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Jon Ballantyne starts the Ottawa Jazz Festival with complex melodies (review)

2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 1: Jon Ballantyne, Mike Pride’s From Bacteria to Boys
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Friday, June 20, 2014

Outdoors, the opening night of the 2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival was Bollywood. Indoors at the NAC Fourth Stage, two concerts presented interaction and improvisation – and pure jazz.

At 6 p.m., the festival's Improv Invitational series opened with NYC drummer Mike Pride and his band From Bacteria to Boys, with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, pianist Alexis Marcelo, and double bassist Peter Bitenc. The room was about two-thirds full, attracting many of Ottawa's avant-garde jazz fans.

They opened with “79 Beatdowns of Infinite Justice, the” a composition by Pride which also opens the group's latest album. It was a 10-minute exercise, played at high volume and speed, in which multiple streams of musical consciousness rarely intersected. It seemed designed more to show off individual technical brilliance than to form a cohesive whole; it left me cold. However, it didn't reflect the rest of the concert; the remaining pieces (all originals) united the musicians more closely and were much more interesting.

I've always enjoyed Irabagon's work in his many different groups – seeing his name in the listing was the reason I attended – and he fulfilled my high expectations. On songs like “Lullaby For Charlie”, his finely attuned sax lines evoked sweetness and sadness and then tightly circled above Marcelo's pointillist notes on piano. For this song he played what I thought was soprano sax; however, broadcaster Ron Sweetman discovered when he talked to Irabagon later that he had recently switched to sopranino saxophone, the next smallest sax, which has a slightly higher range than soprano.


On “Brestwerp”, a bluesy post-bop number, Irabagon moved to tenor, and he and Marcelo formed a tight duo (as they did throughout the concert), pushing the song along with traded riffs. Then Irabagon moved to a more angular mode, his repeated smaller and smaller patterns ending up sounding almost like static. Bitenc joined in with a deep, patterned bass solo, and finally Irabagon moved the music firmly back into post-bop territory with a strong, satisfying tenor line.

My favourite piece of the night was “Motiaon”, Pride's tribute to the late drummer Paul Motian. (Pride told me the title is a tiny backslap to all the musicians who misspelled Motian's name in their tributes.) Beginning with sparkling piano over light brushwork on drums, it featured Irabagon playing slow, deep, and beautifully controlled lines on tenor, followed by Marcelo's shining and thoughtful piano solo. I was impressed throughout by Marcelo's inventiveness and the clarity and versatility in his playing. In contrast, Pride played very abstract rhythms on drums, and the piece ended with a controlled disintegration, featuring interrupted tenor lines that devolved to something near buzzing.

The one thing in the show that didn't work for me was Pride's drumming style. At times, he sounded too loud for the room and almost drowned out the piano: admittedly I was sitting fairly near the drums, but I haven't noticed that being a problem with many other groups in the Fourth Stage. At other times, he gave all his drumbeats the same uniform heaviness: they lacked swing or variation. His drumming often appeared over-emphatic and didn't serve his multi-layered music well. He also leads or co-leads avant-rock, noise, and doom metal improv ensembles; I wondered if perhaps those styles have influenced his jazz playing?

But the compositions themselves and the overall high level of performance and interaction still made this a show worth catching.


At 8 p.m., Canadian pianist Jon Ballantyne, who has lived and worked in NYC for many years now, presented a truly satisfying solo set. While rooted in his long experience playing with jazz giants like Joe Henderson, the music was emphatically in his own voice.

Over 75 minutes, Ballantyne presented pieces ranging from standards like “Lush Life”, to bop classics by Wayne Shorter, Eddie Harris, and Ornette Coleman, to his own material. In many cases, he linked them back to the jazz tradition. Noting that it was Eric Dolphy's birthday, he talked about how he tried to capture Dolphy's spirit in his composition “Round Again”, and how much he enjoyed playing the piece – twice! – with saxophonist Dewey Redman and clarinetist Douglas Yates on one of his CDs. And he mentioned how his opening piece, “Beatrice”, was Joe Henderson's favourite tune: “as many great tunes as Joe wrote, that seemed to be the one constant tune from gig to gig.”

Each piece was reinvented: sometimes with a delicate tracery of notes, sometimes with supple ripples of sound. In Harris' “Freedom Jazz Dance”, for example, he played to either end of the piano, with deep bass rumbles underlying flickering treble notes. “Round Again” reminded me of water pouring over fast rapids, the bass notes propelling the piece and the treble splashing on top. “Scotch Neat” contained multiple light layers of sound.

But that didn't remove the jazz feel or the melodies. “(T)Hank Jones” may have been an unconventional ballad, with its dense and dramatic feel, but it was still recognizably a ballad. The rapid flow of ideas in “Beatrice” enhanced rather than hid its melody. The closing number, “When Will the Blues Leave” by Ornette Coleman, was undoubtedly a blues – with lots of bright accents.

Ballantyne kept the music intellectually interesting, but never lost its emotional content. Ultimately it was simply fun to listen to even if you didn't want to analyse it.

Playing to a three-quarters-full room filled with very attentive listeners, he was also friendly and approachable throughout, explaining the songs and clearly enjoying the experience. The audience responded in kind, and greeted the end of the show with a standing ovation.

    – Alayne McGregor

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Photos are not available for this review because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied access to OttawaJazzScene.ca's photojournalist.