Five years later, fans still remember Thursday jazz nights at Café Paradiso – and are paying to hear that music again this weekend.
Three jazz listeners are sponsoring a concert on Saturday at GigSpace, where guitarist Tim Bedner and vocalist/pianist/flute player Elise Letourneau will recreate the music they used to play at that former Ottawa jazz venue.
“We were totally taken aback that someone missed what we were doing on Thursday nights,” Bedner said. “That was good for the heart and soul - that there were folks out there who would miss what we would do, with piano, guitar, voice, and flute. Also the repertoire that we had – favourites for folks that would come out.”
Café Paradiso closed in mid-2012, after a 14-year run, and more than 10 years as a major downtown jazz venue. It was a high-end restaurant which showcased jazz musicians visiting from Toronto, Montreal, and New York City (including Christine Jensen, Kirk MacDonald, David Braid, Sheila Jordan, and Dave Liebman), as well as well-known Ottawa jazz musicians such as Roddy Ellias, John Geggie, Mark Ferguson, and Diane White.
And every week for 4½ years, Bedner and Letourneau would play jazz standards, tunes by guitarist Pat Metheny, music by the Beatles and by Paul Simon, and choice Latin bossa novas.
“That is what every musician dreams of, getting something like that on a weekly, steady basis, because you show up every week trying to do better than you did the week before, adding new repertoire, tweaking songs out,” Bedner said. “Trying to come up with different things each time we play it, or go deeper in the tune, it's valuable! Having that: it's definitely like going back to school again.”
“I've been very, very lucky that I've been able to continue playing weekly at other venues since Café Paradiso. Again it's just getting that connection to music using the creative process of, 'OK here I am again, playing this tune, maybe a little bit differently, hopefully still as musical as I can be.' ”
“I respond well to deadlines, and having a reason to learn a tune or two or three every week was really valuable – having that Thursday night target,” Letourneau said. “It was really good for repertoire building. I thought I had a pretty good repertoire before, but just having that reason to keep adding to it, and having a place to try it out and gauge – 'OK, people seem to enjoy that, or people were kind of indifferent.' Sometimes they were indifferent, sometimes they were just focused on their meals.”
“Sometimes even that was valuable, because it gave me a place to try something that I may not have necessarily tried with a audience was 100% focused in a more traditional setting. I thought, we'll try this out on Paradiso, because it is an environment where the focus shifts. And in that way it might have been a little bit safer to try something. At a place like that it's very gratifying to find out, yes, that was ready, and if there was a glitch in there somewhere, perhaps a few of the people in the room may have noticed it as well, but certainly not all of them.”
Owner Alex Demianenko specifically set up the restaurant for music, with a stage, lights, a sound system, and an acoustic baby grand piano, Bedner said. “Having a grand piano there that was well-maintained is almost unheard-of today. Very few places will take the chance to do something like that.”
Letourneau particularly appreciated being able to play the piano: “It felt good to my hands.”
She'll be playing a similar Yamaha grand piano at GigSpace on Saturday. The GigSpace piano is “a little bit longer, so there's really nice bass resonance. I like Yamaha touch, and I find it to be fairly consistent across their pianos.”
Saturday's show will be sponsored by Hélène Vigeant, Kim Farrall and Jim Nuyens, who were Thursday night regulars at Paradiso, said GigSpace artistic director Marilee Townsend-Alcorn. They approached GigSpace with the idea for the concert as part of the venue's concert sponsorship program. The program guarantees a minimum fee to performers: the sponsorship money, plus a percentage of the door, goes to the musicians.
“We don't get a chance to perform together all that often with Elise's busy schedule and I'm often freelancing quite a bit – and also an opportunity to have Elise playing an acoustic piano is a rare find on a gig. So the three of them approached us, and said, 'Hey would you guys be interested in doing it?' And we thought, sure, that would be fantastic!” Bedner said.
The concert sponsors have given them a list of tunes they'd like to hear, Letourneau said: “the ones that they used to like and request a lot – like a trip down memory lane!”
Letourneau and Bedner moved to Ottawa in July, 2006, and started performing occasionally at Paradiso that fall. “The first thing we did when we moved to town is we went and tried to play all the open mics – to go to as many live music events as possible. And one of them would be Café Paradiso on Wednesday night. And Elise sat in, and at that time [jazz critic] Lois Moody was sitting at the bar having her dinner. We didn't know Lois at the time or who she was, and she was quite taken with Elise's voice and mentioned to Alex that 'You should get her back!'”
Pianist Brian Browne had been playing there regularly on Thursdays. After he left, Demianenko asked Bedner and Letourneau if they would like to host the music on Thursdays; they started in January, 2007. “It was quite a surprise after moving here so early that we were able to get a spot like that so early,” Bedner said. They ended up performing almost every Thursday until the fall of 2011.
They discovered that playing here was not quite the same as in the U.S., where they had previously lived and studied. “We've been married over 26 years. Before we moved here, Elise and I did a lot of duo playing experience of travelling around the central Atlantic states - Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia – playing a lot of bookstores and smaller venues.”
Performing regularly at Paradiso “confirmed our suspicion that there are regional favourites in terms of standards. Standards aren't the same everywhere you go,” Letourneau said. “Of course people knew similar standards, but some of the ones that were stand-outs that everybody did in Pittsburgh, we found that nobody did up here. Many people would do certain other tunes. And we were like, 'Oh, wow. Nobody's singing that in Pittsburgh. It's a cool tune.'”
For example, “Comes Love” was really popular in Ottawa. “So many of the singers did it, and it really wasn't much on singers' radar in Pittsburgh, as I recall."
One thing that will be notably different on Saturday will be the level of background noise. GigSpace is a very quiet listening space, whereas Café Paradiso was a working restaurant, with a cappuccino machine whistling, servers rattling cutlery and banging glasses – and patrons talking. “Demianenko's standard request to the diners was to keep it down to a dull roar, and unfortunately all too often, they did,” said OttawaJazzScene.ca publisher and reporter Brett Delmage, who frequently listened to music at Café Paradiso in its final five years. OttawaJazzScene.ca reporters can remember having the music sometimes completely drowned out by talking, even at ticketed shows, and being unable to hear a guitar from one metre away.
“Historically, jazz music has happened in these types of situations. We understand that there is a compromise that you have to make,” Bedner said. “If someone comes in and is quite loud or they sit up close to the musicians and have loud conversations and talk on their cellphones, it was a little annoying but we'd just smile and try to understand the situation.”
“Sure, it's not ideal for the hardcore music lovers. And as a musician/performer, I would love to have folks listening completely, rather than whatever distraction. But that's the way of the situation. Yes, it was a distraction, but I understood the situation and would never have anything negative to say to anyone in general, unless it was really a necessary thing to say, Hey, could you … (laughs)”
“I've played clubs and restaurants pretty much my whole career for the most part. So the noise thing and the cappuccino machines and the big-screen TVs and so forth have always been there. When you do play a place like GigSpace where it's a total listening experience, it's like 'OK, I don't hear the din of other things going on to distract you'. So it is a bit of a challenge, a hyper-sensitivity when you're playing a listening room like GigSpace. I don't want say I'm nervous, but there's an element of like 'OK, they're really listening now, so I want to be totally with this.'”
Bedner said he still remembers the people met on Thursday nights: locals, people passing through, and musicians looking to get more involved in the music community. He also ran a mentoring series for young musicians for several years on Monday nights at the café, and had his university guitar ensemble perform there – as well as performing himself in larger ensembles there on weekends.
The café also presented workshops with visiting performers like NYC vocalist Sheila Jordan
“It certainly is missed. It would be super nice if another club could consider having some of the ideas that Café Paradiso tried to keep happening here in Ottawa.”
“Unique things that happened at Paradiso that might not have happened otherwise,” Letourneau said. “For Christmas, Alex gave me an opportunity to do my jazz combo version of Selections from the Messiah. I wouldn't have had an opportunity to do that otherwise.”
After Café Paradiso closed, the Options Jazz Lounge in the Brookstreet Hotel in Kanata expanded to offering jazz seven nights a week, and presenting musicians from out of town. GigSpace also increased its concert offerings, and its masterclasses and workshops. Other central-area restaurants offering jazz, such as Zen Kitchen, have come and gone.
“But the challenge with GigSpace is that it's a smaller space – I think Café Paradiso could seat close to 75 in the music side and probably another – in any case, Café Paradiso was bigger and the challenge with GigSpace is sometimes that we have limited space when a lot of people want to show up,” Bedner said. “I think Brookstreet has some of the elements, but it's out in Kanata.
“I don't think it was in anybody's mandate to replace Café Paradiso,” Letourneau said. “Other people are doing their thing and I love what GigSpace is doing, and I'm really grateful that they're there. However, I don't think that there's anything that's replaced Café Paradiso in terms of having a place that's [firstly] in town, and secondly they have invested into what the music needs in terms of the physical space and a quality acoustic piano, and thirdly for people who want the fine dining experience to go with it. In terms of the triumvirate, I'm not aware of anything that has replaced it.”
Bedner said “it does feel good that folks remember” his and Letourneau's Thursday night performances at Paradiso. “It was just a great feeling. And that's what we're trying to do as artists, moving people. I want folks to come away with a good feeling with music. Music can wash away a lot of things and communicate things that might not otherwise be communicated. And that's our goal – is inspiring people, moving people.”
“It's nice that folks remember it positively because a lot of people put a lot of energy into the Café Paradiso experience, from Alex to the servers to Tim and I doing the music. It was a special place, for sure, and it's nice that people remember it that way,” Letourneau said.
– Alayne McGregor
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