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May flowers into jazz, from Ottawa and abroad

Megan Jerome's Together Ensemble releases a new CD on May 14  © Brett Delmage, 2011Updated May 10
The festival season starts a month early this year, with Ontario Scene showcasing a wide range of jazz and creative, improvised music artists from Ottawa and the rest of the province at the National Arts Centre and other venues. Those concerts will dominate the first ten days of May, but there's lots of other good jazz shows coming up this month to listen to..

At this time of year, local jazz artists are presenting the projects they've been working on for the last year. So we'll see three Ottawa vocalists present their Centenary Celebration of Billie Holiday's birth; three long-awaited CD releases; and lots of special concerts.

Ottawa listeners will have the chance to hear out-of-town jazz artists who don't often play here, including Mike Murley, Kevin Breit, Tara Kannangara, Jesse Cook, Laila Biali, Jaron Freeman-Fox, Snaggle, bet.e & Stef, Nancy Walker and Kieran Overs, Laura Crema – and even Diana Krall.

There will be something for everyone – from jazz vocal classics, to propulsive mainstream instrumentals, to highly-improvised free jazz. And will be giving you the opportunity to win free tickets to some of those shows.

See all the May highlights


Tara Kannangara celebrates melody with both her trumpet and her voice

Tara Kannangara combines two jazz passions – for trumpet and for voice – in her performances and compositions, to fully express herself and connect with her audiences.

Tara Kannangara (by Alexander Ordanis. Photo provided by the artist)When she brings her quintet to the Brookstreet Hotel Options Jazz Lounge today and Saturday, the 29-year-old Toronto musician is likely to be both singing and playing trumpet on each of the pieces they'll be performing, whether originals or modernized jazz standards.

Ottawa audiences have heard Kannangara twice in the last few months – as the trumpeter and occasional backup vocalist for Elizabeth Shepherd's group at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, and then as a featured trumpet soloist in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra's “Invention” concert on April 9.

But just a few weeks after that, she was singing re-imagined arrangements of Ella Fitzgerald's repertoire, in “An Afternoon of Ella” tribute at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, DC.

Trumpet and voice have many similarities, she said, in their phrasing and their range. “I think both instruments are similar because you have to breathe. I can't sing and pitch up at the same time, so it's like you're taking a breath and phrasing is something always quite similar. I'm very attracted to melodic trumpet players.”

But both are also particularly demanding instruments, which Kannangara acknowledges. To combine them, she says, “I just work as hard as I can.”

“The trumpet is a daily thing. You can't leave it alone. And that's OK. I don't mind that. It's kind of nice to have a daily ritual to get in touch with the instrument and connect with it. Trumpet makes it hard, like it's unnatural to shove a piece of metal up against your face and blow. Your body fights against it. But if you do it every day, and if you practice, it all ends up being fine.”

“Voice is the same way. Voices are persnickety. You're at the mercy of elements around you, if it's too dry, it's too cold, all kinds of things. But I think both the trumpet and the voice are very similar in a sense. I love the combination of the two. One's kind of brassy, and one's more sensitive and personal. So I like that they're similar in that they're both like voices, but they're different in that they have different characteristics.”

Read more: Tara Kannangara celebrates melody with both her trumpet and her voice


Jesse Stewart's BOOM silences listeners at the Diefenbunker

Jesse Stewart rehearses for the BOOM performances ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Jesse Stewart's "Boom"
Ontario Scene
Diefenbunker blast tunnel
Sunday, May 3, 2015

Improviser and percussionist Jesse Stewart conjured up auditory references to the Cold War and the Diefenbunker - the Canadian government's massive underground Cold War nuclear bomb shelter, now museum – with his performances in its blast tunnel entrance on May 3.

Stewart's performance of “BOOM” was highly dynamic. He animated the tunnel with sounds ranging from barely audible dripping water – a reference to its use in torture – to bass drum beats. The drum beats grew from an almost inaudible low rumble conveying a heightening sense of impending doom, to the loudest of booms that echoed for seconds inside the tunnel, invoking images of nuclear bombs exploding outside.

In his two, forty-minute, continuous and improvised performances, he transformed the simple ribbed texture of the concrete floor into a variety of sounds with aid of a dragged metal bar. He created sound from a struck and shaken spring, audibly referencing the many springs which suspend equipment inside to protect it from bomb-induced shock. He also used a wide variety of unusual devices to make music with, which included a metal kitchen bowl, wind-up toy, and more traditional brass bowls/gongs, drumsticks, and mallets.

Read more: Jesse Stewart's BOOM silences listeners at the Diefenbunker


Bernard Stepien deconstructs the accordion's music for an intent IMOO audience

Bernard Stepien deconstructs his accordion. ©Alayne McGregor, 2015

The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy
Bernard Stepien, David Broscoe, Scott Warren
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa-Outaouais (IMOO)
Black Squirrel Books
Sunday, May 3, 2015

See photos from this concert

This concert was dubbed The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy, and, at the start, a listener asked Bernard Stepien to explain the title. So he efficiently deconstructed his accordion and showed off its innards (to the great interest of and with a modicum of laughter from the audience) – and then slid it back together again and started playing.

It showed how comfortable Stepien is with this instrument. It's a Hohner Morino model from the late '50s, with a keyboard on one side and buttons on the other which give it the same capabilities as a piano. He started playing it as a youngster back in the 1960s, but then revived it in an improvised music context about seven years ago.

Musicians like Richard Galliano and Pauline Oliveros have moved the accordion into a jazz and improvised music context in the last few decades. But Stepien has done a great deal of his own explorations, too, into altered harmonies inspired by his studies with Cecil Taylor and Billy Robinson. He's primarily been playing the accordion together with Ottawa saxophonist David Broscoe in a duo called “The Accordion Conspiracy”.

This concert took that duo's music in both simpler and more complicated directions (hence the “deconstructed”), and added percussionist/sound artist Scott Warren, who has frequently played with both musicians in different groups.

Read more: Bernard Stepien deconstructs the accordion's music for an intent IMOO audience


Molly Johnson sings Billie Holiday with understanding and love (review)

Molly Johnson ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Molly Johnson
Ontario Scene
National Arts Centre Theatre
Friday, May 1, 2015

Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson has such a strong public persona that she doesn't always get enough credit for her outstanding skills as an improviser and jazz musician.

In fact, much like Billie Holiday, the iconic vocalist whom she was honouring at the National Arts Centre on Friday. Most of the songs Johnson sang were ones made famous by Holiday – and even a few written by her.

Particularly since Lady Sings the Blues, the 1972 film starring Diana Ross, Holiday has been portrayed as the lady with the gardenia in her hair, or as a drug-addled victim. Instead, she was a ground-breaking vocalist who carved out a place for herself in music with her own forceful personality and talent and unique way of using her voice as an instrument.

One of Johnson's successes in Because of Billie, her new album which she was showcasing at the concert, is to reframe Holiday as a black woman who broke massive barriers, allowing her successors, like Johnson, to have successful careers. She described Holiday as a “feminist before that word existed, and a punk rocker before that existed, and a game-changer."

So it was particularly appropriate that Johnson began the concert with “Lady Sings the Blues”, sung simply with a blues swing over syncopated bass and piano. When Johnson sings, you can clearly hear and understand every word, and she let the bittersweet words in this song speak for themselves – and emphasize the message that this lady wasn't going to let the blues take her over.

Johnson was accompanied by two long-time friends and musical colleagues: Mike Downes on double bass and Robi Botos on Steinway grand piano. Downes has been playing with her for 20 years, and also produced and chose the material for Because of Billie – and, as she mentioned, surprised her by even playing trombone on one number on the CD. Botos and Downes also regularly perform together in their own groups.

Read more: Molly Johnson sings Billie Holiday with understanding and love (review)


Meghan Heeney pays tribute to jazz sax tradition, community at grad recital

Meghan Heeney and  Mark Ferguson performed a quiet and emotion-filled version of 'My One and Only Love' for her recital ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Meghan Heeney Graduation Recital
Kailash Mital Theatre, Carleton University
Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ottawa saxophonist Meghan Heeney picked a wide-ranging selection of jazz for her graduation recital at Carleton University on April 29. The classics by tenor greats Dexter Gordon and Benny Golson were no surprise, but she also included a modern piece by saxophonist Bob Reynolds.

And one of the lyrical jazz standards on the bill also had a tenor saxophonist link. Heeney had been very impressed by Joel Frahm when he taught at the Carleton University Jazz Camp in 2013, and transcribed his version of “My One and Only Love” for her recital. It was a quiet and emotion-filled version, performed as a piano-sax duo.

Read more: Meghan Heeney pays tribute to jazz sax tradition, community at grad recital


Roddy Ellias plays fresh compositions with long-time friends this Saturday

Roddy Ellias and John Geggie rehearse ©Brett Delmage, 2013

This Saturday, Roddy Ellias will play very fresh music with three very long-time friends.

The music will be new – so new, in fact, that he was just beginning to write and arrange it when talked to him on Sunday. But the three prominent jazz musicians joining him at GigSpace are ones he's known for years and played with many times in many different combinations.

On stage, Ellias on guitar will be joined by Mark Ferguson on trombone and piano, Mike Tremblay on saxophones, and John Geggie on double bass. Ellias has known Geggie for about 35 years, and the others for not much less, and they've all played together hundreds of times over the years in both jazz and classical orchestras and jazz combos.

But only once before in this particular combination – about a year ago, at the official opening of the Canada Council office building.

“And it just sounded so nice. And I don't get to play enough with either horns or with those guys, so I thought it would be nice. So I'm excited about that.”

He's also excited about trying a “different kind of repertoire” than he normally plays.

“I'm aiming for a different concept. What I'm trying to do is think of it like a string quartet or even a small orchestra where rather than ... one common jazz approach is melody and harmony and somebody grabs the melody and maybe somebody harmonizes the melody with chords. I was thinking of more like each person is a separate section of a string quartet. So they'll have an independent part, so four independent parts. Sort of orchestral.”

Read more: Roddy Ellias plays fresh compositions with long-time friends this Saturday


Mirror Duo: Mike Essoudry and Michel Delage converse by drum on Thursday

If you're tired of trumpets, sick of sax, or veering from vocals, you can catch a concert on Thursday that will be free of everything except drums – and a double dose at that. Drummers Mike Essoudry and Michel Delage are playing drums together in the Mirror Duo at Mugshots. And they're excited about the possibilities of the evening.

Mike Essoudry ©Brett Delmage, 2010

Michel Delage ©Brett Delmage, 2015

“It's going to be really interesting. I think it's going to be a really, really different kind of show,” Essoudry says. “Duo drums. It will be neat. It doesn't happen very often.”

Read more: Why a duo is great and how it will work


Claudia Salguero brings Latin drama to the NAC with ORIGENES (review)

Claudia Salguero – ORIGENES
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, April 23, 2015

In one of the rare pauses in the first of her two high-energy concerts at the NAC, Ottawa vocalist Claudia Salguero explained why she chose the songs in the show. All of them meant something special to her, she said; they spoke to her of loss and letting go and of true love.

Sylvio Modolo, Regina Teixeira, and Claudia Salguero celebrate a Brazilian melody. ©2015 Brett Delmage

She described one as “the music that is in my heart” and another as her mother's bolero, and said she had sung one song from Venezuela all her life.

For two one-hour sets, Salguero and her band of excellent local Latin musicians swept her listeners along with upbeat and emotionally-resonant music. Even the sad songs were invigorated with complex percussion and tastefully-deployed horns.

It was music designed to touch the heart – and it certainly grabbed the Fourth Stage audience. The applause at the end of many of the songs was notably strong. Salguero introduced each piece, carefully explaining its message and its origin – and different sections of the crowd exploded into applause when she said a song came from Mexico, or Brazil, or Venezuela.

Read more: Claudia Salguero brings Latin drama to the NAC with ORIGENES (review)


Winning Ottawa Sens couldn't beat Thelonious Monk

Adrean Farrugia brought his own voice and careful thought to interpreting Thelonious Monk's music. ©Brett Delmage, 2015

Adrean Farrugia, Michel Delage, Alex Bilodeau
Tribute to Thelonious Monk
Brookstreet Hotel, Options Jazz Lounge
Friday, April 24, 2015

It was a Thelonious Monk celebration at Brookstreet's Options Jazz Lounge on Friday night. Pianist Adrean Farrugia from Hamilton hadn't played before with local bassist Alex Bilodeau or drummer Michel Delage, but with considerable careful listening on everyone's part, they produced three fast-moving sets showing off the wide variety and beauty in Monk's music – and its angularity and unexpectedness, too.

Beautiful ballads like “Pannonica” and “Eronel”, and upbeat numbers like “Bemsha Swing” and “In Walked Bud” held the interest of many listeners in the room – and, as promised, there were some lesser-known numbers as well. The trio aptly closed the evening with “'Round Midnight”, given a quiet and reflective treatment. Farrugia played a long solo intro before moving to the song's melody, and ended the piece with solo piano again, in a lovely romantic ending.

Ottawa is a hockey-mad town, and that evening was the fifth, win-or-die game in NHL playoffs for the Ottawa Senators against the Montreal Canadiens. So the second set was interrupted momentarily several times with loud cheering when the muted TV screen showed the Senators had scored a goal – but the musicians never missed a beat.

Read more: Winning Ottawa Sens couldn't beat Thelonious Monk


Adrean Farrugia accepts the challenge and excitement of reinterpreting Monk

Pianist Adrean Farrugia won't be wearing a beret or sunglasses when he steps onto the stage at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge this weekend. That's not how he wants to pay tribute to Thelonious Monk.

Adrean Farrugia at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012Monk was a hugely influential pianist and composer who helped redefine jazz in the 50s and 60s and wrote many of jazz's most enduring compositions, like “'Round Midnight” and “Ruby, My Dear”. And he had a strongly individual musical style, recognizable in only a few notes – and a similarly idiosyncratic personal look in suits, hats, and glasses.

And while that musical style can be honoured – as Farrugia will do with three Ottawa musicians on Friday and Saturday nights playing Monk's compositions – it can't be copied.

See's linked interview with Michel Delage about his jazz tribute series at Brookstreet.

It's just not possible, Farrugia said, because Monk's sound was “so unique. It's almost too obvious that you're doing Monk if you sound like that. For me it's not so much the substance of what he's playing but the spirit of what he's playing, that I can get really caught up in.”

“There's this amazing patience in his playing where he just sits there and he listens to what's going on around him until he'll just find the perfect sound and just slam it down on the piano. His sense of melody and harmony are just so unique. But for me it's the spirit of how he plays. I don't know how he does it, but he almost has this, even though he's an undeniable genius, he almost has this childlike quality when he plays, something that almost sounds like a child discovering sounds for the first time.”

Read more: Adrean Farrugia accepts the challenge and excitement of reinterpreting Monk


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