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Claude Ranger, Canadian Jazz Legend by Mark Miller Tellwell Talent, 2017 ISBN: 978-1-77302-559-9 reviewed by Alayne McGregor
Does a story need an ending?
I've heard it argued, by authors as prominent as Philip Pullman, that a basic tenet of stories is that they must resolve. And yet in real life, not all stories have a final resolution, and sometimes they are all the more memorable because of that.
As, for example, the story of Canadian jazz drummer Claude Ranger, which jazz journalist Mark Miller recounts in his most recent book. It's a highly readable account which has many resonances with today's jazz scene.
Claude Ranger: Canadian Jazz Legend has no concluding episode because Ranger simply disappeared in 2000, after more than three decades as a notable performer, composer, and influential teacher in Canada. But, as Miller explains in this biography, it makes Ranger's story and his legend all the more compelling – and reflective of Canada's jazz scene, which "went largely undocumented" during most of the time Ranger was performing.
Miller himself has arguably been the major figure in documenting that scene, as a journalist and jazz critic with Toronto's Globe and Mail for 27 years, and the author of many books and articles about Canadian jazz and jazz musicians. For this book, he interviewed dozens of musicians who had performed with and learned from Ranger during his career, as well as drawing from earlier interviews, reviews, and articles by himself and others.
Each chapter is extensively documented with footnotes, and Miller has included a full discography of the albums Ranger played on between 1967 and 1994. That included recordings by prominent Canadian and American musicians: Dave Liebman, Michel Donato, Jane Bunnett, Doug Riley, Moe Koffman, P.J. Perry, Sonny Greenwich, and Don Thompson, among many others.
Miller became acquainted with Ranger when Ranger lived in Toronto. He interviewed him, heard him play, and photographed him (and includes several of these photographs in the book). But, while Miller includes his own impressions occasionally, this story is primarily told through the words of all the other people who performed with, learned from, or were friends with Ranger. It's an account revealed from many angles, giving it more depth and believability.
Herbie Hancock has always had an earthy and rhythmic bottom to his jazz. Not for him the highly refined and quiet piano trio; he performs jazz that speaks to both the body and mind, and combines the talents of his entire band. And this ethos was also plainly audible in the Nick Maclean Quartet's mid-August show in Ottawa, as they played from their debut album, a tribute to Hancock.
The quartet's front line – Maclean on electric piano and Brownman Ali on trumpet – is the same as Maclean's other jazz project, the electric groove group Snaggle. But this group had a different sound: still energetic and driving, but crisper and cleaner and essentially acoustic. Maclean contributed expressive piano lines and dense harmony; Ali's trumpet lines were sometimes floating and serene, sometimes brash and exclamatory; Nick Arseneau's rounded and rich double bass solos could be light and airy, or deeply resonant; Mike Rajna kept the group's momentum up with slashing drum lines, and enhanced ballads like “Feral Serenity” with barely-there cymbal and snare taps.
This fall, GigSpace has filled every concert slot it can manage, with groups coming from NYC, Toronto, and Ottawa.
Its eighth season begins September 14 and includes brand-new jazz groups along with revivals of well-loved duos, three CD releases, and an improvised music festival. Most of the musicians playing there, both local and from out of town, will present material new to Ottawa audiences.
The Hintonburg concert venue has doubled the number of groups it has scheduled compared to 2017 (17 plus a festival, versus 9), and it is offering a more diverse selection than previous years. At the same time, it has updated its website with an integrated ticketing system, and increased its general ticket prices to $25.
GigSpace director Tim Bedner, who organizes the venue's concerts, said that the venue's fall season is completely booked (although they could possibly try to squeeze in a high-profile touring artist) – and, in fact, GigSpace is booked until next June.
From New York City will travel the duo of lyrical pianist Bryn Roberts and acclaimed guitarist Lage Lund, and the high-powered quintet of vibraphonist Stefan Bauer. Roberts and Lund, who were last in Ottawa in 2016 for the release of their duo album, Nightsong, will again perform music from that album.
Bauer's “Voyage West” ensemble (vibraphone/marimba, sax, wordless vocals, bass, drums) will release their new album, Some Other Time, which combines “American-infused Modern Jazz” and world music. That album even has a Canadian connection: one of its tunes is called “In The Town of Springhill, Nova Scotia”, and the ensemble includes Toronto bassist Jim Vivian.
From Toronto comes two mainstream modern jazz groups: guitarist Harley Card's quintet with pianist Matt Newton, and a quartet led by drummer Ethan Ardelli featuring pianist Chris Donnelly and saxophonist Luis Deniz. Card released his third CD, The Greatest Invention, last fall, while Ardelli's group will be on a cross-Canada tour for their debut CD, The Island of Form.
The Ottawa line-up is all established groups, almost all of whom have played GigSpace before. But their projects are fresh: for example, vocalist Karen Oxorn will pay tribute to husband-and-wife jazz musicians Julie London and Bobby Troup (best known for “Cry Me a River”), in a show with Toronto guitarist Kevin Barrett.
The Garry Elliott/Steve Boudreau Quartet will release a new CD, Opus 2; vocalist Diane Nalini will debut recent songs she's written for her trio with Mark Ferguson and John Geggie; and vocalist Elise Letourneau and her trio will both interpret songs that have “moved and shaped her” as well as putting on a rare performance of her own originals.
Toronto jazz pianist Nick Maclean has taken many lessons from jazz legend Herbie Hancock – not the least about taking risks with his music.
“The kind of jazz that I really enjoy, that means a lot to me, involves constant risks. It involves exploration. The kind of guys who are playing it safe, and play what they know – it can be very nice sounding, it can check all the right boxes, but there's something courageous about stepping into the unknown and seeing what happens. And Herbie's definitely one of those artists that idealizes that for me.”
Maclean's quartet will perform in Ottawa on Saturday as part of a Ontario/Quebec tour. They’ll play from their debut album, which he describes as a “love letter” to Hancock. The group and the album are inspired by Hancock's 1960s quartet/quintet with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, which produced four classic albums on the Blue Note label: Takin' Off, My Point of View, Maiden Voyage, and Empyrean Isles.
The general vibe is mainstream and acoustic – but with “a willingness to not know what the destination is going to be and just be along for the ride.”
“What we're trying to do with the quartet is to take the ethos of Herbie's 1960s Blue Note Quartet, but move it into the modern day – with modern compositions, with modern sensibility – and see where that ethos goes today.”
Maclean's quartet line-up takes its inspiration from Hancock's line-up on Empyrean Isles: trumpet (with his frequent collaborator Brownman Ali), piano, bass, and drums. It was a rare line-up for Hancock and relatively rare in jazz.
Justin Gray's Synthesis created a rich and exciting mix of East and West at Chamberfest on Wednesday, combining instruments and approaches from several traditions.
In a late-night Chamberfringe show, the Toronto jazz ensemble performed tunes from their debut album, New Horizons. All originals by Gray, they featured Hindustani melodies and rhythms within a jazz framework and with classical influences. The result: energetic and engaging music that brought together the strengths of all these genres, and which worked exceptionally well in the serene acoustics of La Nouvelle Scène.
On stage were ensemble members Drew Jurecka on violin, Ted Quinlan on electric guitar and effects, Ed Hanley on tabla, and Derek Gray on drums and Tibetan singing bowls, with guest Rebekah Wolkstein on violin and Hardanger fiddle. Almost all these instruments have been used in Indian classical music, most in jazz, and some in chamber music.
Justin Gray has designed an instrument which combines his two musical passions – for jazz and for Indian classical music.
He'll play his bass veena on Wednesday, as he gives his cross-genre quintet, Synthesis, its Ottawa debut at Chamberfest. The quintet, which includes well-known Toronto jazz musicians Ted Quinlan on guitar and Drew Jurecka on violin, will play Gray's music, which features Indian-inspired melodies in a jazz framework.
It's a surprisingly compatible and very listenable mixture, in part because Hindustani classical music also includes improvisation – just not in quite the same way as jazz. Synthesis has so far released one album, New Horizons, in 2017, with the same core quintet which will play Wednesday, although the album has a large number of guests from classical, jazz, and Indian classical music. The Chamberfest concert will showcase pieces from that album.
Gray has been studying Hindustani music for more than decade, at the same time as he's grown a substantial reputation as a bassist in Toronto's jazz scene, playing with a variety of groups, including several which have made it up to Ottawa: Gray Matter, and the Hoffman-Lemisch Quartet.
OttawaJazzScene.ca editor Alayne McGregor recently interviewed Gray about the concert, the Synthesis project, and why he was inspired in 2010 to design an entire new instrument to play much of this music. This is an edited and condensed version of our interview.
OttawaJazzScene.ca: How did you get introduced to Indian classical music?
Justin Gray: My mom was born in India, so growing up, my brother Derek, who's the drummer in the project, and myself certainly were exposed to Indian music. We traveled to India to visit family. We listened to a variety of music growing up, which included things like Ravi Shankar, and of course getting into the Beatles and some other world music contexts.