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Jazzfest 2012: Younger and a bit jazzier but definitely covered (an analysis)

In 2012, the Ottawa Jazz Festival programming manager Petr Cancura will put his personal stamp on the festival's line-up, featuring bluegrass and moving to an overall younger vibe.

Petr Cancura is putting his stamp on the festival in 2012    ©Brett Delmage, 2012The lineup, aCnnounced April 11, includes some major prominent older jazz and non-jazz artists, of course. But overall, the festival has relied less on living legends of jazz, and more on newer artists, in a wide variety of styles.

The older jazz exceptions include bassist Dave Holland, who played with Miles Davis and practically every jazz icon since, who will be the festival's first artist-in-residence; pianist Kenny Barron, particularly known for his work with Stan Getz and his group Sphere, a tribute to Thelonious Monk; drummer Jack deJohnette, who also played with Davis as well as Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Keith Jarrett and Sonny Rollins; and saxophonist Joe Lovano playing music by and inspired by Wayne Shorter along with younger trumpeter Dave Douglas. Pianist and singer Allen Toussaint will present a tribute to the New Orleans jazz greats who, in the early 20th century, built the genre from the ground up.

In non-jazz, the festival will feature bluesman John Mayall, whose musical career spans over fifty years, and who will open the Festival; movie star and comedian Steve Martin, playing banjo (as he has since the 70s) with a bluegrass band; and rock/soul artist Daryl Hall, who first became prominent with Hall&Oates in the early 70s.

But the remainder of the list has moved forward at least a generation, starting with jazz acts who became well-known at the earliest in the 1980s, for example: Branford Marsalis, Bill Frisell, Marc Copland, Joe Lovano, or Renee Rosnes. And many musicians being presented only became prominent since 2000, such as Esperanza Spalding, Trombone Shorty, Stefon Harris, Christian Scott, and Eric Harland.

The late-night OLG Stage artists are younger yet, as are some of the Improv Invitational artists at the National Arts Centre (NAC) Fourth Stage.

While it is harder to make an absolute comparison because the festival roster has increased substantially over the last decade, the average number of prominent older artists from 2001 to 2010 was 10 each year. In 2009 and 2010 there were 12 each year. In 2011, there were only six.

Among the respondents in our 2011 Ottawa Jazz Survey, there was no significant difference in the number of listeners who attended the festival to discover artists they were not familiar with versus those who attended “to hear specific artists I was familiar with.”

Non-jazz not as prominent

Last year, the big controversy was over the prominence and number of non-jazz acts at the festival. Of our survey respondents who said they did not attend the festival last year, 50% indicated “There was too little jazz” as a reason. 71% of respondents who attended were less satisfied with the amount of jazz presented compared to previous years, while 6% were more satisfied.

This year, the number of main-stage evenings featuring non-jazz has dropped from six (of 11) to four (of 10): John Mayall and Robert Cray (blues), Janelle Monáe (R&B/soul), Steve Martin (bluegrass) with Ziggy Marley (reggae), and Daryl Hall (rock, R&B, and soul). The non-jazz evenings are also spread throughout the festival, instead of having the first three evenings as non-jazz.

Stefon Harris on the Ottawa Jazz Festival main stage  ©Brett Delmage, 2006Over the years, the festival has often programmed the occasional blues and R&B musician, since these genres are kissing cousins to jazz. Steve Martin's performance with the bluegrass group The Steep Canyon Rangers is less usual (although Robert Plant's performance last year could be partially described as roots music). However, it's interesting to note that Cancura himself, besides all his jazz endeavours, also plays in the Brazilian Bluegrass band NationBeat, and his own "Down Home" project combines Americana and jazz with a hint of country and bluegrass.

As for prominence, at the festival media launch Cancura first introduced the non-jazz artists in his descriptions of the Concerts Under the Stars main-stage series. However, he then said "This is a jazz festival, after all," and enthusiastically described artists like Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding, Ninety Miles (with vibraphonist Stefon Harris), drummer Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, and trumpeter Chris Botti's performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra.

As in 2011, there is also a clear non-jazz presence (four acts) in the OLG Late Night series, two non-jazz acts in the Improv Invitational series, and blues/folk guitarist Ray Bonneville in the Great Canadian series concert before Steve Martin.

On Canada Day, in particular, the Jazz Youth Summit will provide the only guaranteed jazz content, with the the Central Band of the Armed Forces likely to also provide some jazz. The remaining four acts are pop/rock/roots. Given that the National Capital Commission pulled all funding for the free Canada Day programming this year, it is not clear why the festival chose to program so much non-jazz on that day  UPDATE, April 27: The gypsy jazz / jazz manouche group The Lost Fingers from Quebec City has been added to round off the Canada Day line-up at 6 p.m.

Indoor versus outdoor

Compared to a decade ago, a higher percentage of festival jazz concerts are indoor, which has engendered complaints about lack of seats, lineups, and having to pay extra to ensure a seat. Of our survey respondents, 56% were less satisfied with the scheduling of shows in 2011 compared to past years, while 9% were more satisfied.

At the festival launch, Cancura was unapologetic about the indoor trend: "...in order to present music true to the artist's vision, the venue is just as important as the music itself. That's why we've renewed our investment in the [NAC] Studio, the Fourth Stage, and a brand-new venue this year, the First Baptist Church."

This year, all but one of the NAC Studio concerts will be repeated (at 7 and 9 p.m.), giving a total of 600 possible seats for hearing these artists and a greater opportunity to avoid conflicts with other desired concerts.

The mandate of the Improv Invitational series at the NAC Fourth Stage has expanded away from pure free jazz/improv this year. If one reads their biographies and websites, vocalists like Nellie McKay, Liane Carroll, and Becca Stevens, as well as groups like The Sway Machinery, appear to have few connections to improvisation.

This does no favours to the jazz vocal fans who would likely want to hear these musicians, or the improv fans who might walk out differently disappointed. The festival might have been better off to give them their own mini-series.

International connections expanded

Again capitalizing on Ottawa's status and opportunities as a capital city, the festival announced a record number of musicians sponsored by other countries: from Norway, Israel, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, and France.

The biggest contingent is five musicians from France: cornettist Médéric Collignon, bassist Hélène Labarrière (with Danish guitarist Hasse Poulsen), saxophonist Pierrick Pédron, pianist Benoit Delbecq, and guitarist Marc Ducret. All five will also perform at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, and Delbecq and Collignon also at the Halifax festival.

At the launch, Julie Gallo, the cultural coordinator for the French Embassy, noted the long-time interest by the French in jazz (including from composers like Ravel and Satie) and their support of Canadian jazz artists like Oscar Peterson, Maynard Ferguson and Paul Bley. The Spotlight on French jazz series, she said, would be an occasion to celebrate a musical dialogue between France and Canada.

Something for everyone?

The festival is one day shorter this year than in 2010 or 2011. And, because its second Sunday is Canada Day, the local and other daytime programming for that weekend has been abbreviated.

Despite that, there's still a wide variety of music: 29 local concerts, 23 in the Improv series, 8 double concerts in the NAC Studio, 6 concerts on Canada Day, 10 Canadian groups in the Great Canadian series, 16 Concerts under the Stars, and a yet-to-be-determined (but more than 10) late-night OLG series concerts.

At the launch, Cancura was enthusiastic about the lineup he introduced.

"With a vibrant community, an enthusiastic audience, and artists who are willing to put it all on the line, there's no question that this is a true jazz festival. There's no question that this festival is about the music, about the vibe, and about the experience, that this festival is the real thing."

    – Alayne McGregor    Full disclosure

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