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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2014, Days 7-9

John Kelman By

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While normally taking the night before heading to Montreal off to finish writing up the Ottawa report, with Britain's Partisans hitting the Fourth Stage at 6:00PM, an exception clearly had to be made. At Jazzahead! 2011 in Bremen Germany, catching just 15 minutes of a 30-minute showcase was sufficient to list it as one of the year's best live performances. So given 70 minutes or so and a new record to deliver, Swamp (Whirlwind Recordings, 2014)—not due for release until late September, but with copies available for sale during a North American tour that took the group across the continent, from Vancouver to Ottawa, from Seattle to New York and from Toronto to Montreal—how did a full Partisans performance match up to those 15 incendiary minutes in Germany three years ago?

From the first moments of "Flip the Sneck"—Swamp's opening track and the group's set opener at the Fourth Stage—it was clear that that energy was not only still there, but it was ratcheted up even further while, at the same time, being paced for the demands of a longer set. From saxophonist Julian Siegel's cowbell trade-off with drummer Gene Calderazzo, bassist Thaddeus Kelly and guitarist Phil Robson's stop/start response, "Flip the Sneck" led into some Afro-beat guitar playing that, in true Partisans style, morphed into a greasy half-time bit of funk, shifting gears yet again for Siegel's first impressive solo of the night.

And a good one it was, too, as he navigated the tune's generous changes with the kind of effortless aplomb that's given the group the title of "godfathers of the new wave of British Jazz." After Siegel was finished the tune turned back to the half-time funk for a solo from Robson that, once again, found the guitarist employing what is, quite possibly, the ugliest fuzz tone in jazz, delivering a blinding solo that matched Siegel's, note for energetic note.

"It's quite a responsibility to live up to, this 'godfathers of the new wave of British jazz,'" said Robson later in the set, as he and Siegel, in addition to trading solos, also shared the duty of introducing the music to its audience. "We're not that old yet," he said, as he introduced "Thin Man," also from Swamp and built, as he described in a recent All About Jazz interview also featuring Siegel—the two representing the group's principle composers—as "playing around with these shapes—these quite dissonant little shapes—on the guitar, and somehow there was something kind of scientific or geometric about them." Indeed, the opening patterns were both dissonant and somehow mathematical in conception, but as the song continued it opened up into a fierier 6/8 pulse that was bolstered by Kelly and Calderazzo, underpinning impressive solos from both Robson and Siegel.

Siegel's "Flip the Sneck"—which Siegel described to the roughly half-full Fourth Stage audience as "a Northern English term that even we don't know what it means (despite, in the interview, explaining that ..."a sneck is actually a northern English/Scottish word for a latch on a door and this comes from a gig we did in Nottingham, and there's a promoter there who'd say, about the dressing room, 'Can you flip the sneck on the way out?' And for us it was like, 'What the hell are you talking about? We've no idea what you're talking about.' So, it's just an expression that somehow reminds me of home")—along with Robson's "Thin Man," were just two of five songs that the group played from Swamp, the other three compositions culled from their previous four recordings including the high energy title track to Sourpuss (Babel, 2000) and, from the same album, the initially dark-hued but ultimately brightly swinging "The Missing Link," as well as "Wise Child," which Siegel explained was written as a dedication to Wayne Shorter and, taken from the group's third album Max (Babel, 2006), closed out the group's Ottawa set on a high note.

Partisans albums manage to capture some of the group's energy and synergistic interplay, but there's something that happens in performance that the group has yet to capture in the studio; maybe a live album would be the next logical step? Robson, using a single multi-purpose effects pedal that not only continued to give him one of the truly ugliest distortions ever heard on a jazz record ("That's the nicest thing anyone's ever said to me," Robson replied, laughing, in the interview), but a wah wah, pitch shifter and ring modulator as well, assuming considerable responsibility has he provided linear counterpoint or unison with Siegel and/or Kelly as well as chordal support that, in some cases, like the title track from Swamp, moved comfortably into '70s-era electric Miles Davis territory, but with less intrinsic density and clearer solo delineation.


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