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TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2017

John Kelman By

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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.

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