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Real jazz is a big hit in Confederation Park, with Kirk MacDonald and Dianne Reeves

2014 Ottawa Jazz Festival, Day 6: Kirk MacDonald Quartet (Great Canadian Jazz), Dianne Reeves (Concerts Under the Stars)
Confederation Park
Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Confederation Park echoed to the sounds of jazz for the Wednesday night of the Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Not rock, or blues, or pop – although Dianne Reeves did sing some 80s pop hits, substantially revamped into jazz standards. But in the feel, the style, and the groove, the music was pure jazz, in its most enjoyable and accessible aspect – made accessible to the widest possible range of listeners.

Each Ottawa Jazz Festival evening in the park begins with the Great Canadian jazz series. This evening's Canadian group was the Kirk MacDonald Quartet: three Toronto jazz musicians with long pedigrees (MacDonald on tenor sax, Brian Dickinson on piano, and Neil Swainson on bass), plus American drummer Dennis Mackrel, with whom MacDonald has been playing regularly for the last several years.

You could hear the ease with which they followed and underlaid each other's lines, and the respect with which they treated each other. If MacDonald's fluid tenor sax was a strong presence, so was Dickinson's incisive piano, Swainson's melodic bass lines, and Mackrel's tasteful drumming.

Almost all the hour-long show was devoted to songs from MacDonald's new CD, Symmetry, starting with the title track. Compared to some of MacDonald's other albums, this CD is on the quieter and more nuanced side, but the quartet had no problems in communicating it to the attentive and interested audience.

Having listened to Symmetry several times, I found myself during the concert missing trumpeter Tom Harrell, who adds a nuanced and beautiful fifth voice to the CD. Not having him there forced MacDonald and Dickinson, in particular, to take up more of the melodic duties, but they still gave strong portrayals of MacDonald's compositions.

I particularly enjoyed “Eleven”, with its long thoughtful sax lines, and the duet between drums and piano with each feeding energy to the other. It felt like perfect outdoor jazz: music you could lose yourself inside.

“Shadows”, a piece MacDonald wrote about a family member's fight with cancer, started out sweet and melancholy. Conversational in form, it had the saxophone and bass each adding their own comments, interspersed by crashing drums and ending with a hard-driving flourish of piano and drums.

Partway through, MacDonald credited John Coltrane as one of his major influences, as he introduced the set's one non-original, “Lonnie's Lament” from Coltrane's “Crescent” album. The quartet gave it a propulsive reading, with emphatic, memorable sax lines, and a fast but emotionally resonant bass solo which led into a highly syncopated piano solo. The audience responded to their clear and commanding performance with strong applause.

The set ended on an upbeat note with MacDonald's tribute to his drummer, “Mackrel's Groove”. The strong initial riff, followed by sparkling piano, easily brightened the overcast skies. Mackrel was ominipresent in this piece, revving up the energy and pace. The other musicians easily kept up, still exploring variations even at a breakneck pace. They built to a climax with longer lines and more syncopation and then abruptly stopped – the signal to the audience to strongly applaud and to offer a partial standing ovation.

Dianne Reeves combines fine vocals with great musicians

Leaving the park after hearing Dianne Reeves, I was chatting with a local vocalist who told me that Reeves had been a huge influence on her, and that finally hearing Reeves in concert not only made her very happy, but also knocked another item off her bucket list. I could almost say the same thing – but for me it was pianist Geoffrey Keezer, whose albums I had enjoyed for years but whom I had always missed hearing live.

Keezer, in fact, had just started touring with Reeves; she said this was his second show in the band. And for the first song that evening, the audience heard him and the other musicians in Reeves' band – guitarist Romero Lubambo, bassist Reginald Veal, and drummer Terreon Gully – playing without Reeves. They started with sparse piano riffs which slowly coalesced into George Gershwin's “Summertime”, and then became an extended multi-layered exploration of the song, with fine flurries of notes on guitar and piano, a thumping bass solo, and propulsive drumming. It was a fine introduction which gave me some great Keezer moments, and and also established immediately that this was a highly talented band.

The band began the quiet introduction to the next song, the stage darkened, and then Reeves entered, to the clear delight of many fans in the audience. She was dressed simply in a pure white, eyelet cotton floor-length dress, but that very simplicity and her undoubted stage presence drew every eye to her. She started with an unusual choice – the Fleetwood Mac hit, “Dreams” – but with extra instrumental complexity added to the song, and extra emphasis and intensity added to the vocals, as well as a scatting section.

That set the shape of the 90-minute concert. It combined jazzified pop numbers, Brazilian numbers which particularly showed off Lubambo's skill on guitar, and a few originals by Reeves – plus one standard. This wasn't what I had been expecting: my first impression of Reeves was George Clooney's film about Edward R. Murrow, Good Night and Good Luck, in which she sang melancholy, lovely jazz standards in a finely attuned voice and set the mood for the film.

The nearest to that was the one standard, “Stormy Weather”. Reeves opened it with deep, melancholy scatting before she introduced the lyrics, half-singing, half-speaking them. Keezer's deep, resonant piano solo echoed the feeling of her vocals, and then she continued with more scatting, before ending the song to strong applause.

But the overall upbeat nature of the material suited the outdoor venue and the crowd just fine. Reeves tailored her vocal style to each song: almost declaiming the lyrics in Peter Gabriel's “In Your Eyes”, adding a Latin beat to her vocals in Bob Marley's “Waiting In Vain”, giving a sincere, emotion-laden delivery to her own song, “Cold” – and then ending with a few verbal pyrotechnics. Throughout she showed a fresh and interesting approach to expressing rhythm through her vocals, particularly in one African-influenced piece.

And her musicians did a great job of underscoring her vocals, particularly Lubambo on guitar and Keezer on piano. Near the end, she made a whole production number out of introducing each band member, ending with “I love my band!”

The audience appeared to be enjoying themselves, singing along near the end, and giving her an immediate standing ovation. Her encore was a syncopated, fast-moving number, with lots of audience singing with Reeves' voice soaring over them, lightly scatting. She thanked the audience and left the stage, still singing, while her band continued to play. When they ended, with a vibrating circle of notes on piano, the audience again jumped up for a standing ovation.

This evening felt like Old Home Week at the Ottawa Jazz Festival – if what you remember as home is the festival as it was in Jacques Émond's day. Real jazz, by superb musicians, played outdoors to an audience which appreciated it, and let the music wash over the park for a wonderful communal experience. It's a pity that doesn't happen very often anymore.

    – Alayne McGregor

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