Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 21-23, 2012
If the first night of the festival was only tangential in its relation to jazz, the second night was proof that the Ottawa Jazz Festival is committed to bringing top quality jazz to the big stage at Confederation Park; they couldn't have put together a better triple bill. Still, if Canadian saxophonist Joel Miller, the all-star Afro-Cuban Ninety Miles project and The Fellowship Band had more than enough in common to make it a winning combination, there were also plenty of differences that spoke to the breadth of the music and gave the audience more, perhaps, than it bargained for.
Winner of coveted Grand Prix Jazz Award at the 1997 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, the city that the Maritime-born saxophonist has called home for nearly two decades, Miller has been releasing his own music since 1996. Since 2004, however, with his folk and African-influenced Mandala (Effendi), and the even more ambitious Tantramar (2008)Miller's first crack into the American market with release on the co-op-style ArtistShare imprinthe's been slowly building a following and a discography of considerable merit, one that has brought together some of the cream of the Canadian crop, including bassist Fraser Hollins, drummer Thom Gossage and saxophonist (and now spouse) Christine Jensen, with notable non-Canucks like guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. What makes the just-released Swim (2012)his first for Seattle's Origin Recordsdifferent? Well, for one, Miller has given some of his regular collaborators a rest, specifically Gossage, trumpeter Bill Mahar and saxophonist/clarinetist Bruno Lamarche; only Hollins remains, while this time Miller has recruited Halifax-born, longtime Montreal-based, but now Brooklyn-resident drummer Greg Ritchie, and San Diego-based pianist Geoffrey Keezer for a lean and mean quartet project.
Quartets are, of course, much easier and inexpensive to book, though finding a way to get these four busy musicians together must have been no small challengenailing down Keezer, in particular, who has been (amongst other things) busy in both the Storms/Nocturnes trio with vibraphonist Joe Locke and British saxophonist/clarinetist Tim Garlandlast heard on 2011's superb VIA (Origin)and, this year, back together with Locke in the positively incendiary Joe Locke / Geoffrey Keezer Group, releasing the studio follow-up, Signing, and closing the six-year gap since its powerful debut, Live in Seattle (Origin, 2006).
The quartet's Ottawa show comes after a first-night engagement at The Rex in Toronto, and the group was already demonstrating the kind of chemistry that made Swim such an impressive record. Miller focused exclusively on music from the recordall originals, with the exception of the Miles Davis/Gil Evans' "Time of the Barracudas," from the trumpeter's largely (and unfairly) overlooked Quiet Nights (Columbia, 1962). Original music it may not have been, but Miller's quirky, yet effervescently swinging arrangement was so distinctive, so personal, that it was hard to distinguish it from his own writing.
In a quartet with absolutely no weak linksKeezer, an effortless wellspring of ideas, Hollins, a visceral combination of groove and unfailing lyricism, and Ritchie, a fluid player with eyes and ears clearly open to the music around himMiller's occasional virtuosic flights were impressive, as was his upper register control at the start of his solo on the balladic "Drop Off"so pure and clean that, with eyes closed, his tenor sounded more like a soprano.
The set came to a close with "Nos étoiles"a tune that belies Miller's Quebecois home, instead evoking images of Midwestern plains à la guitarist Pat Methenyand the idiosyncratic funk of "MarkAdamDrum." Compositional twists and turns, including the occasional tight knot, lent plenty of depth to Miller's music even as it provided plenty of space for the quartet to stretch out, with Ritchie's closing solo on Time of the Barrcudas an early highlight of a set that, while played on a marginally cooler day than the festival's opening night, was still hot and sweaty, with the sun beating down on the stage throughout the quartet's 70-minute set. The festival's decision to move the start time of the Great Canadian Jazz series to a half hour earlier at 6:00PM seems, based on the first two evenings, to be one that may need to be reconsidered. As audiences began to arrive later in the set, it certainly seemed as though the earlier start just might be a problem for folks trying to get to the park after a day's work.
It may have started a little later in the evening, but just two days away from the summer equinox, the sun was still pretty high in the sky when Ninety Miles took to the stage. "How are you all doing," asked vibraphonist Stefon Harris, after opening the set with a bright take of his complex "Brown Belle Blues," the penultimate track on the group's lauded eponymous 2011 Concord release. "I'm hot," he countered to the audience's response, before introducing a touring band that also included tenor saxophonist David Sánchez from the CD, but with trumpeter Nicholas Payton taking the place of Christian Scott, who is busy on the road promoting his own new release, aTunde Adjuah (Concord, 2012), an album that will, no doubt, show up on plenty of "best of" lists when the 2012 is tallied.
Payton's been getting his own press this year, though more for notoriety with his #BAM (Black American Music) campaign than for his recent release, Bitches (In + Out, 2012), but one thing is certain, based on his performance with Ninety Miles: the dude can playthough that will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career, first as a sideman for luminaries like the late drummer Elvin Jones, later as a leader whose roots remain largely in the traditionbut whose playing is anything but retro or reductionist. It was great to see that, even though Payton was a relative latecomer to this group, he was still given the chance to contribute a tune to a septet that, beyond Sánchez, didn't include anyone else from Ninety Miles' collaboration with Cuban musicians like pianists Harold López-Nussa and Rember Duharte. The trumpeter's balladic "The Backward Step" was more mainstream on his 2008 Nonesuch set, Into the Blue, but here, driven by bassist Luques Curtis, drummer Henry Cole and percussionist Mauricio Hererra, it fit in with the group's Afro-Cuban purview as if it were written for the occasion.
The rest of the set drew on Ninety Miles, though if the album largely compartmentalized the solo space in the interest of relative brevity in the studio, Ninety Miles live adopted a different tack, with just five tunes in a set that also featured characteristically astute support and carefully developed solos by pianist Edward Simon. In addition to "Brown Belle Blues" and "The Backwards Step," the 75-minute performance also featured a lengthy look at Harris' ambling "And This Too Shall Pass" and López-Nussa's bright "E'cha." Sánchez's set-closing "City Sunrise" unfolded slowly, gradually growing from gentle groove to simmering pulse and, finally, a positively on-fire climax that got a well-deserved standing ovation when it was all over, from a crowd who also may have been hot, but with the spicy music delivered by Ninety Miles, was feeling just fine about it.
The sun was below the buildings by the time The Fellowship Band took the stage for a nearly two-hour performance that was the perfect capper to a great evening. What started as a solo project for drummer Brian Blade, with his 1998 debut as a leader, Fellowship (Blue Note), soon became Brian Blade Fellowship for the 2000 Blue Note follow-up on the stellar Perceptual. Eight years passed before the group's next record, and by that time two things had happened: Dave Easely, whose pedal steel guitar was a defining texture for a band whose roots are as much in folk music and the church as it is in jazz of the most modern kind, was gone; and, whittled down to a sextet, the group was now called Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band, an indicator that this was a collective, especially considering keyboardist Jon Cowherd's compositional contributions. If Season of Changes was an apt title for many reasons (not the least being the year Barack Obama was elected to the White House), the one surprising change was that, while Easley's participation on the two earlier albums was essential, Fellowship Band as a sextet remained just as strong.
More change came when Rosenwinkel, moving first to Switzerland and then Germany, left the band to focus more on his own work. It's not insignificant that, when people leave Fellowship, they are not replaced, the chemistry and camaraderie of the remaining members more than compensating for the lost of first one, and then two voices. Still, for the first time, the group's 2009 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal performance suggested that Fellowship as a quintetwith just two frontliners (alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Myron Walden and tenor/soprano saxophonist Melvin Butler), along with Cowherd and bassist Christopher Thomasmay have whittled down too much. One of the defining qualities of Fellowship, after all, had been its tremendous interlocking of horn and guitar lines, and while the remaining group had no problem on the performance front, it seemed that, perhaps, attrition had gone a little too far in diluting its frontline strength.
A thought completely dispelled by the group's closing performance at the 2011 Oslo International Jazz Festival in the Nasjonal Jazzscene Victoria, where the quintet demonstrated that it had finally found a way to retain the harmonic approach that so defined the band, but with a leaner lineup that has placed more responsibility on Cowherd, a pianist who just seems to be more impressive with each and every performance.
Now, a year later, Blade has completely removed his name from the marquee, leaving the group simply as The Fellowship Band. If its Ottawa performance proved any one thing (it proved many), it was that Oslo was no fluke. The Fellowship Band, with a new album coming later in the year, has clearly found its voice, its strength and its premise. Walden and Butler may be only two voices, but somehow the way they intertwine suggests something bigger, while Cowherd manages to create a harmonic context and melodic foil simultaneously. It's hard to imagine blowing a roof off an outdoor venue like The Fellowship Band did in Oslo last year, but believe it; blow the virtual roof off it did, with the audience responding to its energy and sheer commitment from the start of the set.
The Fellowship Band played a set of almost entirely unheard material to the crowd, only "Return of the Prodigal Son" coming from one of the group's recordings (Season of Changes). But familiarity didn't seem to matter with a group that somehow managed folkloric simplicityeven performing a short, relatively faithful version of the traditional tune "Shenandoah" as a kind of mid-set release and relief, before launching into "Return of the Prodigal Son" and a set-closing "King's Highway"that was the closest thing to church this festival has ever seen. There's a spirituality that imbues The Fellowship Band, driven by Blade's tumultuous ability to drive rhythms while injecting massive bursts of power. And while every member of the group is clearly a virtuoso, that isn't what the music is about. Thomas' solo could have been about look-at-me pyrotechnics and furious note-play, but instead, he hung onto simple motifs, repeating them with the kind of perfect intuition that has made him such a cornerstone of this band, especially given Blade's maelstrom-like tendencies when the music and the group achieve lift-off.
But as much as there were periods of profound intensity, The Fellowship Band is also capable of keeping it simple and driving a singable melody with the same kind of commitment. "Stoner Hill," the song-like track from Season of Changes, was nowhere to be found in the set, but amidst these longer, often episodic compositions, there were plenty of strong themes. In recent years, Blade has proven himself as capable a singer/songwriter as he is a drummer, as on Mama Rosa (Verve, 2009), but that should come as no surprise to anyone who has listened to his music with The Fellowship Band since its inception. It's also no surprise that he writes much of his material for The Fellowship Band on guitar; while the collective improvisational energy of this group takes them to some far-out places; indeed, at their coreand the same can be said for Cowherd's writingare the kind of compelling themes that make them instantly appealing and accessible.
Anticipation for the new record is already high, and with its Ottawa Jazz Festival performance running a very close cousin to its nuclear Oslo set. It may only be the second night of the 2012 edition, but the entire eveningand The Fellowship Band's performance in particularhas already set a high bar that will be difficult to match.