Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 1-3: June 21-23, 2012
Or so it seemed. While one of the joys of festival-going is the ability to hear a huge swatch of music over the course of just a couple weekssometimes as many as three, four or five per nightthere are times when, after a particularly moving performance, it just seems somehow wrong to then move to another venue, another show. While the wealth of choices on June 22 rendered it impossible to catch bassist Dave Holland's first of three shows as this year's Artist in Residenceby all accounts, a sublime duo with pianist Kenny Barronthe opportunity for a reprise of Tunisian oudist Anouar Brahem's trio with Holland and saxophonist/clarinetist John Surman, which performed its first concert in 12 years at the 2011 Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, was not to be missed.
The Montreal show was, indeed, magical; surprisingly so, perhaps, given that a late arrival from Surman meant the trio hit the stage without any rehearsalthough sometimes such adverse conditions can actually push a group to transcendence. Still, with the benefit of some serious rehearsal time in Ottawa, and with everyone relatively rested, after arriving in town a couple days prior, the trio's performance at First Baptist Church even managed to surpass its performance a year earlier.
The sound in the 250-seat church was sublime, with a perfect blend of natural sounds coming from the front of the hall, organically filling the room courtesy of its natural reverb, and a PA system that ensured a perfect mix without being at all intrusive. The set list was similar to Montreal, drawing largely on the trio's single recording for ECM, 1998's Thimar (though there was some unfamiliar music as well), but taking the music much, much further, with some surprisingly free segments mid-way through the roughly 80-minute set, delivered to a particularly enthusiastic crowd.
A crowd so enthusiastic, in fact, that there were many times throughout the set that the group simply had to stand there, take it in, and acknowledge each other on the stage and wait for it to subside. And while the audience avoided the sometime perfunctory "applause after every solo" routine for the first half of the show, it was after a particularly explosive, yet lyrical soprano solo from Surmanan endless cascade of notes, the saxophonist's face gradually turning red from the effort of relentless circular breathingthat a single breath, a single pause, drew an absolute explosion from the audience. When Holland took over for an a capella solo that was clearly inspired by what had just happened, demonstrating why he's one of the most renowned jazz bassists alive today. As he moved from simple lines to almost unimaginable flurries across the neck, resolving to a series of increasingly long glissandi that drew both laughs and tremendous applause, the bassist simply smiled, and delivered an even longer one, before moving on and, ultimately, to a regrouping with his trio mates.
When Holland released Hands (Dare2, 2010), with flamenco master Pepe Habichuela, he spoke of the importance of not just dabbling in such stylistic cross-pollinations, but actually spending the time to study and get deep inside the music, so it's not a jazz bassist playing with a flamenco musician, it's a jazz bassist playing flamenco music. And so it is, too, with Brahem, that Holland's unshakable time and ability to grooveeven when it's over a repeating pattern of two bars of seven, one of six and one of eightclearly comes from his now almost five-decade career. Still, it was always in the context of Brahem's writing, steeped in traditional Middle Eastern classicism while redefining its very possibilities, and absolutely true to its spirit. And while Holland rarely picks up a bow these days, his arco intro to the set-opening "Badhra" suggests that, perhaps, he should do so more often.
Surman was no less true to the harmonic, melodic and rhythmic spaces defined by Brahem, and yet the pastoral nature of his playingheard to great effect on his own recently released Saltash Bells (ECM, 2012)was inescapable, whether on soprano sax or bass clarinet, the latter an instrument that worked particularly well with Brahem's oud, and is something the Tunisian has continued to explore with Germany's Klaus Gesing on the oudist's most recent release, The Astounding Eyes of Rita (ECM, 2009).
Brahem's writing may place the music in a very specific space, but if Surman and Holland come to it with their broader stylistic experiences, Brahem does nothing less than meet them on their own terms. Renowned as an oudist who has expanded his traditional roots into more improvised contexts (with eight albums on ECM since 1981's Barzakh), he was as unfettered in his own explorations as his band mates, patiently building solos of motivic invention, exploiting the warm, low-register tonality of his instrument and, occasionally, moving into surprisingly free areas where he strummed rapidly to create a dense wash of sound that built to a peak... only to resolve and fade, as he signaled a return to form with Surman and Holland.
Brahem, living in his native Tunisia, is very careful about his music, never rushing his writing or recording. He is also very specific about the performances he accepts, making his agreement to perform in Ottawa all the more special. If photographs were not allowed at the performance (those shown here come from the 2011 Montreal performance), it was because the quiet nature of the music demanded the utmost attention of both the musicians and their audience. Even allowing for a shoot in the first minutes of the show might have proven more than a distraction, and could have altered the entire complexion of the performance. Instead, with no distractionswell, other than an enthusiastic crowd that made the floor shake when it gave the trio a well-deserved standing ovation, but not without a demand for an encoreBrahem, Surman and Holland delivered a show of subtle beauty, soft pulses and unbridled imagination that will go down as one of the most sublime musical cross-pollinations this very limited number of Ottawans has ever experienced.
Coming up on days 4-8: Mark Ribot; Dave Holland's new Prism project, with keyboardist Craig Taborn, guitarist Kevin Eubanks and drummer Eric Harland; trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano's Sound Prints quintet; Norwegian trumpeter Mathias Eick's quintet; guitarist Bill Frisell Plays Lennon; drummer Jack DeJohnette brings his group to the studio; and irrepressible musical madman Médéric Colignon brings his electric-Miles Davis tribute, "Jus de Bosce," to the Fourth Stage.
All Photos: John Kelman
Days 1-3 | Days 4-8