Ottawa Jazz Festival 2010: Days 4-6, June 27-29, 2010
It seemed like an odd billing: sublime chamber jazz duo Ralph Towner and trumpeter Paolo Fresu bookended by powerhouse Montreal soul/funk unit Papagroove and perennial jazz jambanders Medeski, Martin & Wood. How would a crowd predominantly looking for a party handle a duo so subtle, so understated? Nobody need have worried. Guitarist Towner and trumpeter Fresu had more than enough of an audience to draw people to Confederation Park on the strength of their appearance alone; and for those looking for an evening of grooves and jamming, the duo acted as a lovely palate cleanser.
But to reduce Towner and Fresu's set to nothing more than a sorbet between courses would have been to diminish the strength of their hour-long set, which was not only extremely well-received, it actually managed to somehow eliminate all the ambient noises outside the park, commanding the full attention of the audience and creating a kind of insulated microcosm in the middle of the city. Other than rounds of applause following solosand a standing ovation at the end of the set that actually took the artists by surprisethe crowd was rapt; devoting its complete attention. On paper, it seemed as though the music would have been better positioned in a smaller, more intimate indoor venue, but in practice it absolutely worked in the larger outdoor performance spacein no small part thanks to the superb mix provided by the festival's soundman, which was so good that Towner made a special point of acknowledging him to the crowd at the end of the set, as well as to OIJF Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady backstage, after the set was over.
With material culled largely from the duo's ECM debut, Chiaroscuro (2009), Towner and Fresu opened with "Punta Giara," a tune that immediately focused on Towner's distinctive harmonic language. Initially dark and spare, it gradually picked up steam, introducing the duo's remarkable ability to suggest time while oftentimes staying away from a fixed pulse. Fresu's warm flugelhorn floated atop Towner's nylon-string guitar, which was as warm and big as ever. While there was, indeed, a PA system pushing the sound out to the park, in more intimate and acoustic surroundings it's more inherently clear that Towner's tone is expansive all on its own. And with a combination of hard nails and the soft flesh of his fingers, Towner's tone ranged from soft to sharp, but always possessed a warm sustain, even when he played more delicately.
Chiaroscuro may be only a couple years old (recorded in the fall of 2008), but Towner and Fresu have been playing together for fifteen years, with "Punta Hada" inspired by the Sardinian festival where the two first collaborated. Flipping the opening two tunes and continuing with "Wistful Thinking," a tune first heard on Towner's 1994 solo album, Open Letter (ECM), and Chiaroscuro's opener, the chemistry between the two was even more evident, on a rubato tone poem that was all about feeling where the two should come together to move the song forward. In lesser hands it might sound tentative or not quite unified, but Towner and Fresu managed to coalesce effortlessly, Fresu's lineage to Kenny Wheeler, though his approach to lyricism is equally informed by Enrico Rava, with whom he's collaborated over the years. Unlike either of these trumpeters, however, Fresu also uses a mute on occasion, as he did on Towner's "Sacred Place," a gentle but majestic tune written for the Chiaroscuro session. Fresu also had a small rack with some sound processing gear; used rarely but to great effect on a song towards the end of the set, his repeating lines mirrored by Towner.
In addition to a conventional classical guitar, Towner also used a baritone guitar, also nylon stringed and tuned lower, but still with the same relative tuning. Used on the brighter but still somehow emotionally dark "Doubled Up," it's even richer texture allowed Towner even greater latitude both in support of Fresu and when he soloed. While both players were featured individually, it was the interaction between them that made the set so compelling; that, and both musicians' effortless virtuosity, an acumen that never got in the way of the music.
From left: Ralph Towner, Paolo Fresu
It was a set that, in its understatement, elegance and lyricism, remained a powerful example of spontaneity in action, with the two entering into some particularly deepangular, evenfree play halfway through the set. The duo's take on Towner's "Zephyr" was another highlight; a gorgeous tune first heard with Oregon on Ecotopia (ECM, 1987), but later arranged for an orchestra on the criminally overlooked Oregon in Moscow (Intuition, 1999). Here, reduced to a duo, Towner's ability to compose for guitar, but farm out portions of the arrangement to other playersaltering the complexion but retaining the core of the songwas brought into sharp detail. His own role varies, depending on the context; here, despite being shouldered with a lot of responsibility, Towner (and Fresu) were always aware of space, and left plenty of opportunities for notes to naturally decay, without feeling the compulsion to fill the gaps.
It may have been an odd choice to open up for the more electric and high volume Medeski, Martin & Wood, but it ultimately turned out to be a great one, not just for existing fans, but for those who were new to these two profoundly talented musicians.