Ottawa Jazz Festival 2009: Days 1-3, June 25-27, 2009
Cobb's So What Band may have been the festival's first smoking act, but S.M.V.the triumvirate of electric bass icons Stanley Clarkereturning to Ottawa after his packed-park Return to Forever reunion show last yearMarcus Miller, who's no stranger to Ottawa either, and Victor Wooten, last seen a few years back with his regular group, Béla Fleck and the Flecktoneswas the first to kick serious ass. And it's highly likely that it'll go down as the most powerful funk performance of the 2009 edition of OIJF.
l:r: Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten
With three virtuosic bassists together in a quintet that also included drummer Derico Watson (who's appeared on Wooten's last couple of releases) and Me'Shell NdegeOcello/Chris Botti alum/keyboardist Frederico Gonzalez-Peña, the potential for a chops-fest was high. Heavily attended (approximately 10,500), with people driving up for the show from as far away as Texas, and with no small contingent of aspiring and professional bassists in the crowd (when asked if he was a bassist, one member of the audience turned around and said, "No, but these 16 guys behind me are"), the teaming of some of the most influential bassists from three generations also had the potential for a train wreck of epic proportions, as three low- end fighters duked it out musically onstage.
But while there was no shortage of monster chops and staggeringly high velocity playing, S.M.V. was more about community and collaboration. Surprisingly, not only were there no train wrecks, but a show all about the bottom end remained clearly defined, with Clarke, Miller and Wooten splitting up duties and working parts that came together without ever getting clutteredeven when one of them was holding down things down while the other two played unison runs at light speed.
It was also a funkfest, with the grooves deep and wide. With nearly all the material culled from the trio's debut, Thunder (Heads Up, 2008) even sticking with the running order for the first five tunesit was a booty-shaking evening for some, a master class for others.
With Clarke the elder statesman, what was perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the performance was seeing just how each successive generation was affected by those that came before, taking the innovations and adding to them to create their own voices. Clarke was one of the first to make slapping and finger popping a popular technique; Miller grabbed onto that, but added a more full-bodied sound and his own harmonic mindset to the picture; Wooten capitalized on the strengths of both Clarke and Miller, and expanded the vernacular with his remarkable two-handled tapping, and even more prodigious right hand technique that evoked sounds not normally associated with the instrument.
Everyone got a chance in the spotlight, not just throughout the performance, as they passed solo and in tandem improvisations around like a hot potato, but in extended sections that included an especially mind- numbing feature for Wooten, "Hillbillies on a Quiet Afternoon." Miller's solo not only placed a spotlight on his bass playingand the first of what will, no doubt, be many tributes to the late "King of Pop," Michael Jackson, who passed away suddenly the previous day, playing "Wanna Be Startin' Something" and "Beat It"but his not inconsiderable skill with bass clarinet as well. And while the majority of the set was all about electric bass, Clarke brought out his double-bass for Miller's definitive '80s Miles Davis tune, the greasy "Tutu" (proving that it is possible to be funky on the acoustic instrument), and a solo segment that, while impressive as ever, was largely a repeat of his solo from the Return to Forever tour last yearperhaps the only criticism, as it would have been nice to hear something new and less structured to drive the crowd wildwhich it did.
l:r: Stanley Clarke, Victor Wooten
But as much as S.M.V.'s performance was exciting, also including an extended solo from Gonzalez- Peñ that was a dynamic respite from, as AAJ photographer John Fowler put it, "the storm that came before and the one that's coming," it was also the closest thing to a rock and roll aesthetic as will likely be seen at this year's festival. The show might have been engaging had the three bassist been seated on stools across the front of the stage, but it was the coming together as a stage center tour de force trifecta, and the bassists' moving around the stage to work together in various combinations, that made the show as thrilling to watch as it was to hear.
Since emigrating to Canada in 1998 from his home in Budapest, Hungary, pianist Robi Botos has been gathering accolade after accolade, winning (amongst them) the Montreux Jazz Festival Jazz Piano Prize, not to mention playing with a bevy of artists including the late Michael Brecker, Toots Thielemans and Roberta Gambarini. But he's not the only musical member of the Botos family. Father Louis is a drummer who still plays gigs on Norwegian cruise ships, and has spawned two additional generations of drummersson Frank, who also emigrated to Canada and works regularly with Robi, and Frank's young son. And that's not all. Louis' son Lojas is a bassist who, like his father, remains in Budapest, but came to Canada to play with his brothers in The Botos Trio, an exhilarating performance at the afternoon Connoisseur Series that will go down, as shows in past years like that of guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel at OIJF 2004, that brought the house down and were talked about for years to come.
Robi is an astonishing talent who came to piano at an early age and now, at only 30, is mature beyond his years with an ability to write meaningful material and put a new, fresh face on a number of well-known standards. At first reminiscent of Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea in his solo intro to his own "Soon," it quickly became apparent that the pianist has an encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz tradition, channeling a number of sources including Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Kenny Barron, the latter a personal favorite and whose "Voyage" was as good an example of Robi's open- ended and unfettered approach to not only soloingwhere he proved a master of building on motifs, with each one carrying a kernel of an idea that would lead to the nextbut of on-the-fly arrangement as well.
Of course he'd not be able to drive songs into new places if it weren't for the empathic support of brothers Lojas and Frank. It was as if there were a visible cord running between the three as they played, a palpable connection that, while creating some intensely exciting moments, also resulted in passages of great nuance and beautynot to mention some apparent "gotcha" moments, as one brother would suggest an idea and the others would catch on almost instantaneously, but look at each other with surprise and clear affection.
Robi's compositionsmany of them documented on The Botos Brothers (Independent, 2000)- -were as challenging as those from early Connoisseur Series performances, but as complex as they were, they also possessed an effortless sense of composure; unpredictable yet somehow inevitable. Robi largely favors his right hand, keeping his left hand for comping, but he also built his own voice out of the various channeled references with unique use of the piano pedals and dampening of the strings inside the piano to create concurrent staccato melodies and an ethereal backwash. Lojas swung hard, but was a supple soloist and, on the closing number, proved capable of some unexpected funk as brother Frank dug in with a solid backbeat. Frank was equally flexible, and his solo featuresespecially those when he traded eights with Robiwere stunning, often favoring his snare and using space to great effect.
l:r: Robi Botos, Lojas Botos, Frank Botos
Space, in fact, was also a defining characteristic of the group and Robi in particular. Virtuosic he may be, but his appreciation of the power of a decaying note or chord drove not just gorgeous ballads like his reharmonized "Someone to Watch Over Me," but a brighter and equally reworked version of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo." And no matter how far the trio took a familiar song, respect for its essence was clearly paramount. The crowd was more than enthralled; it was so enthusiastic that the applause often went on for minutes, as the appreciative Botos Brothers appeared a touch overwhelmed. It was a spirited and inspired performance that, yet again, raise the bar for a Connoisseur Series that seems to get better each day.