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Which Canadian jazz musicians did “NAC Presents” miss? (commentary)

Lorraine Desmarais

Tell us: Which Canadian jazz performers do you think the NAC should feature in 2014-15?

Performing at the National Arts Centre still carries a great deal of prestige – especially if you're in a series like NAC Presents.

Now in its third year, that series “celebrates the best of Canada on the national stage by showcasing Canadian legends of all music genres as well as the icons of the future.” And obviously when it includes musical icons like Ian Tyson or Robert Charlebois or Diana Krall or Phil Nimmons, the series is doing its job.

But is it doing a good job of showcasing jazz or supporting a full range of Canadian jazz musicians?

The 2013-14 series lineup announced last week did have a better balance between jazz vocalists and instrumentalists than in previous years. But it didn't include many mainstream jazz artists who who could draw good crowds, or whose careers are starting to take off and could use the Ottawa boost.

There are many prominent Canadian jazz musicians who are currently touring and/or have new projects – and haven't reached Ottawa yet – whom the NAC might want to present.

Let's throw out a few names:

Robi Botos ©Brett Delmage, 2013Robi Botos is a powerhouse pianist, who won the Grand Prix award against a strong field of other Canadian musicians at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival. His winning concert there (with bassist Mike Downes and drummer Morgan Childs) was a real crowd-pleaser, as was the German Embassy tribute to Oscar Peterson he played at a few months earlier. This spring, Botos played with singer Molly Johnson at her NAC Presents concert. Along with Downes and Larnell Lewis, he opened the second set with an instrumental sans Molly: they received a mid-concert standing ovation for their musicianship.

Botos has a new project out called Night Train, a tribute to his mentor Oscar Peterson, but he also plays with his trio and his “Side B” quintet.

Lorraine Desmarais is a perennial favourite at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and no wonder: at the Dave Brubeck tribute at this year's festival, she stole the show with her bravura piano playing and her sensitive interpretations of several Brubeck compositions. She's also a composer and runs her own big band. Her trio concert at the 2012 Montreal festival, which marked the release of her latest CD, easily garnered several standing ovations.

Michael Occhipinti and Kevin Turcotte ©Brett Delmage, 2013Toronto guitarist Michael Occhipinti is known for his inventive jazz interpretations of unexpected material: for example, his award-winning albums rethinking Bruce Cockburn songs or Sicilian folksongs. With his band Shine On, he released a tribute to John Lennon last year, in recognition of how closely Lennon’s incredible body of work was tied to the path that led Occhipinti to choosing guitar and a career in music.

The Universe of John Lennon features vocalists Laila Biali, Elizabeth Shepherd, Dominic Mancuso, and Denzale Sinclaire, as well as Mark Kelso, Kevin Turcotte, and Roberto Occhipinti. It was premiered at the Markham Jazz Festival and has been performed at jazz festival after jazz festival, but not in Ottawa. (Shepherd and Biali were featured in last year's NAC Presents lineup.)

It takes chutzpah, and an incredible talent for organization, to get twenty of Toronto's best jazz musicians together in a big band playing your own compositions. Trumpeter John MacLeod has all that. His Rex Hotel Orchestra has been playing the last Monday of the month for several years now at the Rex, the top jazz location in Toronto.

John MacLeodThe orchestra's first CD won a Juno, and they just released a second CD (Our Second Set) in May. Last year, MacLeod showed off some of his big band compositions and arrangements at the Carleton University Jazz camp, with the musicians from the camp, for a concert we thoroughly enjoyed. Imagine hearing them with the original musicians, including Mike Murley, Jim Vivian, Ted Warren, Perry White, and David Braid!

Charles Spearin is better known for his indie credentials in groups like Broken Social Scene. But The Happiness Project, which won a Juno in 2011, features many excellent jazz musicians, and was a big hit at the closing concert of the 2012 Guelph Jazz Festival. Spearin recorded the voices of his neighbours, talking about their lives and about happiness, and together with musical interludes, turned them into a beautiful reflection on what makes a good life.

Jackie Richardson filled the NAC Theatre playing blues singer “Big Mama” Willie Mae Thornton this spring. She's equally well-known as a jazz singer, playing with everyone from Peter Appleyard to Oliver Jones to Guido Basso. Her vocal performance when Joe Sealey presented selections from Africville in Ottawa a few years ago was stunning.

Jane BunnettSaxophonist Jane Bunnett and pianist Hilario Duran share a love of Cuban jazz but their simpatico is even deeper than that. Their duo album, Cuban Rhapsody, got rave reviews when it was released in 2011. While we've occasionally seen them individually in Ottawa, they've never brought their duo material here, although they're regularly performing together in Toronto.

Vancouver drummer Jesse Cahill (whom Ottawa audiences last saw with Cory Weeds) also leads the Nightcrawlers, a quintet which evokes the sound and vibe of the great Hammond B3 organ bands from 1960s: “gritty, soulful, down home music that’s all about having a good time”. The group, which features a who's-who of the Vancouver jazz scene, just released their third album in July.

And there's many, many more. This list doesn't include many great Prairie or West Coast jazz musicians, nor anyone from Atlantic Canada, nor many other Quebec and Ontario performers who haven't reached Ottawa recently.

Jesse Cahill

And, of course, what about Ottawa-Gatineau jazz musicians? The NAC has presented Kellylee Evans twice, and John Geggie's sole concert is back under the NAC Presents umbrella this year. Should other local artists be included in NAC Presents?

We could keep going with many more suggestions, but now we'd like to hear from you.

Which Canadian jazz performers do you think the NAC should feature in 2014-15?

Email us at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , or comment in our Facebook group.

You don't need to be from Ottawa-Gatineau to share your recommendations. Which of your talented local musicians should be invited to play at Canada's National Arts Centre, for jazz fans from Ottawa-Gatineau and beyond to enjoy?

    – Alayne McGregor

All photos ©Brett Delmage.

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