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Steve Bilodeau reaches the semi-finals in Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition

This evening, you can hear what Steve Bilodeau will perform before judges at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland next month.

The spotlight will be on guitarist Steve Bilodeau at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland next month. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The Ottawa-raised jazz guitarist will play with his trio at Jazz Mondays at Le Petit Chicago starting at 9 p.m. And one of the reasons he'll be there is to preview – and try out – some of the material he's prepared for the Montreux Jazz Festival's International Guitar Competition.

Bilodeau has been chosen as one of the 10 semi-finalists in the 2016 competition, which will run from July 2 to 4. He's the only North American, he said, with others coming from Israel, South Africa, and across Europe.

It's the third time lucky for Bilodeau: he applied twice before but this was the first time he was short-listed for the competition. This time, he said, he took a different approach with the three recordings he submitted with his application – not trying to second-guess the judges.

“This year, I sent the most eclectic combination of recordings that I had sent so far. I really stopped thinking about what I thought they would want to hear, and I just sent what I wanted to send them. And that was the key, I guess!"

“Instead of trying to play the game of what you'll think they'd like, just do your thing. And it worked out. Now I'm going to go over there and see how it goes.”

Bilodeau has two friends who have won the competition: Toronto guitarist Alex Goodman, who was awarded first prize and the Public's Choice Award in 2014, and Brazilian guitarist Leandro Pellegrino, who won in 2013. Goodman was the first Canadian to ever win this competition.

“I talked to both Alex and Leandro about the competition and they said that each year that they've seen it or heard the guys in it, it's been totally different. It changes from year to year – they have different judges and I think maybe they change the emphasis of what they're looking for. So it's not always the same every year; they're not looking for the same type of guitar player.”

Read more: Steve Bilodeau reaches the semi-finals in Montreux Jazz Festival International Guitar Competition


Kirk MacDonald & Pat LaBarbera are back in town, celebrating musical friendships

Read the review of this quartet's first show in Gatineau

More than three decades ago, renowned Canadian saxophonists Pat LaBarbera and Kirk MacDonald played their very first joint concert – in Ottawa.

Kirk MacDonald will team up with Pat LaBarbera for a two-saxophonist show on Tuesday, July 28, at Les Brasseurs du Temps, showcasing their decades of musical friendship. ©Brett Delmage, 2013They're back in town next Tuesday, June 28, co-leading a show at Les Brasseurs du Temps in downtown Gatineau – this time also featuring American post-bop drummer Adam Nussbaum and Canadian bassist Kieran Overs.

It will be something old and something new – an exploration of long-time musical friendships between LaBarbera and MacDonald, and between LaBarbera and Nussbaum – but in a new grouping playing brand-new compositions. It's the start of a multi-city tour (including Montreal and Toronto) which will also take the quartet into the recording studio.

MacDonald said he picked a two-saxophone format with just bass and drums, “because Pat also worked for many years with [famous American jazz drummer] Elvin Jones and oftentimes that was the format, too. So it just seemed like an opportune time to put those elements together.”

Although they play the same instruments – tenor and soprano sax – LaBarbera and MacDonald have collaborated frequently over the years, including in 2014 on MacDonald's Juno-Award-winning album, Vista Obscura. They met when MacDonald first came to Toronto: “Pat was one of the first people that I sought out to study with. He's been very much a mentor to me in many ways over the years.”

“I think we have a very strong connection musically – and that was apparent to me the first time we played together,” MacDonald told “It was just great to play with him! I used to sit in with him when I was really young, in my early 20s, I suppose, the early 1980s.”

The first time they actually worked together was a concert at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa, organized by Jacques Émond, the former programming director of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. They played a two-tenor concert in one of the hotel's ballrooms “and I believe the year was 1991 or 1990. That's the first we officially did a co-led thing like that. And from that spun the [John] Coltrane tribute which we've been doing ever since.”

Starting in 1991, he said, they've celebrated Coltrane's music for a yearly three-night stand at the Rex Hotel Jazz & Blues Bar in Toronto – the dates picked to be on or close to Coltrane's birthday. They've also taken the tribute elsewhere: this summer to jazz festivals in Huntsville and Port Hope.

For next Tuesday's concert, however, the quartet will be performing almost all originals, some written by LaBarbera and MacDonald specifically for this new quartet. MacDonald said he had also invited Nussbaum and Overs to contribute compositions. “The idea is basically to create a repertoire for this band."

Read more: Kirk MacDonald & Pat LaBarbera are back in town, celebrating musical friendships


Brian Browne and Peter Woods fill the Record Centre with standards

Brian Browne and Peter Woods discuss their encore song, at their well-received Record Centre performance ©Brett Delmage, 2016It was Take 2 for pianist Brian Browne and saxophonist Peter Woods at the Record Centre on Saturday afternoon, a reprise of their first intimate and successful show there a few months ago. They performed many of their favourite standards and the occasional hymn like "The Water is Wide". In their second set, they were also joined by vocalist Betty Ann Bryanton for evocative and extended versions of songs like "God Bless the Child". Woods and Browne have had a long-standing musical partnership, including a CD, Honest Company, released in 2013.

This afternoon at 2 p.m., guitarist Steve Bilodeau and bassist Alex Bilodeau – brothers and long-time musical companions – will perform an hour-long set at the Record Centre of mostly originals. It's free but donations are encouraged.

It's also your last chance to see publisher Brett Delmage's photo exhibit, Jazz Scene: Jazz Heard, which is currently on display at the Record Centre. Today is the exhibit's last day.

   – Alayne McGregor


Ottawa's jazz fans discover new groups and new sounds in the 24 hours of the Jazz Ramble

Adam Saikaley looked slightly bemused after his set at the Record Centre Tuesday morning. It was about the earliest he'd ever performed jazz piano, he told

5:11 a.m.: Record Centre owner John Thompson (seated, center-right) was not alone, joined by other listeners who were at the Jazz Ramble to listen to alto sax and poetry by The Julian Calendars: Julian Selody & JM Francheteau. The duo received an enthusiastic response. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Saikaley's 10 a.m. set opened the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Jazz Ramble event at the record store. It was a quiet and graceful evocation of mostly 60s jazz classics, including pieces by Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock, and ending with “Body and Soul” – and a fine start to 24 hours of music, celebrating the strength of Ottawa's jazz scene.

The free event, the first ever by the festival, showcased Ottawa-area jazz musicians, performing everything from standards to funk to free improv to poetry. Fans could hear both well-tried and brand-new groups, but not necessarily playing in their comfort zones, or at times of the day they were used to.

It was a cornucopia of interesting music – something for almost all tastes.

View photos by photojournalist Brett Delmage of all 24 Jazz Ramble performances

The ramble attracted a constantly-changing group of listeners. There was a noticeable shift in the audience after every set, with listeners leaving and new ones entering, but there was always at least a dozen listeners even in the early hours of the morning.

In the late afternoon and evening, the place was packed with jazz fans, many spilling out onto the sidewalk. Toddlers danced to the music with their parents smiling beside them; a few of the older seniors really appreciated the chairs and stools set out by the store. Many people were recognizable from local jazz jams, but there were also many new faces.

Read more: Ottawa's jazz fans discover new groups and new sounds in the 24 hours of the Jazz Ramble


Two CDs by Nick Fraser create beautiful moments through collaborative improvisation

The Nick Fraser Quartet with Tony Malaby, Andrew Downing, and Rob Clutton
Independent, 2016

Too Many Continents
Nick Fraser / Tony Malaby / Kris Davis
Clean Feed, 2015

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has had a productive and innovative partnership with NYC saxophonist Tony Malaby over the past few years, including multiple tours together in Canada and the U.S. In 2013, Fraser released his first album with Malaby, Towns and Villages. He's now followed that up with two more joint albums.

Nick Fraser/Too Many Continents CD coverToo Many Continents, with Malaby and Canadian-born pianist Kris Davis, was released late last fall with a U.S. tour. It received its Canadian release with a mini-tour in May which included Ottawa. That tour also was the official release of Starer, in which Fraser and Malaby work with two of Fraser's most frequent musical collaborators: cellist Andrew Downing and bassist Rob Clutton.

In their live shows, Fraser and Malaby consistently push the edges, in intense improvisations. They don't do straight ballads or bebop; the pieces they play don't have defined heads or specific places for solos. Instead they take compositional sketches, and use those sketches as points of departure for group improvisation.

It's an approach they excel in, and they've followed it in both these albums. The result is about as near as you get in a studio album to completely free jazz, with opportunities to go in many different directions.

Which doesn't mean these two albums sound alike, despite being recorded relatively close together. With different collaborators, they have very different sounds.

Too Many Continents is very much informed by Kris Davis, whose intricate and percussive piano lines both anchor and energize this music. For example, on “I Needed It Yesterday”, she opens with fast intricate piano lines vibrating in place, and later builds up the tension in the piece with strong piano chords underneath Malaby's coruscating sax lines. Throughout the CD, she uses the piano as much or more as a rhythmic instrument than as a melodic one.

Read more: Two CDs by Nick Fraser create beautiful moments through collaborative improvisation


The Amos Hoffman Quartet adds classical and Mid-East motifs to mainstream jazz

Amos Hoffman Quartet
Black Squirrel Books, Ottawa
Friday, June 3, 2016 – 9:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The word had got out that this was going to be an interesting show. Black Squirrel Books had brought out every sofa, seat, folding chair, and step stool it had – and there were still listeners sitting on the floor at the front or leaning against the coffee bar. The bookstore was full, with well over 50 people concentrating on the music.

The packed audience in Black Squirrel Books sounded enthusiastic about the Amos Hofffman Quartet continuing ther collaboration ©Brett Delmage, 2016

They had come to hear Israeli jazz guitarist and oud player Amos Hoffman and three Toronto jazz musicians: pianist Noam Lemish, bassist Justin Gray, and drummer Derek Gray. And their anticipation was well justified, as the quartet performed a dynamic and consistently engaging 85-minute-long set.

It was an evening of all originals, plus a jazz arrangement of a traditional Jewish prayer – alternating between pieces by Hoffman and by Lemish. The sound initially harked back to the classic mid-60s jazz of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, but Hoffman in particular added Middle Eastern motifs, as well as the commanding tone of his oud.

The quartet was surrounded by tall bookcases, which had been pushed into a rough backdrop. There wasn't a great deal of room – Derek Gray's drumset in particular was crowded into a corner and he had to sit on his cajon. He had barely enough room for his elbows when he really got going with his brushes and sticks – but the tight corners also added intimacy. The quartet played warmly and with considerable ease, modulating their volume to the space; you could clearly hear every note.

Read more: The Amos Hoffman Quartet adds classical and Mid-East motifs to mainstream jazz


A rural county excited by jazz: what Prince Edward County Jazz Festival does differently

The Prince Edward County Jazz Festival is, in many ways, the exact opposite of the Ottawa Jazz Festival. Instead of a few blocks of downtown, it covers a large part of a 1000 km² rural county in eastern Ontario. Unlike Ottawa, the Prince Edward County festival receives no government grants. And it's a pure jazz festival – no rock or pop artists.

Brian Barlow, the festival's creative director for the last 13 years, explained to how the festival has been successful by doing things differently. The interview has been lightly edited and some sections rearranged. How has the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival evolved over the last 16 years?

'I actually was involved at the very, very beginning in a strange way' - Prince Edward County Jazz Festival's 's Creative Director Brian Barlow ©Brett Delmage, 2015Brian Barlow: I think it's spread throughout the county. One of the things that makes it unique as a festival is the large area that it covers. Prince Edward County is fairly large [1,048.3 km²]. When I first got involved, the festival took place mostly in the town of Picton, but now it's all over the county, which is great, including wineries. When we first started, there wasn't a wine industry in the county and now as you may know it's quite a highly-respected wine area.

So we have events at a number of wineries, and in some of the small little villages, and on church steps – It's great. There's music everywhere. So I think that's part of the way it's evolved.

Read about the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival's 2016 line-up, and about its innovative student jazz programs.

I actually was involved at the very, very beginning in a strange way. I just happened to be shopping in a bookstore in Picton, and a woman found out I was a musician. My daughters were looking for books and that takes forever, so we were talking. And she said, we're thinking of starting a jazz festival. So I did a little bit of consulting the very first year, but I came on board the third year as creative director. I performed I think the second year with my band. What's your role as creative director?

Barlow: I would like to know that [laughs]. I think they called me that, rather than artistic director, because I think they wanted me more involved in other things other than just booking the musicians.

I take a fairly active role in working with sponsors. We receive no government grants, this festival, and I think that's another thing that makes us unique. We run it like a business. We pay our artists really well.

And so I'm involved in almost all aspects of the festival – sponsors, advertising. There's a committee I work with that chooses the musicians every year. I don't think it's something I would want to do totally on my own, and we get terrific input from that committee, in terms of musicians to chose.

Read more: A rural county excited by jazz: what Prince Edward County Jazz Festival does differently


Finding new ways to develop young jazz talent at the Prince Edward County Jazzfest

The Prince Edward County Jazz Festival has found a different way of helping student jazz ensembles develop, and the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band (OJJB) was one of the beneficiaries of that approach this year.

At Westfest on Saturday, the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band played many of the tunes they had worked on at the Prince Edward County high school jazz weekend ©Brett Delmage, 2016Every April, the festival invites four high school bands from across Ontario to participate in a weekend in Picton. But instead of fighting for medals, the bands work together and are mentored by professional musicians.

“I really don't think music should be about competition – that's why I take all of the awards and things like that with a grain of salt, because I don't think that you can really compare. You can't really choose who the best guitar player is,” said festival creative director Brian Barlow.

The festival's student coordinator, trumpeter Blair Yarranton, proposed this new approach seven years ago. “He said that the one thing that bothered him with his school, is that all of the opportunities they had to go to festivals were competitive. He felt there was a real need for a non-competitive school jazz program. So we started that, and it's been hugely successful,” Barlow said.

Read more: Finding new ways to develop young jazz talent at the Prince Edward County Jazzfest


There's lots more live jazz than just the jazzfest in June

Updated 10 June, 2016
It's finally summer this month, with warm blue skies and balmy breezes and chilled drinks on outdoor patios. And there's lots of jazz to hear outside and inside, throughout June and all through Ottawa-Gatineau.

Souper Jazz and Cuppa Soup will be out frequently this month, performing their trad jazz for a good cause ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Local Ottawa musicians are busy with tributes (for example, to George Gershwin and to Sun Ra) and new material. Jazz artists are visiting from as far away as Israel, North Carolina, Indiana, New York City, and Los Vegas. Whatever your taste in jazz – vocal standards, mainstream, avant-garde, jazz fusion, big bands – you can hear it this month.

And, even better, you can hear the bands who pop up in the good weather: for example, Souper Jazz and its smaller off-shoot Cuppa Soup. They play traditional Dixieland for love and the donations they collect for the Shepherds of Good Hope – and almost always outside. They'll be performing in June at the Italian Week and Fuse festivals, on the Sparks Street Mall and in the ByWard Market, and even at a grocery store.

These June jazz highlights are brought to you by Greg Klowak, Hélène Knoerr, Bee Rootham, Barry Paulson, Gaby Warren, John & Linda Wilson, Alrick Huebener,  Caroline Cook, and John Thompson. We greatly appreciate their financial support that helps to continue serving the jazz community every day of the year.

Read more: There's lots more live jazz than just the jazzfest in June


The Bank Street Bonbons show the power of brass at Irene's

View photos by Brett Delmage of this show

Mike Essoudry is going into the studio next week with his new brass band, the Bank Street Bonbons. And judging from their show at Irene's on Sunday, you can expect a bold and dynamic sound in their upcoming EP.

Keith Walton (l) on sousaphone and leader Mike Essoudry on drums anchored the Bank Street Bonbons in their debut series at Irene's ©Brett Delmage, 2016

The Bonbons crowded two alto saxophonists, two trumpeters, and two trombonists into a tiny corner of the Bank Street bar – plus a sousaphone and Essoudry's drumset. The remainder of the rear half of Irene's was filled with listeners jammed around tables and standing and dancing at the back – a happy audience which applauded strongly throughout.

Fast, energetic, and multi-layered, the Bonbons' music gave full voice to all the musicians. One moment you could hear Zakari Frantz and Tyler Harris on alto sax playing wild lines ascending to the ceiling; the next moment, Nick Dyson or Ed Lister would add a punchy and inflected trumpet solo. Behind them, trombonists Ryan Purchase and Mike Schultz contributed trombone riffs, sometimes muted, sometimes all-out. And it was all anchored by the deep bass growls of Keith Walton's sousaphone and Essoudry's propulsive drumming.

The Bonbons performed all four Sunday evenings in May at Irene's, which was their debut as a group. However, many of them were in Essoudry's previous brass band, the Mash Potato Mashers, a marching band which played its last show in 2014.

For four years, the Mashers were a highly popular part of Ottawa's jazz scene, especially at their home base of Irene's. The Bonbons played several Mashers tunes with a similar Balkan jazz feel – but the big difference was that they weren't marching at the same time. They could read the charts in front of them on music stands, instead of having to memorize all the music.

The group also performed newer originals by Essoudry, and several pop songs – including Chilliwack's “My Girl” arranged by Walton, which opened with a rock-steady drumbeat and a dark sousaphone riff, before letting the horns go full at the melody.

Read more: The Bank Street Bonbons show the power of brass at Irene's


The timeless beauty of jazz raises thousands for refugees

View photos by Brett Delmage of this event

For two hours on Sunday afternoon, Southminster United Church was filled with the timeless beauty of jazz – to help those in desperate need.

Dominique Forest and eight other musicians donated their musical performances to help raise $3772 for Ottawa Centre Refugee Action. ©Brett Delmage, 2016

Twelve Ottawa jazz vocalists and instrumentalists performed to support the work of Ottawa Centre Refugee Action (OCRA), which is helping families fleeing war and crises to resettle here. The concert raised a grand total of $3,772 through ticket sales, donations, CD sales, and a plant and bake sale outside the church.

OCRA organizer Angela Keller-Herzog told the audience that OCRA had committed to support 37 refugees, of which 27 (mostly from Syria and Iraq) had so far arrived. The concert proceeds would be applied to the $50,000 they still need to raise in order to finish this work, she said.

Omar Jammeh, who arrived a month ago in Ottawa after escaping discrimination in Gambia, expressed his deep thanks to the OCRA volunteers who had helped him – especially dealing with the shock of below-freezing temperatures at the end of April. “I've met so many beautiful people.”

On this Sunday afternoon, Ottawa was swelteringly hot – and there was competition from the Ottawa Race Weekend and other events. But the concert still attracted about 120 people, who listened attentively and applauded vigorously throughout.

Read more: The timeless beauty of jazz raises thousands for refugees


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