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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2016

John Kelman By

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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.

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kamasi washington Live Reviews John Kelman ECM Records Canada Ottawa John Scofield joe lovano Stacey Kent trombone shorty wynton marsalis Chick Corea Christian McBride Brian Blade The Claudia Quintet Alexander Hawkins Marcin Wasilewski Myra Melford Anat Fort Gianluigi Trovesi Arild Andersen Tommy Smith Paolo Vinaccia The Thing Mats Gustafsson Ingebrigt Haker Flaten Paal Nilssen-Love Charlie Hunter Bobby Previte Alan Ferber Colin Stetson McCoy Tyner Brandon Coleman Herbie Hancock Ryan Porter Rickey Washington Cameron Graves Miles Davis Dennis Chambers Medeski, Martin & Wood Steve Swallow Bill Stewart B.B. King Steve Cropper Jack DeJohnette Charlie Haden Marc Johnson Dennis Irwin Ben Street Ornette Coleman Wes Montgomery Ron Carter pat metheny Larry Goldings Marc Copland Seamus Blake Bill Carrothers Chris Potter Manfred Eicher Jan Garbarek Jon Christensen Terje Rypdal Bobo Stenson Peter Erskine Gary Burton Michael Brecker Elephant9 Humcrush Palle Mikkelborg George Russell Stan Getz Don Cherry Jaco Pastorius Masqualero Tore Brunborg Nils Petter Molvaer Jon Balke Burt Bacharach duke ellington John Hollenbeck Charlie Parker Wayne Shorter Drew Gress John Abercrombie Fred Hersch Matt Moran Luciana Souza Theo Bleckmann Ellery Eskelin Chris Speed Dave Douglas john zorn Jim Black Uri Caine Tim Berne Lotte Anker Meredith Monk Bob Brookmeyer Cuong Vu Philly Joe Jones Ed Schuller Paul Motian Perry Robinson Gary Wang Roland Schneider Gianni Coscia Keith Jarrett Roberto Bonati Misha Alperin Arkady Shilkloper

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