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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.
When jazz trumpeter Paul Tynan was in Berlin in early May he played jazz each night but spent his days exploring the city. That became the inspiration for a number of his compositions which he'll perform in Ottawa next Tuesday, in a concert at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios.
“Berlin is an amazing city!” Tynan said. “I was there for a week. I had seven nights in a club called the The Hat Club in Berlin. It really was just a fantastic experience playing my original music every night at the same club, oftentimes for audience members who would come back, who would hear us one night and then come back the next night and maybe the next night and the next night. It was really inspiring.”
During the day, he tramped around the city. “As a kid I was always taken by the Brandenburg Gate. I got to see it. I'd been to Germany before, but this was the first time I'd been to Berlin, so I spent literally hours walking around the city and combing everything from the Schöneberg neighbourhood to the Kreuzberg neighbourhood to the typical tourist spots as well.”
And that ended up being reflected in his music. “You just hear these melodies in your head, and fortunately the place I was staying had a grand piano so I would come back and just write some music at this piano that was in the flat that I was in.”
On Tuesday, Tynan will combine this music with other “time-tested” tunes he's written in the last decade, and some jazz standards, in a trio show with Ottawa pianist Peter Hum and Montreal bassist Alec Walkington.
Tynan, who is a professor in the music department at St. Francis Xavier University, last performed publicly in Ottawa in 2013, in the faculty concerts at the Carleton University Jazz Camp. One of those concerts featured his compositions for big band.
This show will be on a much more intimate scale, but Tynan says that many of his pieces are flexible enough to work for a trio. “All the music I write can function either on a very small level or can function on a very large level. It just is how it's packaged or arranged. It's meant to be malleable. And I like that about it.”
Roby Lakatos is a Romani virtuoso violinist from Hungary, a 7th-generation direct descendant of legendary Hungarian gypsy violinist Janos Bihari (1764-1827). At Chamberfest on Friday evening, he displayed the energy and passion of that heritage in a flamboyant and audience-pleasing concert.
If there was a market in sixty-fourth notes, Lakatos and his quintet would have cornered it at this concert. Right from his first number – from La Passion , a live album recorded at the Sydney Opera House – his violin playing was fast and virtuosic, attention-grabbing and electrifying, a fine thread of sound physically spinning across the stage.
Afro-Cuban pianist Rafael Zaldivar brought the joyous and vibrant music of pre-revolutionary Cuba to Gatineau Saturday night – and had his audience up cheering, dancing, and giving his group a standing ovation.
It was music that Zaldivar had grown up with in Cuba, and heard in performances by masters of the Cuban musical tradition. Starting in 1996, North Americans were reintroduced to this music through the Buena Vista Social Club, and most of the pieces Zaldivar's quintet played were from that group's repertoire.
If many of the tunes were familiar – the group opened with “El Manisero (The Peanut Vendor)”, one of the best-known Cuban songs of all time – it nevertheless sounded fresh and exciting. Sitting at the restaurant's grand piano, Zaldivar joked and laughed with the audience as he announced the songs, and the majority of that audience were listening and responsive. One corner of the room turned into an impromptu dance floor with dancers swaying and twirling to the music.