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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 1-2

John Kelman By

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Days 1-2 | Days 4-6 | Days 7- 9

Joey DeFrancesco Trio / Sun Rooms / Harris Eisenstadt Golden State
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 20-July 1, 2014

Another year, another TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, except to say so would sound dismissive of a festival that, year after year—now, in 2014, in presenting its 34th edition—has managed to address the challenges of festival programming for a musical genre where the majority of the attendees is in the gray hair or no hair demographic.

And it's not been without its detractors; when the festival made the decision in 2011—partly for financial reasons, and partly because it recognized that, in order to survive, it had to begin bringing in acts that would appeal to a broader (read: younger) demographic—to start programming tangential or completely extracurricular acts to its main stage at Confederation Park, there was a lot of noise about it no longer being a jazz festival, because it had deserted its previous purity of programming (for more information, check out When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival).

The truth, however, is that the Ottawa Jazz Festival has retained its right to "Jazz Festival" status through its rich, varied and almost entirely jazz-centric programming in a number of indoor venues, while broadening the purview of its main stage—which still features some terrific Canadian jazz content, most nights, at its 6:30P:M Great Canadian Jazz series that comes before the Concert Under the Stars main event—to include artists, this year, ranging from Bollywood star Richa Sharma and Canadian blues belter Colin James to (at last!) the Tedeschi Trucks Band and Daniel Lanois. Yes, the Concert Under the Stars series also has Bobby McFerrin and, again on the bluesier side, Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, but for the most part this year, once 8:30PM rolls around at the main stage, the content is, at best peripherally related to jazz.

And that's ok, because at the indoor venues that include the National Arts Centre's intimate Fourth Stage, where the Improv Invitational series is bringing a total of 26 shows ranging from the more avant-leaning Sun Rooms and Harris Eisenstadt's Golden State, rising star Ambrose Akinmusire and the promising guitar duo of Julian Lage and Nels Cline, Britain's legendary vocalist Norma Winstone and contemporary style-mashers Partisans, to Norway's wonderful Susanna and guitar power trios Hedvig Mollestad Thomassen Trio and Bushman's Revenge, Israel's Anat Fort and Shai Maestro, and Swedish/Danish groups including David's Angels and Torben Waldorff Quartet. The program at the Fourth Stage is, this year, so good, that it's a challenge to not just stay there, rather than go to some of the other venues/series on offer.

Like the Studio series at the NAC Studio, a larger but still intimate venue where everyone from organ master Joey DeFrancesco, Hiromi, Bill Frisell , Rudresh Mahanthappa's Gamak, Newport Jazz Festival: Now 60 celebration, Jeff Ballard and Christian McBride will bring projects old and new, and the Tartan Homes Signature series at Dominion-Chalmers United Church, where everyone from The Bad Plus, Holly Cole, Bela Fleck and Jill Barber, amongst others, will hold sway.

But perhaps the venue with the greatest overall potential to bridge the demographic gap (some might call it an abyss) is the late-night OLG After Dark Series, which brings more youthful groups like the up-and-coming Snarky Puppy, The Mahones, DFJ Rekha (continuing the Bollywood theme of the main stage's opening night), Torontonian electronic music scene's Austra, the hip hop- laden, funky and Klezmer-oriented Socalled, seminal N'awlins party band Dirty Dozen Brass Band and, a real coup, Frisell performing his music from Music for the Films of Buster Keaton: Go West (Nonesuch, 1995), with the film—something he last toured in 1995 and has rarely been seen since.

If there's anything particularly special about the 2014 edition of the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival is that it's clearly redefined itself as a festival whose primary purview is—and always will be—jazz, but is also a festival that is looking to bring other people through its gates, and has become increasingly successful at youth programming that will, hopefully, slowly shift its overall demographic to a more balanced one over time. Only time will tell, but it does appear to be working.

June 20: Joey DeFrancesco Trio

While opening night at the main stage was a Bollywood extravaganza, organist/trumpeter Joey DeFrancesco truly opened the 2014 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival with a hard-swinging, instrumentally impressive and thoroughly entertaining set that had the packed house at the NAC studio clapping along, screaming their appreciation and just flat-out enjoying themselves.

"I love Canada," said DeFrancesco, upon taking the stage for his 7:00PM performance to a huge round of applause. He took little time to get down to business with a crack trio featuring guitarist Jeff Parker and George Fludas, diving into Horace Silver's "Sister Sadie" with the kind of effortless virtuosity that established DeFrancesco as a serious Hammond threat back in the late '80s, when his Columbia Records debut, All of Me (1989), along with recordings and/or tours with Houston Person and Grover Washington Jr., was widely noted for refreshing the field for his unwieldy but, in the right hands, versatile instrument. A three-year stint with John McLaughlin's Free Spirits trio in the mid-'90s cemented the Philadelphian's reputation, and he's since amassed a significant discography as a leader—his Enjoy the View (Blue Note, 2014) just one more milestone in a career filled with them.

While DeFrancesco released Finger Poppin': Celebrating the Music of Horace Silver (Doodlin, 2009)—an entire album dedicated to the influential pianist who, sadly, passed away only a two days prior to the organist's Ottawa appearance—not only did it not include Silver's classic "Sister Sadie," but if he was to be believed, this was the first time the trio had played the song. And why not believe him, when he told the crowd, after a more suitably laidback look at the Great American Songbook chestnut "Darn The Dream," that it was a first-time performance as well? One of the most instantly noticeable aspects to his 100-minute show was that it was big on surprise—not just for the audience, and not just for his trio, but for DeFrancesco himself. As he got ready to introduce the third song, he said "Next....I'll let you know when I know; that's not kidding, that's part of the act."

Later, as he got ready to introduce another tune after a suitably down-tempo but soul-drenched look at Gil Evans' "Blues for Pablo," which also featured DeFrancesco on trumpet—perhaps not as strong a player as on organ, but still plenty strong enough, and an instrument that, once it was out, ended up being a much bigger part of the set than expected—he said "We're gonna do....ah, I'll just do it," as he dived into a gospel-tinged, soul-drenched song that ultimately had so many false endings and excursions into other musical territories that most trying to keep up lost count.

The sheer excitement of DeFrancesco's ability to take any song and make it his own—fresh, filled with invention and, while totally in the tradition, demonstrating that the tradition still has a significant place in the 21st century—was balanced by an ability to play everything with an in-the-moment spontaneity that kept his trio constantly on its toes. Parker, who is more often associated with more modernistic work ranging from his own slightly avant-leaning The Relatives (Thrill Jockey, 2009) and collaborations with fellow Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell to post-rock progenitors Tortoise—demonstrated a clear knowledge of not just the jazz tradition; when DeFrancesco took his gospel tune through those many false endings, and suddenly found himself in visceral funk territory, Parker proved himself capable in pretty much any context, as he kicked in his wah wah pedal and turned into a completely different guitarist from the expressive mainstreamer he'd been until then. Like DeFrancesco, he may have been seated on a stool, but his facial expressions and body language made him as fun to watch as he was engaging to hear.

DeFrancesco, too, was nothing if not a consummate showman. Beyond constant eye contact with his trio mates, he seemed to have his eye on the audience at all times, too, with facial expressions that didn't just reflect his own engagement with the music, but seemed to connect with the crowd and make them more a part of the proceedings rather than mere spectators. All he had to do was clap his hands a couple of times, and he got the whole crowd clapping along.

Fludas may be the least-known of DeFrancesco's trio—though, with a resume that also includes Monty Alexander, Clark Terry, {Ray Brown}} and Eric Alexander, he's far from lacking in cred—but he was as capable as Parker at keeping up with DeFrancesco's loose approach to letting songs go where they may, pushing both the organist and guitarist by picking up on just the right amount of where they were heading, but also swinging hard and loose, with a totally relaxed approach to his instrument that mirrored those around him.

Even DeFrancesco's overall set list—after opening with a barnstormer and following with a ballad to cool things off—lost the kind of planned arc that would normally build the show to a close with another high energy tune. Instead, after finishing with "Old Folks" and another unannounced tune where DeFrancesco threw in references to other songs and looked out at the audience as if to say, "got that?," he simply finished by saying "I could play all night for you guys," took a bow with the trio, and left the stage.

A lot of performers say that but, after a beautiful encore, where he came center stage for a balladic flugelhorn duo with Parker, as DeFrancesco kicked off the festival with one of its most engaging, entertaining and exhilarating openers in recent years, it really felt like he meant it.

June 21: Sun Rooms

From the NAC Studio it's a short walk to the Fourth Stage, but the two rooms couldn't be more different in their programming. While not exclusively so, the Fourth Stage's Improv Invitational series is the place those who are looking for more left-of-center music go, and for a series that was only launched by Festival Director Catherine O'Grady just a few years ago, it's turned into one of its most eagerly anticipated, as artists from around the world are brought to its intimate stage and club- like atmosphere.

The festival's second day was definitely more avant-leaning. First up, Sun Rooms—the trio led by adventurous vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz and also including fellow Chicagoan and leader in his own right, Mike Reed, with expat Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten replacing the group's regular bassist, Nate McBride, for this tour—delivered an hour- long set that challenged preconceptions about what Adasiewicz's chosen instrument can be.

Whether the music is more angular and aggressive, more low-keyed and soft, or somewhere in between—swinging in a free bop fashion—Adasiewicz's approach to the vibes is to play it hard; to make ample use of its sustaining capabilities; and to use its tremolo as a defining characteristic. Many modern vibraphonist don't use the instrument's built-in tremolo at all, but Adasiewicz used it to great effect, altering the speed to match the tempo of a given composition and allowing huge, sustaining chords to ring out and spin almost out of control, before he leapt back onto the instrument with a powerfully visual approach that had him dripping in sweat within minutes of Sun Room's opener—a fast-paced swinger where Flaten walked like a man possessed, Reed (eyes almost always on Adasiewicz) managing to hold things down and play with a kind of effortless interpretive energy.

While the sound in the room is normally great—and certainly when Harris Eisenstadt took over the stage two hours later at 7:00PM—it was not optimal for Sun Rooms, where the percussive tone of Håker Flaten sometimes got lost in the shuffle when it came to clear definition; and while Adasiewicz's approach is clears as a bell on record, in the room it was, like the bassist, a little muddy and weak in definition, making some of the more lyrical tunes like "Rose Garden," written for his first daughter Isabella, less effective than it should have been.

But sound aside; Adasiewicz was an animated performer with a lot of ideas, but with enough restraint not to be trying to get them all out at once. There was, in fact, significant consideration to space, to texture and to unusual compositional constructs— one tune even starting with Adasiewicz and Håker Flaten doubling a repetitive line, and Reed acting as the lead instrument. Still only in his mid-thirties, Adasiewicz has created a very personal space for his instrument, one that's sharply contrasted with other contemporary vibraphonists like Joe Locke and Stefon Harris. Clearly coming from the Chicago scene that, in the '60s, spawned the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), as much as the music affords plenty of freedom, it's not without form, albeit oftentimes form of a rather abstruse nature.

The house was, perhaps, half-filled, but the response was more enthusiastic than that relatively small number (80-90 people) might suggest. Sun Rooms may not have been known to some of the people attending its Ottawa debut, but the group undoubtedly left the city with a few more fans than it had when it arrived, by car, from Hamilton literally just before the show ("It feels good to arrive by car and go right onstage," Adasiewicz said at the start of the show).

June 21: Harris Eisenstadt Golden State

Eisenstadt has been to Ottawa a number of times, including an impressive 2008 appearance at the now-retired Library and Archives Canada, with his Toronto Quartet. For his 2014 show, he brought his Golden State Quartet, which is in the middle of a cross-Canada tour with one stop in the US, and while the group could be said to be operating at a disadvantage, with regular flautist Nicole Mitchell unable to make it due to a family health emergency (happily, resolving positively), any group able to bring in clarinetist Michael Moore as a last minute replacement is far from being at a disadvantage.

There may be some unexpected benefits, in fact, in the quartet's blend of clarinet with Sara Schoenbeck's bassoon—two reed instruments that really worked together timbrally—alongside Eisenstadt's relaxed and largely light approach to the kit and Golden State's real secret weapon: bassist Mark Dresser, who has also been to Ottawa before, in particular for a tremendous two- bass night in 2005 with John Geggie, at the local bassist's sadly now-defunct annual NAC series. Dresser is a bassist whose reputation is huge but whose name brand is, unfortunately, not at the same level. A true master of his instrument, Dresser managed to pull sounds out of his bass with just two hands and, occasionally, a bow, rather than relying on the preparations that so many others use to eke unusual textures from their instrument. From thin, buzzing notes and double-line melodies, played with two hands tapping on the neck that moved, in glissando, towards each other only to meet and once again diverge, to striking his strings with great dramatic sweeps of his right arm, Dresser was, as ever, a revelation throughout this set of Eisenstadt originals—all of them new, none of them appearing on his first CD with this group, Golden State (Songlines, 2013).

Eisenstadt's writing was, as ever, a mix of music that was more like contemporary chamber music and sketch-like constructs that left plenty of freedom for his group to navigate into uncharted territory. Fluid and so relaxed that he almost seemed about to fall off his drum stool, Eisenstadt was an intriguing contrast to Sun Room's Mike Reed, less direct and more implicit, though there were moments where he locked into firm grooves with Dresser—one, in particular, that was reminiscent of Norwegian bassist Arild Andersen's recent show at Mai Jazz in Stavanger, Norway, but illustrating just how different even that similarity can be in the hands of two different sets of musicians: one, free and loose but more direct; the other, equally free and loose, but more suggestive and indirect.

Schoenbeck was, as ever, a remarkable performer—improvising, as she does, on one of the most difficult instruments on which to do so. That she has to deal with thirteen thumb keys alone goes a long way to understanding just why the bassoon is considered one of the most difficult instruments on which to improvise, but Schoenbeck managed to transcend such limitations and deliver solos that were a combination of oblique melodies, occasional extended techniques like multiphonics, and some less even expected textures. Moore, too, brought together more easy-to-grasp linearity with some truly remarkable techniques that created things like fast trilling and harsher timbres. But when Moore and Schoenbeck came together, either in unison lines or with individual melodies that circled around each other, approached each other for brief unisons only to split apart again? Pure magic.

Magic which must be attributable to Eisenstadt, truly a rare compositional talent. With such a relaxed vibe and a constant smile on his face, it's no surprise that the drummer is able to come up with such curious titles as "A Particularity With A Universal Resonance," "The Arrangement of Unequal Things" and "A Kind of Resigned Indignation." This was music that may have appeared both rigorous and serious, but watching Eisenstadt, Dresser, Schoenbeck and Moore, it was also music played with a certain degree of levity by a quartet that was clearly enjoying itself. That the slightly fuller house at the Fourth Stage appeared to be in complete accordance only suggest that Golden State may well be onto something very good, indeed.


Photo Credit: John R. Fowler

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