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Jazz Festival jams at new Albion Rooms treat listeners to fine musical moments

2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 2: Festival jam session
The Albion Rooms, Novotel Hotel
Saturday, June 21, 2014 – 10:30 p.m. to almost 2 a.m.


I heard almost all of the late-night jam session Saturday night, and was treated to some fine musical moments with local and visiting musicians, including pianist Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, guitarist Alex Goodman and his trio, alto saxophonist Matt Woroshyl, trumpeter Itamar Borochov, and tenor saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein.

The jams are happening in The Albion Rooms, a restaurant in a walled-off section of the lobby of the Novotel Hotel (on Nicholas Street, just south of Rideau Street and north of Arts Court). The Albion Rooms are also the late-night dining spot for the Fringe Festival; however, there seemed to be little conflict between the two roles, with almost everyone in the main room aware of the music and mostly listening. It's a new location for jazz jams this year, so here's a description: The restaurant consists of a large square main room, with the bar at one end and the musicians (and window to the street) at the other. It also has an L-shaped tail, wrapping around the bar, and an outside terrace with tables and chairs. In the main room, the sound is good. In the tail, it's muffled and there was more talking. On the terrace, the music was almost inaudible. It's fully accessible to wheelchairs.

There were tables and chairs (some high, some low) along all the walls and by the bar. I would estimate the entire restaurant held at least 70 people and probably more Saturday night, including many people standing near the bar. It wouldn't have hurt for the restaurant to have put out a few more chairs.

Compared to other recent jam locations: it's slightly larger than the AlphaSoul Cafe or the Delta's bar, and slightly smaller than the former jam room at Arc The Hotel. The overall ambiance was friendly and informal.

When I walked in just before 11 p.m., the house trio: guitarist Roddy Ellias, double bassist John Geggie, and drummer Nick Fraser, were almost finished their opening set: I heard a Monk tune and a Great American Songbook standard, and lots of appreciative applause. I could see many local and some visiting musicians, along with many local jazz fans, some of whom I recognized from the 2013 jams.

After a break of only a few minutes which included lots of chatting among the musicians in the room, pianist Ethan Iverson, who had played Stravinsky earlier that evening with The Bad Plus, came up to perform an uninterrupted set of three standards with Geggie and Fraser.

Iverson noted that Geggie had previously tried to get him up to Ottawa to play with him and Fraser [in Geggie's Invitational series at the NAC 4th Stage], and “now they tell me the series is cancelled!”. He said they would mourn that fact with this set, and it was undoubtedly an appropriate wake. The room's grand piano gave Iverson full scope, in particular for the trio's full-bodied and dramatic version of “These Foolish Things”, with some non-traditional angles included as well.

One table near the trio was filled with members of this year's TD Jazz Youth Summit band. Local alto saxophonist Sam Cousineau and trombonist Modibo Keita came up to play with the house trio for the next set, which again showed off Cousineau's intense, commanding lines on alto sax. One of the servers started dancing to the music as Sam really got into his solo on a Charlie Parker number.

It started to get easier to find a seat around midnight.

The following set featured a strong sextet, as the house trio was joined by three musicians with Toronto connections: trumpeter Jim Lewis (who runs the Youth Summit), alto saxophonist Matt Woroshyl (now working on his Masters at the Manhattan School of Music), and local tenor saxophonist Patrick Smith, who is now studying at the University of Toronto. They played energetic versions of two standards, including “What is This Thing Called Love?”, with lots of room for different voices.

As they were playing, guitarist Alex Goodman entered, with his trio bandmates, drummer Jimmy Macbride and bassist Dave Baron. They had just finished performing at the Brookstreet Options Jazz Lounge in Kanata, but were still up for playing. Ellias joined the three for a performance of “Bye Bye Blackbird”, which featured both guitarists in a duet of fast and fluid guitar with lots of smiles and vitality. Goodman's trio followed with another piece which demonstrated not only how intensely each played but how carefully they listened to each other.

Just after 1 a.m., the house trio was about to call it a night. Ellias called the room to attention for their performance of his own composition, “Too Far” – a piece which allows much room for improvisation. It sounded like he added a completely new middle section with some beautiful trembling notes this evening.

But then they learned that two more musicians wanted to play. Trumpeter Itamar Borochov and tenor saxophonist Jonathan Greenstein had played a duo show that evening at the Fourth Stage, and had been standing at the back of the jam listening to the music. Now they retrieved their instruments, and joined the house trio and Goodman for a rousing rendition of “Sweet Georgia Brown”. It started off as a swinging, joyous number, with Borochov playing strongly and confidently, calling out in the choruses. Goodman and Ellias played a duet, easily trading the lead as they played around with the melody. But then Fraser started playing with the time signatures, starting and stopping, and Borochov and Greenstein followed his lead, deconstructing the melody into individual thumps of sound. The extended improvisation finally ended a little before 2 a.m. with a hard drum solo and enthusiastic applause from those listeners who remained.

It was a fine ending and a good indication of jams to come for the remainder of the festival.

Cold beer and food available

For those who need refreshment after a thirsty evening of listening to jazz: Beer ranges from $6.50 for draft, to $6 to $7 for bottled beer. Non-alcoholic beer is also available. House festival wines are $8 a glass. Juice is $2.50.  The restaurant offers a special food menu until midnight, featuring 8 items for $8 each. Four of those are vegetarian (but not the salad, which contains bacon). None is vegan, but it would probably be easy enough to remove the cream or yogurt-based sauces from the vegetarian items.

How do you get to the jams?

The quickest way to walk to the jams from Confederation Park or the National Arts Centre is to cross the canal on the Mackenzie King Bridge. (Access the bridge via the stairs from the north side of Confederation Park.) Then take the stairs on the north side of that bridge (before you reach its east end, just past the old Eaton/Sears location) down to Nicholas Street. Walk a block northwards and the Novotel is on your right.

By bicycle, you can cross the Mackenzie King Bridge in the bike lane. At the east end turn left onto Waller, staying in the left-most lane. Turn left at Daly (the next intersection) and travel west one block to Nicholas. The Novotel will be on your right.

    – Alayne McGregor

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