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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 OttawaJazzScene.ca will be giving you the opportunity to win free tickets to some of those shows.

The power of the human voice

May starts and ends with sold-out shows by Canadian vocalists. On May 1, there will be no empty seats at GigSpace as Laila Biali and the Radiance Project play songs from her new CD, House of Many Rooms – and not a lot of space on stage either, with six musicians! The pianist, vocalist, and composer has always been interested in creating jazz rearrangements of pop songs, but this album sees her taking a more pop-oriented approach to writing all-original material.

The same evening, Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson joins up with a powerhouse rhythm section (Robi Botos on piano and Terry Clarke on drums) at the NAC Theatre to present a tribute to the one-of-a-kind jazz singer Billie Holiday. Johnson's most recent album is called Because of Billie. It's her most straight jazz album ever – and a chance for her to pay homage to Holiday’s music and to acknowledge Holiday's childhood struggles. On the album, Johnson sings the songs Holiday made famous but with her own breath and voice, and the amalgam really works – which is undoubtedly why the concert sold out.

However, you can still get tickets for the Billie Holiday show at GigSpace on May 22, in which accomplished Ottawa vocalists Dominique Forest, Karen Oxorn and Nicole Ratté celebrate the centennial of Holiday's birth. In 2013, these three singers sold out the NAC Fourth Stage and received a standing ovation for their tribute to Holiday's and Ella Fitzgerald's 1957 concerts at the Newport Jazz Festival. Now they're concentrating on Holiday, and presenting the timeless standards most associated with her.

And there's more vocal jazz: on May 6, you can hear Sudbury vocalist Patricia Cano sing jazz in English, French, and Spanish, in her Ontario Scene concert at the NAC Fourth Stage. Her songs blend jazz, blues, South American folk, samba, and Afro-Peruvian rhythms. She will be joined by Luanda Jones, who is originally from Rio de Janeiro, and will sing Brazilian classics and originals.

On May 30, Vancouver jazz vocalist Laura Crema will blend jazz with popular music, Bossa Nova, original compositions, and improvisation at the NAC Fourth Stage. Crema has studied at the Banff Centre for the Arts with jazz vocalists Sheila Jordan and Jay Clayton and in Washington State with Nancy King and Kurt Elling. She has released four albums under her own name; the most recent, Fotografia [2013], was produced by jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer Brad Turner.

The vocal jazz month ends with a bang: superstar vocalist Diana Krall will perform with the NAC Orchestra on May 31 in the CD release tour for her new album, Wallflower. While Krall will perform with almost all the same jazz musicians as on her last tour, this album is not jazz: it's exclusively pop songs from the late ‘60s to the present day.

The Ottawa show has sold out all its 2,323 seats. Interestingly, according to Krall's website, the only other show to have so far sold out on her tour is in Madrid, Spain. (Update May 10: the Madrid show now shows tickets available, so only the Ottawa show has sold out on Krall's tour.)

Musicians from elsewhere spice up the scene

Mike Murley © 2004 Brett DelmageIn the first part of May, OttawaJazzScene.ca is looking forward to concerts by several Toronto-area jazz musicians: the ever-inventive Stretch Orchestra, violinist Jaron Freeman-Fox, saxophonist Mike Murley's energetic septet, and guitarist Jesse Cook. You can read all about those shows in our article about Ontario Scene.

On May 8 and 9 at Brookstreet, Toronto trumpeter Tara Kannangara (last seen here with Elizabeth Shepherd in February, and in the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra Invention concert in April) brings her classic jazz quintet at Brookstreet. Kannangara has been praised by Vijay Iyer as “a wonderful young artist with a prodigious musical gifts and a remarkably mature creative vision. Her music is packed with ideas, and yet it flows along with a natural warmth and elegance.”

Local pianist Nick Maclean and trumpeter Emily Denison have been mostly absent from the Ottawa scene for the last few years because they've been studying jazz in Toronto. But they'll return with the jazz fusion band, Snaggle, on May 15 and 16 at Brookstreet. Snaggle's influences range from Miles Davis to Rage Against the Machine; they take “jazz, rock, metal, classical and everything else they can get their hands to create their own brash and infectious brand of hard funk”.

On May 19, the Austrian Embassy is sponsoring a free concert at St. Brigid's with guitarist Matthias ‘Pedals’ Löscher and NYC vocalist Jazzmeia Horn. They'll be performing songs that talk about “love, fear, joy, sadness and beauty; stories that are part of our daily existence as humans” – inspired by Löscher's world travels as a musician in the last 15 years.

Montreal bossa nova duo Bet.e & Stef returned to performing last year and promptly started selling out shows in Gatineau. On May 22 and 23, they repeat that feat again at Cabaret La Basoche in Aylmer.

And on May 30, Montreal bassist and composer Joel Kerr will release his new album, False Dawn, at Pressed: "a throwback to the electric sounds of 70s Miles Davis combined with indie rock, classical minimalism, and just a hint of world music". The album, with seven originals and one cover, uses "lush textures and space to create an atmosphere that is both meditative and minimalist, yet expressive" -- performed on guitar, Fender Rhodes, drums, and bass, with vocals.

Local groups release CDs

Jivewires' Kelly Craig (tr) and Steve Berndt (v) ©Brett Delmage, 2013Ottawa's jump jive band, The Jivewires, have a great live act – and they've used those performances over the last two years to refine the material for their fifth CD. On May 1, they will finally release Drive Me Sane in a concert at Centrepointe Studio Theatre. Expect a high-energy show with crisp, fast-moving instrumentals and Steve Berndt delivering the lyrics with a touch of satire and lots of verve. If you act fast, you can still win tickets to this show.

Pianist and vocalist Megan Jerome composes songs with off-kilter but always interesting lyrics and music. In the past, she's often just accompanied herself on piano, Wurlitzer, or accordion, but in the last year she formed her Together Ensemble. Husband Mike Essoudry on drums, Don Cummings on full-size Hammond organ (and giant Leslie speaker), and Fred Guignon on electric guitar add an extra orchestral richness to her music, as an enthusiastic audience at the Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival heard. She's releasing her first album with this group on May 14 in a concert at the NAC Fourth Stage.

You can also hear Megan playing solo this month at the Elmdale Oyster House and Tavern each Sunday afternoon.

On May 23, the Chocolate Hot Pockets will finally unveil their second CD, Chocolate Dreams, at the Ritual Nightclub. The Ottawa quartet's members all have a strong jazz background, but this group gives them the chance to also indulge their love of fatback funk and neo-soul, with original music written by guitarist Alex Moxon and trumpeter Ed Lister.

Local jazz groups keep pushing the edge

It's a busy month for Ottawa-area jazz musicians, with lots of out-of-the ordinary shows, especially near the end of the month.

Roddy Ellias and John Geggie ©Brett Delmage, 2013On May 2, Ottawa master guitarist Roddy Ellias will team up at GigSpace with three long-time friends (and stalwarts of the scene) Mark Ferguson, John Geggie, and Mike Tremblay. They'll be performing very new music which Ellias has written using a new, more classical, approach – and probably a few standards, too. Enter our contest to win tickets to this concert!

Or if you prefer dancing to big bands that evening, the 16-piece big band Standing Room Only will be playing in Perth for a Swing Into Spring fundraiser.

On May 3, vocalist and teacher Nicole Ratté will showcase the talents of her most promising students in a vocal jazz extravaganza at les Brasseurs de Temps in Vieux Hull. Seven vocalists – Patricia Balfour, Caroline Cook, Geneviève Lecours, Vicky Legros, Jerry Sociedade, Sheila Stevens and Leslie Toope – each with different talents and styles, will perform jazz standards in English, French, and Portuguese, including pieces by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and other legendary jazz musicians. They will be accompanied by a quartet of well-known local instrumentalists: Mark Ferguson, John Geggie, and Brian and Jeff Asselin.

Accordion Conspiracy (l-r): David Broscoe, Bernard Stepien ©Brett Delmage, 2013Alternatively, you could spend that Sunday evening having your ears opened to novel sounds at Black Squirrel Books, as IMOO presents Bernard Stepien's “The Deconstructed Accordion Conspiracy”. In the first set, Stepien will play an extended solo piece on accordion inspired by this year's exceptional winter. In the second set, he'll be joined by saxophonist David Broscoe and drummer/soundmeister Scott Warren in creating improvisations inspired by conversations recorded in Eindhoven, Holland. Stepien and Broscoe's previous Accordion Conspiracy duets have been well-received, and it will be interesting to hear where they take the music this evening.

Pianist Carlos Santana, originally from Mexico. is now a frequent face in Latin jazz groups in Ottawa. On May 9, he'll bring his trio, with percussionist Alvaro de Minaya and bassist Daniel Chavolla, to a lively JazzN.ca house concert in the Almonte area. JazzN.ca reports the show is sold out and is taking wait list requests.

Or you could satisfy your Latin jazz urges at GigSpace, where the bossa nova trio, Wave, will join up with Brazilian vocalist Regina Teixeira and other local musicians. The concert theme is Brazil: Bossa and Beyond, inspired by two of Wave's members recently making a musical pilgrimage to that country. In addition to the more familiar bossas and sambas, they would like to share “their recent exploration of a wider variety of Brazilian music styles and composers, primarily from the northeastern regions of Brazil”.

Clayton Connell © 2013 Brett DelmageThe National Arts Centre Orchestra has featured jazz as an appetizer to its classical music at several “Casual Friday” concerts each season. On May 15, pianist Clayton Connell brings his trio to the NAC lobby for a show that should please jazz traditionalists, but will also include several new originals.

On May 19, you can hear rising new jazz talent – and one jazz veteran – in a double concert at Pressed. First up will be guitarist Roddy Ellias, together with two young musicians he met while teaching the Ottawa Jazz Festival's JazzEd program: bassist Ben Heard and drummer Keagan Eskritt. “For this event, students and mentor will come together for the first time to perform a concert of original music. Expect a range of improvised sounds from this new guitar trio.”

Next on the bill will be saxophonist Chris Maskell (currently studying jazz at McGill), and his quartet with three well-known local musicians: guitarist Alex Moxon, Ben Heard again on bass, and drummer Mike Essoudry. They'll play re-imagined jazz standards, as well as originals which “explore modern aspects of jazz, but still maintain a firm connection with the tradition of the music”. The same musicians, this time led by Essoudry, will also perform on May 30 at the Raw Sugar Cafe, as the opening act for Montreal bassist Joel Kerr's CD release.

Garry Elliott ©Brett Delmage, 2013On May 23, guitarist Garry Elliott – better known for quieter and more classically-influenced music – teams up with the distinctly grooving Bumpin' Binary at GigSpace. Bumpin' Binary is the duo of drummer Mike Essoudry and Hammond organ player Don Cummings, who get together each month to play “swinging funky soul”. For this show, the three musicians are mining the rich legacy of famous guitar-organ trios, and adding some originals. What you should expect: “a night of soulful, funky,bluesy, swingin’, modal grooves guaranteed to fill the room!”

Last fall, vocalist Peter Liu released his first CD, Bamboo Groove, which looked at love from many angles through both jazz standards and several of his favourite Chinese and Korean pop songs – all arranged by pianist Peter Hum. He's bringing that CD's quartet back again on May 29 for their annual concert for Asian Heritage Month, in a show at the Korean Palace in Chinatown.

Drummer Michel Delage has always been a big fan of Toronto pianist Nancy Walker, having enjoyed her playing in the John Geggie Trio house band at Ottawa Jazz Festival jams for many years. He's bringing her up to Ottawa on the last weekend of the month (May 29-30) for the latest show in his jazz tribute series at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge. Walker, bassist Kieran Overs, guitarist Roddy Ellias, and Delage will honour the music of composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.

On that Saturday, The Souljazz Orchestra will perform another of its dance-until-you-drop shows at the Babylon Nightclub, combining Funk, Soul, Jazz, Afrobeat, African and Latin styles. And on the Sunday (May 31) is the next show in the Nachtmusik series at Das Lokal in the ByWard Market, with Megan Jerome playing a solo show.

And throughout the month

Sun Crescent Barbecue Stompers - © 2014 Brett DelmageFor years, crooner Johnny Vegas and his all-star band epitomized the music of the Rat Pack era – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. – in weekly shows at Maxwell's downtown. That run ended last year, but Johnny and his band have returned for a short stay. You can hear them at Maxwell's each Wednesday night until June 10.

The Sun Crescent Barbecue StompersMarc Decho's tribute to New Orleans blues, gospel, and jazz with a Dixieland twist – was a big hit at the Merrickville Jazz Festival in October and at Irene's in December. They're back at Irene's this month for another month of Sundays, closing out each week with enough late-night energy to kickstart the following work week. 


No matter what your taste in jazz, there's good live jazz and improvised music in Ottawa in May. Get out and open up your ears! A concert you wanted to attend already sold out? OttawaJazzScene.ca readers get early notice of these popular shows throughout the year in our weekly newsletter and on our website.

For full descriptions and timely reminders of these concerts, links to our interviews with the musicians, concert reviews, and many new events not listed here - plus wonderful opportunities to win tickets to some of these exciting upcoming performances - be sure to sign up for our weekly jazz events newsletter.

If you know of any other shows in May or June which OttawaJazzScene.ca should highlight, please let us know at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

    – Alayne McGregor

Updated May 10 to include new lineup for Chris Maskell quartet on May 19, and the Joel Kerr album release on May 30.