Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-8: June 21-23, 2012

John Kelman By

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June 25: Dave Douglas and Joe Lovano Sound Prints and Mathias Eick Quintet

If OIJF festival director Catherine O'Grady was responsible for getting the world premier of Prism, she also deserves credit for bringing trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano's nascent Sound Prints group—also featuring pianist Lawrence Fields, up-and-coming bassist Linda May Han Oh and, perhaps only in competition for the title "happiest drummer in jazz" with Matt Wilson, perennial favorite Joey Baron—for its second of just three North American dates before, like Holland, heading across the Atlantic for a 12-date European tour, followed by a return to the US in August for (so far) an additional two dates, and yet another transatlantic flight for 13 additional European shows, coming home again and finishing up the year with a week-long run at the Village Vanguard.

The NAC Studio was the perfect venue for the group, and if the material was unfamiliar—there's no record, at least not yet—it was another case, like Holland and Prism, of a group so new to the material that fireworks began going off from the get-go. Any group that has Baron in the engine room is assured an intrinsic rhythmic unpredictability, as the drummer pushed the pulse but peppered it with unexpected punctuations—at times, all the more dramatic for his complete command of dynamics, as he went from thundering explosions to quiet but fervent swing, all at the drop of a hat.

Sometimes an all-star combination sounds great on paper but is less successful in reality, but if the group's evening show was anything to go by—and considering this is still early days—Sound Prints has a great future ahead, and with bookings already out into 2013, it's clear that Douglas and Lovano are firmly committed to this project. Both leaders have built strong reputations predicated on an appreciation for and knowledge of the tradition, though Douglas has, for the most part, veered off into greater extensions of that tradition, whether it's on tribute recordings like Stargazer (Arabesque, 1996) and Soul on Soul (RCA, 2000), the Eastern European-informed Tiny Bell Trio and Charms of the Night Sky quartet, or more electronic-centric groups like Keystone. Lovano—despite more outré leanings in a longstanding trio with guitarist Bill Frisell that is, sadly, now at an end with the passing of drummer/leader Paul Motian in 2011—has been much more centrist in his own recordings, though not without an inimitable stamp. Just as he was nurtured by older players early in his career, the saxophonist has been paying it forward with groups like US Five, whose 2009 Blue Note debut, Folk Art, was an early indicator that bassist Esperanza Spalding—now a jazz superstar, thanks to her 2011 Grammy win for Best New Artist (not Best New Jazz Artist, mind you; Best New Artist, period)—was someone to watch, and watch closely.

But if Lovano's heart is in the tradition, that's not to suggest he's without risk—his Saxophone Summit group, with fellow saxophonists Dave Liebman and Ravi Coltrane, has made that perfectly clear, and Sound Prints was a group all about the nexus of predetermined roadmaps and copious happy accidents. Lovano combined with Douglas in remarkable simpatico for a set of largely new material inspired, at least in spirit, by Wayne Shorter. Sound Prints swung hard, to be sure, opening up into freer territory at times, and delivering lyrical yet sophisticated ballads, all with the kind of chemistry that usually takes considerably more time to find. Fields, a pianist who first gained some attention in drummer Jeff "Tain" Watts' group six years ago—and who may now be in his mid-to-late twenties, but looks like he's barely started shaving—was the group's only weak link. A capable accompanist, yes; but compared to the arson going on around him, a somewhat pedestrian soloist. Still, it's early days and, as the set progressed, he did open up more; clearly Douglas and Lovano see something in him, so perhaps it's just a matter of time before the audience does, too.

Oh, on the other hand, looks just as young but has already racked up some significant accomplishments—in addition to her own releases, including this year's impressive Initial Here, on Douglas' own Greenleaf Music label, she is also a member of the trumpeter's quintet responsible for last year's fine Orange Afternoons (Greenleaf). Young she may be, but Douglas' confidence in the young Malaysian-born/Australian-raised bassist has clearly been justified, as she worked hand-in-glove with Baron and, in a relatively rare solo opportunity in the set, demonstrated not just virtuosic talent, but a kind of muscular tone that was paradoxical, given her diminutive size and small, delicate fingers.

With Lovano and Douglas sharing composition duties, there was plenty of strong writing to provide the context over which Sound Prints delivered a set that garnered an explosive standing ovation at the end of the set. Hopefully a recording will be coming, and if its Ottawa show was any indication, Douglas and Lovano might well consider the idea of making it a live one.

Moving to the Fourth Stage for a 9PM show, trumpet was the thread that joined it to Sound Prints, but Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick couldn't have been more different—either as a writer or a player. If there's a specific touchstone to Eick as a trumpeter, it's Canadian expat Kenny Wheeler, though beyond a kind of lyrical melancholy, there's more separating the two than there is commonality. The barely 30 year-old Eick has, after all, been working beyond the jazz purview with everything from rock groups to the inestimable and category-averse Jaga Jazzist, which blew away audiences in Ottawa and Montréal last year. But if Jaga was defined by its weird amalgam of jazz, classical minimalism, progressive rock and, like Frank Zappa, a predilection for tuned percussion, Eick's quintet felt more definitively Nordic in tone.

It's been a little more than a year since catching Eick and his group in Bremen, Germany as part of Jazzahead! 2011, but if there have been some personnel changes since the trumpeter's second ECM set, Skala (2011), with bassist Auden Erlien and drummer Erland Dahlen replaced, respectively, by Elephant9's Nikolai Eiletsen and Espen Eriksen Trio drummer Andreas Bye, the core of Eick, drummer Gard Nilssen and, particularly, keyboardist Andreas Ulvo ensured plenty of continuity.

The set drew heavily from Skala, but also from Eick's more acoustic ECM debut, The Door—but with Ulvo augmenting his grand piano with Fender Rhodes and synth, and Eick employing, along with his own small keyboard, a variety of effects that included looping and pitch shifting, songs like "Williamsburg" took on considerable more weight. Even darker tunes like "Cologne Blues" (not, in any way, a blues, but certainly blue in tone) were delivered with a greater dynamic range.

With two drummers and Eick and Ulvo's expansive gear, the Fourth Stage's normal stage footprint was simply too small to contain the group, much as happened in 2006 when trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer played the same room. With the power of two drummers, and a bassist with a huge sound, there was a lot of sound blowing off the stage; that said, the sound in the room was surprisingly good, thanks to the NAC engineers, collaborating with the group's traveling soundman; clearly, however, this was a group that needed to be in a bigger hall.

Ulvo shone; a member of Eple Trio, he's a pianist with broad dynamics, great ears and tremendous sensitivity, even when the volume of the group cranked up to nearly eleven. He spent considerably more time inside the piano box, strumming the strings, or muting them to create a more staccato sound, and soloed with great invention, garnering huge rounds of applause from an audience in which many people were hearing Eick for the first time but, based on the show, clearly not the last. Bye—whose work with Espen Eriksen Trio is similarly lyrical but far gentler and at far lower volumes—was perhaps the show's biggest surprise, attacking the kit with finessed energy and locking in with Nilssen in ways that seemed scripted but, in conversation after the show, revealed that, in fact, these moments of synchronicity were completely unplanned and a sign of just how well these two drummers worked together. Two drummers is a risky proposition, especially if there are any egos and competitive natures involved; but they way in which Nilssen and Bye worked together, allowing each other plenty of space and joining together for some absolutely thundering grooves, was nothing short of remarkable. And Eick gave them some well-deserved solo space, both a cappella and playing over repetitive motifs from the rest of the group.

Eick was, as ever, inspired and inspirational, his intrinsic lyrical sense and seamless command of technology allowing him to create small horn choruses over which he layered lines both improvised and scripted. This may be Eick's first visit to North America as a leader, but hopefully it won't be his last—and if the response is as enthusiastic elsewhere as it was here in Ottawa, a return trip seems an absolute certainty.

June 27: Bill Frisell Plays Lennon

The last time guitarist Bill Frisell was in town it was for a two-night By Invitation run in the same venue, the NAC Studio, where he debuted his then-new Beautiful Dreamers trio and a sublime second evening with his longer-running 858 Quartet. This time, the veteran guitarist was back to promote his John Lennon tribute, All We Are Saying... (Savoy Jazz, 2012). Frisell brought the same group that recorded the album, with the exception of absent violinist Jenny Scheinman—pedal and lap steel guitarist Greg Liesz, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen. There were those who felt that Frisell's Lennon project wouldn't be up to his original music, or previous Ottawa shows. How wrong they were.

After a transcendent 75-minute 7PM set that slowly found its feet with "Across the Universe" and, with no particular plan, wound its way through songs including "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Come Together," "Number 9 Dream" and "In My Life," the audience was so spellbound that when it finally returned to earth, the standing ovation was so enthusiastic that, as Frisell returned to the stage for an encore of "Imagine," he asked, in his inimitably gentle fashion, "Would you be able to come back at nine o'clock? We'd really appreciate it." And, sure enough, there were those who did try to find a way to get into that second show, which featured an almost entirely different set list, albeit culled from the same album.

What that demonstrated was how much freedom Frisell creates, regardless of the context, and how much everyone trusts each other in his groups. The recording may be a little more faithful, but no matter how far Frisell and his group stretched the material in concert—taking every liberty imaginable—a clear connection to it was ever-present, going beyond respect into the realm of reverence. The group found curious, dreamy ways to segue spontaneously—but often with great patience and over no small amount of time—between tunes cued in by someone, anyone—whether it was Scherr, slowly bringing the quartet around to "Come Together" with (barely) recognizable implication that ultimately found its way to the familiar bass line, picked up by Wollesen, channeling his inner Ringo to be sure, but with a lazy behind-the-beat approach, or Frisell doing nothing more than playing a couple of chords to rally everyone for "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," which the group extended into a near-anthemic highlight of the set that seemed to build relentlessly, but for exactly the right amount of time.

The simpatico amongst the players, in particular Scherr and Frisell—who, facing each other from opposite sides of the stage, shared a connection so palpable it could almost be touched—was key to the success of a show that was based on form, but as free as any jazz show at the festival. And while one local festival-goer posted on Facebook "C & W with rock rhythms!," the truth was something else. No, this was absolutely not an in-the-tradition set; and yet, there were times when the group swung joyfully; periods when the group rocked out with abandon; passages when, indeed, Liesz's pedal steel gave it a country and western vibe; and moments when the group headed way out into the ether, with Frisell employing his usual bag of sonic tricks, but Liesz, too, expanding the rich sound of his pedal and lap steel—in particular on a commanding, visceral "Come Together." Liesz was, in fact, especially strong without ever actually dominating; this was, after all, a group that rarely took real delineated solos but, instead just kneaded the music, molding it into various shapes shape throughout, with individual players occasionally coming forward in the mix, only to subsume once again in this greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts whole.

A couple of technical matters made the show all the more noteworthy. For the first time in at least a decade, Frisell did not come to town with a custom-build variant on a Fender Telecaster. Instead, he opted for a Gibson ES-335-looking axe that didn't have the twang of a Fender, yet proved, for those in doubt, that it ain't the gear; it's the person playing it. Equally significant was the absence of stage monitors; this was a rare group that, with three amplified instruments, still managed to create a working stage mix without any external assistance. Scherr, after the show, admitted, "If I can't hear everybody then I'm too loud," but the tacit response—to turn down (which is what he did)—is not what always happens. That seemingly simple truth—that everyone in the group was about hearing each other and communicating with each other—was undeniably at the core of one of the most memorable Frisell shows this city has seen, in the numerous performances he has given since first coming to town in 1989.



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