Ottawa Jazz Festival Day 1: June 21, 2007
Following an entertaining 6:30 PM set by the Tango Nuevo group Norteño, saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his long-standing quartet took the stage at Confederation Park for a set that was tailored to a more general festival audience. Marsalis' performance at the 2007 Portland Jazz Festival was a considerably more intense affair, with more inherent risk. It's to Marsalis' credit that he understands the difference between performing in an indoor ticketed venue, where attendees are typically more familiar with the artist, and an outdoor festival, where a significant portion of the audience is attending all outdoor shows without necessarily having intimate knowledge of the artists' work.
That's not to suggest that there were artistic compromises in what Marsalis and his quartetrounded out by pianist Joey Calderazzo, bassist Eric Revis and drummer Jeff "Tain" Wattsdelivered over the course of its 100-minute set. Marsalis' extended rubato tone poem, "Cassandra," demonstrated, forty minutes in, that you can lead a more general audience to places it might not normally go by gradually pulling it in first with more accessible fare.
Marsalis may not have played with the kind of urgency that he often does, but he was in a playful mood that proved infectious. Irving Berlin's often-covered "Cheek to Cheek" was given a rhythmic work- over, turning the familiar melody into a more idiosyncratic affair, with time shifts and unexpectedly mischievous stops and starts before settling into more straight-ahead swing for strong, assured solos from Calderazzo and Marsalis.
Marsalis alternated between tenor and soprano saxophones throughout the show, robust and focused on the former, lithe, lyrical and equally centered on the latter. Calderazzo, who performs solo at the Connoisseur Series tomorrow, has matured from a post-McCoy Tyner modal player into a more widely versed pianist, whose solos seem to build with a paradoxical inevitability that makes them compelling, whatever the context. Revis anchors the group, though he's an equally fine soloist, carefully balancing melodic ideas with a pronounced rhythmic approach. Watts is a powerhouse drummer who can build intensity at the drop of a hat but is always the collaborative rhythm section partner, with his occasional bursts behind whoever is soloing always relevant and never meaningless non sequiturs.
Marsalis' performance may have been more lightweight (or, perhaps, light-hearted and playful) than usual, but there was no sacrifice of substance, making it an entertaining, successful and well-received opener for the festival's Concert Under the Stars series. class="f-right s-img">
The 10:30 PM Studio series, often the place to hear more experimental music with an edge, also got off to a strong start with New York-based pianist Kris Davis and her quartet, featuring saxophonist Tony Malaby, bassist Eivind Opsvik and drummer Jeff Davis. Kris originally hails from Calgary, Canada and, like Jens Winther, this performance is the first of a series of dates at jazz festivals across the country. Operating with the tried-and-true philosophy that touring new material is the best way to prepare it for recording, Davis will be heading into the studio immediately after the tour to record her follow-up to The Slightest Shift (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2006) and Lifespan (Fresh Sound New Talent, 2004).
Davis' quartet has remain unchanged since Lifespan, permitting it to grow organically and meet the increasingly rigorous demands of the pianist's writing. Opening the set with the far left-of-center "My Resurrection," the two Davises created an aggressive pulse, with Kris literally hammering dissonant block chords with her closed fists, Cecil Taylor-style. But interspersed with this more angular passage was a softer, more abstract passage during which Malaby's tenor and Opsvik's arco bass meshed seamlessly, at times in unison, elsewhere creating dissonant but strangely appealing harmonies.
Davis' music has often more closely resembled a kind of new music chamber aesthetic, despite the more jazz-centric instrumentation. Remaining more in the background and leaving Malaby as the more dominant voice, she would often develop repetitive, minimalist patterns that evolved so gradually as to be near- imperceptible. Her own approach to improvisation, whether soft or aggressive, felt more akin to careful consideration than reckless abandon.
Malaby, an underappreciated talent who has, nevertheless, been garnering increasing recognition through his work with bigger names such as pianist Fred Hersch and bassist Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra, possesses the same breadth of extended techniques that made altoist John Zorn's solo performance at Victoriaville's 2007 FIMAV festival so compelling. Multiphonics, percussive abstracts, odd blowing techniques and more make up Malaby's larger sonic palette. But, for a saxophonist of inimitable if not limitless technique, Malaby's focus is always on the music and, like his band mates, the ensemble rather than himself.
The biggest surprise of the performance was Jeff Davis' kit work. Always an inventive player, let loose in a live context he was a veritable fountain of ideas, a more assertive American counterpart to Canadian drummer Dylan Van Der Schyff. From textural work to the almost rock edge of "Black Tunnel," Davis completed an outstanding triumvirate of stand-out drummers from this first day's three performances.
Opsvik, like pianist Davis, appeared generally more content to function in the background yet, like Kris, his contribution to the overall fabric of the material was no less significant. The Studio performance was far and away the most challenging of the day, but rewarded those who stayed ample rewards and the opportunity to hear new music in relatively germinal form.
Tomorrow: Pianist Joey Calderazzo solo; saxophonist Bill Evans' Soulgrass project; and singer Coco Zhao.
Visit Jens Winther, Branford Marsalis, Kris Davis and the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival on the web.