TD Ottawa Jazz Festival 2017

John Kelman By

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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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