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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2016

John Kelman By

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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 22 -July 3, 2016

It's hard to believe, with seasons that move quickly from spring into summer, that it was time, once again, for the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. Now in its 36th year, the festival has grown from a weekend event into a full-blown, 12-day festival with a broad cross-section of artists from around the world. The past few years have seen further growth, with the introduction of new series and a lineup that has slowly seen the festival address issues documented in an earlier All About Jazz article, When Is a Jazz Festival (Not) A Jazz Festival?, in particular the challenge of finding a way to draw a younger demographic that will ensure the festival's existence beyond its original and still-primary age group, the aging baby boomers and beyond.

Yes, the Main Stage at Confederation Park—where the festival can draw its largest audience—has become a more egalitarian blend of jazz, blues, pop, folk and more, diluting the purer jazz landscape of the festival prior to 2011. But with a bevy of outstanding artists performing at a number of venues in the adjacent National Arts Centre—ranging, this year, from the 140-seat NAC Back Stage (replacing the Fourth Stage, currently out of commission as the multi-venue arts venue undergoes major renovations) to the 350-seat Studio...and, for the first time, the 1,100-seat Theatre—there are rooms intimate enough to handle the smaller draws and large enough to suit bigger-name artists.

It may be true that some of the artists playing in the Theatre this year could be seen as suitable Main Stage fare but the truth is that getting the chance to experience artists like rising star Kamasi Washington, the reunited John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet, last heard in the mid-'90s until the release of Past Present (Impulse!, 2015), and singer Stacey Kent in the still-intimate Theatre undoubtedly made for a better experience, while artists like Sharon Jones and the Dapp Kings, Canadian singer/songwriter Sarah McLachlan, the New Orleans-infused funk of Trombone Shorty (still young, but already making his third appearance at the festival over the past few years), the perennial local favorite of Wynton Marsalis with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and piano legend Chick Corea's trio with Christian McBride and Brian Blade (who delivered a kick-ass Fall, 2010 performance at Dominion Chalmers Church as part of the festival's off-season program) were more appropriate fare for the park, where the festival has, on occasion, seen draws upwards of 10,000 people.

Meanwhile, the increasingly popular Improv Series was renamed the Discovery Series, but with the festival's knockout international cadre of artists, no matter what you called the series it was a certainty that the music would be as unpredictable and attention-grabbing as ever. Genre-busting The Claudia Quintet made its first, very eagerly anticipated TDOJF appearance, while a global representation of pianists coming from the UK (Alexander Hawkins), Poland (Marcin Wasilewski), the United States (Myra Melford, with her Snowy Egret group) and Israel (Anat Fort, in duo with Italy's renowned clarinetist/saxophonist Gianluigi Trovesi) covered even more stylistic territory. Meanwhile, saxophone trios from the sublime (Norwegian bass giant Arild Andersen's longstanding group with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith and Italian expat drummer Paolo Vinaccia) to the flat-out pedal-to-the-metal (fellow Scandinavian trio The Thing, featuring relentless Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson alongside Norwegians Ingebrigt Håker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love) gave brass lovers plenty to talk about. And for guitarists, there was, in addition to Scofield, the multi-brained seven-string guitarist Charlie Hunter—last seen at the festival in the late '90s when he was, himself, on the ascendance as a player who could play bass lines, melody lines and chordal accompaniment simultaneously—making a welcome return to Ottawa, this time, in a trio with maverick drummer Bobby Previte and trombonist Alan Ferber.

Reed fans were also happy to find Colin Stetson delivering two gigs at this year's festival: one, an intimate duo with Canadian violinist Sarah Neufeld, best-known as a touring member of Arcade Fire; the other, an ambitious 11-piece "Re-Imagining of Górecki's 3rd Symphony"—with a similarly open-minded lineup of three reed players, three guitarists and, one each, keyboards, drums, violin, cello and voice—looked like it just might be one of the festival's many surprise hits. In its cross-pollination of jazz and classical music—alongside Claudia Quintet's similar boundary-blurring mix of improvisation, contemporary composition and, at times even, progressive rock tendencies—Stetson's look at Górecki's music was just further evidence that attempts to pigeonhole jazz...or jazz festivals, for that matter...into a narrow space with rigid walls has become increasingly futile. And that's a very good thing.

Kamasi Washington
Jazz Warrior Series
National Arts Centre Theatre
June 22, 2016

While the festival's "official" opening date was June 23, the opportunity to bring Los Angeles-based tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington to town was too good to pass up. Having released his ambitious and, perhaps, a bit more than audacious debut—the three-CD, three-hour, The Epic (Brainfeeder) just a little over a year ago—the saxophonist is also known in the hip hop world for appearances on albums including rapper Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly (Top Dawg, 2015). Since its release, The Epic—and Washington's career—have picked up steam, with largely effusive reviews and the beginning of rare honours like a cover story in the July, 2016 issue of Downbeat.

The real question was: could Washington deliver the same kind of energy and élan as on The Epic—where his suite of sixteen compositions (all sporting plenty of room to stretch out) was performed with, in addition to a core group drawing on a dozen members, a fourteen-piece choir and nine-piece string ensemble on some tracks?

The answer? A conditional yes.

For an artist whose visibility may be increasing rapidly but who is still a relatively nascent face on the jazz scene, it was not only astonishing to watch the 1,100-seat Theatre fill up to capacity in the thirty minutes leading up to the 8:00PM show; it was a welcome surprise to find a (for Ottawa) disproportionate number of younger people in the crowd. And they weren't just there because of the buzz; when Washington announced the second number, "Re Run," the amount of applause went beyond the merely polite to suggest that The Epic was known to a good number of people in the audience. And while Washington's music undeniably incorporates some of the more urban vibe of his other work, there's no mistaking The Epic for anything but a jazz record, with a near-encyclopedic view of the genre that is remarkable for a group of relative youngsters (Washington is 35); in its heavily orchestrated modality there are references to pianist McCoy Tyner's Song of the New World (Milestone, 1973), while the more electrified textures of Washington's keyboardist, Brandon Coleman, brought to mind '70s-era fusioneers Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock.

So, yes, The Epic is undeniably a jazz record...and appeals to a broad demographic ranging from dyed-hairs to gray hairs and no hairs. Washington's group—a septet first, with Washington and Coleman joined by drummers Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner, bassist Miles Mosley, trombonist Ryan Porter and singer Patrice Quinn, and then an octet, when saxophonist/flautist Rickey Washington came onstage mid-set for the rest of the performance—was clearly stoked and ready to burn from the first note.

Perhaps a bit too much so, if there were to be any criticism of the show. With two drummers, there was the potential to create a tumultuous undercurrent, and when it was effective—as it was, much of the time—it was really effective. Still, there were times when it was a bit much...as was also the case with Mosley's use of effects on his double bass: creating sonics rarely heard on his instrument, especially during an extended solo on his own "Abraham," the title track to the bassist's own upcoming album, due this fall, where he demonstrated impressive chops and an ear for expanding his instrument's textural potential; but other times creating a bit too much sound, resulting in a cacophony that was effective at times, but elsewhere could have used a little more space.

That Washington gave so much space to a tune from his bassist that doesn't appear on The Epic might seem unusual, but almost everyone in the saxophonist's group is a member of the "West Coast Get Down" collective; and every member of the collective is an in-demand player, striving to break down another boundary: that New York City is the centre of the jazz universe...rendering it difficult for jazz artists outside that city to garner the attention they deserve. Washington may be the first member of the collective to make a big noise, but with new albums in the offing by Mosley and pianist Cameron Graves—who may not have been a member of the touring group but appears on The Epic—it's hopeful that the strength of the collective...and the attention that Washington is bringing to it...will mean bright futures for the rest of its members.

Mosley also proved himself a capable singer on "Abraham," but it was Quinn, often seen whirling around with her arms outreached, who excelled at being a front-woman on the expansively anthemic "Henrietta Our Hero" and more buoyantly soulful set-closer, "The Rhythm Changes." When not singing lyrics, Quinn also contributed wordless voice to the group and, consequently, expanded the number of front-line melodic voices from four to five (when flautist/saxophonist Washington was onstage).

Washington proved a more than capable saxophonist, even on long-haul solos; and while everybody in the band was featured at least once—Coleman receiving a little more space than Porter and saxophonist Washington, delivering consistently imaginative solos whether on electric piano, a Keytar-like Moog Liberator synth or a definitively funky Hohner Clavinet—there was no doubt that this was the saxophonist's gig. His introductions to the material were relaxed, engaging and entertaining, with stories of his childhood helping to dissolve the border between audience and group, creating an intimate, relaxed vibe despite the occasionally overpowering nature of the music. And after delivering nearly two hours of music that ranged from modal workouts to booty-shaking, hip hop-infused groove-meisters, the standing ovation was so enthusiastic (even more than usual for already effusive Ottawa audiences) that there was no denying the audience a final tune, which broke mould by being, rather than a more relaxed tune that would ratchet down the crowd's energy, was instead a chops-heavy burner featuring a searing tenor solo from Washington.

One of the other questions was how would Washington create a road-ready group capable of performing music from The Epic and more, without the benefit of a larger core group and the added strings and choir? The good news was that Washington managed to scale down the music without losing any of its key ingredients. No, there was no choir or strings on "The Magnificent 7" but, with Quinn, the two Washingtons, Coleman and Porter, there was more than enough to deliver the key parts, driven with fierce energy by both drummers.

As an unofficial opener to TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2016, Washington and his group put on a performance that will, no doubt, be talked about throughout the festival...and after it has concluded. It's too early to say whether or not Washington's show will emerge as one of the festival's best, but there's no doubt it was a great way to start the festival.

John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet
Jazz Warrior Series
National Arts Centre Theatre
June 25, 2016

Sometimes all you need is a good guitar, a good amp and a good cable. John Scofield has, over the past four decades, made a name for himself in arenas ranging from his early days as a leader, from modernistic post-bop (1977's Live) to a mid-'80s tenure with Miles Davis (The Definitive Miles Davis at Montreux DVD Collection 1973-1991). But even further, Scofield has spent time in the jazz fusion context of his '80s group with Dennis Chambers (1986's Blue Matter) and the jamband aesthetic of his collaborations with Medeski Martin & Wood (2011's In Case the World Changes Its Mind), Gov't Mule (2015's Sco-Mule) and his own Überjam Band (2013's Überjam Deux). He's also kept room for a longstanding trio with Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart (2007's This Meets That) and special projects including 2009's New Orleans-Informed Piety Street and 2005's That's What I Say: John Scofield Plays the Music of Ray Charles. Irrespective of context, Scofield's inimitable ability to blend the bluesy inflections of B.B. King and chunky rhythms of Steve Cropper with a sophisticated—and effortless—ability to move his bop-informed melodic ideas in, out and around the core harmonies, has created a distinctive and unmistakable style filled with tension and release.

But while Scofield began his career with the pure, unadulterated sound of his guitar plugged, sans effects, straight into an amp, resulting in a fat, slightly overdrive tone that's been as much a signature as his unmistakable ability to navigate inside and outside of his music's oftentimes challenging changes, in recent years he's also created a distinctive breadth of sound through the use of a bevy of effects—ranging from pitch shifting and chorus to delay, reverse-attack and more—it's welcome to learn that, when the context is right, he's happy to return to the unadulterated sound of nothing more than his guitar plugged directly into an amplifier (and in mono, to boot).

When the guitarist decided to reunite with Joe Lovano for 2015's Grammy Award-winning Impulse! debut, Past Present (for Best Instrumental Jazz Album), it was a welcome return to the modern mainstream period of Scofield's career in the early 1990s, when the duo released three Blue Note albums with drummers Jack DeJohnette (1990's Time on My Hands and Bill Stewart (1991's Meant to Be and 1993's What We Do) and bassists ranging, from each album successively, Charlie Haden to Marc Johnson and Dennis Irwin. It was more evidence of something any John Scofield fan already knows: that the guitarist may have moved through various stylistic phases in his career, but each one has informed the next, and the next...and the next.

Still, the opportunity to catch Scofield's quartet with Lovano, in this case, continuing to include Stewart as one of the guitarist's primary drummers of choice alongside Ben Street—a muscular, groove-heavy bassist who may not be a common name to hear alongside Scofield but who did appear on the guitarist's 2011 live DVD, New Morning: The Paris Concert (Inakustik)—for their first TD Ottawa Jazz Festival appearance meant the chance to experience a streamlined, lean and mean Scofield alongside Lovano, Street and Stewart...a rare treat, too appealing to pass up.

While Scofield's albums with Lovano have focused on the guitarist's writing exclusively, with the more egalitarian-monikered John Scofield/Joe Lovano Quartet there was room for some of the saxophonist's own compositions, including the brightly swinging set opener, "Cymbalism," from the saxophonist's Trio Fascination-Edition One (Blue Note, 1998), and the appropriately titled "Ettenro," a time/no-changes composition clearly informed by its namesake, free jazz progenitor Ornette Coleman, and first heard on Lovano's 2009 release, Folk Art. Like Scofield, Lovano is an artist whose ability to weave through any set of changes (or, in some cases, none at all) with effortless aplomb has led to a similarly busy career, critical accolades, and a massive discography that includes, amongst them, nearly two dozen albums as a leader/co-leader on Blue Note. Here Lovano was also in "streamline" mode, with just a tenor saxophone—no soprano, no taragato, no straight alto saxophone or alto clarinet, and no aulochrome (his custom-built—and first of its kind—polychromatic saxophone). Like Scofield, his playing throughout the quartet's ninety-minute set plus ten-minute encore in the NAC Theatre was impeccable: filled with invention, no shortage of passion (a powerful altissimo and occasional multiphonics) and a chemistry with Scofield that has only grown deeper and more profound over the years.

Scofield drew largely on Past Present, and if there was anything that dominated the set, it was this: no matter how far out Scofield (or Lovano) took things, and irrespective of whether the tune was an ambling swinger like "Mr. Puffy," a brighter, more buoyant mainstream piece like "Chap Dance," a gentle waltz-time ballad like "Hangover" or a second-line informed piece of greasy funk like "Chariots"—the latter representing the only track from Scofield's '90s releases (Meant to Be)—there seemed to be a particular emphasis on lyricism that felt intrinsic rather than specifically intended. That doesn't mean that Scofield and Lovano resisted the temptation to soar into light-speed improvisational forays—or, in Scofield's case, complex chordal soloing, gritty but still referential octave playing à la Wes Montgomery, or tonal shifts made either through pickup and tone choices on his guitar or through his use of fingers and where he positioned his right hand on his axe. But throughout the set, it seemed as though every player was looking to shape solos that were motif-driven and narrative-based.

Throughout, Street proved himself a capable match, with a tone that ranged from Haden-like woodiness to the kind of deep, in-the-gut resonance of Ron Carter and Arild Andersen. Navigating the tunes with ease, Street also demonstrated his own lyrical sensibility when he soloed...and the kind of chemistry that was surprising, considering that his history with Scofield and Lovano isn't as extensive as Stewart's. In fact, it was stunning to hear a group where every member was as capable as any other in pushing or pulling the music towards new and unexpected places, whether it was picking up on the slightest motif or a more fervent, repeated phrase or rhythm.

Stewart remains one of jazz's most melodic drummers—a rare player who, whether he was taking a rare solo or providing punctuations to other soloists, could be clearly heard playing the compositions' forms. While he's best-known in the jazz arena—beyond Scofield having worked in trios with Pat Metheny, Larry Goldings and Marc Copland, and ensembles of other sizes with Seamus Blake, Bill Carrothers and Chris Potter—his scope is clearly broader.

Neither Scofield nor Lovano are strangers to the festival, despite this being their first appearance together. But the 100-minute set they delivered in the company of Street and Stewart turned out to be a landmark Ottawa performance for both. Scofield, in particular, was on fire; like most guitarists he has certain signatures that identify him; but that said, his playing was filled with risk...and there may be no better group in which he can take all the chances he wants than with this stellar quartet, where every player was finely attuned to each other, capable of holding a strong groove over a pedal tone, navigating more difficult compositional changes or turning on a dime mid-stream to take a solo in an entirely different direction.

An appearance from any of the fine musicians in this exceptional group would be a reason to celebrate, but Scofield and Lovano's 2016 quartet appearance will, no doubt, go down in the festival's history as one of their best to date, raising the bar on future appearances.

Arild Andersen/Tommy Smith/Paolo Vinaccia
Discovery Series
National Arts Centre Back Stage
June 27, 2016

With as illustrious a series of programs, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival has certainly invited its share of jazz legends to perform over its 36-year existence...but never has it invited one of Norway's most important musicians of the past half century. Arild Andersen was one of the "Big Five" Scandinavian artists who garnered international attention and critical acclaim when ECM's Manfred Eicher first began recording the bassist, along with fellow Norwegians Jan Garbarek, Jon Christensen, Terje Rypdal and Swedish colleague Bobo Stenson, on the label head/primary producer's then-nascent label in the early '70s, when it began to release a string of paradigm-shifting albums including Afric Pepperbird (1970), Clouds in My Head (1975), Whenever I Seem to Be Far Away (1974) and SART (1971). Artists have come and gone from the label, but ECM has managed to retain not just a large roster of some of the most important improvising musicians (and, on its New Series imprint, artists largely occupying the classical sphere, albeit in as broad a fashion as possible) of the past fifty years, but literally all of the Scandinavian five.

There have, of course, been many changes over the decades, but one of the longest-lasting groups that has emerged from this group of Scandinavian artists has been Andersen's trio with Scottish saxophonist Tommy Smith and Italian expat/now Norwegian-resident (for over three decades) drummer/percussionist Paolo Vinaccia. First coming together in 2007 and releasing its very first performance, Live at Belleville (2008), the trio may have only released one subsequent recording, the superb 2014 studio follow-up Mira, but it has continued to tour on a regular basis, allowing the trio to continue honing its intrinsic chemistry at shows including an outstanding 2014 performance at the Mai Jazz Festival in Stavanger, Norway.

Drummer Peter Erskine wrote, in the liner notes to his soon-to-be-released ECM box set, As It Was, that "structurally, you can't design anything stronger than a triangle, because of the dynamic of opposing forces. I don't think it is just a linguistic confidence or taking advantage of the word triangle to look at it in musical terms. It does work; there's an incredible amount of maneuverability and agility yet complete strength with a trio." Erskine's words are particularly germane to improvising trios, where the strength of the individual sides is such that, as a fluidly shifting triangle, the emphases constantly shift, as each member of the trio reacts, responds and redirects where the music goes.

Beyond an impressive discography that includes projects like the fusion-leaning Karma (Spartacus, 2011), career-defining live ensemble performance, Torah (Spartacus, 2010) and all-star Transatlantic session Evolution (Spartacus, 2005), Smith's work in creating the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra in 1995 and the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra in 2002 (where young players are groomed, in some cases, for an ultimate "promotion" into the National Jazz Orchestra) has been instrumental in reviving and/or maintaining that country's jazz scene. Originally schooled at Boston's renowned Berklee College of Music, Smith worked in a quartet consisting of fellow students (Forward Motion) as well as spending some time in vibraphonist Gary Burton's mid-to-late-'80s groups and recording four albums as a leader for Blue Note Records before returning to Scotland. Sometimes described as "Jan Garbarek meets Michael Brecker," the truth is that he's long since fashioned his own identity, and in the open-ended context of Andersen's trio is afforded a particularly unfettered opportunity to explore his instrument in the context of two other highly simpatico players.

Vinaccia is a busy drummer/percussionist in Norway, but is also known internationally as part of another powerful trio: Terje Rypdal's Skywards Trio, with Elephant9/Humcrush keyboardist Ståle Storløkken—sometimes fleshed out to a quartet with the addition of Danish trumpeter Palle Mikkelborg. In addition to that group's one ECM recording from 1997 (which also employs a number of other players), five live Skywards Trio sets are documented on Very Much Alive (Jazzland, 2010), a six-disc box with special meaning for the drummer, who became severely ill with brain cancer in the mid-'00s. Non-responsive to conventional treatment, Vinaccia ultimately went into full remission when his research uncovered holistic therapies that have put him, quite literally, back in the drum chair. A drummer whose long hair, scruffy beard and series of T-Shirts ("Not Loud Enough" and "Almost Musician" being two of his better ones) may make him look like a drummer more fitting for a Norwegian death metal band, but his ability to move from gentle whispers to thundering grooves has made him the perfect third side to this marvelous trio.

Andersen is one of only a few bassist's in jazz who truly makes his instrument sing. With a robust tone where low register notes are truly palpable (gut-punching), Andersen's background has included being, along with his other Scandinavian "Big Five" colleagues, a player who cut his teeth as musician of choice when American artists including George Russell, Stan Getz and Don Cherry (amongst many others) came to tour Scandinavia in the '60s and '70s. The result, when combined with his Norwegian heritage, is a bassist who can swing like the best of them but can also be a vividly cinematic player, and whose use of looping, reverb and delay helps the group sound much bigger than most saxophone/bass/drums trios. With fluid chops that mirror his attention to the clarity and perfection of every note he plays—at times, suggesting how the late fretless electric bassist Jaco Pastorius might have sounded, had he focused, instead, on double bass—Andersen's role in his trio is a constantly shifting one that moves effortlessly from rhythmic anchor alongside Vinaccia to melodic foil for Smith, and high octane, viscerally attention-grabbing soloist. The trio may play largely composed music, but does so in such an open fashion as to truly make every performance a different experience.

The trio's Ottawa performance took place, as part of the Discovery Series, at the National Arts Centre's Back Stage: a room jury-rigged this year when the usually used Fourth Stage was rendered unavailable due to massive renovations at the NAC, but whose capacity was, sadly, even smaller (about 40 less than the 180-200 people that could fit the Fourth Stage). And so, as has often been the case with this series and venue, plenty of people were turned away—or waited outside, hoping for a seat if someone already in the room decided to leave. It's quite possible that the trio could have filled the 350-seat NAC Studio, but it's sometimes a bit of a crap-shoot for the festival to estimate an artist/group's draw. Certainly, during the trio's transfixing 75-minute set (plus encore), the room was filled to capacity...and it didn't seem like too many people were leaving. So, as has been the tradition at the festival for some time, ticket holders got first crack at entering the venue, followed by Gold Pass members and, finally, Bronze.

Andersen opened the set with an a cappella bass solo, built on layers of loops created largely con arco, that led to the title track from his 1997 album Hyperborean, a larger affair with two saxophonists, keyboards, drummer and string quartet. Still, the core melody was easy to find, as Vinaccia and Smith entered. Beyond the clear freedom that was at work in how the trio approached the music, there were specific signs of how any member of the group could push the music into a different place as Andersen changed the song's tonal center during Smith's extended solo.

"Bluesy"—also a highlight of the trio's 2014 Stavanger date—changed the pace with some free-wheeling funk where, including plenty of stops and starts, Vinaccia and Andersen, in particular, seemed joined at the hip. Smith's clean and pure altissimo was put to the test at the end of the song, where he ended by soaring into the stratosphere...even further than on Mira's original take.

The trio dug even further back than Hyperborean for the atmospheric "Venice," a song first heard on 1988's Aero (ECM) from Masqualero, the quartet/quintet co-led by Andersen and Jon Christensen that featured early ECM appearances by now-famous artists including saxophonist Tore Brunborg, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and keyboardist Jon Balke (though Balke collaborated with Andersen even earlier on Clouds in My Head). The lyrical title track to Mira—named after the red star that, according to Andersen in his intro, "looks different every time, so is perfect for jazz"—was a gentle ballad that, nevertheless, ebbed and flowed into moments of greater dynamics, driven by Vinaccia's punctuations and shifting rhythmic undercurrents. While there were other pieces that displayed each member's virtuosity more overtly, the trio's ability to play with attention to space, detail and nuance made "Mira" a highlight of the set.

Smith plays soprano in addition to the tenor saxophone he brought to the Ottawa gig, but it was nowhere to be found—likely the result of increasingly difficult restrictions that have made it even more difficult for musicians to travel by air. Still, he did manage to bring his wood flute along for "Raijin," a tune that managed to join primal rhythms together with folkloric elements that link the traditional musics of Norway and Scotland. Beginning alone, Smith's breathy staccato stops created tension that was released as he reentered with longer phrases. When Andersen and Vinaccia entered, the trio's ability to move from a whisper to a roar was particularly evident, with Vinaccia using a second, higher-tuned snare, as well as a variety of implements with which to hit his kit, ranging from traditional sticks to conventional brushes...but also, at times, actual brooms cut off close to the brushes, which he was able to use to evoke deeper, more resonant textures from his toms.

By the end of the set there was no doubt that the trio would be asked to return for an encore, and perhaps no better choice could be made than Burt Bacharach's evergreen "Alfie"—like Live at Belleville's inclusion of Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," included as a nod to the fact that, while the music that this trio largely plays is considerably distanced from what's considered the American jazz tradition, it is absolutely capable of it. Certainly the trio's own material—which, at times, was played rubato, other times with surprisingly visceral funk and, still other times, developed into unexpectedly swinging passages—also made clear that "the tradition" is part of its collective DNA. But equally, as this superlative show demonstrated in spades, Andersen, Smith and Vinaccia made clear that there is more than one to approach jazz—especially when the context is as unfettered as was their performance, where the sound of surprise was a given and reckless abandon an undercurrent to this exceptional—and structurally strong—musical triangle.

Claudia Quintet
Discovery Series
National Arts Centre Back Stage
June 29, 2016

While cultural and stylistic cross-pollination in music seems de rigueur these days, there are few groups on the scene as difficult to pigeonhole as The Claudia Quintet. Formed over fifteen years ago by drummer/composer John Hollenbeck, Claudia Quintet is, indeed, an enigmatic group. Is it jazz? Well, yes, there is a strong improvisational component (both individually and collectively). Is it contemporary composition/new music? Without a doubt, as the influences that drive the group range from Charlie Parker and Wayne Shorter to György Ligeti. Is it progressive rock? Well, certainly a sizeable fan base in that community seems to think so, despite there being little of the traditional elements of that genre...beyond the group's tendency towards complex composition.

There are other components as well, but even the group's configuration is unusual: alongside Hollenbeck's drums and percussion, there's double bass (Drew Gress, whose resumé runs from John Abercrombie, Marc Copland and Fred Hersch to a small but compelling—and more left-leaning—discography that includes his most recent Pirouet release, 2013's The Sky Inside). Vibraphonist Matt Moran has worked with everyone from Sufjan Stevens and Luciana Souza to Theo Bleckmann and Ellery Eskelin, while accordionist Red Wieringa—who replaced original Claudia member Ted Reichman—is the youngest member of the group, with a smaller C.V. but one that has grown since he first emerged with Respect Sextet in the early part of the new millennium. Clarinetist/saxophonist Chris Speed is a busy player whose work ranges from projects with Dave Douglas and John Zorn to Jim Black's AlasNoAxis and Uri Caine, and who also delivered an outstanding three-reed, improv-heavy trio show with Tim Berne and Lotte Anker at the 2008 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.

As for Hollenbeck? In addition to playing with artists including Meredith Monk, Theo Bleckmann, Bob Brookmeyer and Cuong Vuand in addition to keeping Claudia Quintet alive since its 2001 CRI debut, Claudia Quintet, with touring and an additional seven recordings, all on Cuneiform Records, including 2005's Semi-Formal, 2007's For and the group's recently released Super Petite (2016)—Hollenbeck has released a number of other projects, usually employing larger ensembles, including Joys & Desires (Intuition, 2005) and the particularly engaging Songs I Like A Lot (Sunnyside, 2013), where he radically reinvents a collection of popular songs ranging from "Wichita Lineman" and "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" to "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Bicycle Race."

The bottom line? Every member of Claudia Quintet is a virtuoso; and while that may be true, the beauty of Claudia Quintet is that it's a collection of five outstanding players whose focus is on the music, not unnecessary displays of pyrotechnics...though there was certainly more than a few sparks flying during their Back Stage appearance.

Focusing largely on Super Petite, Claudia nevertheless looked back at its past discography, playing two tunes each from 2013's September and its 2001 debut. But from the opening moments of Super Petite's "Peterborough"—named, according to Hollenbeck, after the town in New Hampshire, and drawing laughter from the capacity audiences as he'd no idea there was a Peterborough, Ontario just 270Km from Ottawa—it was clear that this was a group with a sound like no other. Hollenbeck effortlessly shifted from delivering grooves with constantly shifting bar lines to contributing a breadth of color and challenging polyrhythms that interacted with his bandmates to create a complex weave of sound, melody and pulse, with Gress similarly acting as group anchor while, at the same time, also playing melodic foil to the three players making up the front line.

The ethereal texture of Moran's vibraphones—also creating glistening long tones when he bowed his instrument's metal bars—juxtaposed beautifully with the particularly appealing combination of Wieringa's accordion and Speed's reeds. With both instruments based on reeds, when accordion and, in particular, clarinet came together in unison, the notes were just the slightest hint apart, resulting in a subtle chorus-like effect that worked wonderfully with the tremolo of Moran's vibes. The combination made for an often shimmering sound that, even when the music itself was angular, somehow managed to make it all easier to digest...one of the reasons, perhaps, why such an avant-leaning group like Claudia has built such a sizeable following.

Hollenbeck's introductions were often comedic, and dryly so. "If you were thinking about 'September 25' on that piece," he said after the group played a particularly atmospheric version of September's "September 25 Somber Blanket," "you were right." Super Petite's "Rose Colored Rhythm," on the other hand, began in jagged angularity—and even when a pulse emerged was filled with challenging starts and stops, knotty thematic constructs and a rare solo feature for the drummer. "This one is dedicated to Senegalese drummer Doudou N'diane Rose, who had 32 children and eventually recruited them all for his band. So if you're ever starting a band and can't find anyone, that's one way to do it," Hollenbeck quipped.

But for all the levity in Hollenbeck's introductions, this was serious music that, while largely read off charts by the band, was still lifted off the page and brought to vivid life in a set that only occasionally featured extended delineated soloing, as it did on "Rose Colored Rhythm," where everyone but Gress was featured.

Elsewhere, Super Petite's "Philly"—named for the great jazz drummer Philly Joe Jones—was the closest Claudia came to being a definitive jazz group, with a swinging pulse from Hollenbeck and Gress (at least for awhile), and a tenor solo from Speed over a free-wheeling time/no changes middle section. Despite the outré approach of Speed's solo, his tenor—as it did whenever he used it during the set—often sounded softer and less brash than the horn usually does, very much akin to the tonality of his clarinet only deeper and capable of reaching further into the lower registers.

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