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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 7-9

John Kelman By

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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.

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