.
Lining up for the indoor shows provided a good opportunity to gauge the feelings of the festival's attendees, ranging from long-term fans who buy Gold passes to OIJF year after year, to folks who choose to attend only selected shows, and buy single show tickets or day passes. The festival remains one of the best bargains on the North American festival circuit, with a variety of pass options that make attending the entire 11-day run far more affordable than festivals that charge much higher prices for individual shows. But if the festival continues along a path that sees its shows at the outdoor stage in Confederation Park as big ticket events, that bring in mixed programming to encourage the largest possible attendance, it will have to address the issue of single ticket versus pass priority.

Some who purchase Gold passes at $280 (meant to provide access to all shows, with rare exception) and feel they are supporting the entire festival, are rubbed the wrong way by having to stand in a second line, only getting into a show once those who have bought single tickets—sometimes, just for one show, without attending and supporting other shows and, consequently, the festival as a whole—are let in. The festival has, to its credit, attempted to resolve this, at least in the case of double-shows like Brad Mehldau/Joshua Redman, Vijay Iyer and Christian McBride's Inside Straight, giving Gold Pass members the chance to receive complimentary tickets, as long as they decide in advance. Still, the festival has a real dilemma here: its reputation and attendance has been heavily supported by pass-holders, but trying to accommodate their needs and the demands of those who feel they deserve priority because they are paying the higher priced single tickets will be a challenge, especially if the festival continues to push most of the jazz indoors, into smaller venues where demand more regularly exceeds supply.

François Moutin, performing with Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig

There's also the matter of a changing demographic changing the complexion of the outdoor shows, one attendee complaining about the behavior of some of the younger fans at the Robert Plant show on opening night. OIJF has traditionally been a "polite and civilized" sit-down festival, where folks bring their chairs and stay seated for the majority of shows—good, of course, for an aging demographic that doesn't want to be on its feet for hours during a show. But if the fest is going to bring in rock shows like Plant and Costello, there will be those who want it to be more of a party atmosphere, and get on their feet and dance. There may be no way to satisfy both factions, meaning the festival may see some realignment of attendance, as some decide they don't like the new way while others embrace it, but it will certainly have to give some consideration to the fact that a change in demographic also means a different complexion.

But it's early days in the festival's paradigm shift, and there's no doubt that a post-mortem will suggest some changes necessary for 2012, to address these and other issues. Those who've been loyal to the festival for years (some, for decades), and are questioning either OIJF's direction or how it is implementing it, need to demonstrate a little patience; the festival's history deserves that consideration, and in a time of flux, the opportunity to adapt and resolve any resultant problems. No change comes without its hiccups, after all, and this has been a bigger year of change than any other time in recent years for OIJF.

Meanwhile, with the first three days threatened by bad weather, the sun finally came out on June 26, and it's looking like smooth sailing for the rest of the festival.

Chapter Index
  1. June 26: Kurt Elling
  2. June 27: Joshua Redman/Brad Mehldau Duo
  3. June 27: RTF IV
  4. June 28: Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig

June 26: Kurt Elling

Since emerging in the mid-1990s, Chicagoan Kurt Elling has grown into one of his generation's finest jazz singers. An astute interpreter of standards, as well as a clever lyric adapter of instrumental music by everyone from Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays to Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul and Keith Jarrett, Elling has also evolved into a charismatic performer, building his audience through near-relentless touring.

Elling is on the road in support of The Gate (Concord, 2011), and while there were people waiting for groups like Atomic, the previous evening at the National Arts Centre's Studio, the lineup for Elling started a full ninety minutes before the 7:00PM performance, and by the time the doors opened, it was clear the singer was going to sell out the 300-seat venue. Opening the set, supported only by longtime pianist Laurence Hobgood, it was when Elling and what then became a quartet kicked into a swinging version of Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out," from the pop singer's 1982 hit album, Night and Day (A&M), that thing began to really cook. Less fiery and upbeat than the original, Elling quickly demonstrated both impeccable pitch and an ability to make a song his own without losing sight of what made it great in the first place. He proved capable of scatting with the best of them, but kept it in check, using it as an interpretive tool when the song demanded it, rather than a means of demonstrating his clearly virtuosic abilities.

The Gate is an album of covers, but with a difference: Elling digs into his own past, and some music that had particular meaning when he was growing up, and the choices may be surprising to some. "Steppin' Out" is an obvious choice, given Jackson's jazzier proclivities at the time; and it's no particular surprise to see Elling cover Stevie Wonder's "Golden Lady," the closer to a 90-minute set that was expanded beyond the album's six-minute version, to include lengthy and barnstorming solos from both Hobgood and guitarist John McLean, who joined the group three songs in, when Elling turned to another tune from The Gate, an imaginative version of The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood." But a jazz reading of King Crimson's "Matte Kudesai," from Discipline (DGM Live, 1981)? Elling didn't perform it at his Ottawa show, though it proves just how far and wide the singer looks for source material, a quality that sets him aside from most jazz singers, who feel the purview begins and ends with The Great American Songbook.

"Norwegian Wood" was, in fact, a turning point in an already compelling set. The connection between Elling and Hobgood is profound—it should be, after working together for 16 years—and his bassist (Eric Privert) and drummer (Pete Van Nostrand), on only his third date subbing for regular drummer Ulysses Owens, Jr. were surprisingly good fits. But it was when McLean joined in—with an electric guitar that ranged from soft and warm to grittily overdriven, as the guitarist employed delay, reverb and a volume pedal to create lush orchestral swells—that the group lifted from being a conventional, albeit modern, jazz trio, to a quartet with far greater possibilities. Huddled over his guitar, McLean's ideas were fresh, even as he incorporated certain stylistic precedents from guitarists like Bill Frisell, including pushing gently on his body while holding a chord, to create a slight pitch shift. But more than any effects or techniques, McLean impressed with unusual developmental ideas that included a curious blend of repetitive cascading motifs that built gradually, and an acute thematic sensibility when it comes to navigating changes.

From left: Pete Van Nostrand, Eric Privert, Kurt Elling, Laurence Hobgood
Missing: John McLean

Elling had the capacity crowd in his hands as—consummate showman that he is—he connected with his audience in a venue where, with no risen stage, the front row was literally just a couple of feet from the singer. While The Gate, produced by pop hit producer Don Was, features multi-tracked vocals creating not just harmonies, but percussive textures and more, Elling had only but voice to rely on in concert, and he made the most of it on songs like "Samurai Cowboy," an adaptation of Marc Johnson's "Samurai Hee-Haw," first heard on the bassist's Bass Desires (ECM, 1986). Delivered with quirky lyrics over a catchy double-stop bass groove, it also gave Privert a rare chance to solo and, egged on by the singer, he made the most of it.

A delicate ballad reading of Earth, Wind & Fire's hit song "After the Love Has Gone," gave Elling the opportunity to demonstrate remarkable control across his entire (and wide) range; a voice that never faltered when holding long, soft notes in the lower register, soaring to soulful highs as the song built to its powerful climax, and demonstrating equal strength, purity and elasticity in falsetto range. After an enthusiastic audience rose to its feet as the set closed with "Golden Lady," Elling returned to the stage, along with Hobgood, for a tender reading of Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Luiza," from Nightmoves (Concord, 2007); sung in Portuguese with absolute authenticity, it brought full circle a memorable performance that will, no doubt, go down as one of the best of OIJF 2011.

June 27: Joshua Redman/Brad Mehldau Duo

With tickets to both shows (7:00PM and 9:00PM) sold out, the lineups for un-ticketed Gold and Bronze pass members at the early show by pianist Brad Mehldau and saxophonist Joshua Redman were, not surprisingly, huge—and started a good 90 minutes before the performance was to begin, at 7:00PM. It was worth the wait, as the duo put on a show that CKCU host of weekly jazz program In a Mellow Tone, Ron Sweetman, enthusiastically described as "music-making of the highest order."

He was right. Before the show began, OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady welcomed the capacity crowd, clarifying that taking many of OIJF 2011's shows indoors—considered, by some, as "relegating the jazz artists to small, indoor venues," as if that's a bad thing—was absolutely an intended artistic decision, to allow the festival's guests a space where they could explore the intimate acoustic nature of their music. Both Mehldau and Redman have appeared on the main stage in Confederation Park in past years, but here, playing music that demanded absolute transparency and the ability to explore every nuanced nook and cranny, it was absolutely the right choice. Sure, Redman and Mehldau are big enough names that they have drawn more than the 600 or so people that attended their two shows at the NAC Studio, but the fine acoustics and close, personal nature of the indoor venue was as appropriate a place for them as it was for Kurt Elling the previous night; another artist who may well have been able to draw an admirable crowd at the park, but who was undeniably all the better for having appeared in the Studio's more controlled environs.

Mehldau and Redman didn't waste any time getting down to business. With the pianist diving into his own, bright "The Falcon Will Fly Again," one of the highlights of his recent Highway Rider (Nonesuch, 2010), the simpatico the two have shared for nearly two decades was immediately evident. Mehldau's technique continues to be a frightening force of nature, his 2011 live solo outing, Live in Marcia (Nonesuch) revealing a pianist who manages to do with one hand what most require two to accomplish. But as much as Mehldau's virtuosity could be an end in itself, it never was; instead, as he created a single-handed combination of bass line and chords, it became clear that it was always in service of the music. Still, when he delivered a solo where his left hand was playing not one, but two interweaving lines, in support of a right hand that deftly layered idea after idea, it was impossible not to be just impressed, but staggered by the sheer capacity of Mehldau's playing.

Redman—a guest on Highway Rider and, in particular, on "The Falcon"—approached his own solo with greater restraint, taking his time to move from brief thematic snippets to more evolved lines that wove in and around Mehldau's rhythmic support. Still, when he switched instruments to solo on the second tune, his own coyly titled "Note to Self," Redman gradually began to turn up the heat. More physically engaged than Mehldau, who largely sat hunched over the keyboard, Redman swayed, lifting one leg up and thumping it down in punctuation to the bluesy, but pure tone of his tenor. Meanwhile, Mehlda turned things on their side by taking a solo with his left hand, supported by the right. His left occasionally crossed over into the upper range of the keyboard, but for the most part it was the piano equivalent of a bass solo, though no bassist in the world could execute what Mehldau does, and gradually revealed Mehldau's roots in classical music. Rather than comparing him to the usual jazz suspects, with whom he shares little in common—Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett—better to look outside the jazz world for the antecedents that have led to Mehldau's distinctive style.

A style that was even more evident when, after a new ballad by the pianist, the duo played a blues by Sonny Rollins—surely a greater influence on Redman's playing than his dad, the late Dewey Redman. There are few pianists in the world that can play a blues like "Sonnymoon for Two" and turn it into a fugue, all the while retaining the swing and the language that made the original what it was, but Mehldau could...and did, in a breathtaking solo that came after Redman delivered a tenor solo that turned increasingly fiery with a relentlessly ascending pattern, building to a climax of high register screams, leaving Mehldau no choice but to drop the dynamics and construct his solo from the ground up.

It was the kind of performance that affirms the duo as, perhaps, the most intimate, vulnerable, exploratory context for improvising musicians. With a clear, uninterrupted line of communication that was explored without reservation throughout their 75-minute set, Redman and Mehldau delivered a performance that will be remembered by those lucky enough to be there, for a long time to come.

June 27: RTF IV

Billed as RTF IV, this fourth incarnation of Return to Forever has a bit of a history. After a 2008 tour, which brought the third RTF lineup to Ottawa—keyboardist Chick Corea, bassist Stanley Clarke, drummer Lenny White and guitarist Al Di Meola—the group decided it had enough with Di Meola, the guitarist going his own way and the remaining three embarking on an acoustic trio tour in 2009, recently documented on Forever (Concord, 2011).

Chick Corea

A Hollywood Bowl date, in September of that year, brought RTF's original guitarist, Bill Connors, back into the fold, along with two other guests—singer Chaka Khan and, more significantly, French fusion violin master, Jean-Luc Ponty. The rehearsals for that date were included as a bonus disc to Forever, and if Khan was a less than necessary addition to the show, the chance to hear Connors playing material from RTF's first guitar-driven salvo, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1973), with Ponty occasionally fleshing the group out to a quintet, was the start of an idea that ultimately led to RTF IV and the current world tour that would include more material from Hymn, along with equal focus on Romantic Warrior (Columbia, 1976) and a few nods to Where Have I Known You Before (Polydor, 1974) and No Mystery (Polydor, 1975).

Sadly, Connors was unable to commit to such an extensive (and, no doubt, exhausting) world tour, and so Corea recruited Frank Gambale, who'd worked with the keyboardist in his 1980s Elektric Band. Gambale may not have Di Meola's cachet, or Connors' legendary status, but he was, ultimately, the perfect choice for RTF IV. Having innovated the stunning sweep picking technique, that allows for the execution of lines at near-light speed, he clearly posseses Di Meola's capacity for high velocity—and with none of the attitude that made his participation in the 2008 RTF tour such problem—but coupled with Connors' broader vernacular.

Frank Gambale

In fact, when RTF IV hit the stage, it was less an event and more like a group of good friends who were there to play—nothing fancy, stage-wise (other than an RTF IV projection on the roof of the stage), the band looking like they were dressed in their street clothes, and coming to the front of the stage, to wave to the crowd and take a few pictures of their own. Without fanfare, and with a few instrumental adjustments beforehand, the quintet lept into "Medieval Overture," one of the tougher arrangements on Romantic Warrior. Like the 2008 show, where RTF started with the equally challenging title track to Hymn, it was a powerful opener, but possibly not the best choice, at least not this early in the tour. This was the group's third show, and there were still some knots to unravel; still, there was an energy that's hard to maintain when a group reaches its comfort zone and, despite a few hiccups, by the time Clarke took his first solo of the night, mid-song, all was forgiven.

Testosterone levels were high, and chops were clearly on display, with White continuing his "we're the last [jazz-rock] band standing" intro, but there was something altogether more appealing about this show; nobody in the band was hiding their virtuosity, and there were certainly times where, unlike Mehldau and Redman an hour earlier, they absolutely were the end and not just a means. Still, it seemed somehow more relaxed and less "chops on display," making it more eminently approachable, and just plain fun. Even with White's nightly announcement, there was room for joking, as he began his intro spot—everyone in the band got one, barring Gambale—where he said, "they've introduced you to the band, now let me introduce you to a fan," as he walked over to his drum kit to talk about his blade-less Dyson fan.

Lenny White

The set was a slight abbreviation of the two-set affairs the group is doing elsewhere on the tour, but there was still plenty of room in the two-hour set (including one encore) for some of Hymn's best material, including Corea's "Captain Señor Mouse" and, a set highlight, Clarke's anthemic "After the Cosmic Rain." From Romantic Warrior, in addition to the opener and title track—which provided Gambale one of his few long features of the night, on acoustic guitar and proving the sweeping technique doesn't need overdrive to work—a combination of White's funky "Sorceress" and his "Shadow of Lo," from Where Have I Known You provided some of the set's greasiest, dirtiest, most downright funky grooves. A closing look at "Spain"—originally performed by the first, Latin version of RTF but, as heard on the Return to the Seventh Galaxy (Polydor, 1996) anthology, with Bill Connors in a transitional RTF lineup, a tune that could easily be played with a stronger fusion bent—gave everyone a chance to blow, including White, who took his only solo of the night.

What marred the 2008 tour was a preponderance of lengthy individual solos, and while everyone did get their moment here, it was far more focused on being a group affair, with more detailed arrangements to boot and more succinct soloing. Corea was, as ever, a marvel: his synths tones a little more robust than back in the day; a Fender Rhodes patch that was not quite as gritty, but still dirty enough; and, of course, his distinctive, percussive approach, best felt on acoustic piano.

But if it was a given that Corea, Clarke and White were going to impress—and that Gambale, with less of a name, was going to be a perfect addition to the band—few could have predicted that the real star of the show would be Ponty. Relaxed, and finally getting a chance to speak a little en Français to bilingual Canadians, his reputation has never been built on being a particularly hot player, even in his mid-1970s fusion heyday, but here he was positively on fire, delivering solo after solo of surprising energy, passion and lyricism. It's no surprise that he was given more solo space than anyone else in the band, save, perhaps, for Corea. And as strong as his own solos were, when he entered into trade-offs, things became even more incendiary. His post-1970s career has always been successful but not particularly huge; it's easily possible (and hopeful) that this tour may reignite the violinist's career.

Jean-Luc Ponty

Corea conducted the oddest audience participation segment that Ottawa may have ever seen, getting the crowd of nearly seven thousand to sing along to brief melodic snippets during his solo to "Spain," and when the group came back, in response to an impossible to ignore demand for an encore, the crowd went even wilder, when Clarke started into the iconic, strummed-bass chords of the title track to his hit record, School Days (Epic, 1976). Relatively short, it gave everyone in the band one more chance to shine in an exchange that, like the entire set, surpassed RTF's 2008 show by bringing back all the muscular prerequisites for an evening of high volume, high octane fusion, but without the attitude that marred that tour. These guys came to play; nothing more, nothing less, and there was absolutely no doubt that RTF IV, warts and all, was a better—and happier—touring band.

June 28: Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig

The final day of Ottawa coverage (with six more days left in the festival) couldn't have wrapped up better than a first-time visit to the Improv Invitational Series at the National Arts Centre's intimate, club-like Fourth Stage for an incendiary 90 minutes of freewheeling improvisation by pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist Francois Moutin and drummer Ari Hoenig. It's been nearly a decade since the trio released Welcome Home (Dreyfus, 2002), and all three players have been busy as sidemen and leaders, with Pilc releasing powerful trio recordings like True Story (Dreyfus, 2010), Moutin continuing his ongoing Moutin Reunion Quartet with twin brother/drummer Louis on Soul Dancers (Plus Loin, 2010), and Hoenig growing his discography as a leader with Live at Smalls (Smalls, 2010). Sparks tend to fly, no matter what project these tremendously talented players are pursuing, but when they come together as a trio, there's a particular kind of chemistry that makes for even greater excitement.

Jean-Michel Pilc

"This isn't a trio," said Pilc in the first break after an absolutely exhilarating 45 minutes of improvisational free play that found the trio exploring everything from hard groove and out-of-time expressionism to surprising lyricism and unfettered humor. "It's actually a solo by someone with six arms, six legs, three heads...and I'll stop there as I might get into trouble." Pilc didn't speak much more, but the quick wit he demonstrated when saying, as he returned to the stage with his partners after 85 minutes and an enthusiastic standing ovation from the capacity crowd— "Jazz may be dead, but we're not. Please spread the word; we need to make more money"—reflected a similar Puckish approach to the trio's music.

Not that these aren't anything but serious players. Pilc has, since emerging on the French scene in the early 1990s, delivered album after album of detailed compositional forethought, recklessly unpredictable extemporization and quirky deconstruction, all bolstered by impeccable technique and a touch that seems light but doesn't preclude muscular activity when necessary. Moutin has long demonstrated a penchant for translating the late fretless electric bassist Jaco Pastorius' potent grooves and visceral lyricism to acoustic bass with Moutin Reunion—though that group is informed, in equal parts, by an adherence to tradition and reverence for legacy artists ranging from saxophonists Charlie Parker to John Coltrane—but it's his absolutely unshackled ideas that flow, like an endless stream, and keep that group's greater adherence to form unfailingly exciting, a freedom that he explores more profoundly with Pilc and Hoenig. Hoenig, the youngest of the three, is a drummer who, in his sheer joie de vivre, makes anything he does some serious fun, but supported by an almost unparalleled melodic approach to his small kit.

From left: François Moutin, Ari Hoenig

After a bright opening that saw idea after idea explored, with the smallest motif inspiring shifts into completely different directions, the trio turned to darker, balladic territory, for one of many revelations in a set going from one highpoint to another. Using his elbow to press down on his drums to change the pitch, Hoenig challenged convention by becoming the melodic lead, with Moutin holding down the pulse and Pilc providing spare harmonic support. Even when the mood was introspective and the ambience haunting, humor was never far away, as a sudden shift found the trio swinging furiously, with Hoenig's brushes driving knotty unison lines from Pilc and Moutin. Clearly, this was music with no shortage of open-ended possibilities, but there was also an underlying roadmap, with plenty of cues—largely invisible to any but the most attentive spectator—that gave the trio's extended workouts shape, and a narrative that kept the audience on its toes every moment.

Ari Hoenig

There seemed to be no end to where this group could go and, amidst the myriad of thematic touchstones, the trio often ended up in the most unexpected places as Pilc, in the midst of some particularly outrageous extroversion, suddenly found himself thinking of Christmas in June, driving the group into a brief quip from "Santa Claus is Coming to Town." Near-telepathic chemistry made for a set where, as Pilc suggested, the trio truly acted as one body—not just in the clearly scripted places but, even more excitingly, when eye contact and subtle body movement alone were enough to ensure that this beast with six arms and six legs stopped, started and shifted tempo at the drop of a hat, from incendiary swing to slow, gritty funk and punk rock—or, as Hoenig calls his own group, Punk Bop. It's hard to explain exactly what the music of Pilc/Moutin/Hoenig is, but after Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman's sublime duo set the night before, this trio posited an entirely different approach to collective interplay, one where the whole is not just greater than the sum of its parts, but where it truly is, indeed, a single entity, three players moving as one, regardless of the context.

Visit Kurt Elling , Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White, Jean-Luc Ponty, Frank Gambale, RTF IV, Jean-Michel Pilc, François Moutin, Ari Hoenig and the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.

Photo Credit
John Kelman

Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

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