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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 4-6

John Kelman By

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Relocating from the air conditioned comfort of the NAC Studio (where Guitar in the Space Age! took place the previous night), Frisell, Scherr, Wollesen and, for the first time performing the Keaton music, pedal steel guitarist Greg Leisz, relocated to the Laurier Avenue Canadian Music Stage for his 10:30PM performance as part of the festival's OLG After Dark series. A tented venue, there was no protection from the muggy weather that settled into the city after the previous day's day-long torrential downpour. With a line already starting to form 45 minutes before the show, it was clear the Ottawa audience knew it was getting the chance to see a rarely performed piece of music...but what came as the biggest surprise was that there was no music from the original Frisell soundtrack to be found. Instead, with just one four-hour rehearsal taking place the day of the performance, the guitarist put together a completely different set of material—material that the members of his group have been playing for years, culled from Nonesuch albums like 1999's Good Dog Happy Man ("Monroe"), 1998's Gone Just Like a Train ("Blues for Los Angeles"), and 1996's Nashville ("Keep Your Eyes Open").

Still, while the music consisted of charts largely culled from other sets, how Frisell and his group put them together in support of Keaton's 69-minute feature—the heartwarming story of a man, a woman...and a cow—was not just remarkable in how it was malleably reshaped to suit the subject matter, but how together the whole thing sounded, with some very quick cuts between songs articulated in the "road map" charts sitting in front of each musician, along with a monitor so they could follow the film that was being projected on a larger screen above them.

While everyone performed well—better, even, when considering how little rehearsal there was and how, as always, Frisell left plenty of room for collective interpretation—if there was a star of the show it was Wollesen. Nailing so many cues, as he did, it was hard to believe, as he explained after the show, that he'd only watched the movie that morning, followed by two run-throughs at rehearsal. Whether it was Keaton falling off the westbound train in a barrel that smashed to pieces after rolling down a hill, a bull aiming straight for Keaton, only to be stopped from running into him at the last minute by the cow he'd by this time in the film befriended, a gunfight with some would- be train robbers and the chaos that ensued when the train arrived in Pasedena and the slaughterhouse where Keaton's bovine friend was due for an untimely end, or the huge number of cattle ("hundreds!" one policeman reports to his chief; "thousands!" says the next; "MILLIONS!!" says another), before the police run outside and pandemonium ensues, Wollesen somehow managed to maintain the grooves, locked in with the similarly responsive Scherr while, at the same time, catching so many of the film's hilarious slapstick moments.

By the end, as Keaton—dressed in a red devil suit, ultimately corralling the cattle into the pens and, taking off the costume as he catches the tail on a wooden gate and pulls hard to get his last foot out of the suit to one final crash from the drummer— saves the day for his cattle farm employer and, in the process, not only wins his bovine pals freedom but gets the gal, too, the four of them driving off in a car for a closing image that must surely have been the inspiration for the old 1960s Beverley Hillbillies television show—the entire group was clearly having a blast, each of them contributing their part to bringing this silent film alive to an audience laughing its way through the entire 70-minute performance. From Leisz's atypical colors on pedal steel—at one point, with tremolo and well-chosen notes, sounding like the plaintive bawl of Keaton's cow—to Frisell's quirkily constructed lines and specific themes that represented specific characters in the film, Scherr's split-second shifts and Wollesen's absolute nailing the visuals, it may actually have surpassed the original soundtrack from '95.

Perhaps it was because it wasn't so rigorously rehearsed or played so many times as to be totally familiar that the quartet's delivery was so fresh— and, as the film progressed, everyone seemed to loosen up and have more and more fun with it—that this was such great fun. While the original soundtrack is still available, Frisell's Ottawa performance of Go West was the kind of one-off show that would be a great addition to his ongoing Live Download Series, which has made performances dating back to some of the guitarist's early shows as a leader in 1989, right up to more recent sets from 2011, available for download in lossy and lossless compression formats.

One can only hope.


Photo Credit: John Kelman

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

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