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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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Days 1-3 | Days 4-6

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 99), 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.


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