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Ottawa Winter Jazzfest engages audiences for Canadian and local artists

Read about the 2013 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival

A summer jazz festival is sun (and occasional thunderstorms), sitting outside on the grass, and listening to cool music in the velvety warm summer dark. And then hearing Roy Hargrove blow down the house at the jam session.

A winter jazz festival is – exactly what? By far the best known winter jazz festival happens in early January in New York City. It's as much a showcase for the industry as an actual music series, and is known for its “place to be” vibe and its massively overcrowded venues. And, of course, lots of brilliant music. There aren't many others: a quick Google only brings up Chicago and Israel.

So when the Ottawa Jazz Festival started its inaugural Winter Jazz Festival  in 2012, it didn't have a template to use. Festival programming manager Petr Cancura certainly had experience with the NYC event, but would that export to smaller and quieter Ottawa?

What Cancura decided to do was to run a three-day event from Thursday February 2 to Saturday February 4 , to partner with Winterlude (which increased the festival's profile),  and to concentrate on showcasing local and Canadian artists.

What the Festival achieved was reasonably full rooms (at least at the concerts which OttawaJazzScene.ca editors attended) and a diverse, interesting, and crowd-pleasing mix of music.

Thursday February 2

The festival opened on Thursday, February 2, with Pulse Mondiale. Rene Gely's crossover between jazz, Latin, and world music easily warmed up the evening, with a tight band playing a mixture of originals and covers. Highlights included "Forro Brasil" by Hermeto Pascoal, a classically-oriented jazz piece, and "Waiting in Vain" by Bob Marley, completely reimagined to feature percussionist Rob Graves on kalimba, Craig Pedersen on trumpet, and Mike Tremblay on sax, and yet still being true to the rhythm of the original.

Multi-instrumentalist Sylvio Modolo, well-known for his work with local Brazilian bands, sat in on a number of pieces and was a particular joy to listen to, whether on accordion, cavaquinho, or his new viola guitar, which was beautifully resonant on Gely's "Cidade da Saudade".

OttawaJazzScene.ca did not attend the Remi Bolduc concert that evening.

Friday February 3

The following afternoon, saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff instructed a masterclass at Carleton University. Nachoff was originally supposed to be there with all of his band members in Flux, but their original flight from NYC was cancelled at the last moment and only he and his drummer were able to get rebooked on a morning flight. (The other two arrived in time for the evening concert but after the masterclass.) He critiqued two ensembles composed of upper-year and Masters music students, and played one standard with each ensemble. With the first ensemble, he talked about giving an overall shape to a song, adding dynamics and building to climaxes, as well as adapting and reacting more quickly to changes introduced by other musicians. With the second, he zeroed in the importance of the drummer to making a standard work: with a swinging piece, one really needed to simplify one's playing, be very solid and grounded, and have a very crisp approach. When a piece is really swinging, he said, it's amazing how simple it is, but it's so focused.

Friday evening featured three bands and three hours of music , starting with a quartet featuring local jazz mainstays Mark Ferguson and Mike Tremblay. Ferguson (piano/trombone) and Tremblay (sax) released their first album, Home, in 2009, and this concert included two pieces from that CD ("Fields are Free" and the elegant title track) and standards by Bill Evans and Cole Porter. But even more interesting were newer compositions by Ferguson, including "My Heart Will Sing", an up-tempo number with the soprano sax giving it an almost Arabian-Nights feel, and "Paradiso", a Latin-tinged tribute to the local jazz club that featured changing tempos, an interesting bass intro by John Geggie, and punctuated drum solos by Charles Gay. The quartet's accessible, swinging jazz was well-received by the audience, who responded warmly throughout.

Next was the Christine Jensen Quintet, a family affair. Not only did the quintet include Christine's sister Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, but Ingrid's husband Jon Wikan on drums, and frequent musical collaborators Fraser Hollins on bass and Dave Restivo on piano. These musicians were clearly attuned and comfortable together, and you could hear that in their playing. Both Jensens have also played Ottawa frequently, which translated into a full house and a receptive audience.

What the quintet played this night, however, was a substantially-different repertoire from previous appearances. The only apparent repeat was the opener, "Margareta" which Christine played a few months ago at Cafe Paradiso, together with the song's inspiration, pianist Maggi Olin. Olin, the two Jensens, and Wikan are together in Nordic Connect, and two of the other pieces played that night ("Garden Hour" and "Castle Mountain") were from that band's two albums. Another piece, "Mark Adam Drum" by Christine's husband Joel Miller, was included in her 2006 album Look Left.

The overall feel of the show was warm and collaborative, with frequent duets between the sisters, each adding shading to the other's lead. This was particularly evident in Christine's arrangement of the Gershwin standard "I Loves You, Porgy", a highlight of the evening. The soprano sax entered first, quietly and simply, and the muted trumpet followed, colouring the sound. As the tempo increased, the trumpet took over the melody, and they traded off lines, moving away from straight melody into a more rhythmic and exploratory approach.

The final piece, "Castle Mountain", featured strong interplay and solos from all the musicians while keeping up a fast pace, and ended with enthusiastic and extended applause from the audience.

The 10 p.m. concert featured Quinsin Nachoff, a tenor saxophonist from Toronto who currently spends almost all his time in Brooklyn, NY. His group, Flux, had an all-star lineup: alto saxophonist Dave Binney, pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kenny Wollesen. From the first slightly atonal notes, it was immediately obvious this was going to be the most avant-garde and challenging music of the night – an excellent contrast to what had gone before. The high level of talent of all four musicians was also clearly evident.

Binney contributed a number of fiery solos, Mitchell added some fine Fender Rhodes playing (replacing the role of the bass in a standard jazz quartet), and Wollesen underlaid it all with drumming that ranged from groove-oriented to restrained, with lots of cymbal shadings.

And yet it didn't quite gel. There wasn't a clear feeling of where each piece was going: perhaps because the middle two of the four pieces were excerpts from larger compositions by Nachoff (one a reconfiguration of a piece for brass quintet, the other part of a suite for the Greg Runions Big Band). The most memorable was the last, "Tightrope", which moved between romanticism and anger. Perhaps part of the problem was that Flux is a relatively new group: it only premiered in NYC in early January and was going into the studio for its first album in February. More shaping of the material might make it more audience-friendly.

Saturday February 3

A highlight of the festival was the Saturday afternoon premiere of the new IMOO Orchestra. It consisted of 16 musicians, all crowded onto the small Club SAW stage (or just in front of it), with instruments ranging from trumpet to oboe to melodeon to violin to accordion to waterphone, as well as many varieties of percussion, saxes, and clarinets.

The project originated with the biweekly Sunday concerts sponsored by IMOO (the Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais). Local improviser and Carleton University professor Jesse Stewart had played at several of those concerts, and proposed to IMOO organizers Linsey Wellman and Craig Pedersen that they try a new large ensemble composed of improvising musicians. The orchestra attracted almost everyone local who had played at IMOO concerts, plus some new faces from the New Music community.

They had several rehearsals learning each others' sound as well as a system of hand signals for conducted improvisation, but this was their first public performance. And the results were remarkable.

One thing that successful improvisers learn is to listen, and you could clearly see that in the four pieces played in the hour-long performance. The first two were improvisation based on a previously-provided sound or theme. The first piece, for example, used Stewart's bird call collection (yes, the same calls used by duck hunters). The calls echoed around the stage from the different musicians, but not all at once: the musicians responded to each other or played in unison. They also had fun experimenting with them: playing a bird call into a saxophone body, or using one as a violin bow. Other instruments became more prominent, and the music began centering on long notes held by the different instruments. The result ebbed and shimmered, as low notes started grumbling up from the trombone, the bird calls started building up again to climax, which then resolved again into a more pastoral feel. Finally, it all died down to interrupted single notes on the bird calls before ending.

The last two pieces were conducted improvisations, where the musicians responded to signals from Stewart, both to the orchestra as a whole and to individual members or sections. The result was high-energy soundscapes with considerable dynamic range but where individuals still had considerable freedom on how to interpret a request (for example) to play fast and loud. The results varied from eerie melodies to full crescendos, with an effective use of individual and coordinated playing.

A smaller version of the orchestra played on the following Monday at Contemporary Revolution at Cafe Paradiso, and the IMOO organizers and Stewart said they will be looking for other venues for the orchestra. One hopes they find them, because the effect of hearing this directed complexity was fascinating and quite beautiful.

OttawaJazzScene.ca did not attend the Oliver Jones or Ethnic Heritage Ensemble concerts Saturday evening. We did glance in at the Renee Yoxon / Megan Jerome concert at Café Paradiso, but the restaurant was already fully packed with eager listeners.

The verdict

The biggest success of this festival was to show that there are audiences that will come out to listen to Canadian and local jazz artists. While waiting in the lineup, one audience member, unprompted, told an OttawaJazzScene.ca editor that she had come out that evening especially to hear Mark Ferguson. The festival also made some good new connections with local clubs and with Carleton University.

However, featuring nine concerts in three days meant that almost all the concerts (with the exception of Oliver Jones and the club events) were limited to a tight hour: frustrating as much for the audiences as for the performers. Most regular jazz concerts are 90 minutes long (or more): the shorter period made it difficult for the bands to showcase longer works or more diverse material.

And, while the artists (at least those playing on the same day) could listen to and chat with each other, or even just take advantage of the good vibes left from the previous concert, there wasn't any formal opportunity for musicians to play together or the audience to hear them.

And, with each Fourth Stage concert separately ticketed, audience members had to line up between each concert. If you attended all three Friday concerts, for example, lugging a heavy coat, boots, backpack, and self from the room out into the line and standing for 20 minutes to get back in got tiring real fast, even if you weren't physically disabled. It also disadvantaged those listeners who bought tickets for all the shows by putting them at the back of  the lineups for all but the first show.  It might have been better to  schedule fewer events per evening.

Nevertheless, this jazzfest showed off the excellence of Canadian musicians (fulfilling the long-held tradition of the Ottawa Jazz Festival) and jazzed up a dark and cold time of year. For that alone, it's worth continuing in future years.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca again did not receive media accreditation from the Ottawa Jazz Festival. OttawaJazzScene.ca journalists attended concerts with tickets we purchased like other listeners, and were therefore unable to photograph any concerts.

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