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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 7-9

John Kelman By

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

Anat Fort / Susanna
Torben Waldorff Wah Wah / Norma WInstone
Partisans
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 20-July 1, 2014

For the last three days in Ottawa before heading to Montréal for five days of the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the emphasis was entirely on the Improv Invitational series, at the National Arts Centre's intimate, club-like Fourth Stage. It was an eclectic mix of artists, ranging from an Israeli pianist, a Norwegian singer/songwriter and a Danish guitarist to two artists from the broad-spectrum British scene: one, a legend, the other, if not exactly a legend, then at the very least a group considered to be the founding father of the current British revival that includes groups like Polar Bear and Led Bib.

With temperatures and humidity soaring outside, the dark, cool Fourth Stage seemed like the perfect place to be for three days of music ranging from contemporary, rock-informed jazz and beautiful voc al interpretations to a taste of Norwegian gloom and one of the finest solo piano recitals to hit Ottawa since the elimination of the late afternoon Connoisseur Series a few years back.

June 26: Anat Fort

She may have first found her way onto the international map with A Long Story, her 2007 debut for ECM Records, but pianist Anat Fort—who spent nearly two decades living in New York City before returning to her Israeli homeland five years ago—had already begun the slow build of a career back in 1999, when she released Peel (Self Produced), a year before forming the longstanding trio which was finally documented when the pianist released her follow-up to A Long Story, And If (ECM, 2010).

Fort's next recording is already in preparation—another recording with her trio but, this time, also featuring guest clarinetist/saxophonist/ECM label mate Gianluigi Trovesi—but for her 6:00PM Ottawa show at the Fourth Stage, Fort traveled the long distance from Israel on her own, for a solo piano recital that, while less well-attended than it should have been, clearly garnered some new fans along with those already familiar with her focused, lyrical approach to both composition and performance.

The diminutive pianist came onstage and, following a moment of silent preparation, launched into "Lullaby" from A Long Story. Hearing the piece solo contrasted substantially from the freer approach on the record, which also featured clarinetist Perry Robinson, bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Paul Motian, to whom the pianist later paid tribute with a piece, appropriately enough, titled "Paul Motian" (two versions of which bookend As If). While Fort's music contains clear structure, there's plenty of space for both embellishment and flat-out extemporization, and from the opening minutes of her performance certain characteristics to her playing—most particularly a very personal use of the sustain pedal to create chords that would ring out briefly, only to be quickly cut short as she released the pedal, creating a specific kind of tension and release that was subtle but palpable.

A relaxed performer, Fort quickly created a comfortable rapport with her audience. She introduced all her songs, often explaining the meaning behind their titles. One, מְלָפְפוֹן or "Me'laf'fon" in Hebrew, translates into "cucumber" in English and, according to Fort, had no other meaning than it being an interesting sounding word; others, like And If's "Lanesboro," referred to personal experiences, in this case the Minnesota town where she spent time in a retreat, composing; and still others, like the same album's "Clouds Moving," while written for the Minnesota skies, made more personal for the pianist's Ottawa audience by relating how, after waking up earlier today following an early morning (and five-hour late) arrival by plane, she saw similar movement in the Ottawa sky and, so, dedicated the song to them.

It was an all-too-short performance at just over an hour including a well-deserved encore, but it was plenty long enough to establish Fort's increasing potential for broader recognition. Even when there was complexity in the music, as in "Clouds Moving," Fort delivered it with such fluid ease as to make it not just seem easy, but to make an irregularly metered song that alternated bars of 5/4 and 4/4, feel utterly natural. And when the music was spare and gentle, as was her delicate encore of "Lanesboro," it was clear that beneath such a simple construct lay greater depth and profundity. It was the year's only solo piano performance and strongly suggested that, if Fort's next recording is to be a quartet date, then ECM should seriously consider a solo recording when the time comes for her fourth recording for the label.

June 26: Susanna

A dark, moody performance by Susanna, with her group Susanna, was one of those Fourth Stage performances that really should have been better attended; all that meant was that those who did decide to forego at least the first part of the main stage show at Confederation Park were treated to something the city rarely gets to experience—one of Norway's most intriguing piano-playing singers/songwriters whose music was dark, moody and largely very down-tempo; music that demanded as much of its audience as it did the group that played it. "Thank you for not going to Earth, Wind & Fire," Susanna quipped coyly, early in the set.

In addition to Susanna (sister of ECM recording artist, pianist Christian Wallumrød), her touring trio—which, after some west coast dates wrapped up a short North American tour in Rochester, NY the following evening—included brother Fredrik (drums, vocals, sound engineer) and her partner, guitarist Helge Sten. One of the co-founders of renowned noise improv groups Supersilent, one-half of the Minibus Pimps duo with ex-Led Zeppelin bassist/keyboardist John Paul Jones and, as Deathprod, one of Norway's busiest producers and mastering engineers, it was a very rare opportunity to hear Sten play guitar and sound, for the most part, actually like a guitarist, his normal approach being more textural in nature, with plenty of processing and unorthodox treatments.

That's not to say he didn't shoot for some extremes during Susanna's set, which drew on material dating back to her earliest recording, 2004's Susanna and the Magical Orchestra debut, List of Lights and Buoys (Rune Grammofon), though the preponderance of material seemed to be culled from 2012's Wild Dogs. While Wallumrød delivered a simple but strong pulse on that album's "Wild Horse Wild Dog," Sten kicked in some serious overdrive and, with whammy bar creating great swoops and rapid tremolos, entered Jimi Hendrix territory but without the blues and, instead, a far greater emphasis on the edgy, harsher quotient. Still, elsewhere, like on the opening "For You," his playing was sparer, more delicate...melodic, even.

"I am Susanna and we are Susanna," she said, in one of her simply stated introductions to the one-hour, 14-song set that also included "some Norwegian gloom" with the suitably slit-your-wrist bleakness of "Death Hanging," written in 2012 for the Oya Container during the Oyafestival in Oslo, a collaboration with singers Siri Nilsen and Susanne Sundfør. And as much as she emphasized her own material, Susanna's career has also been defined by her imaginative reinventions of music by everyone from Sandy Denny and Lou Reed to Bob Dylan and Phil Lynott, whose Thin Lizzy rocker, "Jailbreak," was reinterpreted here as a stark, melancholy ballad. Her Magical Orchestra look at Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart" was delivered with even darker subtext here, while her look at Leonard Cohen's "Who By Fire"—first heard on her particularly superb collaboration with Baroque harpist Giovanna Pessi on If Grief Could Wait (ECM, 2012) was, in performance, even sparer, with Susanna, perhaps even more quietly, finding her way to the song's accusatory core.

It was, indeed, a shame that there was less promotion of Susanna's Ottawa appearance. While she's been to North American once before with the Magical Orchestra (the orchestra being In The Country's Morten Qvenild), trips across the Atlantic are rare. Even as Susanna garners increasing critical and popular acclaim for recent recordings like If Grief Could Wait and her most recent solo effort, The Forester (Susanna Sonata, 2013)—a similarly superb collaboration with Norway's chamber group Ensemble NeoN which will be performed at this year's Ultima Festival in Oslo—her Ottawa appearance will ultimately go down as a case of people not realizing what they were missing until it was too late. With North American appearances rare—and Ottawa appearances even rarer (this being her first time in the Nation's Capital)—every one of them should be cherished.

June 27: Torben Waldorff Quartet Wah Wah

The second Friday of the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival brought a triptych of international artists to the NAC Fourth Stage Improv Invitational series, each representing a different European country: Belgium, Denmark and the United Kingdom. One was a completely unheard of large ensemble (Belgium's Flat Earth Society); another, a more established guitarist (Torben Waldorff); and the third, truly a living legend with her longstanding trio from Italy and Germany (Norma Winstone).

Having been forced to miss Flat Earth Society, the first show of the day was Torben Waldorff's Quartet, performing music culled from his four ArtistShare recording, from 2012's Wah Wah right back to his 2006 debut for the label, Brilliance.

While the personnel has shifted slightly from album to album, with people like saxophonist
Donny McCaslin and keyboardists Gary Versace, Sam Yahel and Jon Cowherd passing through, Waldorff has retained the same bassist and drummer across all four sets, and it was these two—bassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Jon Wikan—that have also accompanied the guitarist for his short North American summer tour which has included Canadian dates in Vancouver, Saskatoon, Toronto, along with American appearances in Cleveland, Detroit and Rochester. With Wah Wah's Gary Versace unavailable, Waldorff recruited Adam Birnbaum, a young pianist who already has three albums under his own name, in addition to appearances with artists including Greg Osby and Ryan Keberle, since first emerging on the New York scene a decade ago.

A clearly talented guitarist and writer whose personal touchstones define his approach and differentiate him from the pack, including a motif-based approach to carefully built solos that were often predicated on broad intervallic leaps and sparse but orthodox-busting lyricism, Waldorff's hour-long set moved from the gently pulsing "You Here" to the 6/8 "Cutoff (The Eleventh Bar)" (both off Wah Wah), which kicked off with a brief a cappella solo from Clohesy that helped explain why the bassist is in such demand from artists including Darcy James Argue, Seamus Blake, Alan Ferber, Geoffrey Keezer and David Weiss. Wikan drove the entire set with the perfect mix of grace and fire—his ostinato-driven solo at the end of the set-opening "Skyliner," from Afterburn (ArtistShare, 2008), demonstrating why everyone from Christine Jensen and Ingrid Jensen (Wikan's wife) to Darcy James Argue and Denise Donatelli have chosen him as their drummer of choice.
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