Despite an everything-that-could-go-wrong day, Gil Scott-Heron and his band wowed the audience at the Ottawa Jazz Festival's opening and free concert night on Wednesday.
The warmth between the tall, painfully-thin man and the audience crowded up to the stage was palpable. As he entered, many people reached up their hands, and Scott-Heron shook as many as he could. He started talking, simply and straightforwardly, with a lot of humour, some of it old but all of it still funny.
The day had started badly for the Festival when the original headliner, the Max Weinberg Big Band, had had to cancel because thunderstorms completely shut down travel out of Chicago. Then Scott-Heron's band made it to Ottawa, but he was delayed by customs inspections – of which he made much fun on stage, at point recounting that he had assured the inspectors that if they had really wanted drugs he could go back home and find them some but right now he didn't have any on him.
Scott-Heron missed his flight, got further delayed by weather, and was barely on his plane from New York City at 8 p.m., when he was originally scheduled to start.
Instead, his backing band, Kimberly Jordan on vocals and keyboards, Brian Settles on tenor and soprano sax and flute, and Alton Duncanson on percussion, gave a highly crowd-pleasing set of jazz, pop, and R&B standards, ending with a long, crowd-involving back-and-forth on a Carole King song. Jordan has a strong, flexible voice and used it well, and Duncanson's percussion gave a strong underpinning. Lots of cheers and happiness.
And that happiness was needed, because the weather got steadily worse as the evening progressed. The rain started spitting about 8 p.m., became steady by 8:30, and continued sometimes light, sometimes heavy for the rest of the evening.
Some of the crowd put up umbrellas, others pulled up their hoods, and others just ignored the rain. Many just stood close together under the stage overhang and to be closer to the musicians.
Scott-Heron first moved to the centrally-placed Fender Rhodes, and played several songs with an R&B feel, sometimes just singing a cappella. Then he was joined by Jordan on backing vocals for several more songs, and finally by Settles and Duncanson. The music shifted between R&B and jazz: one song involved a long and humorous "explanation" of the origins of "jazz", followed by a fine New-Orleans-style piece.
Settles produced some fine solos on sax and flute, while Duncanson particularly spread himself on a long percussion solo near the end.
Particularly notable pieces were a heartfelt "Work for Peace", and the soulful "I'll Take Care of You" from Scott-Heron's 2010 album I'm New Here.
The concert ended with "Celebration" (which it felt like), but the audience called them back for an encore before dispersing into the rain.
– Alayne McGregor