OTTAWA INTERNATIONAL JAZZ FESTIVAL
BY RON SWEETMAN
The Ottawa International Jazz Festival 2011 ran for ten days, from Thursday June 23 to Sunday July 3. There were approximately sixty concerts that you paid to hear, and approximately thirty-three concerts which were free.
I chose to review five concerts because I thought that you [and I] would find them particularly interesting. It was a physical impossibility for anyone to attend every concert, but I would like to mention other concerts that I heard and thoroughly enjoyed – Jonas Kullhammar Quartet, the Joshua Redman/Brad Mehldau Duo, Chet Doxas Quartet, Christian McBride and Inside Straight, Vijay Iyer, Kenny Wheeler, Myra Melford, Jon Irabagon & Diana Torto, Nancy Walker Quartet and Way Out West.
This is a major jazz festival which brings in top-flight artists from around the world.
THE THING – June 24
The Thing is an improvising trio made up of Mats Gustafsson [Tenor and baritone sax - from Sweden], Ingebrigt Håker Flaten [String bass – from Norway] and Paal Nilssen-Love [Drums - from Norway]. They jumped right in to their first piece, with blaring tenor sax, strong supportive bass and vigourous inspiring drumming. Gustafsson stayed mostly in the middle range of his instrument , but with some excursions above and below the normal range. He plays the instrument with his whole body, his body executing an empathetic dance to the notes he played. After a pause for a bass solo, the sax came back, softly at first but soon blaring again, urged on by the propulsive drummer. Watching and hearing Paal Nilssen-Love makes one realise how extraordinary he is. Gustafsson is wild but logical in the development of his playing.
The second piece started with a soft tenor saxophone/bass duet, then joined by the drummer, just using brushes. Here the sax tone resembles Sonny Rollins more than the extreme tones used by other free players. Nilssen-Love takes a subtle but propulsive solo while Gustafsson changes over to his baritone sax and he and the bass re-join the drummer, the baritone sax initially harsh and blasting, but softening into short strong single notes. Drums and bass pick up theme as sax moves into more complete phrases, becoming so rhythmic in his phrasing that he almost becomes part of the rhythm section, until a witty sax phrase brings the piece to an end.
Bass and drums introduced the third piece, joined by the tenor sax with deep sustained notes, which became shorter and more staccato, his phrases mirrored by the drummer. The sax develops short motifs as heat increases and energy mounts, punctuated by a bass solo. The sax comes back, the tempo speeds up and the sax improvises wildly until an abrupt ending.
The fourth piece has a driving drum introduction by Paal Nilssen-Love until he is joined by the tenor sax for a theme statement, while the bass rumbles below them. Drums are a powerhouse of rhythmic impulses and drive. Sax moves into higher register as band stops to let him solo, then bass comes in behind him, followed by the drums. Sax calms down and uses short repeated phrases, slowly fading out, leaving bass and drums to duet. Sax changes to baritone and comes in slowly and deeply, moving to short explosive grunts as the piece ends.
The final piece opened with the baritone sax slap-tonguing between high and low notes, interspersed with some ballad-like phrases. Drums and bass come in, Ingebrigt Haker Flaten bowing his bass. The sax responds with strong rhythmic phrases, getting very athletic as his body mirrors the phrases. The bass comes forward with a bowed solo which slowly fades to end the piece.
This was a brilliant set. Musicians playing at this level of intensity and inspiration have to add remaining physically strong to their high technical competence, a challenge not faced by less adventurous groups.
ATOMIC – June 25
This group is made up of two members of The Thing; Paal Nilssen-Love [Drums – from Norway], and Ingebrigt Håker Flaten [Bass – from Norway], plus Magnus Broo [Trumpet - from Sweden], Fredrik Ljungkvist [Tenor Sax, Baritone Sax & Clarinet – from Sweden], and Håvard Wiik [Piano – from Norway].
They refer to the pieces they play as "tunes" or "compositions", and each performance refers to the general outline of the "tune" but varies in the individual improvisations of each musician.
Their first piece opened fast but there was a sudden drop in tempo while the trumpet played a delicate solo, with some support from the tenor sax, followed by a piano solo. Håvard Wiik uses all the resources of the piano. This was followed by a brief trumpet solo, with Paal Nilssen-Love really stoking the fire during the trumpet solo, then bringing the tempo down before bass and drums reawake the fire behind a tenor sax solo. Fredrik starts with honks but develops more harmonically and content-wise as he proceeds, with piano, bass and drums providing great support. The sax solo ends with a lengthy wail, followed by a brief trumpet/sax unison passage and an abrupt, but planned, ending.
The second piece started with the very melodic but rather static theme being played by the entire band, followed by a complex piano solo. This leads to a tenor sax solo which starts quietly and gains in strength without leaving the normal range of the instrument. The trumpet joins the sax for a gentle restatement of the theme, and then takes over with a big tone and declamatory style evoking memories of Louis Armstrong as will as more modern trumpeters. Another theme statement is followed by a sudden ending.
The third piece, a recent composition entitled "Here Comes Everybody" opens with a cautious sax solo with support from piano and bass. Trumpet joins in for a lengthy sax/trumpet duet as tempo accelerates with addition of drums, and the duet becomes combative, with the rhythm section urging them on. Fredrik swaps his sax for a clarinet and the duet feeling is back until the trumpet goes quiet, leaving the clarinet and the drummer, by playing a bow down the side of a cymbal, to produce shrill thrills. The piece ends with a loud and strong re-statement of the theme.
For the fourth piece, Fredrik picks up his baritone sax for a unison theme statement, followed by a reflective trumpet solo with just piano accompaniment. The trumpet becomes quite raucous for a while, but then softens his attack to an almost tender approach. The baritone sax slides in behind him with a warm-toned and reflective solo until the piece is brought to a sudden end by some problem with the sound system.
Fredrik is back on tenor sax for the unison theme statement of the fifth piece, which is followed by a fast and percussive piano solo. Then the sax starts his solo, holding long notes and wailing aggressively, developing into shorter phrases, all within the normal tenor sax range. Trumpet joins him with repeated short motifs, and the temperature rises as the trumpet really wails, but unexpectedly they return to earth and a slower tempo, which is how the piece ends.
For the sixth piece, Fredrik uses his clarinet, and the opening by clarinet, trumpet and bowed bass sounds quite classical. The pianist plays an introspective solo and then clarinet, trumpet and bowed bass come back, still sounding quite classical. The sound changes as Fredrik picks up his baritone sax. The central feature is a fine trumpet solo, where now I can hear echoes of Roy Eldridge and Fats Navarro, although the effect is quite contemporary. The sax takes his solo, also expansive and also using the full range of the instrument, especially the lower register. Sax and trumpet play a friendly duel and the sax moves out of the normal range into higher territory before a brief unison passage takes the piece out.
The final piece had a somewhat-tongue-in-cheek dedication to a Swedish section of Chicago. The prepared piano played question and answer with the clarinet and trumpet, contrasting the avant-garde piano with the more conventional approach of the clarinet and trumpet. The tempo slowed down, the bass bowed, trumpet and clarinet played in unison and then took solos. For his solo, Fredrik played rising notes right to the extreme top of his range, while Magnus stayed closer to home, using a broad tone and blues phraseology. When the baritone came in behind him, there was almost a Dixieland feel. Sax and trumpet played another duet, sax riffing madly, which concluded the tune and the concert.
This group has the enormous strength of drummer Paal Nilssen-Love and bassist Ingebrigt Håker Flaten to ground and to inspire the other three members, who are very good but not at the level of Paal and Ingebrigt. Magnus Broo is their outstanding soloist. They operate well as a group.
TANIA GILL QUARTET – June 26
The Tania Gill Quartet normally includes Tania Gill [Piano, Melodica, Voice], Lina Allemano [Trumpet, Flugelhorn], Clinton Ryder [bass] and Jean Martin [Drums], but for this concert Lina Allemano was replaced by Jim Lewis [Trumpet, Flugelhorn].
Such a change can readily unbalance the internal structure of a quartet, and I'm sure that a concert by the regular personnel would have been more satisfying for all concerned.
Another unusual aspect of the concert was the charming informality of the introductions, which made the audience feel closer to the musicians.
The first tune "Bicycle" started with a thoughtful piano introduction joined first by the drummer [using brushes] and then trumpet and bass, playing the theme with the piano remaining at the forefront. The trumpet then took a solo which varied from restrained to adventurous, ending on a long sustained note. Piano soloed briefly and then the trumpet was back in a more adventurous style, bringing the piece to its end.
The second piece "Ah Ti Ta" started with a trumpet intro over a bowed bass, followed by a rich piano solo which Tania appeared to be reading from music in front of her, an unusual sight in an improvising group. Trumpet joined piano in the up-and-down theme, developing into a trumpet/piano duet in a question & answer mode. A further piano solo sounded more improvised. A further rather restrained trumpet/piano duet ended this piece.
Next up was "Bolger Station", the title track of Tania's debut CD on the Barnyard label, which began with a meditative piano introduction followed by a sober flugelhorn theme statement and improvisation. The piano quickens the tempo in an apparently improvised solo. This piece was aborted as an unidentified voice came over the sound system.
Tania brought out her melodica for the introduction to "Paso", which seemed to be in waltz time. A trumpet solo followed and then the piano built up an elaborate solo before the trumpet joined her to finish the piece.
Waltz time was less obvious in "Maple Leaf Waltz", starting with piano, melodica, bowed bass and muted trumpet slowly launching the tune, with piano and trumpet trading phrases. Tina sang in a small voice, then took a piano solo with muted trumpet interventions. Bowed bass ended this number.
Tania now played an unaccompanied piano solo based on a four-bar sketch written by a Toronto friend, which left her plenty of room for improvisation.
A Monkish-sounding tune called "Magpie" started with a unison theme statement, followed by an adventurous trumpet solo. A brief drum solo introduced a piano solo rich with Monkish harmonies. Trumpet and piano reprise the theme and see us out.
"Lakeshore" started with a piano introduction into a trumpet theme statement. Bass and piano take solos before the flugelhorn comes in with subdued notes which announce the end of this piece.
Melancholic piano chords are joined by Tania's voice as we recognize "It Never Entered My Mind". The vocal is followed by a piano solo, nicely improvised upon the song's chords, and a bass solo which wraps this tune up.
The penultimate piece began with flugelhorn and piano first stating the theme quite briskly, and then improvising on it. Piano and bass solos follow. Restatement of the theme takes us out.
Finally, a brief pensive piano introduction as trumpet states the theme and improvises upon it with piano support. A bowed bass solo ends this piece and the concert.
DARCY JAMES ARGUE'S SECRET SOCIETY – June 28
This orchestra is a mixture of Canadian and American musicians who play the compositions and arrangements of Canadian Darcy James Argue, who conducts each piece. This is a large band – five reeds, five trumpets, four trombones, piano, guitar, bass and drums. Because their entire repertoire is written, arranged and conducted, it has an original sound, which is very welcome in the big band world.
"Transit" started with a strong theme statement, followed by a brilliant trumpet solo by Ingrid Jensen, floating over the orchestra which gradually gets louder, forcing the trumpet higher into the stratosphere before an abrupt ending.
"Flux In A Box" demonstrated the overall strength of this orchestra. There was a jumping alto sax solo over rich ensemble backing, a piano solo which started in a meditative mode but increased in speed and intensity with prodding from the orchestra. Apart from soloists, band members are reading from charts, but with great conviction and swing.
"The Neighbourhood" opens with tinkling piano echoed by the orchestra. Tension and volume increases. A tenor sax solo carries things forward. Two flutes and a clarinet play with echoing brass behind them. Drums get hot and heavy, and the whole band joins in. This is followed by an idyllic passage by flutes and clarinet which ends the piece.
"The Jacobin Club" starts with subdued brass over quavering clarinets and flutes. The tempo quickens and volume increases.
An alto & trombone duet over increasing volume from muted trumpets in a loping rhythm. Volume reaches a climax, leaving just the bass to end things off.
"Habeas Corpus (for Maher Arar)" starts with ominous chords from bass and guitar. The orchestra comes in quietly and sensitively but gaining in strength; the guitar chords are mirrored by throbbing brass. Trombone solo over somber clashing chords. Appropriately dark ending.
"Aeromagnetic" had a slow introduction gradually increasing in power. Tempo changes and sounds become threatening. A trumpet solo, backed by the orchestra, ends with crashing drums and roaring brass, relieved by the guitar emerging playing chords which are picked up by the orchestra as the piece ends.
"Phobos" starts with percussion solo largely using hands, creating an echoing sound. The guitar makes harsh scraping noises, but when the orchestra comes in, it sounds quite serene. There's a gradual increase in volume as the tenor sax solos over the full orchestra. At the end of this solo, the tempo drops and the orchestra plays in unison until the drummer crashes his cymbals, raising the tempo and the volume, only to die away to bring the piece to an end.
This was a thoroughly satisfying concert, and James Darcy Argue is a composer/arranger/bandleader to watch.
GORD GRDINA TRIO with MATS GUSTAFSSON– June 30
The Gord Grdina Trio is made up of Gord Grdina, guitar and oud, Tommy Babin, double bass and Kenton Loewen, drums. They were joined by Mats Gustafsson on tenor and baritone saxes. This international pairing of Canada's Gord Grdina Trio and Sweden's Mats Gustafsson might have appeared strange in print, but it certainly worked out well in practice.
"Burning Bright" started with a blaze of sound, all four musicians putting everything they had into the hard-swinging ensemble jam, Mats [on tenor sax] sounding thoroughly at home. After a while he sat out and let Gord take the leading role which developed into a dynamic guitar solo full of rich chords. Bass and drums came back in and the tempo increased so Mats decided it was time to get back into the game. The ensemble moves into an Ayleresque mode which of course calls for a solo from Mats. It is always notable that Mats has the body and poise of an athlete, with his whole body moving in empathy with the notes he's playing. Gord comes back and he and Mats start a duet which at times sounds as if it might become a duel, but remains a duet, briefly interrupted by a sonorous bass solo, and sax and guitar are still duetting as the tune ends.
Gord moved to oud for "Cluster", which started with strangled sounds from the bowed bass. Gord soon demonstrated his mastery of the oud as an Eastern atmosphere developed. Mats joined in with his tenor saxophone sound muffled by his knee to remain consistent with the mood of the music, which was emphasised by more bowed bass. Mats then uncovered his sax to take a fine solo, honking at times but not breaking the Eastern spell. A slow drum pulse becomes a delicate drum solo, which is joined by the bass for a duet which briefly becomes a trio as the oud chimes in, but bass and drums clear the air for an oud solo. Mats silently sways in sympathy with the music before joining in on baritone sax, building up the strength of his solo and reaching above the normal upper register of his instrument. The tempo relaxes as everyone joins in to take this piece to its end.
For the third and final piece, Mats starts on baritone sax, using multiphonics to fill the room. Tempo and tension build. Mats breathes into his sax less often, leaving us with the clatter of the keys and the occasional burst of sound. The band comes in loud and fast, swinging like mad, with the guitar in the lead and then soloing, chewing and spitting out short phrases. A fast bass solo follows, demonstrating a full sound, impressive technique and great swing. Baritone comes back for a fast ensemble riff. Sax and guitar walk towards each other, bobbing like boxers, then backing off, while playing intensely. The band works to a sustained climax, based on the underlying riff, and then, suddenly, all is quiet.