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From hypnotic groove to intimate duets: two very different French groups at the Ottawa Jazz Festival (review)

Céline Bonacina Trio
Improv Invitational series: Spotlight on French Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 27, 2015 – 6 p.m.

Airelle Besson and Nelson Veras - Prelude
Improv Invitational series: Spotlight on French Jazz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 27, 2015 – 8 p.m.

Half an hour into Céline Bonacina's concert at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, her trio was filling the Fourth Stage with a deep, hypnotic groove. Loud and all-encompassing, the groove was created by her fluid, circling lines on baritone sax, hard drumming, and deep bass notes.

It was typical of a concert that featured standard jazz instruments, but used them in different ways, altered them with effects and looping, and replaced swing with funk rhythms. Bonacina switched among baritone, alto, and soprano sax, and was joined by Olivier Carole, playing a five-string electric bass (with an added deeper string), and Hary Ratsimbazafy on drums.

It was what could only be described as an in-your-face show.

The French saxophonist primarily plays the baritone sax. Now the baritone can be a melodic instrument, or a mainstay of the rhythm section, but Bonacina played it as both. She easily drew out different sounds from it, and repeatedly used circular breathing to create extended vibrating lines. There was almost an element of cognitive dissonance hearing a person so short and slim producing such intense, huge sounds from that saxophone.

She opened with “Wide World”, her most avant-garde piece, alternating breathy short notes on baritone with clicking on the keys, followed by added atonal screeches on the sax and tapping on both guitar and drums. From there, the trio moved into a rougher-edged riffs, electronically altered, and with a strong growling bottom. Bonacina recorded herself playing the sax – and then looped it, and sang along wordlessly to the looped section.

That set the style of the concert, mixing acoustic and electronic, with both Bonacina and Carole adding effects, looping, and wordless vocals – Carole occasionally reminding me of Bobby McFerrin – to their performances. On drums, Ratsimbazafy created driving rhythms, and used seven cymbals of different sizes and shapes to add considerable atmosphere.

Bonacina said that most of the music they played was from her most recent album, Open Heart [2013], which featured the same drummer but a different bassist. However, I particularly liked “Zig Zag Blues”, an extended variation on the blues from her first album, Way of Life [2010]. Its strong forward momentum incorporated Carole's strumming on the bass, sounding like wind blowing through deserted places, and a constantly changing series of notes on the baritone, jumping from high to low.

In one piece, Bonacina played solo baritone, exploring the instrument's capabilities with sounds ranging from quiet breathing to dramatic extended lines. She then became more solemn and classical in feel, recording and then looping back her baritone performance, and then adding on top of that a recording of chiming notes from what sounded like a glockenspiel. [Open Heart does include a guest appearance by Pascal Schumacher on glockenspiel and vibraphone.]

The trio ended with “Desert” from Open Heart, featuring Bonacina on soprano sax. It began quietly with Carole's sighing vocals and supple bass riffs, Ratsimbazafy's light cymbals, and Bonacina's long lonely lines on soprano. It developed Balkan-like dancing rhythms, with the band clapping along to their own looped music, before slowing to a last evocative line of melody.

The concert started 20 minutes late because of what festival programming manager Petr Cancura described as technical difficulties with one of the instruments. But the trio still performed for 75 minutes, including an encore. The audience gave them a standing ovation and extended applause at the end of the show.

Bonacina and her trio gave a magnificent performance, fierce and all-consuming. But I also found it exhausting, and my ears were ringing for hours afterwards because of the volume (not from any one musician, but from all three together). It was the kind of show best taken in small doses.


In contrast, the duo of French trumpeter Airelle Besson and Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras performed much quieter and calmer music. With Besson on trumpet and Veras on nylon-stringed guitar, both unamplified and not using any effects, it was a simpler – but by no means simplistic – hour-long show.

Besson has studied both classical and jazz trumpet (including with Wynton Marsalis). She released a duo album, Prelude, with Veras in 2014. Many of the tunes they played were from that album, primarily originals by Besson.

They opened with “Ma Ion”, a conversational piece featuring melodious trumpet and delicate guitar tracery. That was followed by a homage to trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, a lovely piece featuring inflected guitar and slow, thoughtful, long trumpet lines. The two instruments complemented each other well, their different tonal characteristics keeping each distinctly audible but fitting well together.

“Neige” was a more emphatic piece featuring circling trumpet and accented guitar – sounding more like rain than snow to me, but interesting for all that. That was followed by several numbers ranging from ornamented ballads to what sounded almost like a jazz standard, each kept interesting with repeated changes in rhythms and styles.

They closed with Besson's “Time to Say Goodbye”, which also closes their album. It's a quiet, reflective ballad, which Besson played with a great deal of feeling, adding variations on its theme. The audience greeted it with strong applause, with the majority giving the duo a standing ovation. Their encore was an upbeat Brazilian number, featuring bright, chiming guitar and an evocative trumpet melody – a crowd-pleaser that elicited another standing ovation.

Both concerts were part of the five-show Spotlight on French Jazz series at this festival, sponsored by the Embassy of France. Both attracted intent, happy listeners, who almost filled the room each time. I only wish Canada would support and showcase its talented artists overseas in the same manner.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.