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ZenKitchen doubles its jazz, with musicians rarely heard in Ottawa

Updated October 26 to update dates and add more musicians.

See the OttawaJazzScene.ca video of the first night of this series.

Wednesday evenings have just become much more special for Ottawa jazz fans. Starting September 24, ZenKitchen is introducing a high-profile series of jazz shows, featuring many musicians rarely heard in Ottawa.

Roddy Ellias (l) and Tim Bedner (r) anchor ZenKitchen's two nights of jazz each week this fall. ©2014 Brett Delmage

Curated by guitarist Roddy Ellias, the series will run weekly at the Centretown gourmet vegan restaurant. It will bring in well-known jazz artists from Montreal and Toronto, including Joel Miller, Dave Young, Lorne Lofsky, Bernie Senensky, Jeri Brown, and Mike Rud, as well as high-profile Ottawa-based musicians like Diane White and John Geggie – and Ellias.

The list includes several Juno Award winners, and musicians who have played with Canadian jazz icons like Oscar Peterson, Rob McConnell, and Moe Koffman.

Although food and drink will be served, “The focus will be on listening”, Ellias said.

ZenKitchen co-founder Dave Loan said that this series will be building on the success of the Sunday jazz programming which the restaurant has been running for the past two years – but with a slightly different concept.

“Sundays is really, come in, have dinner, and have some great jazz in the background. Wednesdays is all about the music. So we're inviting people to come before the music starts and order their food and hopefully receive their food before the show starts at 7 p.m. I expect that people will still be eating when the music begins, but not long after. We're trying to avoid unnecessary noise once the music begins, and so my staff will be instructed to keep the noise around the bar and service station down. We'll be asking people at the beginning of each show to refrain from conversing during the music and it says that right on the website as well. And we'll mention that when we take reservations as well.” [Reservations for this series are only by phone, not on-line.]

The restaurant dining area is a single, almost-square room, with clear views of the stage and an intimate vibe. There will only be 32 seats available for each show.

Each show will have a cover charge, ranging from $15 to $24, which Loan said would be used to pay the musicians. “We're trying to keep the price down. It's basically the cost of musicians divided by a maximum house. None of that is coming to the restaurant.”

“We're also hoping that people will order some food as well, because that's the only way that we're going to be able to make money and keep this going.” He said they hoped to serve main courses before the show, and dessert during the musicians' set break.

The first show will feature pianist Bernie Senensky, a Toronto jazz veteran, in a duo with Ellias. Senensky hasn't performed in Ottawa for years. He and Ellias last played together this spring in Toronto: “Bernie found out I was in town and then he asked me to play – he has a regular organ gig at the Orbit Room. So we played there and it was a lot of fun! He's great to play with.”

Senensky is used to performing with guitarists: he's played with Lenny Breau, Ed Bickert, Herb Ellis, Sonny Greenwich, and Bucky Pizzarelli. He's played piano duets with Oscar Peterson and Marian McPartland, and performed with ensembles including Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass, the Maynard Ferguson Orchestra, and the Elvin Jones Quartet. For more than 20 years, he was a member of Moe Koffman's Quintet.

But “the fact that it's starting with a duo doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be quiet,” Ellias said. His own trio, with Montrealers Thom Gossage on drums and Adrian Vedady on bass, will follow the next week, playing music from their recent CD, plus some new material. On October 8, Juno Award-winning saxophonist Joel Miller will bring his sax-bass-drums trio in from Montreal.

Ellias was particularly excited about performing again with Montreal vocalist Jeri Brown [October 15], whom he's known for more than two decades. The two played at the Ottawa Jazz Festival in 2010 for a well-received show, and released an album together.

“She's not an average jazz vocalist. She can do stuff that very few jazz vocalists can do. She's got incredible ears, she's incredibly spontaneous, she's got an incredible range. She can really improvise with whoever she's playing with. She hears everything, and she's there and she's got mental telepathy. She can do anything.”

Ellias said he wanted to keep the series “diverse and interesting for people, so it's not always the same kind of thing”. On October 22, the series will feature the trio of young Brazilian-Canadian guitarist and vocalist Rômmel Ribeiro, playing “an eclectic mix of Brazilian music, afrobeat, reggae, funk and jazz in a fast-paced, energetic show”.

Ribeiro's music is “amazing”, Ellias said, and “should be a nice change-up” and perhaps attract a different crowd.

On October 29, Ottawa master pianist Brian Browne will play a duet with Ellias, for the first time since they performed at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival several years ago.

On November 5, Ellias will perform in a guitar duo with Montrealer Mike Rud, who won the Juno Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album in 2014. Notes on Montreal is a series of impressionistic vocal pieces about that city, based on its places and literature, but Rud also has a long backlist of instrumental compositions, plus a strong background in standards, and guitar skills which have repeatedly impressed Ottawa audiences.

Toronto bassist Dave Young will play with Ellias in a trio show on November 12. Named “Bassist of the Year” five years in a row in Canada's National Jazz Awards (as well as being a Juno Award winner and nominee), Young has played with a who's-who of international stars including Ellis Marsalis, Ed Bickert, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, Peter Appleyard, Hank Jones, Nat Adderley, and Gary Burton.

Young was a member of the Lenny Breau Quartet from 1961 to 1966, and performed with Oscar Peterson for more than 30 years. He and Ellias have played together several times, including on a live recording in Montreal by drummer Pete Magadini's quartet.

On November 19, Ottawa-born saxophonist Frank Lozano, who is now a mainstay of Montreal's jazz scene, will appear. Lozano plays in a wide range of styles, leading his own groups and as a member of the Thom Gossage Other Voices, Josh Rager Sextet, Effendi Jazzlab, Altsys Jazz Orchestra and L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal. His most recent Frank Lozano 4tet album, Destin [2012], consists of  original compositions which "explore the sophisticated language of improvisation while keeping melody focused, front and center".

On November 26, Ellias will collaborate with another double bassist – Ottawa stalwart John Geggie – in a trio show with local pianist and trombonist Mark Ferguson. Geggie is well-known for his adventurous and musical Invitational series which he curated at the National Arts Centre for a dozen years, as well as for running the Ottawa Jazz Festival jams and for collaborations with many Canadian and American musicians such as Nancy Walker, Nick Fraser, and Donny McCaslin. Ferguson is a composer and arranger (in a duo with Mike Tremblay and for his Latin band Los Gringos, among many other projects), and a first-call musician for a wide variety of jazz projects.

On December 3, the trio Trekan (with Brooklyn multi-instrumentalist Petr Cancura, Toronto cellist Andrew Downing, and Ellias) will return after a well-received show last January.  They perform chamber jazz, with perhaps a touch of bluegrass and Turkish music.

Toronto guitarist Lorne Lofsky is a musician Ellias has known and played with for decades: “we're very good friends. We keep in touch, we talk on the phone a couple times a week. He's an incredible guitarist, and for some strange reason, he likes playing with me.” They'll presenting a duo show on December 10. Lofsky has played for years in groups led by Ed Bickert, Pat LaBarbera, and Kirk MacDonald. For several years he was a member of the Oscar Peterson Quartet, and was featured on three of Peterson’s recordings.

On December 17, Juno-winning saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen will perform with Ellias and Geggie. Jensen has been consistently well-received by Ottawa audiences in her many, varied concerts here.

The last show scheduled so far will be on January 7, with vocalist Diane White. Although White is from Ottawa, she spends most of the year touring in Asia and the Middle East, only rarely performing here.

ZenKitchen: success after tumult

The announcement of this series is a strong step forward after several very tumultuous months at ZenKitchen. On May 22, it abruptly closed, after the Canadian Revenue Agency seized its bank account for HST arrears. But the local restaurant, jazz, and vegetarian/vegan communities all rallied round to try to save it.

A fundraiser on June 10 featuring local jazz musicians raised about $10,000 to pay arrears to suppliers and former staff. An angel investor, Michael Gazier, stepped in to help with the restaurant's finances. After renegotiating with its landlord, substantially revamping its menu to return to its roots, and hiring all new staff, ZenKitchen reopened for dinner on July 31. Its Sunday jazz duo series, curated by guitarist Tim Bedner, restarted the same week.

So far, Loan said, business is “not bad”, although August and early September are never busy times, and the restaurant “needs to get the word out better that we've reopened”.

“But overall it's going well. Good response to the new menu, the servers are really beginning to know their jobs well and be able to do a great job, and kitchen staff are terrific. Generally it's going well, but we could use more business.”

The new Wednesday series was in tune with Gazier's vision for the restaurant, Loan said: in particular, as a method of increasing business mid-week. “And he's a huge jazz fan: in fact, Michael has been studying double bass with John Geggie. This is something we were both keen on and it's only arisen because of his support.”

Loan said they didn't copy the Wednesday series format from elsewhere, although they were aware of New York clubs with a somewhat similar model. Locally, Les Brasseurs du Temps in downtown Gatineau has successfully run jazz and other concerts with cover charges on a fairly regular basis. At those concerts, BDT customers were asked to arrive one hour before the show for dinner, which improved the listening experience.

He said Bedner recommended Ellias to curate the Wednesday series “because he knows so many people. ... You know, Roddy has played with everybody. And he has a good relationship, especially with Montreal musicians. And so he's been able to pull in some ... I'm just shocked when I read the bios of some of these people. Long-time member of the Moe Koffman Quintet; long-time bassist for Oscar Peterson. People who have played for some with some of the greatest jazz musicians in the world: it's incredible!”

Ellias said that ZenKitchen left the choice of musicians for the series “entirely to me. And I don't take direction anyway.” He said he didn't “just jump into it and go through my Rolodex. I thought about it carefully for a couple weeks. Then I started calling people about two weeks ago. Because I wanted to get a balance, I wanted to think about it, go slowly.”

One serendipitous choice was Senensky, who had already contacted Ellias about doing a duo show in Ottawa on September 24 – since Senensky was going to be in Ottawa and Montreal later that week with his quartet, Organic. They had tentatively arranged a house concert, but were easily able to switch it to ZenKitchen.

This also isn't the first time Ellias has organized jazz series in Ottawa. For several years, he ran similar series at the now-defunct Café Paradiso downtown, and then for the last two years at GigSpace. Each series featured a mix of guitarists and other jazz musicians, and both American and Canadian musicians.

This fall, he's booked for two concerts at GigSpace, in October and November, one with vocalist Lara Solnicki, and the other possibly a solo guitar show. He said both would definitely be different from the ZenKitchen shows.

Loan said ZenKitchen would be giving the Wednesday series a few months to find its feet. “We're committed right through December, and sometime midway we'll take a look and see how it's going. Roddy obviously needs a few weeks to do the next line-up. And I'm hoping that some of these [musicians] will come back anyway. But as long as it's going well, we'll continue it on.”

Ellias said he was “really happy” to be organizing the series, “and I think it's a good thing for Ottawa to have these – someone taking a chance again on Ottawa. I sure hope it gets supported.”

“It only seats 32 people, so I'm hoping it's going to be sold out every night. No reason it shouldn't be. I think people should go out of their way to support it. Either that or they're not going to have a place like that. And the food is amazing, and the people are nice, and the atmosphere is great, the sound is good. It's a great place.”

    – Alayne McGregor

See also:

Update October 15: Added Frank Lozano and Christine Jensen. Changed the date of Diane White's show.