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December jazz in Ottawa-Gatineau: much more than the holidays

Updated December 20, 2015
Don't ever think of December as just holiday music!

Every year, there's a lot more going on in Ottawa's jazz scene during the last month of the year. Professionals present new projects and new CDs; students show off what they've been rehearsing this term. It's the best time of the year to hear big band jazz. And OK, there's seasonal music, too – how could you miss the annual Albert Ayler/Christmas carol free jazz mash-up, or Gaby Warren's Christmas tradition hosting the JazzWorks jam?

Highlights for this month include

Seven student, professional, and amateur big bands will make a lot of big sound this month ©Brett Delmage, 2015


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Drummer Jerry Granelli is the last original musician who played on Vince Guaraldi's recording of the soundtrack for the TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. This memorable music has gained a life of its own, and Granelli is on tour to share the story of the recording, in music, words, and film. At the Thursday, December 3 show at Dominion Chalmers United Church, Granelli and his trio will be joined on stage with a local choir, The Goulbourn Junior Jubilees.

Toronto vocalist Molly Johnson has regularly wowed NAC audiences with her unmistakable voice. She's playing in the east end of Ottawa on Thursday, with a show at the Shenkman Arts Centre featuring songs from her latest CD, a tribute to Billie Holiday, as well as holiday songs.

Two award-winning student bands also show off their chops Thursday evening. The Nepean All-City Jazz Band and the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band collaborate in a show at Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven: expect big band classics but also modern Canadian jazz compositions.

At Carleton University, the student jazz ensembles, directed by Mark Ferguson, show what they can do Thursday night at Kailash Mital Theatre. Their repertoire will include pieces by Cannonball Adderley, Ornette Coleman, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Peggy Lee, and Joe Zawinul. They'll also play two brand new compositions written by the students, and Ferguson's new arrangement of "Baby It's Cold Outside", which should fit the weather.

Bassist and artistic director Adrian Cho and his Ottawa Jazz Orchestra will present a 'classical music concert, a jazz concert, and a Christmas concert all in one!' ©Brett Delmage, 2015

And if you'd prefer your big band jazz musicians with decades of experience, the Grey Jazz Big Band will present its Sugar Plum Ball Thursday evening, one of the City of Ottawa's quarterly big band dances at the Ron Kolbus Lakeside Centre.

In suburban Gatineau, ex-Ottawa jazz vocalist Renée Yoxon is briefly back from Montreal Thursday to sing Christmas songs with tenor Steeve Michaud [yes, that really is his name] at la Maison de la Culture.

On Friday, December 4, at the NAC Fourth Stage, pianist and arranger J.P. Allain teams up with vocalist Doug Moyle to present a tribute to Frank Sinatra, who would have celebrated his 100th birthday this month. Sinatra was one of the most popular and influential jazz musicians of the 20th century, and the quartet plans a “swinging evening of song, designed for the young and the young at heart” to celebrate his legacy.

This fall, Allain was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Ottawa local of the Musicians’ Association. He has arranged shows with many different local vocalists, such as the My Pal Frishberg show he presented with Renée Yoxon.

The same evening, Ottawa jazz vocalist Megan Jerome brings her Together Ensemble to GigSpace for an evening of original cabaret-style songs, richly enfolded in Don Cummings' Hammond organ grooves, Fred Guignon's inflected guitar, and Mike Essoudry's ever-varied drumming. The ensemble released its first album together (and Jerome's fifth) in May.

And Toronto vocalist Julie Michels, in Ottawa to play with Rob Frayne, is sticking around to play a Friday evening show at Santé Restaurant in the ByWard Market with guitarist Garry Elliott. Expect jazz standards and more.

On Saturday, December 5, composer Elise Letourneau presents a “Chamber Electric” version of her Requiem for 14 Roses, which received considerable acclaim at its première a year ago. That version involved 60 musicians in a large church; this concert in the much smaller Church of the Ascension in Ottawa East only has a cast of 8. But a very busy cast, with the three-member Juliet Singers (including Letourneau) singing all the music performed by a 50-voice choir last year. The requiem commemorates the 14 women killed in the Montreal Massacre in 1989; Letourneau recently won honourable mention for it in a major international competition for composers of choral music.

On Sunday afternoon (December 6), long-time Ottawa vocalist Geri Childs presents her annual holiday concert with story-telling and music, including a silent auction of Christmas goodies and more for Harmony House.

Improvising trumpeter Craig Pedersen releases his new solo trumpet CD this month.  ©Brett Delmage, 2015That evening, trumpet fans have a difficult choice. Do you go hear the committed and energetic students in the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra (CYJO) led by trumpeter Nick Dyson? Or the always-original trumpet sounds of Craig Pedersen at IMOO?

CYJO will play the music of trumpeter Thad Jones, best known for his jazz compositions and big band arrangements for groups including the Granny-winning Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, the Danish Radio Big Band, and the Count Basie Orchestra. He had a unique arranging style, especially “featuring dissonant voicings in a tonal context”.

Pedersen is on a cross-Canada CD release tour for his new solo trumpet CD, Cut and Gouge. He'll perform at the Raw Sugar Café in a two-part show: first solo, then in a quintet with local improvisers – cellist Mark Molnar (who also produced the CD), reed player David Broscoe, and two drummers: Scott Warren and Bennett Bedoukian.

On Monday, December 7, you can hear guitars in interesting and unusual combinations, as Carleton University's Contemporary Guitar Ensemble led by Tim Bedner presents its fall concert in the Patrick Cardy Studio on the 9th floor of the Loeb Building.

Monday and Tuesday are for big band lovers. On Monday, December 8, the Stan Clark Orchestra will perform favourite swing tunes at Maxwell's. And on Tuesday, December 9, the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra gets into Killin’ the Classics – a “classical music concert, a jazz concert, and a Christmas concert all in one!” The orchestra will be playing pieces by major classical composers including Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky, as reimagined by jazz legends such as Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, Glenn Miller, and Gil Evans. Ellington fans may enjoy his and Strayhorn's Peer Gynt and Nutcracker suites.

On Thursday, December 10, vocalist Renée Landry “Wishes You A Swinging Christmas” with her trio at Salt on Preston Street. It's a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, featuring Ella's favourite holiday music, and also includes pianist Clayton Connell and saxophonist Chris Maskell.

On Friday, December 11, the Rake-star Arkestra brings their anarchic yet melodic tribute to Sun Ra's music back to the Raw Sugar Café. Featuring some of Ottawa's most adventurous and skilled improvisers, the Arkestra's shows are always interesting and different each time, with great chemistry among the musicians.

Jason Rosenblatt is a composer, pianist, vocalist, and harmonica innovator from Montreal. He's on a release tour for his latest CD, Wiseman’s Rag, which “delivers a slightly twisted take on blues, roots and early jazz”, and will appear at GigSpace on Saturday, December 12. A disciple of harmonica master Howard Levy, Rosenblatt has opened new musical ground for the instrument long associated with the blues, “into art forms as diverse as jazz, bluegrass, klezmer and Turkish music”. He'll be playing with Montreal jazz musicians Joel Kerr (bass), Evan Tighe (drums), and Cordell Henebury (guitar).

Sax Appeal will perform live Christmas music at the Rideau Centre  ©Brett Delmage, 2015On Sunday, December 13, you can celebrate the season with the Sax Appeal duo serenading the shoppers at the Rideau Centre from noon to 2 p.m. They'll be back there on December 20 (12-2 p.m.) and December 22 (5-7 p.m.).

That evening, Bernard Stepien and Friends present their unique take on Christmas with A Very Ayler Christmas Saxophone Caroling at IMOO at the Raw Sugar Café. Now in its ninth year, the project combines traditional carols with the music of 60s free jazz composer Albert Ayler, “a very spiritual man, [who] developed his art around a remarkable combination of Gospel and military music and left a radical imprint on the Jazz world.”

The line-up for the show has expanded to include xylophone and two guitars. And in response to world events “where once more some people tried to destroy music”, Stepien has integrated “La Marseillaise” to Ayler’s “Spirit Rejoyce” mashed up to “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”. He assures us that was easy, “since Ayler himself, who spend his early years playing in an American military band in Orleans, France, was frequently using the Marseillaise that he he called affectuously the Mayonnaise.” Watch what a prior version of A Very Ayler Christmas was like in our video story.

The extra-long IMOO show also includes a solo set by Linsey Wellman, who will release his new solo saxophone CD early next year, and the Montreal free improv quartet Shining Wizard. That group takes its cue from free jazz pioneers like Han Bennink, Anthony Braxton, and Keiji Haino as well as rock influences such as Deerhoof and Marnie Stern, and has just released a new album.

Also on December 13, the Beeched Wailers release their first CD, The Johnson Lake Sessions, in a show at The Gladstone. The CD was recorded live last August in the kitchen and living room of a cottage on Johnson Lake, Quebec, and features compositions by band members and other Ottawa musicians. If you've heard the Wailers play at one of their weekly Tuesday jams, you know that they're a tight band with a real feel for both the tradition and accessible modern jazz. Admission to the concert also includes a copy of the CD.

Tuesday night jam hosts The Beeched Wailers release their first CD on December 13 at the Gladstone ©Brett Delmage, 2015The Beeched Wailers will also be at the Options Jazz Lounge at the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata on Friday, December 18, again playing music by local jazz musicians.

Also on December 13, there is a fund-raising concert at Trinity United Church for an Ottawa family who recently suffered death and injury after a tow truck collided with their car. The Mike Tremblay Quintet, Angus Armstrong’s Ragtime Brass, two Carleton University Saxophone Quartets, and the Sir Winston Churchill Brass Ensemble will all perform at the fund-raiser.

On Wednesday, December 16, the noon-hour concert at Southminster United church features their yearly Christmas concert, “'Tis the Season” with vocalist Elise Letourneau and guitarist Tim Bedner. In previous years, they've played both popular carols but also some less-usual seasonal choices. You can see Letourneau sing one of those less common but beautiful songs in our video story about a GigSpace Christmas concert fundraiser which she sang in.

That evening, you can also hear young pianist Tyson Chen (replacing master pianist Brian Browne) with Browne's long-time collaborator, saxophonist Peter Woods, play in the Jazz Vespers series at Knox Presbyterian Church downtown. It's safe to say they know their Christmas music in all its possible varieties, especially since Woods is a United Church minister.

Also on December 16: Los Gringos, Ottawa's Latin Big Band, play their annual holiday concert at Fatboy's Southern Smokehouse in the Market. Their show will include arrangements of some favourite carols with a new addition this year: "You're a Mean One, Mr. Gringo".

Emile-Claire Barlow joins up with NACO to make Holiday Sparkle ©Brett Delmage, 2015On Friday, December 18, we hit the Christmas big-time, as Toronto jazz vocalist Emilie-Claire Barlow performs a “Holiday Sparkle” concert with the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Southam Hall. Barlow has just released a new album, Clear Day, with the Dutch jazz orchestra, Metropole Orkest. However, at this show you're more likely to hear songs from her Winter Wonderland, the Christmas album she released in 2006. How about “Angels' Lullaby” as a request?

Read OttawaJazScene.ca's exclusive interview with Barlow about the CD and the concert.

On Saturday, December 19, Ottawa singer-songwriter Erin Saoirse Adair will collaborate with three local jazz musicians (saxophonist Richard Page, drummer Michel Delage, and organist Don Cummings) to present a concert in honour of the 75th birthday of 60s protest singer Phil Ochs. Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart will also take part in the evening concert at the Gladstone, as well as many local folk artists. Adair is also organizing a free daytime show on Saturday at Southminster United Church featuring local folk and jazz artists.

Also that evening, GigSpace presents its annual Jazzin' the Holidays Fundraiser. It's a two-parter this year, starting with The Juliet Singers (Rachel Beausoleil, Kathleen Eagan and Elise Letourneau). The second half features vocalist Nicole Ratté in a jazzy quartet with Tim Bedner on guitar, and GigSpace directors Mark Alcorn on bass and Marilee Townsend on drums, cooking up some cool Yule grooves. Watch our video of a previous Jazzin' the Holidays show.

Bossa Nova trio Wave will be joined by Brazilian percussionist Regina Teixeira at their New Year's Eve bash  ©Brett Delmage, 2015If you'd like a jazzy New Year's Eve, there's a few choices:

  • Miguel de Armas and Caridad Cruz at Brookstreet with four of their favourite Latin jazz musicians (de Armas will just be back from playing with his quartet at the Havana Jazz Festival);
  • guitarist Garry Elliott in a trio with saxophonist Chris Maskell and bassist Ben Heard at Santé Restaurant in the ByWard Market;
  • guitarist Tim Bedner with vocalist Elise Letourneau at La Roma in Little Italy;
  • the Betty Ann Bryanton Trio at the Black Dog Bistro in Manotick; and
  • the bossa nova jazz trio Wave at Festival Japan downtown, with special guests vocalist and Brazilian percussionist Regina Teixeira, and multi-percussionist Alvaro Yanez.
  • You can also hear many local jazz musicians in the tribute to R&B vocalist Chaka Khan at Maverick's being organized by trumpeter Ed Lister.

For those who get some holidays between Christmas and New Year's, you might consider staying up a bit later and investigating the jazz jams. Every Monday, there's Jazz Mondays at Le Petit Chicago in downtown Gatineau (just over the Chaudière Bridge); on Tuesdays, the Beeched Wailers hold court at the Wellington Eatery in Hintonburg (with a new start time of 8 p.m.); and on Thursdays (although not New Year's Eve), you can hear the HML Trio at the Options Jazz Bar at Brookstreet in Kanata. Expect the unexpected.

JazzWorks is also running two jams this month: its Christmas jam at the Georgetown Pub hosted (for the 15th year) by vocalist Gaby Warren on December 18, and its family-friendly Sunday afternoon jam on December 6, this month led by vocalist Rachel Beausoleil.

Saxophonist Chris Maskell presents several shows this month, including a double-bill with guitarist Alex Moxon   ©Brett Delmage, 2015Christmas also means break time for student jazz musicians studying at universities outside Ottawa – and they come back here to perform. On Friday, December 18, you can catch guitarist Justin Orok playing a solo guitar set of ballads and nostalgic songs, plus the duo of saxophonist Chris Maskell and veteran guitarist Garry Elliott, at The Tea Party in the Market. That same Friday, young guitarist Rob Wannell and saxophonist Caelan Roberge-Toll will play a duo show at Gaia Java in Stittsville.

On December 19 at the Avant-Garde Bar, you can hear a double bill starting with Please Plant This Band (Orok, bassist Ben Heard, and drummer Keagan Eskritt) drawing from their backgrounds in ambient, jazz and classical music in an attempt to improvise organically from some sketches contributed by each member. They're followed by the Michael Henley Quintet, playing original music.

On December 23, Maskell teams up with pianist Deniz Lim-Sersan for a duo show at the Avant-Garde Bar. And on December 30, you can hear guitarist Alex Moxon's Songs of the 21st Century project as well as the Maskell and Lim-Sersan duo at Pressed Café, Maskell will also host several Jazz Mondays jams.

In ongoing series, you can hear a rotating series of vocalist guests with guitarist Garry Elliott at the Santé Restaurant in the Market every Wednesday, and instrumentalists with guitarist Tim Bedner at La Roma in Little Italy on Thursdays (except for December 24 and 31). Irene's in the Glebe will feature the groovin' combination of Hammond A organ and drums every Sunday evening with Bumpin' Binary (Don Cummings and Mike Essoudry).

January gets a good jazz overture on the first Sunday (January 3). In the afternoon, there's Jazz Vespers at All Saints-First United Westboro with the Steve Boudreau Trio. In the evening, the Glebop Jazz Trio presents vocalist Sandra Clarke in its long-running series at the Arrow & Loon in the Glebe. And after that you can just walk a few blocks down to Irene's to see jazz drummer Ken Harper and his trio, with special guests vocalist Gerri Trimble and saxophonist René Lavoie (no cover).

The following Saturday (January 9), you can see “extreme flutist” Bill McBirnie up from Toronto to play at GigSpace with Mark Ferguson on piano and John Geggie on double bass. The Herbie's Hill project (a long-running tribute to 60s pianists and composers Herbie Nichols and Andrew Hill by well-known Ottawa jazz musicians) is appearing in Almonte.

    – Alayne McGregor

Read some of OttawaJazzScene.ca's previous monthly jazz highlights stories:

December 13: Updated to include New Year's Eve at Santé with the Garry Elliott Trio. Tyson Chen will replace Brian Browne on December 16 for Jazz Vespers at Knox Presbyterian Church.
December 14: Updated to include New Year's Eve at La Roma with Tim Bedner and Elise Letourneau. On December 19. replaced the Emily Denison Group with the Michael Henley Quintet.
December 15: Updated the description of the Miguel de Armas/Caridad Cruz NYE show at Brookstreet Hotel's Options Jazz Lounge. Added Los Gringos on December 16. Added Rob Wannell/Caelan Roberge-Toll on December 18.
December 20: The January Sunday JazzWorks jam has moved to January 10. Added guests to Ken Harper's show at Irene's on January 3.