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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2017

John Kelman By

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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
Ottawa, Canada
June 23-26, 2017

Amongst the most significant challenges that face any festival is, as the gray and no-hair crowd continues to age, finding ways to cultivate and grow a younger audience. But when you're a Canadian festival, another major challenge is a simple fiscal fact: most artists—even those coming from farther afield like Europe and Asia—expect payment in American funds, and with the Canadian loonie currently resting at about 75 cents to the US dollar, it has become a serious challenge to ensure that programming continues at the same (or better) level as it was when the two currencies were closer to par.

Thankfully—and, given that the majority of its revenue comes, rather than from ticket sales, from private and public sponsors, including various arts initiatives on municipal, provincial and federal levels—the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, now in its 37th year, continues to exist, bringing a program that not only appeals to hardcore, longstanding jazz fans, but to a younger audience as well. One of the best steps the festival took was a few years ago, when it expanded from its use of the downtown Confederation Park (abutting the beautiful Rideau Canal) to also include a second open space across the street, part of City Hall. There, the festival began a new, late night series (shows starting at 10:30PM, when many of the older crowd are heading home) called the OLG After Dark series, in a large tented structure called the Tartan Homes Stage, where acts more specifically aimed at—but by no means exclusively—the younger demographic that is so important.

Since first starting the series it has grown into one of the festival's more popular series, and with acts this year including The Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Robert Glasper Experiment, Nomadic Massive, Kandace Springs and more, it's sure to continue bringing in that so important younger crowd. And with a Youth Pass that is only $99 for the entire 11-day event (for folks 25 and under), it's not just an affordable way to catch a lot of music at the After Dark series, but also to see shows at the multitude of other venues used by the festival.

Beyond the After Dark series, the Great Canadian Jazz Series and Concerts Under the Stars—both of which take place in the larger, outdoor TekSavvy Main Stage in Confederation Park and represent a longstanding double bill that shines a spotlight on popular and up-and-coming Canadian acts as they open for the main events that takes place, for the most part, at 8:30 each evening—provide an appropriate space for big ticket items (in name, not price) like, this year: Serena Rider; Kenny Rogers; Joss Stone; Maceo Parker; Caravan Palace; the late Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra featuring Carla Bley; a night of blues with Rory Block, Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters and Canada's legendary Downchild Blues Band; and Feist.

Now, if the relative lack of jazz names in the Concerts Under the Stars series seems like a problem, fear not. While the festival made the necessary decision, in 2011, to open up its programming in the park, in order to bring in the large crowds that would help subsidize the vast array of jazz artists performing in other venues, it continues to easily pass the litmus test described in a 2011 All About Jazz article, When is a Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival?; simply put, those who want a "pure" jazz festival still have one, with far more jazz performances, each and every night—ranging from big names to lesser-knowns—than any jazz fan could possibly hope to see.

With the nearby, newly renovated National Arts Centre providing three venues—ranging in size from just under 200 to approximately 1,000—the TDOJF continues to maintain a top-drawer program in rooms that are, truth be told, both acoustically better and more comfortable for shows covering a broad range of names and styles. Just looking at Friday, June 23 at the NAC Theatre says it all: a de facto ECM night, with guitarist Bill Frisell's current duo with bassist Thomas Morgan at 7PM, followed by bassist Gary Peacock's current trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer (and, coincidentally, past Frisell collaborator) Joey Baron. Other evenings in the 1,000-seat Theatre, also part of the festival's Jazz Warrior series, include pianist Kenny Barron, followed by the HUDSON project (an all-star, multi-generational affair with drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Larry Grenadier); and a return performance from the ever-soulful Mavis Staples. Amongst the artists booked in the 350-seat Studio? Pianist Hiromi, in duet with Colombian harpist Edward Castañeda; longtime festival favorites The Bad Plus; über-saxophonist and Ottawa regular Donny McCaslin, for whom demand was so high that the festival added a second show later that evening; and Britain's Phronesis. In the smaller Backstage room: guitarist David Occhipinti's Camera Ensemble; Erin Costello; pianist Gordon Grdina's Haram; trumpeter Al Muirhead trio, featuring another Canadian legend, trumpeter Guido Basso; and Quebecois reed and woodwind multi-instrumentalist Jean Derome.

The festival has also added a new venue, La Nouvelle Scene, which may be a bit of a walk away for some (roughly 15 minutes, on the outer fringe of the Byward Market), but for which the festival has introduced a free shuttle service that will bring festival-goers to/from the new Studio A hall and Confederation Park. There, more experimental acts including ex-Ottawa drummer Nick Fraser's trio with saxophonist Tony Malaby and pianist Kris Davis; the avant-all star Transatlantic quartet Perch Hen Brock & Rain, featuring Dutch saxophonist Ab Baars and violist Ig Henneman, German expat saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and American drummer Tom Rainey; the impossible to categorize Netherlands sextet Naked Wolf, featuring (amongst others) bassist Luc Ex; local guitarist Roddy Ellias' trio with Marc Copland and Montréal bassist Adrian Vedady; rising star pianist Shai Maestro's trio; Korean expat vocalist Youn Sun Nah, returning to the festival after a terrific 2010 duo show with Swedish guitarist Ulf Wakenius; the Sonoluminescence Trio, with Canadian west coaster David Mott, renowned American bassist William Parker and local guitarist Davey Patterson, Jesse Stewart, Mary Noecker, and Marco Bucelli; the British piano trio led by Neil Cowley; American trombonist Ryan Keberle and his Catharsis group; and drummer Mark Guiliana's Jazz Quartet.

One particularly welcome move is the relocation of the late night jam session to the Lord Elgin Hotel, across the street from Confederation Park, after a few years of various venues located farther away. For those brave enough to handle sleep deprivation by attending sessions that start at 10:30PM and can go as late as 1:30AM—and, if you're a musician, the chance to perhaps share the stage with some of the festival's bigger acts—there's the opportunity to experience true "without a net" music with unplanned collaborations, hosted by a collection of local and nearby musicians including: Roddy Ellias (with local pianist Steve Boudreau taking his place on two nights); bassist John Geggie (for the most part, with Alec Walkington substituting on two nights); and drummers Ethan Ardelli, Michel Delage, Evan Tighe and Nick Fraser.

There's more. The Great Canadian Jazz Series is set to feature, amongst others: guitarist Alex Goodman; Gypsophilia; bassist/singer Brandi Disterheft; JUNO nominee Peripheral Vision; saxophonist Joel Miller, making a return to the festival after a compelling 2012 quartet set; and In Orbit, the collaborative trio featuring Bela Fleck and the Flecktones' saxophonist/flautist Jeff Coffin, Canadian guitarist Michael Occhipinti and bassist Felix Pastorius , son of the late, great bass icon Jaco Pastorius. There's also an evening where the TD Jazz Youth Summit—a collection of young, aspiring jazz musicians from across the country, who have been brought to the TDOJF for a week of workshops—get to perform on Confederation Park's main stage, in front of a large crowd.

And this is far from a complete list of the jazz events coming to the 37th TD Ottawa Jazz Festival. There are gigs for local acts at the Tartan Home Stage and new Confederation Park fountain at 11AM and 1PM most days and which, in addition to the Canadian Main Stage series, provides a chance for Ottawa musicians to be experienced in the context of a major festival.

And it's a festival that continues to be one of the very best values around, with its premium Gold Pass (which provides access to virtually every act in every venue across the 11 days for those over 25) costing a mere $327; and the less expensive (and slightly limited) Bronze Pass, coming in at $199. Single day, all-access passes ranging from $40 for the under-25s, to $50 for general audiences and the $70 platinum ticket, which provides for designated and guaranteed uncovered seating in the first few rows at Confederation Park; there's also the Platinum Pack, which allows fans to choose three separate Platinum tickets for a reduced price of $172. It's hard to find a better range of deals than that.

The festival has, indeed, brought an even greater focus on Canadian acts this year—a function, no doubt, of dealing with the far more expensive US Dollar; but that should not be seen as anything but a good thing: Canada has always had a vibrant jazz scene, but in recent years it seems to be positively booming, and so taking the chance on some Canadian acts that may be unknown to many will really be no risk—an opportunity to become acquainted with some of the country's top players, as well as a bevy of younger rising stars.

In other words, the 37th Annual TD Ottawa Jazz Festival continues to be one of the purest jazz festivals in the country, even with its relatively small number of non-jazz acts being brought in to help subsidize the smaller shows...but, even more, provide greater breadth and depth to a festival that may be a jazz festival, but recognizes that there are plenty of jazz fans out there whose tastes range farther afield.

Covering just a few nights this year before heading to the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal may be the shortest stay since first beginning to review the festival in 2004, but even those few days are filled with great music from acts known and unknown. And it's hard to beat beginning this year's festivities with the Frisell/Morgan duo, followed by Gary Peacock's trio later that same evening.

June 23: Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan Duo

For the opening night of the festival's Jazz Warriors series, you couldn't pick a better pair of acts—both recording for Munich's lauded ECM Records and one already having released its first album in 2015 and a second due out later this summer/early fall. With Small Town representing guitarist Bill Frisell's first album as a leader/co-leader for the label since 1988's stellar Lookout for Hope—and his first album in the naked context of a duo, with double bassist Thomas Morgan—it was an inspired choice for the TDOJF to present this duo as the series' opener.

In the many years since Frisell last recorded for ECM as a leader/co-leader, he's released a broad-scoped slew of albums for labels including Nonesuch, Tzadik, Savoy Jazz and, most recently, the Sony Okeh imprint. It was on his most recent Okeh recording, last year's When You Wish Upon a Star, that Morgan first appeared on an album by the veteran guitarist who has, over the past three decades, emerged as a cross-over guitarist who, beyond playing with a veritable who's who of jazz luminaries including Charles Lloyd, Paul Motian, Andrew Cyrille, Stefano Bollani and John Zorn, has also appeared on albums by extracurricular artists ranging from Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, Lucinda Williams and Shawn Colvin to Paul Simon, Salif Keita, Rickie Lee Jones and Elvis Costello. In fact, if there were a simple way to describe his Ottawa duo show with Morgan, it would be the out-of-print live EP that he recorded with Costello in 1995, Deep Dead Blue (Warner Bros.)...well, without the "Dead." As largely quiet and introspective as their performance was in the National Arts Centre Theatre, it was still vibrantly alive with the unpredictable sound of surprise that has become a signature for the guitarist since he first appeared on a major label in 1979 with Eberhard Weber's Fluid Rustle (ECM).

Morgan's star has been on the rise since he first began popping up on the New York scene with artists including Will Vinson, David Binney and Paul Motian in the early 2000s. But it's been the 35 year-old bassist's burgeoning relationship with ECM that has truly raised his international profile, appearing, in addition to Frisell, on albums by John Abercrombie, Masabumi Kikuchi, Tomasz Stanko, David Virelles, Giovanni Guidi and Jakob Bro. For a bassist who's only been visibly active (at least to those not living in New York) since 2004, that's some résumé.

That Morgan is as introspective as the 66 year-old Frisell was when he was the same age—still shy, but with years of touring as a leader and engaging with so many artists and fans rendering the guitarist more comfortable with his audiences—makes them the perfect pairing; and beyond that, a chemistry that clearly allows them to fluidly move through whatever music they approach with remarkable simpatico and a deep, unspoken and shared understanding.

As Frisell and Morgan entered the stage for the 7PM performance that was close to capacity at its start and completely full by its conclusion, a less shy crowd member yelled out "You're my hero, Bill!" Moments later, another called out "You're my hero too!..."and then another. Rarely speaking to his audiences beyond introducing whoever he is playing with, Frisell stepped over to the microphone and said "Thomas is my hero....and I like that other guy over there too," referring to the first shout-out. He may be soft-spoken, but this is just one more example of a guitarist whose ability to respond to his crowd with gentle wit is not unlike one aspect of his approach to playing.

And so, with nothing more to be said, the duo quietly launched into a loose look at "Monroe," from Frisell's 1999 Americana-tinged album Good Dog, Happy Man (Nonesuch). As Frisell has demonstrated in his many appearances in Ottawa and elsewhere, he possesses an uncanny ability to continue mining music that he's been playing, in some cases, for decades—bringing fresh ideas and new context to what was, at its core, a relatively simple and singable tune. The connection between Frisell and Morgan was immediately apparent, with each clearly listening intently, responding to and pushing and pulling each other while still staying close to form, albeit in a more open-ended rubato fashion. This was not a guitarist being supported by a bassist; this was two conversationalists on equal footing; and if there was a single strength (and there were many) shared between them, it was their intrinsic ability to effortlessly move from accompanist to lead voice, and to a place where no division existed and, instead, an organic range of ideas flowed from one moment to the next.

Contrapuntal foils, rhythmic anchors, and in Frisell's case chordal definer, "Monroe" slowly wound its way to its conclusion, as a brief period of complete free play ultimately resolved into the second song of the set, the title song from the 1967 James Bond film You Only Live Twice—first covered by Frisell on When You Wish Upon a Star...but there, with a larger group and sung by Petra Haden, more firmly structured. Another remarkable aspect of this duo, proven time and again through its 80-minute set, was how the pair took compositions whose original versions often had lush arrangements, and captured all the key components that defined them, with but two instruments.

Of course, Frisell also broadens any soundscape with which he's involved through judicious use of effects, ranging from looping and harmonizing to distortion, reverb, delay and more. But here, his use of the array of pedals at his feet was relatively restrained, turning to more obvious signs of effected guitar in only a couple of the pieces during an eleven-song set that included an encore of another Bond theme from 1964's Goldfinger, which seamlessly melded into a song with which Frisell has often closed his sets—and which, with the turbulence taking place in his American home, held special relevance: the Hal David/Burt Bacharach classic, "What the World Needs Now is Love."

The rest of the set was equally magical. Whether it was a quirky but still tender look at Thelonious Monk's "Epistrophy," an as-expected different (and shorter) take on Small Town's opener, the title track to the guitarist's first recording in Paul Motian's quarter-century trio with Frisell and Joe Lovano, It Should've Happened a Long Time Ago (ECM, 1985), or new looks at jazz standards including Lee Konitz's "Subconscious Lee" and Billy Strayhorn's often-covered "Lush Life," both Frisell and Morgan communicated on the deepest of levels, substituting space and minimalism for overt virtuosity...though both players demonstrated more than enough of that to make clear the mastery of their respective instruments.

And for those who have unfairly suggested that Frisell has lost his edge over the years, a ring-modulated, angular and jagged look at Motian's "Mumbo Jumbo," from the 2004 trio recording In Tokyo (JMT, 1992) laid waste to such claims, with Morgan and Frisell reiterating the sentiment later in the set, when the guitarist kicked in his overdrive pedal and the duo reached for its loudest—but still, in relative terms, comfortably quiet—moment of the performance.

Watching Morgan engage with Frisell was as compelling as experiencing the guitarist's in-the-moment responses to the bassist, who often seemed to swipe his right hand just slightly over the strings of his double bass, as he waited for just the right note for just the right moment. Frisell, whose ability to move tangentially through any structure or free passage with unerringly astute judgement, was clearly enjoying himself (as he seems always to do), often breaking into that rare, distinctive grin...long, a visual signature.

But if any single quality defined Frisell and Morgan's set it was, indeed, that relentless search for those right notes and right places. A brief solo from Morgan towards the end of the set revealed his virtuosity, just as Frisell's did the same with his remarkable ability to sustain notes while he layered line-upon-line and chord-upon-chord—here, in this vulnerable context of the duo, even more impressive as he often created cascading passages of chordal variations that could come from no-one else but Frisell.

It was improvisation at the highest level, and despite naysayers who unfairly (and mistakenly) reject his broader explorations into bluegrass, Americana folk music, blues and more as being "not jazz"—not that it matters—Frisell and Morgan can (and did) turn any song from any genre into a soothing but always unpredictable exploration that couldn't be called anything but jazz. And with this show representing the pair's first date since the week-long engagement at the Village Vanguard that resulted in the live Small Town—and another eleven dates lineup at eight festivals before concluding at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal on July 2—there's no doubt that they'll continue to evolve and hone the DNA-level chemistry that Ottawa fans were the first to experience on this short but hectic tour.

June 23: Gary Peacock "Now This" Trio, with Marc Copland and Joey Baron

A short 45 minutes later, legendary bassist Gary Peacock and his current trio with pianist Marc Copland and drummer Joey Baron took to the same stage for another 80 minutes of sublime, in-the-moment music that was the perfect bookend to Frisell and Morgan's set.

Unfortunately, a technical problem with Peacock's amplifier—resulting in an annoying buzz that was finally resolved for the audience but left the double bassist struggling to hear himself as well as he should—threatened to mar the performance. But after both Peacock and NAC Theatre technicians tried but failed to resolve the problem, the bassist, instead, simply shrugged and said "let's just move on" to his bandmates. using a direct box to drive his double bass through the hall's sound system, but left unable to hear his bass as well as he should, what was most remarkable was that, according to Copland the day after the show, it turned out to be one of the best performances the trio had ever played, as Peacock played with impeccable intonation and unerring imagination.

This trio's 2015 ECM debut, Now This, is one of just a few recordings Peacock has made as a leader/co-leader, but it's always been a case of quality over quantity. More overtly free-leaning than Jarrett's trio, his trio with Copland and Baron was no less open-ended, even as it delivered a set comprised largely of jazz standards, along with one Copland composition, "Time Was"—first appearing on the pianist's outstanding 2005 solo outing for Hatology, Time Within Time, and appearing again later that same year in the context of a trio for the German Pirouet label, Some Love Songs—and a gorgeous rendition of Joni Mitchell's "Rainy Night House," from the Canadian expat singer/songwriter's classic third album, 1970's Ladies of the Canyon (Reprise).

But with the ever-harmonically inventive and utterly distinctive Copland delivering his characteristically soft touch, unique use of piano pedals and an approach to volume so quiet that he now has a small amplifier situated nearby—used, when the rest of the trio begins to pick up the volume, to give him just a touch extra midrange and low-end so that he still hears his piano as he should—it didn't matter that much of the material was well-known and often covered. Yes, familiar themes emerged (though just as often from Peacock—even Baron, as the drummer demonstrated during a particularly imaginative, re-harmonized look at Wayne Shorter's evergreen "Footprints" where, during one of just two relatively brief solos, he mirrored the composition's familiar bass line by pressing down on the skins of his drums to change pitch with uncanny accuracy); but in the hands of this trio, the reinventions were so profound that it sometimes took more than little time to actually recognize them for what they were.

But that was, perhaps, one of the biggest joys of another set that evening where empathy was running high, and the connection between these three players nothing short of pure magic. With the age of these three musicians ranging from 61 (Baron) and 69 (Copland) to 82 (Peacock), there was the benefit of long careers and far-reaching musical experiences to bring to to this trio. Irrespective of Peacock's technical problems, from the very first note he played in his introductory solo to a gorgeous, atmospheric, at times, abstract and wonderfully rearranged look at the Italian classic "Estaté," he was an instantly recognizable force, his lithe yet sinewy deftness suffering not one bit from advancing age.

Baron has played in contexts ranging from near-whisper to ear-shattering, and while the emphasis on this night was towards the former, that didn't stop him from laying hard into his kit at one point during his solo on "Footprints"—so much so that audience members could be heard exclaiming "whoa!," even as he turned to a softer conclusion. Capable of just about anything, in this trio Baron was as much about color as pulse; time, in fact, was often a house of cards with this trio: discernible from the collective, but something that, were one member to drop out, would fall apart instantly. That's not to suggest Baron didn't occasionally move into more overtly time-based playing, but it was more often something that could be felt rather than heard.

That said, the ever-smiling Baron—mirrored, throughout the set, by Copland and Peacock, the three in constant eye contact and with physical movements that reflected the conversational give-and-take that was fundamental to the trio's overall approach—seemed to particularly enjoy "Footprints," where Peacock reinvented its familiar 6/8 bass line into something more sophisticated, adding extra bars to the end of each round but still possessed of its irrepressible groove. It's a tune that Copland has covered more than once (including, again, on both Time Within Time and Some Love Songs), but beyond his solo reading, it's rarely been this open-ended harmonically, treated with the perfect confluence of respect for the original and the irreverence required to make it his (and the trio's) own. His touch may have been soft, but that didn't mean he couldn't—or wouldn't—lay into his piano with greater strength; it was only more dramatic when he did, however, because his attention to overall dynamics—as was true for everyone in this marvellous trio—was so profound, so erudite, so recondite.

That the trio played nothing from its first recording may mean that some of the music heard in its Ottawa performance may be on its upcoming follow-up album; on the other hand, given label head Manfred Eicher's general aversion to standards programming, this may be the kind of set only possible to experience in concert. At one point there was some talk, barely audible from the front row, of playing Now This' "Vignette"—a Peacock tune first introduced on his 1977 ECM recording Tales of Another (coincidentally, the first meeting of Peacock, Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, who would reconvene six years later for the first of many Standards Trio recordings, collected on 2008's Setting Standards—New York Sessions, the first of ECM's Old & New Masters Edition box sets)—but it ultimately was nixed for the Mitchell tune.

But in some ways, it really mattered not what this trio played. Not unlike the Frisell/Morgan duo that came before—but in some ways, the interaction all the more remarkable for there being more players in the pool—this was a trio that turned every piece into something new and utterly personal. While Peacock and Baron are longterm members of the ECM family, it has taken far too long for Copland to finally find his way there. His approach has long suggested that the label is unequivocally the right home for him, with the pianist making his first appearance in his longstanding quartet with guitarist John Abercrombie—heard most recently on the guitarist's Up and Coming (2017) but first appearing on the guitarist's 39 Steps (ECM, 2013), after a number of albums with almost the same lineup but under the pianist's name on Pirouet and Savoy and dating back to 1996. As wonderful as that quartet is (also featuring Drew Gress and Baron), the familiar context of the trio feels equally at home for the pianist. Based on this trio's Jazz Warriors performance at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, it's clear that Peacock, Copland and Baron share a rare comfort level while, at the same, time, never falling into complacency. Instead, all three have proven capable, across their careers, of a capricious mutability; on the heels of such a strong performance—equal parts so quiet that to was almost necessary to lean forward to hear it, but peppered with momentary bursts of surprising volume and muscular invention—here's hoping that this trio can make a return visit to the festival sometime—anytime—soon.

June 24: HUDSON

They may all be connected by living in the Hudson Valley (thus the name of this new quartet), but drummer Jack DeJohnette, guitarist John Scofield, keyboardist John Medeski and double bassist Larry Grenadier—a group of equals and listed in order here by nothing more than order of age—have shared a variety of connections over the years.

DeJohnette and Scofield, in particular, have shared stage and studio on more than one occasion, appearing on each others' albums as well as with many others including Herbie Hancock, the similarly collaborative Trio Beyond with keyboardist Larry Goldings, and the late, not-to-be forgotten Polish violinist Zbigniew Seifert.

Scofield has also shared a now two-decade on again/off again project with Medeski's longstanding (and, for the collaborative trio, breakout) jazz jam band groundbreaker, Medeski Martin & Wood. Only Grenadier appears to be a newcomer to the members of this quartet, though his long tenure in pianist Brad Mehldau's trio, membership in guitarist Pat Metheny's Trio 99>00 and countless other projects certainly suggests that, if he's not been documented in a group with any of his band mates in HUDSON, he has surely come to know all of them over the past couple of decades...in particular DeJohnette, with whom he has actually given double bass lessons to a drummer whose career has been defined by a constant search for new ways to expand his purview.

A description that applies, indeed, to every member of HUDSON, appearing at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival's Jazz Warriors series relatively early on in a tour that hits jazz festivals during the summer and then reconvenes for more dates later this fall. The group's eponymous first album, released on the Motéma label earlier this month, reflects the broad musical tastes of everyone involved. There are originals, ranging from the collectively composed, 10-minute opening title track—more a jam with the sketchiest of forms—and a couple of more decidedly jazz-centric originals by Scofield, including "El Swing" (first appearing on the 2011 E1 album Miles Español) and the freshly minted "Tony Then Jack," to three from DeJohnette: a reprise of the vocal tune "Dirty Ground," co-written with Bruce Hornsby and first heard on the drummer's Sound Travels (E1, 2012); "Song for World Forgiveness," from the drummer's live duo record with reed multi-instrumentalist John Surman on Invisible Nature's (ECM, 2002); and the also-new "Great Spirit Peace Chant," which closes the album.

But it's HUDSON's choice of cover material that also reflects the overall vibe of the album, its broad stylistic purview...and the group's 100-minute set at the NAC Theatre: Jimi Hendrix's rarely covered "Wait Until Tomorrow," from 1967's Axis: Bold as Love (Track); two Bob Dylan classics—"Lay Lady Lay," from his countrified, post-motorcycle accident Nashville Skyline (Columbia, 1969), and his earlier "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," from the singer/songwriter's second, protest-oriented The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (Columbia, 1963); Robbie Robertson's "Up on Cripple Creek," rendered classic by The Band on its 1969 Capitol hit The Band; and Joni Mitchell's now-iconic "Woodstock," from the Canadian expat singer-songwriter's Ladies of the Canyon.

The beauty of HUDSON is its combination of indisputable jazz tracks blended with covers that range from relatively faithful to totally far-out and elastically stretched. Live, however, the group took the material much further than on the record; "Woodstock," for example, which was the well-deserved encore, may be relatively literal on the record, with Scofield iterating its familiar melody; but in concert, his solo went much further harmonically, as he shaped a solo built on a by-now signature ability to create marvellous tension-and-release by taking things outside, only to pull them back in at precisely the right moment. Medeski, better-known for his electric work, in particular on Hammond organ and heavily altered Fender Rhodes, stuck to acoustic piano on this balladic rendition that also added some additional chord changes at the end of each chorus, contributing a solo that made clear similar abilities in an unplugged context.

As with his past two albums, including last year's Grammy Award-wining Country for Old Men (Impulse!), Scofield eschewed the effects he's often used to augment his sound for the simplest of setups: his trusty Ibanez hollow body guitar; a good cable; and a simple Fender Deluxe amplifier. While his use of effects has increasingly grown to become one fundamental of his overall sound, like last year's memorable festival performance with Joe Lovano, the unadulterated purity of placing nothing but a cable between guitar and amp resulted in the sweet yet gritty tone that has defined his sound for the past few years...in some ways, a return to his early days and albums like Live (Enja, 1977) and Rough House (Enja, 1978).

That said, the guitarist still managed to eke a remarkable breadth of textures from this simplest of setups through his use of the controls on his guitar, alternating between pick, fingers and thumb, string scratching with pick and palm of hand and more. Sonically, in many ways, he's never sounded better, whether contributing warm-toned, Wes Montgomery-style octaves on a version of Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand" (also from Axis: Bold as Love and the only song not appearing on the album), bending his strings where no strings have gone before, with deep, bluesy inflections, during his solo on "Dirty Ground," or adding odd harmonics to the ostinato-based "Hudson"—the second song of a set that began, irrepressibly energetic, with a cover of "Wait Until Tomorrow."

And if some of HUDSON's interpretations were somewhat (but never completely) literal, the quartet also took considerable liberties with every song, every moment. "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall" was reinterpreted with a swinging pulse and overall approach that, once the familiar melody was out of the way, didn't just expand with the kind of expansive soloing and interpretive accompaniment that would be expected from a group of players such as these; it went into completely free territory, with Medeski—the group's sonic mad scientist—contributing ever-shifting sonics through his distinctive use of his Hammond organ's bars, as the tune gradually dissolved into no time, with the keyboardist switched to Rhodes, but taken far beyond the stratosphere with his bevy of effects, including ring modulation, as the final chorus was played, rubato, over DeJohnette's percussive maelstrom.

In a set that, compared to the previous evening, was undeniably loud (but still just barely containable by the wonderful acoustics of the Theatre), Medeski was the quartet's X-factor, proving—as he always has—to not just be a master of his instruments, but a sonic explorer who kept the rest of the quartet on its toes by adding sounds his instruments were (other than his grand piano) truly never intended to make. But amidst all the high octane music, like his playing over the two-chord vamp that drove solos from both the keyboardist and Scofield on "Wait Until Tomorrow," he also proved himself capable of great beauty...and surprising stylistic depth, as with "Up on Cripple Creek," where he opened and, even more so, closed the song with some barrelhouse piano more like The Band's dissolve at the end of the same album's "Rag Mama Rag."

Beyond a loose, ever-unpredictable approach on kit that has made him one of jazz's greatest living drummers, another surprise of the set was to hear DeJohnette sing so much: on the funky, gospel-tinged "Dirty Ground," and the final verses of "Cripple Creek," "Wait Until Tomorrow" and "Castles Made of Sand." Not that he hasn't sung before—in particular on Tin Can Alley (ECM, 1981)—but here, with his husky tone, it was something unexpected...and special. And with both Medeski and Scofield singing backup (!) to "Cripple Creek," it was a show with even more surprises than expected.

Grenadier may be known as a jazz double bassist, but his tastes clearly run much broader; beyond a couple of impressive solos, it was his accompaniment that was perhaps the most unexpected, as he combined jazz-informed freedom with locked-in grooves that made his rhythm team with DeJohnette a truly formidable one.

Scofield's appropriately swinging "El Swing" was a highlight of a set filled with memorable moments. Based on the Phrygian mode that's an aspect of Spanish music (and thus an appropriate contribution to Miles Español), it harkened back to some of his earliest days, even as he played with an approach that has evolved significantly since those first solo albums. "Tony Then Jack" also swung mightily, with the guitarist delivering one of his best overtly jazz-centric solos of the night in a trio context, with Medeski sitting it out; but it was the keyboardist's Hammond solo that was, perhaps, the tune's greatest surprise, as he took far more tonal liberties than on the briefer album version.

That the quartet managed, with encore, a near-100 minute set, despite playing just eight of the 72-minute album's eleven tracks while, at the same time, adding a new tune with "Castles Made of Sand" was an easy way to see just how much farther the group took its music in concert. All-star groups often look great on paper but falter in performance; but with a breathtaking set that effortlessly moved from hard grooves to unfettered freedom, relatively faithful interpretations to far-out expansions, and high octane rock energy to pliant swing, HUDSON proved, during its TD Ottawa Jazz Festival set, that sometimes reality far surpasses concept. Whether or not DeJohnette, Scofield, Medeski and Grenadier will continue as HUDSON after this tour has yet to be seen. But if this is all there is, it's plenty good enough.

June 26: Mavis Staples

The Church of Mavis Staples made a welcome return to the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival after delivering a festival highlight at Dominion Chalmers Church in 2013. Also part of this year's Jazz Warrior series, the veteran gospel/soul/R&B singer performed at the NAC Theatre...a much more appropriate venue for this kind of electrified music. Opening with the rousing invitation of "If You're Ready (Come Go With Me)"—a tune first heard when she was a member of the longstanding (but, sadly, no longer with the passing of father "Pops" and sister Cleotha) gospel/protest/R&B group The Staple Singers on Be What You Are (Stax, 1973), she had the full house clapping, hooting and hollering from the first notes of her captivating 90-minute set.

The now-77 year-old Staples addressed the audience with "I am here to bring you all some happiness, some inspiration and some powerful healing vibrations." It may have been a repeat of her first spoken words at the 2013 show, but few others could express, so well, what the singer and her five-piece group delivered in what, again, will surely be one of the highlights of the festival's 2017 edition.

Reduced, including Staples, to a sextet from the septet in 2013 that also included her sister Yvonne—thankfully, however, still alive at 80, and who replaced brother Pervis in the Staple Singers at various points during the group's long career—the rest of her band remained the same: backup singers Donny Gerrard and Vicki Randle (who also added occasional percussion); guitarist/singer guitarist Rick Holmstrom; bassist/singer Jeff Turmes; and drummer Stephen Hodges. Together for many years now, it was a well-oiled machine that knew just how to support the remarkably energetic Staples. Turmes and Hodges were the perfect unshakable anchor, while Holmstrom managed to fill in the blanks with a guitar style that moved seamlessly from gritty chordal accompaniment to solos that ranged from biting to searing, all without ever resorting to guitar histrionics; instead, every chord, every note felt right. With an old Telecaster, Vox AC-30 amplifier and a small but effective array of effects pedals (including overdrive, tremolo and delay), in many ways he was the other star of a band filled with them.

A Mavis Staples show is more than "just" a show; it's truly a meeting, a collaboration, a shared experience. When she sang "I got friends and / I got got family y'all / and I got help from all the people who love me," it was hard not to feel that, somehow, she was talking about everybody in the audience.

And while Staples demonstrated no shortage of drive in her 2013 Ottawa appearance, her NAC Theatre show was even more vibrant as she moved across the entire expanse of the large stage, at one point coming forward and shaking hands with those in the front row as she sang the Staple Singers' 1973 hit, "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend." Considering she's four years older than the last time she was here, it was truly remarkable to see—no, feel—the positive energy and joy coming from her, as she waved her hands—rapidly and ascending—in the air, constantly connected with the audience in song, in words and in actions; managing to keep the energy levels high throughout the set. If only we could all have this much energy, joy and peace at her age.

But clearly the joy of performing has kept Staples looking and acting far younger than her 77 years. And while she made sure that past albums—solo and with the Staple Singers—were represented, she also included a number of songs from her latest studio album, Livin' on a High Note (Anti-, 2016), in particular Benjamin Booker's funky "Take Us Back," Ben Harper's anthemic "Love and Trust," Justin Vernon's "Dedicated," and Aaron Livingston's "One Love." But as compelling as the songs are on record, live they assumed much greater power...and much greater meaning.

It wasn't long before Staples had the crowd singing along with her, during a potent version of Stephen Stills' 1967 hit protest song with Buffalo Springfield, "For What It's Worth." But the palpable connection between Staples (her entire group, really) and her audience was a constant throughout the show; one woman in the front row, during "Touch a Hand, Make a Friend," didn't just touch Staples' hand; she held onto it for a good thirty seconds, as she stood up and danced with the singer, causing Staples to refer to her throughout the set.

That Staples has been singing professionally since she was eleven, making this her 66th year in music, also meant that she really knew how to work a crowd. With the Staple Singers a significant part of the '60s American Civil Rights Movement, she drew rounds of applause when she recalled how "We'd march and sing, march and sing, then the police would put us in jail and we'd get out and start all over again...through the south and sometimes in the north." When a fan yelled out "We miss 'Pops'!" she replied "I do too...but I speak to him every single day." And when another yelled out "I love you, Mavis!" she quickly replied "I love you more!"

Throughout the set, the impeccable five-part vocals were a rare treat; and with three of the four backup singers—Gerrard, Randle and Turmes—each taking a verse during the powerful encore of "The Weight," originally performed by The Band but in collaboration with the Staple Singers on the group's live swan song with guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson, The Last Waltz (Warner Bros., 1978), there was a chance for everyone to share the spotlight.

Holmstrom may not have had a vocal feature, but with Staples often engaging directly with the guitarist during his many brief but viscerally perfect solos, he got plenty of his own moments in the very same spotlight.

At one point, Staples made a brief reference to today's troubled times—surely the lowest point for African Americans since the '60s (not to mention many others)—but her positive outlook was infectious and encouraging, as she said " it's gonna be alright...it's gonna be alright." In these turbulent times, music may be an even greater balm than it has always been; but after an evening spent in the Church of Mavis Staples, with its unrelentingly joy, love and optimism, who knows? Maybe things will be alright. And with singers like Mavis Staples—a woman who has experienced more than her share of life challenges along with her many successes—still spreading her positive message and such irrepressible good vibes? Well, maybe we will all be alright, too.


Wrapping up a sadly brief but, as ever, thoroughly enjoyable few days at the 37th TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, it's important to give some props to the hundreds of volunteers who make covering the festival such a joy: those who take tickets and welcome fans to indoor venues and Confederation Park; stage managers who make sure everything happens on time and without a hitch; and sound and lighting engineers who ensure every concert experience looks and sounds the very best it can possibly be.

It's also essential to mention the great job delivered by the festival's small but dedicated full-time staff, year in and year out, in particular Programming Manager Petr Cancura; Director of Marketing and Partnerships Suzan Zilahi; and Executive Director Catherine O'Grady, for being so accommodating, and for managing to keep the festival alive during times of greater fiscal challenge. And, finally, for continuing to deliver programs that appeal to the broadest possible audience: from the jazz-addicted and more casual fans of the music to those who may not even think they like jazz—but, after sampling a few jazz artists along with the extracurricular programming that drew them in, may well discover that there are at least some aspects of this music's broad spectrum that can appeal to them too, after all.

Photo Credit: John R. Fowler

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