2018 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
June 21-June 26, 2018
For its 2018 edition, the 39th annual TD Ottawa Jazz Festival faced a number of significant logistical challenges.
First, Confederation Park, which has traditionally been the location of its large, outdoor venue, a food court and number of shops where attendees can pick up CDs of the artist they just saw, T-Shirts and more, is currently under renovation and, therefore, was unavailable to the festival. The good news was that Marion Dewar Plaza, located literally across the street from Confederation Park and part of the City Hall complex, was available. Having been used by the Ottawa Blues Fest for quite a few years before relocating means that there was a different park configuration, but one that definitely worked.
Despite currently being torn up, the west end of Confederation Park is still available and so, the late night OLG Stage that was originally across from Confederation Park in Marion Dewar Plaza, has been relocated there, while The Tartan Homes stage (originally in the west end of Confederation Park) has been moved to Lisgar Field, just a short walk from Marian Dewar Plaza, for late night programming.
After major external renovations made accessing the National Arts Centre, where the festival has used often used the 1,100 seat Theatre, 350-seat Studio and 180-seat, club-like Fourth Stage, the arts venue is now undergoing significant internal renovations, specifically making acoustic upgrades to most venues that, after 51 years, are in serious need of modernizing. With only the Fourth Stage available, the festival relocated a number of shows to the nearby First Baptist Church, a lovely hall with warm acoustics.
Beyond logistical issues, however, the festival has put together yet another stellar lineup for its 11-day run from June 21 to July 1. Big name, big ticket (but still, compared to other festivals, very reasonably priced) performers at the main stage included a range of jazz music and beyond, from smooth jazz trumpeter Chris Botti
, singers Boz Scaggs, Dee Dee Bridgewater
, Alison Krauss and Chaka Khan to newgrass/jamband Bela Fleck
and the Flecktones (bringing back its original lineup with pianist/harmonicist Howard Levy
), the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, DIY jazz-meets R&B group Lake Street Dive and, making another festival appearance, the great Herbie Hancock
On the same stage, but before the 8:30 main acts, will be the festival's regular Canadian Jazz series, this year featuring artists including drummer Jim Doxas
, trumpeter Joe Sullivan
and his big band, Ernesto Cervini
, the Heavyweight Brass Band, pianist Francois Bourassa
, Ottawa-based The Commotions and, after a week of intensive workshops by many of the festival's artists, a performance by the TD Jazz Youth Summit.
The Fourth Stage, typically hosting the festival's more improv/left-of-center artists, was home to artists including the Baltic Jazz Trio, New York-based Israeli expat guitarist Rotem Sivan
, the experimental Son of Goldfinger (featuring Tim Berne
, David Torn
and Ches Smith
), Norwegian saxophonist Marius Neset
, saxophonist Peter Van Huffel
, trombonist Samuel Blaser
, the outrageous French saxophonist Guillaume Peret, ECM recording artist Maciej Obara
and his stunning Polish/Norwegian quartet, drummer Dan Weiss
' Starebaby and more.
The Tartan Home Stage was the place to catch rising star trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg
, local singer Kellylee Evans
with festival Programming Manager/multi-instrumentalist Petr Cancura
, Finnish accordion master Kimmo Pohjonen
, Tanya Tagaq featuring Norwegian star, singer Mari Boine
(who will present her own show at the First Baptist Church), bluegrass dobro whiz Jerry Douglas
and his killer sepet; German National Youth Jazz Orchestra and many others, performing shows in the early evening and, with different shows on at 10:30pm, expanding the festival's reach but creating even more competition as to who to choose. Always a challenge, but an even bigger one this year.
The festival also brought a variety of outstanding artists to the First Baptist Church, including Kimmo Pohjonen collaborating with Canadian singer Mary Margaret O'Hara; mainstream guitar icon Russell Malone
, Canadian über-guitarist Don Ross
and his Louder Than Usual band;Django Bates
and his Belovèd Trio, representing the first time the British pianist has been to Ottawa since he played here with drummer Bill Bruford
's Earthworks almost thirty years ago, representing a long overdue visit from this influential European artist; American trumpeter and ongoing mentor Terence Blanchard
and his electro-infused E-Collective; drummer Jerry Granelli
, bringing his Dance Hall
project to the festival with another monster-guitarist, Robben Ford
; and Cuban great, pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba
With the Tartan Homes Stage handling the late night events, this year's OLG stage was home to a series of free concerts under the moniker OLG Ontario Series
. This series of eight free concerts featured a number of up-and-coming and established artists from the festival's home province, and was a terrific way for those on a budget to catch some great music.
July 1, Canada Day, which has traditionally become the festival's final day, must program a day of entirely free, entirely Canadian content (due to federal regulations). This year, six shows, beginning at 1:00PM and ending at 7:00PM, will feature groups including Ottawa's own Souljazz Orchestra, Bank Street Bonbons, Montreal's Saxsyndrum, keyboardist Anomalie, pop/rap/funk unit Random Recipe and another show from the TD Jazz Youth Summit, this time also with the Stingray Rising Stars. And that's only a sampling of the music brought to the festival this year; if not the largest, then certainly amongst the largest and most diverse it's offered in its near-forty years.
And that doesn't include the popular late-night jam sessions at the close-by Lord Elgin Hotel, starting at 10:30PM and going to, well, whenever
, where two of the city's most renowned local artists, bassist John Geggie
and Roddy Ellias
, held court alongside Toronto-based (but Ottawa-raised) drummer Nick Fraser
, with the hopes that some of the artists performing elsewhere each evening would feel the urge to keep playing after their shows were over. There have been some years where the jam sessions have, in some ways, eclipsed main shows with the excitement and energy of seeing artists known and on-the-way-up collaborating without a safety net.
June 29: Boz Scaggs, Top Shelf Main Stage
He's a veteran of the music scene since first appearing as a member of another major hitmaker's band, Steve Miller
, on three of the fellow Texan guitarist/vocalist's early studio albums: 1968's Children of the Future
, and 1970's aptly titled Number 5
, all on Capitol Records. With a perfect, warm and largely clear-skied summer's evening on its second day, the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival couldn't have made a better or more appropriate choice with Boz Scaggs
, who's first appearance at the festival was as smooth, slick and soulful as has come to be expected from the Ohio-born, Texas-raised guitarist/vocalist.
Scaggs delivered a perfectly paced hundred-minute show (including encores) to a large crowd at the Top Shelf Main Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, drawing upon material from across his nearly 50-year career as a solo artist. Well, his career as a solo artist actually extends beyond 50 years, with Scaggs' first album under his own name, Boz
, released by Polydor Records in 1965. Still, it was only with the release of Boz Scaggs
(Atlantic, 1969)the first in a series of albums that received critical and (increasing) commercial successthat people began to take real notice of this blue-eyed white soul singer.
With a new self-produced album, Out of the Blues
(Concord), on the horizon with a July 27, 2018 release date, Scaggs performed its closing track, the slowly shuffling 12/8 blues "The Feeling is Gone," as well a rocking, roots-driven version of rockabilly songwriter John Martin's "Cadillac Walk" and Scaggs' own album-opener, the more soulful "Gone Baby Gone," from his 2013 return to form, Memphis
Scaggs clearly knew what his audience came for, even if he included a few unusual/rare choices from his career, including the soft ballad "Look What You've Done to Me," co-penned with David Foster for James Bridges' 1980 film, Urban Cowboy
, and the buoyant "Drowning in the Sea of Love," from Steely Dan
keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen
's occasional gigging band of fellow mega-stars, the New York Rock & Soul Revue, and its Live at the Beacon
(Giant, 1991). Chuck Berry's follow-up to his final top ten hit of the '60s, "You Never Can Tell" (revived with its inclusion in the famous dance contest scene of Quentin Tarantino's early hit film, 1994's Pulp Fiction
), may be a song Scaggs has yet to record, but it's a regular inclusion in recent set lists and appeared here in what was to be the last of three encores.
But more about that later. With a full half dozen songs culled from Silk Degrees
(Columbia, 1976)his biggest-selling album ever, hitting #2 in the Billboard 200
, certified platinum five times by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), with four singlesScaggs gave the audience exactly what it wanted. In a rare instance where making any significant changes to the arrangements would have been a bad idea, Scaggs largely stuck to script. Still, with a burnished, butter-melting voice still surprisingly strong for a singer who'd just turned 74 earlier this month, and arrangements so good they simply didn't need updating, this was a rare case where straying little from form was the right decision. From the disco-fied "Lowdown," up-tempo pop of "Georgia," soulful ballad "Harbor Lights," bright-tempo'd "It's Over," set-closing (and sole Top 40 hit for Scaggs) "Lido Shuffle" and groove-heavy (though, what song from Scaggs' 100-minute performance wasn't?) "What Can I Say," the first of three planned encores, made crystal clear just how well Scaggs knew his fan base.
Even so, with those songs spread throughout the set and encores, Scaggs must have been happy with both the performance and the capacity crowd's enthusiastic response, coming back for a fourth, unexpected encore, "Breakdown Dead Ahead," the second track from his platinum 1980 album, Middle Man
(Columbia). With a similar groove and tempo to "Lido Shuffle," it was, nevertheless, no retread, and sent the crowd home on a positive note.
While Scaggs did, indeed, largely stick to script, opening the set with the mellow funk of Middle Man
's "Jojo," he also gave his sextet of veteran touring/session players room to move and shine. And it was
a stellar group. Guitarist Mike Miller (Chick Corea
, Quincy Jones
) brought the perfect mix of tasteful tone, rock-edge and occasional jazz chops, with some particularly sweet and gritty work during his extended solo on the expanded "Loan Me a Dime," from 1969's Boz Scaggs
, which may have been the show's second encore but turned out to be one of the best songs of the set.
Keyboardist/saxophonist/guitarist Eric Crystal
(Kenny Loggins, Allen Toussaint
, Paul McCandless
) covered a lot of territory, delivering sampled horn lines throughout alongside some extra guitar oomph on "Cadillac Walk" and a superb soprano saxophone solo during the extended, double time closing solo section of "Harbor Lights."
Keyboardist/background singer Michael Logan
, Michael Manson
, Will Downing
) also contributed a potent Fender Rhodes solo to "Harbor Lights" and, along with percussionist Greg Wieczorek and drummer Teddy Campbell
, enough of the falsetto background vocals to make songs like "Georgia" and "What Can I Say" sound as close as possible to the six men and women who sang on the originals from Silk Degrees
In addition to background vocals, Wieczorek (Norah Jones
, Joseph Arthur, The Candles) contributed everything from congas and tambourine to doubling Campbell's relentless hi-hat on "Lowdown," while gospel drummer/singer Campbell (The Tonight Show with Jay Leno
, Herbie Hancock
, Al Jarreau
) kept the easygoing, danceable grooves coming throughout the set.
But perhaps the biggest surprise with Scaggs' show was finding Willie Weeks in the lineup. A bassist who may not be household name but who has appeared on literally hundreds of albums by artists ranging from George Harrison
, David Bowie
and Randy Newman
to James Taylor
, Rickie Lee Jones
and Vince Gill
, it's unlikely that anyone in the audience who has a radio, shops in stores with music in the background or has bought any pop/rock/folk/blues/country albums over the past forty year hasn't
heard the 70 year-old bassist. A player more concerned with anchoring any group he's in than overt displays of virtuosity, Weeks was, alongside Campbell, the foundation of Scaggs' group and made sure that the grooves, the pulses, the rhythms of the group (alongside the rest of his stellar group's contributions) were taken care of so effortlessly and so comfortably that Scaggs had nothing to worry about but taking care of his own business.
Which he did. For 74, his range was still surprisingly strong, with only a little trouble hitting the high notes in the chorus of "Lido Shuffle." Still, that was a small quibble for a performer who, even when he wasn't playing, always had a guitar strapped around his neck. Clearly comfortable in front of large audiences, he may have kept his between-song to a relative minimum, largely introducing songs early in the set and, for the last half, letting the well-known songs speak for themselves. He may also have left the heavy guitar lifting for Miller, but during the ten minute-plus encore of "Loan Me a Dime," Scaggs took a couple of brief but appropriately blues-based solos that, while not possessed of Miller's jazz chops, remained impressive for what they were. His acoustic guitar work, too, on a couple of songs including "Harbor Lights," added some textural diversity to his largely electric band.
It was a perfect summer's evening show, from the smoothly swinging "Runnin' Blue," from Boz Scaggs & Band
(Columbia, 1971), through to "Breakdown Dead Ahead." With a set heavy on the songs that his fans know and love, Scaggs nevertheless covered his entire career, from 1969's Boz Scaggs
through to the upcoming Out of the Blues
, delivering a memorable set from an artist whose recent albums, Memphis
and 2015 follow-up, Fool to Care
, rank amongst the absolute best of his career. Scaggs' inclusion of one track from Out of the Blues
makes clear that his recent winning streak is clearly set to continue.
June 23: Marius Neset, NAC Fourth Stage
While he's long since transcended "new kid on the block" and "rising star" attributions in Europe, the name Marius Neset
is, unfortunately, nowhere near as well-known as it should be in North America. Since emerging with his aptly titled Edition Records debut, 2011's Golden Xplosion
not really his debut, mind you, as he'd already released Suite for the Seven Mountains
(Calibrated) three years prior, but Golden Xplosion
was the first to receive more widespread distributionNeset's career has, well, exploded across Europe. Beyond moving to the larger, even more widely distributed Act Music imprint following his third Edition release, 2013's Birds
, the Norwegian-born/Copenhagen-resident saxophonist began exploring even more ambitious terrain, not that his early albums weren't already plenty ambitious.
His first recording for ACT, Lion
(2014), was a diversion from his by-then-established quartet (with Phronesis
pianist Ivo Neame
and drummer Anton Eger
, alongside Django Bates
Belovèd trio bassist, Petter Eldh
). Instead, he collaborated with the lineup-fluid Trondheim Jazz Orchestra
for a set that took very different looks at some music from Golden Xplosion
, along with almost 35 minutes of brand new material.
With 2015's Pinball
, Neset augmented his now-quintet, with the addition of vibraphonist/percussionist Jim Hart
(Neon Quartet, John Warren
, Ivo Neame), with cello, violin and flute. Snowmelt
(2016) expanded the saxophonist's purview even further, as Neset collaborated with the London Sinfoniette, while last year's Circle of Chimes
was a return to smaller environs, though he still expanded his quintet with the addition of sister/flautist Ingrid Neset, Beninese guitarist/vocalist Lionel Loueke
, Jack DeJohnette
, Dave Holland
) and cellist Andreas Brantelid.
Beyond his recordings, Neset was seen by over a million people on June 15, 2017, when he played at the annual Swedish Polar Jazz Prize
awards show, which honored both Sting
, and Wayne Shorter
, whose "Beauty and the Beast" Neset performed.
So, clearly, Neset is reaching a lot of people in Europe. He is slowly gaining ground in North America too, having been selected as one of Downbeat Magazine
's "25 for the Future" artists and garnering regular coverage at All About Jazz
. But in a continent where breaking into the scene is a significant challenge no matter how recognized you are elsewhere, the best way to build an audience is still through touring and word of mouth, as the 150 people or so attending his packed show at the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage will, no doubt, be spreading.
A quick note about the Fourth Stage. Since its renovation, it has turned into a far more comfortable (if not slightly smaller, seating just 150 people to its old 180) venue, with a bigger stage, better lighting and vastly improved acoustics and sound system. With its four-chaired tables spread around the room with considerably more space than the original, and a raised back section so those who sit in the rear can still see the stage without any difficulty, if this is a sign of what the NAC is doing to improve all of its halls, then when the full art venue reopens later this year, it will be a big deal for music, ballet and theater lovers.
But back to Neset. What's been remarkablesince his emergence in 2011 and, increasingly, in performance, as witnessed at the 2012 edition of the Jazzahead!
trade fair, where he was backed by the Phronesis trio in its entirety, and his equally intense quartet show at the 2014 Jazzkaar
festival in Tallinn, Estoniais how Neset, a mere 26 when Golden Xplosion
was released, has managed to dilute the essence of his more expansive album lineups down to either a quartet or, as was the case with his crowd-enthralling set at the 2018 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, his quintet including Hart. Somehow, his broader-textured compositions can be reduced to smaller contexts without feeling like anything is missing.
Of course, a large part of this has to do with the absolute mastery of his groupand, in particular, Neset's own remarkable technique as a tenor and soprano saxophonist. At the start of Pinball
's "Music for Drums and Saxophone," the second song of his set at the Fourth Stage, Neset created a metrically challenging percussive intro that became all the more complex when Eger joined in, with the saxophonist using his tenor's keys as percussion instruments by tapping them without blowing into the horn and, far more impressive, his use of percussive tonguing while articulating vowels with his mouth.
It's hard to imagine, in fact, how Neset was able to actually speak during his between-song introductions, after the workout he gave his mouth with his array of extended techniques. A solo spot, later in the set, turned into an epic saxophone master class as Neset built upon music that, with its lilting phrasing, seemed rooted in Scandinavian folk music. Increasingly rapid lines, punctuated with lower-register notes that implied chord changes where there were none, ascended and cascaded as Neset swayed back and forth with his horn to an internal rhythm, his face registering all manner of emotions. That would have been impressive enough, along with his broad intervallic leaps, altissimo strength and astounding control over dynamics that were effortlessly mirrored by his band mates.
But his solo turned more unbelievable still (were it not for his audience as witnesses) as he suddenly dropped to a near-whisper and began to slowly draw consonant
multiphonics from his horn. A rare technique first heard on Single Engine
(Jazzland, 2007), Neset expanded and expounded upon fellow Norwegian Hakon Kornstad
's innovations by then moving increasingly rapidly between linear phrases and consonant multiphonics, not just suggesting but actually playing
changes that made his solo feel very much like, at the very least, a duet.
His playing with the group was, of course, no less impressive. Largely drawing upon music from Pinball
and Sirens of Cologne
, he opened with his most recent album's title track, which was a commission from the titular German city. Beginning in abstraction, with everyone in the band contributing to a slowly coalescing pulse, Neset cued the group into a complex scored section of irregular meters and constantly shifting harmonies, as the composition briefly moved into a 6/8 blues before turning more complex yet again. "Prague's Ballet," on the other hand, was a lovely interlude, a trio for saxophone, piano and vibraphone that demonstrated this group's equal penchant for spare beauty and simpler lines.
Still, from the start of the set, both the individual virtuosity and deep chemistry of the group was in clear evidence, even with American bassist Michael Janisch
(now located in London, England, where he established his Whirlwind Recordings imprint in 2010) subbing for Petter Eldh, who is currently on tour with Django Bates's Belovèd trio, performing at the festival two days later. Unlike the rest of the band, which had clearly assimilated and, quite remarkably, committed Neset's largely complex, constantly shifting and harmonically complex material to memory, Janisch was (understandably) reading for most of the set, with much of the music spanning two side-by-side music stands. Perhaps this was the reason why he took no solos, but nevertheless his firm support and occasionally quirky contributions to the music was essential, and enough of a challenge, met with aplomb, given the knotty idiosyncrasies that Neset regularly builds into his compositions.
Neame, whose most recent Edition Records album, Moksha
, was released just three months ago, was as impressive as ever, whether creating vividly motif-driven solos as he navigated Neset's challenging terrains or providing harmonic support, either alone or in telepathic combination with Hart.
Hart is another player who, like everyone in this group, needs
to find larger audiences in North America, though Neame has made some inroads, alongside Eger, through multiple tours over here with Phonesis. Whether on vibraphone, marimba or a series of percussion instruments ranging from wood blocks to shaken metalor, in the unnamed song following Pinball
's "Music for Saxophone and Drums," a series of tuned bells that he played, in challenging meters, in perfect synch with Neame, who gradually introduced dissonances that blended and diverged from the vibraphonistHart's contributions to the group made Neset's Ottawa set an even more satisfying and exhilarating experience than his Jazzahead! and Jazzkaar performances.
As always, Eger was not just a charismatic, relentlessly animated and clearly joyous performer, but a drummer who has, over the last decade, demonstrated not only an ability to find grooves in the most difficult of rhythmic circumstances, but to inject all manner of polyrhythms and cross-rhythms that combine with the rest of his band mates to make "finding the one" no small challenge. But with the best advice being to just try and feel
the pulse rather than intellectually finding it, Eger has not just evolved, like his band mates, into a far better player over the years; he has grown from young firebrand into a far more mature player. Yes, he can be absolutely crazy at times, but he's equally capable of greater subtlety and, even, a sparser approach where he plays so little that it's amazing just how strong his sense of time is. If there's anyone to which Eger can be compared (despite being absolutely different), it has to be the similarly irrepressible, always smiling and stylistically unpinned Joey Baron
, in particular in the way that Eger both responds to his band mates while, at the same time, driving them towards different, surprising and often completely unpredictable spaces.
Not that he needed to solo in order to demonstrate just how strong a player he was, Neset nevertheless provided Eger a chance, at the end of Circle of Chimes
' set-closing "Life Goes On," where the drummer covered more ground in a couple of brief minutes than most drummers do in entire sets.
Neset's 110-minute set included, following a rousing standing ovation, a well-deserved encore of Pinball
's title track, which moved from knottily conceived thematics to a middle section reminiscent of (without actually being) the American traditional "Shenandoah," before ending with a high-energy section of rhythmic starts and stops, as Neset navigated both the script and improvisation with complete and utter élan. Explaining that after he'd written the tune, he was told it was in nine different key signatures, Neset then quipped, "I'd meant to write it in twelve," before the band launched into this impressive close to an evening that will not only prove a memorable experience for those who were hearing Neset and his band for the first time, but set an early high bar for the festival that will undoubtedly turn out to be amongst the best concerts of the 2018 TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.
June 25: Django Bates' Belovèd, First Baptist Church
Truly a treasure hidden but, equally, not-so-hidden, Britain's Django Bates
, who currently lives and works in Switzerland, has built an impressive reputation as a pianist, composer and, on occasion, trumpet and Eb Peck hornist since first emerging on the UK scene as co-founder of the near-twenty-piece Loose Tubes conglomerate in the mid-'80s that, garnering no shortage of attention in the UK and around Europe, was populated by a wealth of players who were to become the next wave of British jazzers, including, amongst many others in its somewhat fluid lineup: saxophonists Mark Lockheart
, Julian Arguelles, Tim Whitehead
and Iain Ballamy
; guitarist John Parricelli
; trombonist/tubaist Ashley Slater
; trumpeter Chris Batchelor
; and drummers Steve Arguelles
and Nic France
. Around the same time, Bates became a charter member, along with Ballamy, in Bill Bruford
's first version of Earthworks, which signaled the progressive rock drummer's increasing interest in jazz, albeit with a more electrified bent as Bates played synthesizer while Bruford introduced his innovative system of chordal electronic drums.
This early Earthworks group (a second, more wholly acoustic one would emerge in the late '90s) lasted from 1987 through to the mid-'90s, when Bruford got the call to rejoin a new, double trio version of King Crimson
, but by then Bates' reputation had evolved to the point where he'd begun recording music ranging from solo piano to large ensemble for imprints that included, over the next few years, JMT Records (later, Winter&Winter), Storyville, Decca and saxophonist Tim Berne
's Screwgun, before starting his own label, Lost Marble. His first album for the label, 2004's You Live and Learn .. ( Apparently )
, was for an ensemble stretching as large as eleven musicians, while his second, '08's Spring is Here (Shall We Dance?)
was a similarly (and characteristically) witty, cerebral, idiosyncratic and, at the same time, wholly organic album for an even larger, 19-piece group. His next two, however, introduced the trio that delivered a similarly defined 7:00PM set in the near-perfect context of Ottawa's First Baptist Church, across the street from Marion Dewar Park.
Now known as Django Bates' Belovèd, featuring two young musicians who first met Bates in his capacity as music educator (an important second path in the pianist's career), the trio's original premise was to pay homage to alto saxophonist Charlie Parker
, albeit as uniquely and unpredictably as any of the pianist's other projects. Belovèd Bird
(Lost Marble, 2009) was, in fact, almost entirely comprised of music either written by or regularly played by the great bebop progenitor, with a couple of Bates compositions included as personal tributes to Parker. By the time of Confirmation
(Lost Marble, 2012), however, Belovèd had evolved into a vehicle for original music and, of course, freewheeling improvisation, though there were still three Parker compositions included, along with a lovely reading of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's "A House is Not a Home," beautifully interpreted by guest vocalist (and former Loose Tubes pal) Ashley Slater.
Fast forward to summer, 2016 and the trio had been picked up by Munich's renowned ECM Records, releasing its first album for the label, The Study of Touch
, in the fall of 2017.
Belovèd also features Swedish double bassist Petter Eldh
and Danish drummer Peter Bruun
, both now leaders in their own right and increasingly in-demand with artists ranging, collectively, from Norwegian drummer Gard Nilssen
, The World and Magnus Hjorth
to Samuel Blaser
, Nancy Stork
and Marius Neset
There's also a notable connective thread within the group. Bates not only played on but produced Marius Neset's Golden Xplosion
, while Eldh has been the saxophonist's bassist of choice, from Suite for the Seven Mountains
(Calibrated, 2008) through to Circle of Chimes
(ACT, 2017). Eldh, in fact, would have been performing with Neset at his TD Ottawa Jazz Festival performance just two days prior, were it not for his being on a brief North American tour with Bates' Belovèd.
That this was Bates' first North American appearance with Belovèd is not only a bit shameful in that it's taken this long for him to be invited here, but it's also something of a coup for the Ottawa Jazz Festival, since the trio's only other North American dates were at New York City's Jazz Standard, where the group delivered four shows in two nights, followed by a performance at the Rochester Jazz Festival. Bates commented that the Jazz Standard gig was well-attended, but that it seemed the majority of attendees were musiciansno particular surprise for an artist who comes to North America all too infrequently and who has clearly become an influential musician's musician, even if he remains less known than he should to jazz fans.
In jazz, most artists gain popular attention one show at a time, one audience at a time, and certainly Bates' performance at the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival will bring him a few hundred new fans. With a 90-minute setlist that weighed heavily on The Study of Touch
, though three of that album's tunes (Bates' "Sadness All The Way Down" and "Giorgantics," seamlessly merged together and opening the set, and the set-closing "We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Our Way") all also appear, in slightly expanded or contracted versions, on Confirmation
. Still, ECM label head/producer Manfred Eicher
's touch can be heard on the slightly abbreviated versions included on The Study of Touch
, with the abstract "Sadness All the Way Down" and, in particular, more dramatic and dynamic "Giorgantics" being more subdued readings.
As wonderful an album as it certainly is, the trio was paradoxically even more atmospheric and
dynamic on the concert stage. Bates' playful unpredictability not only kept Eldh and Bruun on their toes throughout the set, but they've also evolved considerably since the trio's inception, providing equal push-and-pull for the pianist as the trio effortlessly blurred the line between form and freedom, navigating complex compositional constructs with the same ease that they demonstrated when engaging in flat-out unfettered improvisations.
While the set largely emphasized Bates' writing, two Parker tunes (Confirmation
's evergreen "Donna Lee" and Belovèd
's "Star Eyes") rendered the origins of the trio crystal clear, even as they were so significantly stretched, twisted inside-out and rearranged as to be barely (but still) identifiable. This was a trio of equals, rather than a pianist supported by a rhythm section and, while there was clear time during the set, who
actually defined that time was fluid, with Bates, Eldh and Bruun all equally capable of either rendering time crystal clear or suggesting it with house-of-cards delicacy.
The title track from The Study of Touch
originated as a commissioned work for Belovèd's spring, 2013 collaboration with the Norrbotten Big Band in the northern Swedish town of Luleå. All About Jazz
was afforded the rare opportunity to travel to Luleå
and follow Bates, Eldh and Bruun, with Ashley Slater also in tow, as they met the Big Band for the very first time, rehearsing for five full days before premiering the piece, along with a number of other pieces from the Belovèd repertoire (also arranged for Norrbotten) at the Luleå New Directions Festival.
Hearing the commissioned piece in 2013 and then, again, in a reduced trio version as The Study of Touch
's title track revealed just how effectively Bates was able to dilute a piece originally written for a much larger group down to its essentials, in particular a four-note motif that formed the basis for the roughly ten-minute piece's early section. Just experiencing the composition's structured and unfettered array of colors, implied and defined pulses, vivid chordal injections, lithe linear phrases and, from Bates, a solo with seemingly unpredictable motion but ultimately filled with the kind of astute inner logic that rendered it a high point of the set.
Bates, a largely soft-spoken individual with a dry sense of humor, made the concert experience all the richer for the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival audience through his brief introductions. Introducing his trio mates Peter (Bruun) and Petter (Eldh), along with thanking festival Programming Manager Petr (Cancura) for bringing the trio to Ottawa, it was a logical segue into the trio's performance of The Study of Touch
's "Little Petherick," though just before he left the microphone and went to his piano, he quipped about the title being something "I'll have to investigate when I get home ... though I'll probably find out it's actually 'Patrick.'"
Later, introducing the same album's knotty but still somehow rhythmically focused "Slippage Street," he suggested his original plan was to "call it just 'Slippage,' but I discovered when you add the word 'Street' to anything it instantly becomes more hip." Bates was also capable of truly lovely ideas that spoke as much to Bates' personality as his playing, introducing the trio's version of Gene Paul and Don Raye's classic "Star Eyes" after the trio had played it, describing it as a song that "Parker loved to play ... and it loved him back."
Throughout the 90-minute set, there was little in the way of delineated soloing, despite Bates representing an intrinsically dominant force. Instead, the trio moved like a single organism, passing melodic and rhythmic ideas around like a six-armed juggler. No matter how complex or idiosyncratic as the music could be, there were also more than enough moments of unusual but still vivid beauty, as in the closing "We Are Not Lost, We Are Simply Finding Out Way" where at various moments, the dynamics dropped and both Bates and Bruun delivered warm, beautiful, wordless vocal harmonies.
Bates is clearly one of those rare musicians who is firing more brain cylinders than the average bear, and yet as challenging as his music must be to play, and as heady as it could sometimes be to hear, it was still a captivating experience for a crowd that, despite Bruun needing to rush over to the Fourth Stage for a 9:00PM show with trombonist Samuel Blaser and guitarist Marc Ducret
, refused to let the trio go without an encore. That the trio managed to squeeze in a four-minute piece that not only didn't feel rushed but was as expansive as anything else played in the set, spoke to its ongoing potential and growth. Ottawa fans should consider themselves fortunate that the festival chose to bring Bates' Belovèd to town, and newcomers to the group's music would be well advised to search out The Study of Touch
, either in a local shop or online, as a strong entry point to this extraordinary trio. This first experience for Ottawa will, hopefully, not be its last.