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Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival Day 2: having fun with jazz

Jean-Michel Pilc Trio (National Arts Centre Fourth Stage)
Matt Wilson Quartet (National Arts Centre Fourth Stage)
Late-night jam sessions (Arc The Hotel)
2015 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival, Day 2
Saturday, February 7, 2015 - 7 p.m., 9 p.m., 10:30 p.m.

It was remarkable how many times people I talked to about Saturday evening's winter jazzfest performances mentioned how much fun the shows were. I wasn't initially going to use that word in this review – one wants to be original, after all – but in fact, simple fun, both on the bandstand and in the audience, was an important part of both shows, by the Jean-Michel Pilc Trio and by the Matt Wilson Quartet.

Not that either concert was simple. They both involved highly talented musicians playing full-out and creating complicated and unexpected patterns on the fly.

But on top of all of that musical thought and dexterity was a deep love of and enjoyment in performing the music. Whether it was Matt Wilson's big grin or Jeff Lederer dancing as he played his tenor sax or the smiles flashing among Pilc's trio, you could see an underlying joy and playfulness.

The same could be said of the festival's late-night jam on Saturday night, where members of both groups ended up performing along with other visiting musicians and local jazzers – producing memorably beautiful music.

Jean-Michel Pilc Trio: tender and joyous and full of improvisation

At 7 p.m., pianist Jean-Michel Pilc, bassist Or Bareket, and drummer Jerad Lippi began their set with a delicate reconstruction of “Nardis”. Pilc opened with an anticipatory string of notes in a simple scale. The melody began peeking out, and the trio decorated and reassembled it, creating clouds of sparkling notes but retaining the song's inherent sweet melancholy.

Over the next 11 minutes, they created dramatic moments on bass and drums and piano, but always melodic and always recognizably a variation on the Bill Evans/Miles Davis tune. And then the mood suddenly changed, as Pilc smoothly segued into an upbeat standard.

It was a fast-paced piece, with lots of bounce in the music. Occasional quotes of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” or back to “Nardis” appeared unexpectedly. The melody was traded among Pilc's piano, Bareket's bass, and Lippi's drums, with Lippi creating huge flurries of sound on cymbals and lyrical lines of drumstrokes.

A whole sequence of standards followed, including a brief Monk interlude, “What is This Thing Called Love?”, “Someday My Prince Will Come”, and “Linus and Lucy”. With each piece, the trio kept a strong connection to the original song rather than just using it as a basis for interpretation: you felt they were celebrating the pieces even while expanding on them. For one song, Pilc even whistled the melody for several minutes, while playing the piano quietly and romantically.

And throughout there was a feeling of good cheer from the bandstand, as the musicians smiled and followed each other. Pilc alternated quick solos with both Bareket and Lippi, and then they all increased the pace near the end to practically breakneck, with Pilc adding drama with glissandos and pounding keys and repeated riffs on piano. And then they stopped abruptly.

Pilc is from France, but has been based in New York City for the last 20 years. He was previously in Ottawa in 2011, playing in a trio with his long-time musical collaborators, renowned drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist François Moutin. At the 2011 show, perhaps because I was sitting by the drums and with a local drummer who was a huge fan of Hoenig, I had the impression that Hoenig's playing dominated. This time the concert was pure Pilc, but at the same time there was no doubt that Bareket and Lippi were more than capable of keeping up with him and adding essential parts to the music.

The last number would be a complete improvisation, Pilc announced: “a tune that will never happen again and has never happened before”. Unlike other free improv which I've heard over the years, this extended piece was not harsh or dissonant. Rather it started out tender and joyous, a natural extension of the music he'd previously performed, and eventually propelled itself to a fast-paced and satisfying conclusion.

Immediate strong applause followed, and a partial standing ovation.

Matt Wilson Quartet: bravura playing and intense cooperative sound

Matt Wilson was last in Ottawa in 2010, in two back-to-back “Friends” concerts featuring trumpeter Ron Miles. This time he brought his quartet: mostly the same musicians as on his most recent album, Gathering Call [Palmetto Records, 2013]. It was a talented line-up: Jeff Lederer on tenor and soprano saxophone and clarinet, Kirk Knuffke on cornet, Wilson on drums, and Ottawa veteran John Geggie on double bass. Geggie also played with the group in Montreal the evening before.

Wilson plays with a wide variety of musicians in the New York scene, in many different styles, and also leads several different groups. But consistently his albums are both approachable and innovative: his recent Christmas album, for example, had a great deal of inherent cheer but also some interestingly dissonant treatments of seasonal classics which removed any sugariness.

His 9 p.m. concert began fast and emphatic: Lederer and Knuffke in unison playing raucous and brassy lines, with Wilson forcefully pounding out the beat behind them. Their upbeat version of the jazz classic “The One Before This” was an immediate hit with the audience, and as both Geggie and Wilson each explored the punctuated rhythm in solos, they were greeted with appreciative applause. The piece was by Gene Ammons, from an album he did with fellow saxophonist Sonny Stitt called Boss Tenors, and Wilson said the group had only started playing it a few days before in Toronto.

It was followed by “Barack Obama” (from Gathering Call), which had a similar New Orleans-style sound but a more wistful and hopeful feel. Wilson's own “Bubbles” opened with an extended drum solo, at first measured and echoing, then speeding up with repeated riffs becoming more prominent. When the front line finally joined in with a calliope-like oomph, they reminded me of a circus march or an old-time gospel meeting.

The concert was very much a collective effort, each musician essential to the overall sound and each producing memorable musical moments. I particularly appreciated how Geggie added his own inimitable sound with abrasive arco bass in “Bubbles”, combining fast bowing with rubbing his fingers up and down the strings creating a deep groaning sound (and even a musical quote from The Munsters) that counterpoised the frantic horns before him.

“Saga” opened with all the musicians ringing tiny bells and included everything from blues to Eastern European dance music to unearthly atonal sounds on cornet – but always fast-paced and infectiously-attractive music. The standard “Don't Blame Me” was much quieter and sparse and minor-keyed. It began with Lederer's tenor and Knuffke's cornet playing in unison but ended in a lovely polyphonic duet, slow and evocative.

Duke Ellington's “You Dirty Dog” had lots of verve and swing, with sizzling performances from both Lederer on tenor and Knuffke on cornet.

The set-list included two numbers from Gathering Call, plus three from other Wilson albums. There was an overall old-timey, New Orleans feel to the music and a strong swing throughout. Wilson also created a friendly rapport with the audience, with self-deprecating and slightly wacky humour.

For the last two songs, Ottawa jazz festival programming director Petr Cancura joined the group. Wilson said he and Cancura had known each other for years, but they'd only played together for the first time the previous Sunday – something one wouldn't have realized from the smooth way his tenor sax fit in with the quartet.

The concert ended with two songs Wilson dedicated to his late wife, Felicia: one of her favourite songs, “Wildwood Flower”, the bluegrass classic made famous by the Carter Family, and Wilson's “Orchids”. “Wildwood Flower” was given a lovely melancholy treatment, with Wilson's brushes on his snare adding texture to Geggie's playing the melody on bass, with every note adding to the emotional impact of the music. The three horns (Lederer on soprano) intertwined their lines to sound almost like weeping. “Orchids” was more energetic, opening fast with lots of swing and a bit of a dirty blues feel, continuing with bright circling horn solos, and ending in a huge fanfare.

In their 75-minute set, Matt Wilson's quartet packed an impressive amount of bravura playing and intense cooperative sound. But most of all they epitomized the joy and passion that the musicians can put into jazz. It was a memorable concert, strongly applauded at the end. My only criticism: I would have loved to hear another half hour at least.

Set-list:

  • The One Before This (Gene Ammons)
  • Barack Obama (Butch Warren) from Gathering Call
  • Bubbles (Matt Wilson) from An Attitude for Gratitude
  • Raga (Matt Wilson) from Humidity
  • Don't Blame Me (Dorothy Fields / Jimmy McHugh) from Humidity
  • You Dirty Dog (Duke Ellington) from Gathering Call
  • Wildwood Flower (traditional)
  • Orchids (Matt Wilson) 

Late-night jams: interplay and exuberance

Late-night jams are often the icing on the cake for a festival – a chance to hear visiting musicians in a more relaxed mood, and enjoying the kick of playing with new people, including locals. That was certainly the case with Saturday night's jams, where musicians from many evening concerts – including one not part of the festival – collaborated to produce energetic and spirited music.

For this festival, the late-night jams are back at their former location of Arc The Hotel, right downtown, and only two blocks from the NAC. There were no tickets required at the door to the Arc Lounge.

The jams opened with three standards played by the house band: all musicians well-known on the Ottawa jazz scene: Geggie, Cancura, guitarist Roddy Ellias, and drummer Mike Essoudry. Local drummer David Pontello sat in for the next number, and then the visiting bands arrived.

The subdued audience perked up, as Lederer on tenor sax and local vocalist Lee Anne Frederickson joined the band for a fluid and swinging version of “Beautiful Love”. With Matt Wilson taking over on drums, they continued with “All of Me”, followed by an exuberant all-instrumental “Sunny Side of the Street”. Frederickson acquitted herself very well singing in front of the high-powered group, but what really stood out was the great interplay and ebullience of the instrumentalists.

Other musicians who performed included local pianist Miguel de Armas and his quartet's drummer, Michel Medrano, and vocalist Megan Jerome and friend singing “I'll Fly Away”. Sometime after midnight, NYC trumpeter Peter Evans, Ottawa saxophonist Linsey Wellman, and Ottawa keyboards player Adam Saikaley arrived from their non-festival show, and as I dashed to catch my last bus a little after 1 a.m., I heard Evans and Wellman team up with Cancura and Knuffke in a unabashedly free jazz four-horn wall of sound.

Happy, celebratory, and fun, the jam looked set to continue making music for hours yet.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the 2015 Winter Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist. Therefore, we are unable to publish photos with the reviews.

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