Merrickville's Jazz Fest closed on Sunday, October 19, with a celebration of polished jazz vocals, complementing the afternoon's instrumental concerts from Brian Browne and Peter Woods, and Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message.

A Tribute to Blossom Dearie

Marcie Campbell would have done Dearie proud with her dead-on rendition of “Bruce” ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Marcie Campbell would have done Dearie proud with her dead-on rendition of “Bruce” ©Brett Delmage, 2014

The main evening event was a tribute to Blossom Dearie, in a revival of the show featuring three local vocalists – Karen Oxorn, Caroline Gibson, and Marcie Campbell – which debuted in 2010 at the National Arts Centre. All three were in good voice and again easily conveyed their love of the iconic American vocalist/pianist and her repertoire. It was a fresh performance that was a little shorter and had a smaller band than the original.

Blossom Dearie knew how to deliver a lyric so that it made people laugh, or even get a bit uncomfortable. In between more conventional standards, she interspersed witty songs by Dave Frishberg and Bob Dorough and herself, which ended up being the pieces she was best remembered for.

And Marcie Campbell would have done Dearie proud with her dead-on rendition of “Bruce”. Her helpful advice to a female impersonator without dress sense had the entire audience chortling. She also scored with Dearie's signature tune, “I'm Hip”, delivered with a bop feel in the music and gentle satire in the lyrics.

Dearie's own “Blossom's Blues” is bluesy in form, and quite blue in content. Caroline Gibson, assisted by Mark Ferguson on trombone and Brian Browne on piano, had lots of fun playing with the risqué lyrics, and got the audience laughing at them, too. Browne also cracked a few smiles, as he underlined lines like “My nightly occupation is stealing other women's men” with strong blues chords, and Gibson paid credit to him by changing “Ray” to “Brian” in “Ray Brown told me that I was built for speed.”

Karen Oxorn showed Blossom's more conventional side when she introduced the concert with a flowing version of the classic standard, “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top”. Dearie spent a good part of the 1950s in Paris, and Oxorn sang the classic “It Might As Well Be Spring” first in its French version, “C'est le printemps”, following it with the English lyrics. She tenderly and evocatively sung the bittersweet words in both languages.

All three vocalists shared several songs, most notably a flirtatious version of “Peel Me a Grape” in which they easily traded off the lines. They ended with “The Party's Over”, followed by a heartfelt and lovely “Some Other Time”. The audience responded with a standing ovation, paying credit to both the great songs and how seamlessly the musicians showcased them, thanks in no small part to Mark Ferguson's efforts as both pianist and musical director.

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Deyo Rafailovich and Grace Hrabi ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Deyo Rafailovich and Grace Hrabi ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Grace Hrabi Duo

The opening act that evening was local jazz vocalist Grace Hrabi, with guitarist Deyo Rafailovich, Both are graduates of the jazz performance program at the University of Manitoba, and Hrabi moved to Ottawa in the last year. Her trained, clear soprano has been heard in many restaurants around town.

They performed six songs, beginning with a syncopated version of Fats' Waller's “Jitterbug Waltz”, and continuing with an interestingly moody version of more serious song, “These Clouds are Heavy, You Dig?”, written by Kurt Elling based on poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and a Paul Desmond sax solo.

Hrabi included three of her own pieces, one of which was on her recently-released CD. They were crossovers between a singer-songwriter style and jazz, all featuring well-chosen lyrics together with fluid scatting. The “Gotta Go Blues” was particularly on-point and appealing, with its lament about the stress of trying to get places on time.

The duo closed with “Nature Boy”. Members of the audience yelled out that they'd heard that one before, because several other musicians had played it that weekend. But their version added considerable vocal exploration, and contrasted the sweetness of the melody with strongly accented, sparse guitar.

We heard afterwards from several listeners who had been impressed by hearing Hrabi for the first time. The duo received strong applause and a partial standing ovation at the end of their set.

Deyo Rafailovich and Grace Hrabi ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Deyo Rafailovich and Grace Hrabi ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Norman Marshall Villeneuve’s Jazz Message

One of the joys of jazz is its spontaneity. And the afternoon concert given by Montreal drummer Norman Marshall Villeneuve's Jazz Message certainly was spontaneous – the quartet hadn't rehearsed and were choosing the set-list on the spot!

©Brett Delmage, 2014
They were easily able to do that because each musician – Dave Turner on alto sax, Eric Lagacé on double bass, and Félix Stüssi on piano – had decades of experience and particularly in playing this bebop-style material. And Villeneuve himself has been playing it for 62 years.

At 76, Villeneuve's touch on the drums is still authoritative and crisp, and he frequently changed styles and sticks depending on the music. I particularly enjoyed his quick-change duets with Turner and with Stüssi.

They played fast-paced bop standards like “St. Thomas”, and – no surprise for Villeneuve – pieces that Art Blakey made famous, like “Moanin'”. They also slowed down for “My One and Only Love”, made fresh by a thoughtful piano solo from Stüssi and an emotional sax solo from Turner. The pace picked up again for the last piece, “Ow!” by Dizzy Gillespie, featuring finely-attuned piano, earthy bass riffs, and punctuated sax, all underlaid by a fast, intense drumming.

If you closed your eyes and just listened, the large, sun-lit United Church could have been a small, dusky jazz club. The musicians were having a great time on stage, and they communicated that joy to the audience, who jumped to their feet at the end for a standing ovation.

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Peter Woods and Brian Browne: "not a performance as much as an experience"

Brian Browne and Peter Woods ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Brian Browne and Peter Woods ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Sunday was 'Brian Browne day' at the festival. He was the festival's first artist-in-residence, and, besides his evening appearance, he conducted a masterclass with three piano students in the morning, and performed with a long-time collaborator, saxophonist Peter Woods, in the afternoon.

Before a delighted audience who mostly filled a local church, he and Woods played Great American Songbook standards, Horace Silver numbers, and show tunes, They ended in a “fun romp” with “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Highlights included a wistful and beautiful version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”; a quiet and sincere “Peace” by Silver that include singing notes on piano and quiet and reflective tenor sax lines; and a seriously swinging “Don't Get Around Much Anymore”.

Woods related many of the songs to his own work as a United Church Minister: “Old Folks”, for example, inspired one of a series of sermons he delivered recently on aging. “The Water is Wide”, a folk-gospel number whose lovely melody he played on soprano sax, is in his church's hymn book. And “Don't Get Around Much Anymore” was a request from the jazz-loving deceased for Woods to perform at a recent funeral.

It was no surprise – but also well-deserved – that the duo received a standing ovation.

At the start of the concert, Browne uncharacteristically addressed the audience (he usually leaves the talking to Woods in their joint concerts because Woods' job involves public speaking). He talked about Woods has developed as a musician in their decade of playing together.

“I discovered a diamond in the rough. And as we started playing more gigs, osmotically he started to improve. What happens in the jazz world is that our ear becomes more educated as you go along. Because our ears need to be more educated, to chord changes and intervals and all kinds of stuff, and that's some of the beauty of playing jazz. Every time we play, Peter and I, it's not a performance as much as an experience.”

All photos ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Brian Browne Master Class: "The blues is the heart, it's the core, it's the soul of jazz."

And that also applied to the students Browne mentored in his morning masterclass. Each of them he had heard previously, and he said he heard huge improvements in all their playing with continued work. What you learn each time can be measured by thickness of a sheet of paper, he said, but each time you play you improve.

Brian Browne listens to student Anthony Kubelka  ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Brian Browne listens to student Anthony Kubelka ©Brett Delmage, 2014

During the class. each of the three played (and in some cases also sang) standards they'd selected. Browne listened carefully and in some cases asked them to repeat the piece in a slightly different style or to play another standard in a particular style. One student chose “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson; Browne, who studied with Peterson, pointed out that the sheet music the student had played from was actually transcribed from a Peterson performance. “Oscar never wrote a note in his life. He didn't have to. People transcribed that stuff.”

Near the end, he asked them just to play a simple blues – no particular tune, just some blues. It was a request that slightly floored the students, who were more used to learning an actual tune.

But as he pointed out to them, the blues itself is a language, and is “the heart, it's the core, it's the soul of jazz. Blues is the most important thing in my opinion that you can play and learn and dwell in. Dwell in the land of the blues. Because it infuses your playing and your feeling and your time and your rhythm and your groove that you're going to need in all your pieces.”

He showed that in short piece he played himself, and talked about his own experiences becoming a jazz musician and learning jazz – and how he's still learning now, with every gig he plays. “Which as we all know is the beauty of playing jazz. It's not performing the same piece over and over, which is sickening.”

Near the end of the masterclass, Browne addressed the audience watching the class as much as the students. “The main thing is as far as jazz musicians and jazz listeners in this world right today and the way things are going: we desperately need each other. The listeners and the players, all of us, we desperately need each other no matter what level our playing is at.”

All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage

Overall: A friendly, community affair – with a careful choice of music

What was inspiring about the 2014 edition of Merrickville's Jazz Fest was how much it was a friendly, community affair. The town's mayor enthusiastically introduced the final show as well as the first. The many volunteers not only took tickets, but acted as cheerers-on encouraging the people who were climbing the steep stairs up to the Baldachin Ballroom, and ensuring no one got lost. There were a lot of smiles.

The venues, all within walking distance of each other, took advantage of community locations ranging from churches to the Legion to local restaurants. And people, locally as well as from Ottawa to Montreal to Toronto, filled them, with audience sizes in the shows we saw ranging from good to sold-out. The sound and lighting in each venue was consistently good as well.

MJF co-organizer Peggy Holloway thanks her many volunteers who welcomed listeners throughout the festival  ©Brett Delmage, 2014
MJF co-organizer Peggy Holloway thanks her many volunteers who welcomed listeners throughout the festival ©Brett Delmage, 2014

The organizers made a point of personally hearing the bands live in advance, and the result was a well-balanced program of appealing jazz. And, although it included other influences, all the music we heard was consistently grounded in jazz. The programme also supported many local musicians from the Ottawa-Gatineau area and the Valley.

Merrickville's Mayor Doug Struthers speaks at the closing of the festival  ©Brett Delmage, 2014
Merrickville's Mayor Doug Struthers speaks at the closing of the festival ©Brett Delmage, 2014

We wish we could have heard every group; the exigencies of trying to write, photograph, and video – and editing and publishing while the festival was still running – meant we missed a few groups we would have also liked to see. But what we did hear was consistently enjoyable. Our experience clearly demonstrated to us why jazz fans whole-heartedly voted Merrickville's Jazz Fest as their favourite among festivals of similar size in our first-ever Jazz Favourites Poll.

The festival now needs to find more jazz lovers to divvy up the work of organizing it, because, as often happens with any activity, a few people were responsible for much of the planning. But it does appear that the town and its residents – and visitors from Ottawa and further afield – are willing to come out to support the festival and enjoy its music, and that the organizers have the taste to put on an appealing program. It's a good sign for the future.

All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage

    – Alayne McGregor

Read and watch's full coverage of the 2014 Merrickville's Jazz Fest

Full disclosure: Merrickville's Jazz Fest arranged a billet for Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage to make it possible for us to report more from the festival during the festival.