Ottawa Jazz Festival, Days 4-8: June 21-23, 2012
Days 1-3 | Days 4-8
TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival
June 21-Jul 1, 2012
With a total of five main venuesthe main stage at Confederation Park, the Studio and Fourth Stage in the National Arts Centre, the OLG Stage tent across the street from Confederation Park at City Hall, and, for the Holland/Brahem/Surman Thimar show on June 23, the First Baptist Church, the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival is set to handle crowds from a couple hundred to upwards of ten thousand. Programming Confederation Park for maximum accessibility and appeal means an ability to program more eclectic fare at the Fourth Stage Improv Invitational Series, and place groups that really belong indoorslike guitarist Bill Frisell, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist Joe Lovano's new Sound Prints groupin an intimate venue where both sound and sight lines are assured throughout the room.
The festival also programs local talent at the nearby Rideau Centre shopping mall and World Exchange Plaza. And local bassist John Geggiewhose annual Geggie Concert Series at the NAC Fourth Stage has become the go-to place for jazz off-seasonhas, with just a couple years' exception, been running the late night jam sessions for so long that the festival would simply not be the same without him. As has been the case in recent years, he's invited Torontonian pianist Nancy Walker and, this year, drummer Ethan Ardelli to form a core trio that's ready, willing and able to take on all guests, ranging from local musicians and participants in the Galaxie Youth Programa week-long master class for student musicians handpicked from across the country, and brought together to work towards a performance at the end of the weekto high profile guests of the festival like guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who was in town as part of bassist Dave Holland's new Prism project, and was clearly here to play, both at Confederation Park and at the ARC Lounge, in the nearby ARC, The Hotel, where Geggie, by now clearly an Ottawa institution, is hosting the late night jam sessions throughout the festival.
But back to business. Guitarist Marc Ribot has become an institution of his own, in a career that, despite being often predicated on left-of-center values on his own releaseslike the Albert Ayler-inspired Spiritual Unity (Pi, 2005) and Silent Movies (Pi, 2010), a largely solo recording, with the exception of Keefus Ciancia's soundscapes on a handful of trackshas rubbed shoulders with mainstream singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello and John Mellencamp...even Elton John. He's been recruited by everyone from gritty songsmith Tom Waits (with whom the guitarist has worked for over a quarter century), Tzadik label creative driver John Zorn and undervalued singer/songwriter Freedy Johnson to New York's infamous Lounge Lizards (where he first made his name), singer Marianne Faithful and bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss, and so a solo performance by Ribot is bound to be an equally esoteric blend of the myriad composites that have come to create a style that remains in great demand across almost the entire musical spectrum.
For his 5:00 PM show at the NAC Fourth Stage, it was just one man, one guitar; in this case, a battered old Gibson acoustic that had clearly logged a lot of travel miles. After being announced, Ribot arrived on the stage, only to say "Wait, just two minutes," leaving the stage and returning with his guitar case. Remarking that his guitar teacher always told him to have something to raise his left foot, Ribot propped his foot on the case, and launched into a nearly 20-minute improvisation based around Ayler's Holy GhostRevenant's remarkable 10-disc set that collected a massive amount of previously unreleased musicspecifically "Spirits," but Ribot's interpretation was, indeed, more about spirit than direct reference.
What was, perhaps, the most impressive aspect of Ribot's performance, for someone who hasn't had a prior privilege, is that while the guitarist was, indeed, an improviser of the most unfettered kindas ready to slide angular chords up and down the neck as a glissando, scrape the strings with his pick or layer single note lines while hammering a bass note ostinatohe's also one whose mastery of his instrument was far greater than it might have seemed when he was in deep extemporization mode. Ribot took a lot of risks and had no problem with being raw and unschooled, but his knowledge of not just the jazz tradition but music well beyond its broadest purview was in full force throughout the 70-minute set, where he played everything from a hint of ragtime and a little John Coltrane ("Sun Ship"), to a closing tune written by his guitar teacher and an encore of the Mack Gordon/Harry Warren chestnut, "There Will Never Be Another You," that was surely amongst the fastest versions ever played. There were hints of Americana and no shortage of blues in his visceral bends, and a clear understanding of Latin tradition.
And yet, despite this breadth, and despite all the jagged edges, when it came time to be soft and gentle, Ribot demonstrated immaculate classical technique, along with an inimitable ability to keep a foundational motif goingeven a chordal oneas he layered linear melodies that, in demanding he move up and down the entire range of his neck, also meant that he had to constantly shift where he played that motif. Everyone in the audience may not have been aware of what he was doing, but based on the tremendous response, he was reaching them, and that, in the final analysis, is what it's all about.
Unfortunately, however, after three days of primo weather it was almost inevitable that there be a couple days of inclement changethough for the right show, that's doesn't have to be a complete impediment. When bassist Dave Holland was in Ottawa a little over a decade ago for an exploratory main stage set with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock and drummer Brian Blade, nearly 8,000 people stayed, huddled under coats, plastic sheets and umbrellas, for an entire show delivered under a near-torrential rainstorm. The attendance for Holland's performance in his final show of his three-day residency was not as large, but even as the rain went from a drizzle to a downpour, a surprising turnout stuck it out until the end of the set.
And why wouldn't they? Holland's new Prism group set was an even greater coup than Thimar the night before, since this is both the world premiere of the group and its only North American appearance, as the group headed off to Europe the following day for a month of festival circuit touring. And what a group. Drummer Eric Harland first worked with Holland in the bassist's Overtone group, initially called The Monterey Quartet and documented on Live at the2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (Monterey Jazz, 2009)changing names when pianist Jason Moran replaced Gonzalo Rubalcababut here the context was more electric, with keyboardist Craig Taborn teaming up with Holland for the first time.
Harland has proven, in countless contextsincluding saxophonist Charles Lloyd's quartet, last heard on the superb The Athens Concert (ECM, 2011), and with the SFJAZZ Collective, whose Live in New York Season 8: Music of Stevie Wonder (SFJAZZ) was one of 2011's bestthat he's one of his generation's most impressive and increasingly influential drummers, capable of any context, like Lloyd's stunning trio date, Sangam (ECM, 2006), that also featured table master Zakir Hussain. Here, he effortlessly combined vibrant groove with ears-open responsiveness, no small feat given the swirling colors going on around him.
Taborn has, in the past decade, proven similar breadth whether it's the stunning solo piano record from 2011, Avenging Angel (ECM), or collaborations with everyone from saxophonists James Carter and Tim Berne to trumpeter Dave Douglas, violist Mat Maneri...and Ottawa's own John Geggiedemonstrating, in the bassist's 2006 Geggie Concert Series duo show, an encyclopedic knowledge of the jazz tradition and, even more significantly, the piano tradition within it. So it's no surprise that Taborn fit Prism like a glove, playing both grand piano and Fender Rhodes with an approach that was decidedly left-leaning harmonically, but which seamlessly meshed with the kind of effortless, irregularly metered grooves that are a large part of much of Holland's work in the past 15 year with his quintet, septet, octet and big band.
As complex as the music was, it was also eminently accessible, thanks to those irrepressible grooves, and the group's fourth member, guitarist Kevin Eubanks, who is back working with Holland after an 18-year hiatus since the bassist's Extensions (ECM, 1990) and the guitarist's three consecutive Blue Note recordings1992's Turning Point, 1993's Spirit Talk and 1994's Spiritalk 2: Revelationsthat remain amongst the best of his career. In the intervening years, Eubanks has, of course, been the musical director for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, but since leaving the show and releasing his first recording since Revelation2010's Zen Food (Mack Avenue)he's made it clear that he's back in the game, and if Zen Food was promising but not entirely successful, his performance with Holland and Prism demonstrated that he's still got chops to burn, in a curious combination of Wes Montgomery-styled traditionalism and high octane, John McLaughlin-esque fusion propensities. Shifting his tone from warm and clean to warm and grittywith plenty of sustain to allow notes to breathe as long as he would let themhe was center stage both literally and figuratively, though everyone in the group commanded attention.
As with his other projects, in concert Holland provided plenty of room for everyone, but like the Overtone Quartet, Prism was more egalitarian when it came to compositional contributions, with Holland and Eubanks each contributing two songs, with one apiece from Taborn and Harlandthough, had the rain let up, an encore of another Harland tune was planned, but despite a trooper of an audience that largely toughed it out with the downpour and was tremendously enthusiastic in its response, by the end of the set they'd well and truly had enough, and did not ask for an encore.
Prism was the closest Holland has ever come to a fusion band, but there was nothing retro in either tone or approach. It was high energy, to be surewith Eubanks the most relentlessly vivacious but Holland, too, surprising the crowd (or, perhaps, we should no longer be surprised) with furious and flurry-filled solos that reflected a player unwilling to rest on his considerable laurels. Taborn ranged from ethereal to deeply grounded, while Harland, body stretched backward and eyes closed, was clearly in the zone. That said, there was a lot of looking around, and at least one place in the set where the group's ending was a tad tentative; this was, after all, a first performance, and if Prism was a bit rough around the edges, Ottawa still had the tremendously good fortune to catch this group on the ground floor, when the music (largely written for the group) was still very fresh, very new and, consequently, performed with the kind of "sound of surprise" that made it another high point for the festival. It may have been pouring through much of the set, but the rapt audience barely seemed to feel it until the very end, as the group pushed and pulled, ebbed and flowed and, most of all, played like its life depended on it.