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2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival lineup reduces jazz, Canadians (analysis)

Updated March 23, 2017
The Ottawa Jazz Festival announced its 2017 lineup today with some spectacular international jazz choices. But the festival is still emphasizing the singer-songwriters and baby boom hitmakers, and is offering far fewer opportunities for Canadian jazz musicians.


Check out our easy-to-read, plain-text guide to the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival


The Sonoluminescence Trio is one of the relatively rare Canadian jazz groups at the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2016The official announcement on CBC Ottawa's afternoon radio show emphasized the non-jazz: singer-songwriters Feist and Serena Ryder, soul/R&B singer Joss Stone, the Downchild Blues Band, R&B vocalist Mavis Staples, and country star Kenny Rogers. When asked if Rogers would be playing jazz, Festival programming manager Petr Cancura replied that they would be “taking Kenny the way he is”.

In fact, only three of the 10 headliners in the park are bona fide jazz acts. Since 2011, the festival has consistently programmed a large percentage of musicians with no relation to jazz, but this is the lowest number ever.

The Confederation Park jazz headliners are Charlie Haden's Liberation Jazz Orchestra, led by Carla Bley; Maceo Parker and the Ray Charles Orchestra; and Caravan Swing. Other notable jazz names at the festival include The Robert Glasper Experiment; Kenny Barron; Hudson, with Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski, and John Scofield; Donny McCaslin; Hiromi; the Sammy Miller Congregation; and the Mark Guiliana Jazz Quartet.

Cancura has also brought back popular jazz choices from recent years: Igor Butman and the Moscow Jazz Orchestra; guitarist Bill Frisell with bassist Thomas Morgan; and The Bad Plus.

What was most surprising was that Cancura didn't highlight any Canadian jazz groups on-air – despite this year being Canada's 150th birthday. But when one looks at the listings, it becomes clear that, while some fine Canadian groups are performing, it's substantially fewer than in 2016.

So far, the festival is only presenting five Canadian jazz groups in Confederation Park, and five more in indoor concerts. In 2016, there were 14 concerts with Canadian groups, two indoor and the rest outdoor in the park or on the Tartan Homes Stage. For decades, the early evening show in Confederation Park, known as the “Great Canadian Jazz” series, has been by a Canadian group, but this is not the case in 2017.

The Canadian groups appearing in the park play mainstream modern jazz, crowd-pleasing but not simplistic: guitarist Alex Goodman (June 22); Gypsophilia (June 23); Joel Miller with Sienna Dahlen : Dream Cassette (June 26); saxophonist Allison Au (July 2). OttawaJazzScene.ca has favourably reviewed all of them.

In Orbit (June 27) is a cross-border group, with Toronto guitarist Michael Occhipinti and drummer Davide Direnzo, Toronto/Nashville pianist Tom Reynolds, and Americans saxophonist Jeff Coffin, bassist Felix Pastorius (son of Jaco) playing energetic music that also crosses styles.

Red Hook Soul (June 28) is a Brooklyn-based group led by ex-Canadian saxophonist Michael Blake, with Blake and six Americans playing jazz versions of soul/R&B classics by Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Ben Webster, and Gladys Knight along with originals.

The indoor concerts will include two groups with Ottawa favourite sons: guitarist Roddy Ellias in a lyrical trio with American pianist Marc Copland and Montreal bassist Adrian Vedady (June 25); and the adventurous improvising Sonoluminescence Trio, with Ottawa percussionist Jesse Stewart, Ontario baritone saxophonist David Mott, and American bassist William Parker (June 27).

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser's trio with American saxophonist Tony Malaby and Canadian pianist Kris Davis (June 22) will perform electrifying music leaning into the improvised avant-garde [review of their CD]. Gord Grdina's Haram (June 24) features some of the most exciting jazz and improvising players on the Vancouver scene – François Houle, J.P. Carter, Jesse Zubot and Tommy Babin – playing Grdina's compositions combining elements of Arabic music with electronics, noise rock and free improv.

And Toronto cellist Andrew Downing's Otterville group (June 26), with Fraser, Tara Davidson on alto sax, Michael Davidson on vibes and Paul Mathew on bass, takes the music of legendary jazz composer Billy Strayhorn as its sonic influence. The music is a “sweet and contendedly nostalgic snapshot of the slow passage of time in the country and the joys that can bring” and “evokes the peace, quiet and simplicity of small-town Ontario”.

As before, the festival will hold outdoor concerts in its long-standing location of Confederation Park and across the street at the Tartan Homes Stage in the grounds of Ottawa City Hall. However, it's so far showing only late-night shows on the Tartan Homes Stage, dropping the early evening shows (mostly non-jazz) that were also scheduled there.

Inside shows will again be held in the National Arts Centre Studio and Theatre, but La Nouvelle Scène in Lowertown (the location of the 2017 Winter Jazzfest) replaces the NAC Back Stage (except for one concert). This will mean more seats available (at least 180 versus 140 in the Back Stage) and better sightlines – but will also mean a 17-minute walk from the park or the NAC to that theatre, located on King Edward Avenue north of Rideau Street.

This distance could increase the separation of the “indoor crowd” from those in the park, if only because of the increased walking time making it difficult to get quickly between locations.

The long-running Improv Invitational series has been renamed the Discovery series and moved from the National Arts Centre to La Nouvelle Scène, but in general keeping its focus on international jazz and the avant-garde.

Notable groups include drummer Mark Guiliana (July 2), known for his electric collaborations with Brad Mehldau and Donny McCaslin; BassDrumBone (June 29) with bassist Mark Helias, drummer Gerry Hemingway and trombonist Ray Anderson (Hemingway's previous Ottawa performance was a 2016 highlight); and Ryan Keberle (a member of Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra) with his group Catharsis (June 30), whose influences include Duke Ellington, The Beatles and Ravel.

Korean vocalist Youn Sun Nah (June 27) began her career as a member of the Korean Symphony Orchestra, and studied jazz and French chanson in Paris. Her music combines jazz with Asian folk and avant-garde pop. She doesn't sing standards. Gregg Bendian has played with avant-garde jazz pioneers Derek Bailey and Cecil Taylor. His Interzone (June 28) reflects his love affair with jazz fusion.

The National Arts Centre will be reserved for the festival's Jazz Warrior series, featuring major jazz mainstream names in either the Theatre or Studio. Presented are mostly Americans: guitarist Bill Frisell with bassist Thomas Morgan (June 23); pianist Kenny Barron (June 24); Hudson, with Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, John Medeski, and John Scofield (June 24); pianist Hiromi with Edmar Castañeda (June 27); The Bad Plus (June 28); saxophonist Donny McCaslin and his Group (June 29); and the Scandinavian/British jazz trio Phronesis (June 30). Mavis Staples (June 26) is also included in this series. Individual tickets for these shows are $42 or $52, pricier than in previous years.

Each of the series has notable open spaces. In 2016, the festival added more concerts after its initial announcement.

Performances by local musicians have not yet been announced, nor have the late-night jam sessions.

The price of festival passes is almost the same as last year: $327 for the Gold (first access) pass, $199 for the Bronze (general) pass, and $99 for the Youth pass. Last year's prices were Gold: $325, Bronze: $200, Youth: $90.

    – Alayne McGregor

The list of artists is taken from the Ottawa jazz festival's website and ticket pages.

Update March 23: Added additional descriptions of Canadian jazz groups and of groups in the Discovery series.

Read some of OttawaJazzScene's previous stories about the Ottawa Jazz Festival: