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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.
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