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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 4-6

John Kelman By

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June 24: Bill Frisell: Guitar in the Space Age!

Since 2010, guitarist Bill Frisell has been making regular appearances at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival every two years. His last appearance in 2012, performing the music of John Lennon, was so utterly transcendent that it's still being talked about as one of the best shows local Frisell fans have ever seen.

Which set the bar high for his latest project, Guitar in the Space Age! . Whether or not it reached the sheer heights of his Lennon tribute, Frisell's 2014 appearance was a contrast in that most times he tours he's touring a record that's already out. In this case, with the album not due until October, fans were walking into the music cold...but by the time the 90-minute set (including encores) was over, there's no doubt that things in the National Arts Centre's Studio were much, much warmer, as Frisell worked his way through a set of material culled from the '60s, guitar-based groups that were important to him during his formative years ranging from rock groups like The Byrds and The Kinks to country pickers Chet Atkins and Merle Travis, surf music legends The Beach Boys and The Ventures, and a host of others.

Bringing back the same group from 2012—bassist Tony Scherr, drummer Kenny Wollesen and pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz—this time also spending plenty of time playing an old Fender Jazzmaster guitar that had at least one guitarist in the crowd trying to figure out a way he could take it home with him after the show—Frisell approached his set the same way he did the Lennon tribute: with a book of songs from which to cull, but with little defined in the set list; other, perhaps, than the opening and closing tunes and a couple of occasions where transitions were clearly planned, nobody, not even his band mates, necessarily knew what was coming next. It kept everyone, including the audience, on their toes and was, as ever, a marvel to experience, as the slightest turn of a phrase could signal a shift from one song to the next.

With Leisz playing a lot of guitar in addition to pedal steel, he proved a more grounded alternative to Frisell's ever-idiosyncratic approach to even the simplest of triads. Somehow, the way Frisell phrased, the way he moved chords up and down his neck, there was always something distinctly him, but if Guitar in the Space Age! was different from past performances, it was in that there were often more delineated solos, times where both Leisz and Frisell were front and center in the mix. It was also the first time in memory that Frisell has used a guitar with a whammy bar—a prerequisite for this kind of music, really—so that when both he and Leisz were leaning on their own individual bars, there were some seriously psychedelic moments to be had amongst the instances of country, blues, surf and rock that formed the basis of their set.

"I have to apologize to you guys," Frisell said, early in the show, as looked to one part of the jam-packed, sold-out audience but then changed his mind, continuing "actually, to everyone for having to look at my ass...I've gotta look at these guys," referring to his band, "or I lose my concentration...," pausing, and then adding, "See? It just happened." If anything, this was one of the most relaxed shows Frisell has given in recent memory, and if there was lots of eye contact going on, there were even more smiles...sometimes, even, some real, flat-out laughter. Clearly this was a band that enjoyed more than just playing together, and that's really how the best music is made, an unmistakable connection to the previous night's Tedeschi Trucks Band show.

Some of the highlights of the set were a relatively faithful—at least, initially— version of Link Wray's thundering "Rumble," featured prominently in Quentin Tarrantino's 1994 film, Pulp Fiction; a look at The Kinks' "Tired of Waiting" that went places its writer, Ray Davies, likely would never have imagined possible as it turned more psychedelic, with Frisell's overdriven, whammy bar-inflected playing moved into Jimi Hendrix territory while never losing the quirky approach to phrasing that makes everything he plays so instantly recognizable, before suddenly leaping into a more classically funky look at the Junior Wells classic, "Messin' With the Kid"; a version of The Byrds' classic, "Turn, Turn, Turn" that while, faithful to form—and driven with total credibility by Scherr and Wollesen's in-the-pocket groove—turned into another extended excursion for Frisell and Leisz; and a rousing closer, The Chantays' classic "Pipeline," also covered by The Ventures.

It may have been rock 'n' roll, country, blues, surf and a whole lot of music not associated with jazz but, as ever, Frisell managed to open the music up while, at the same time, being completely reverent and respectful. There were moments of lush ambient clouds; passages so wry that you didn't need to see the faces of the group to know they were laughing; gritty excursions into extremes Frisell has rarely explored in recent years; and songs, songs and more songs that may not have been in the DNA of some of the younger folks in the audience—and there were many. Still, for those born anytime before 1960, this was the music of their childhood, their teenage years or early adulthood—those times when music often makes its most lasting impression. Clearly, irrespective of where Frisell's career has led him over the past four decades—from skronking noise to lush Americana—this music, this Guitar in the Space Age! , has been a seminal part of who he is, something he and his group made patently clear with their first of two 2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival performances.

June 25: Julian Lage & Nels Cline

If the 23rd and 24th of June were a guitarist's dream, then the 25th was even more heavenly, featuring not just one, but two terrific shows from guitarists spanning two (maybe two-and-a-half) generations.

First up, at the Fourth Stage's Improv Invitational series, guitarists Nels Cline and Julian Lage delivered a duo set that was all the more remarkable for the relatively short time that the two have been working together.
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