The Ottawa Jazz Festival is headlining mainstream jazz – most of it Canadian – at its 2016 Winter Jazz Festival on February 4 to 7.
Canadian jazz musicians including Mike Murley, Carol Welsman, Fraser Hollins, Joel Miller, Petr Cancura, and the Montreal Guitare Trio (MG3) have prominent places at the festival, along with Americans Jon Cowherd and Brian Blade (both playing with Hollins), the Afro-Cuban duo of David Virelles and Román Díaz, and the Japanese jazz-prog-funk trio Mouse on the Keys.
Ottawa jazz veteran John Geggie has been awarded the festival's special project grant, and is using it to combine several of his musical worlds, including improvised jazz and chamber music.
The festival will run from Thursday, February 4 to Sunday, February 7, 2016. It will only run for one weekend instead of the two weekends it ran last winter. However, it will also be strictly jazz: no pop shows such as the 2015 festival's evening-long Leonard Cohen Tribute.
All concerts will be held at the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, with shows starting every two hours. In 2015, some concerts were held at Dominion Chalmers United Church, requiring listeners to rush between concerts being held every hour in two halls, with no time for intermissions.
On Thursday, February 4, festival programming director Petr Cancura will present the second show in his Crossroads jazz/folk crossover series. this time with Ottawa singer-songwriter Lynn Miles. [Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's interview with Cancura about the series and his first performance with Ian Tamblyn.]
Ottawa's The Chocolate Hot Pockets, known for their hard-driving mix of jazz and neo-soul, will play a free concert on the Friday at 5 p.m.
They'll be followed by a ticketed show: Juno-award-winning Toronto saxophonist Mike Murley, with guitarist Reg Schwager and bassist Steve Wallace. That trio conducts “intimate, lyrical explorations of jazz standards”, in the tradition of Murley's previous award-winning recordings with Ed Bickert. They released a CD called Looking Back in 2014 and plan another for 2016.
Bassist Fraser Hollins is an Ottawa export to Montreal, by way of New York City. Best known here as the nuanced and full-bodied presence enhancing the compositions of Christine Jensen, Joel Miller, Jeff Johnston, or Rémi Bolduc, he's also released an album of his own music, Aerial. In 2012, he teamed up at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Miller and two renowned American jazz musicians – drummer Brian Blade and Blade's pianist in his Fellowship Band, Jon Cowherd.
Hollins is bringing this cross-border quartet to Ottawa for a rare performance. A Montreal Gazette review of one of the 2012 shows described it as “two sets of swinging, cerebral music that showcased everyone’s talents. ... Blade was a perpetual motion machine behind the traps, with a smile a mile wide and a touch to die for. He never seemed to play the beat explicitly, preferring to suggest it in a thousand different ways." Read the OttawaJazzScene.ca interview with Hollins about this show.
Ottawa double bassist John Geggie opens Saturday with his special project for the festival – a collaboration with four Montreal musicians. Violinist and vocalist Kate Bevan-Baker in particular is new to Ottawa jazz fans. Trained classically, Bevan-Baker also experiments with other genres such as traditional and jazz music. She studies with classical violinist Mark Fewer (known for his jazz collaborations with Phil Dwyer), but also fiddles at Hurley's Irish Pub in Montreal with her band Solstice, as well as singing regularly with the award-winning women's choir, Concerto Della Donna. Her second recording, Come Fly With Me, was a collection of jazz vocal standards recorded with the late pianist Sonny Caulfield, who had played with Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald.
The show will debut Geggie's new Journey Band, which includes Bevan-Baker, Philippe Lauzier on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone, Pierre-Yves Martel on viols, and Jim Doxas on drums. Geggie said the members of the group come from a variety of musical backgrounds and are “united by their interest in music from different places along with improvisation within those worlds.”
“I have known and played with Jim and Pierre-Yves for a long period of time and we share the same interest in musics from different cultures. I am familiar with both Kate and Philippe and have known of their music for a couple of years.”
Fans of Geggie's former long-running Invitational Concert series at the NAC might find a similar vibe in this show.
Next up will be traditional vocal jazz, with Canadian jazz vocalist and pianist Carol Welsman. A six-time Juno nominee, Welsman moved to Los Angeles a few years ago, but has continued her crowd-pleasing mix of swinging jazz standards, jazz interpretations of classic pop tunes, and Latin, complementing her own compositions.
Last to the stage on Saturday is Cuban pianist David Virelles. Virelles was an early protégé of Jane Bunnett, and spent many years in the Toronto jazz scene. He moved to NYC about 5 years ago and has since worked with avant-garde jazz musicians Henry Threadgill and Andrew Cyrille. He was named the “#1 Rising Star” in the piano category in DownBeat Magazine’s 2015 Critics Poll. His 2014 album, Mbòkó, ended up in virtually every American jazz “Best Of The Year” list, including The New York Times, NPR, The Village Voice, and DownBeat Magazine.
For this concert he's teamed up with drummer Román Díaz, who will be playing the biankoméko. This four-drum ensemble, with a metal bell, shakers, and wooden sticks, acts as the accompaniment for the ritual magic of the secretive Abakuá religious group in its masked performances. It will provide a kaleidoscope of orchestral and folkloric percussion contrasting with Virelle's jazz piano.
Sunday opens with the Japanese trio, Mouse on the Keys, which blends “minimal phrased piano and dynamic drumming”. Played on two pianos, two keyboards, and drums, the group's music combines jazz, funk, post‐rock and electronic music, with a strong visual component as well.
The crowd-pleasing Montréal Guitare Trio (MG3) closes the festival. Marc Morin, Sébastien Dufour and Glenn Lévesque – playing guitars and related stringed instruments – have regularly been a hit at Chamberfest in Ottawa, as well as across North America and Europe. Winner of Quebec's Opus Award in 2011 for "concert of the year" in the Jazz / World Music category, their shows combine jazz, Latin, flamenco, world music, and even movie themes by Ennio Morricone. Their most recent album, Der Prinz  mixes originals with their versions of three songs by Radiohead, Jorane and Rush.
Previous winter jazz festivals have also included late-night jam sessions at a downtown hotel, but none has so far been announced.
– Alayne McGregor
Updated November 19 to include a more detailed description of John Geggie's Journey Band concert.
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's reviews from the 2016 Ottawa Winter Jazz Festival:
- The Chocolate Hot Pockets grooved out the 4th Stage (review)
- Fraser Hollins tells his own stories with his star-studded quartet (review)
- The Mike Murley Trio celebrates the beautiful and less-known in jazz
- John Geggie's Journey Band intertwines music from the 17th to the 21st century
- Carol Welsman wowed listeners at the 2016 Winter Jazzfest with finely-honed jazz standards (review)
Read related OttawaJazzScene.ca stories:
- Ian Tamblyn and Petr Cancura are outside their comfort zone mixing jazz and folk 
- The Chocolate Hot Pockets are keeping their Dreamz under wraps 
- Mike Murley revisits the past and celebrates the new with his septet at Ontario Scene 
- The Christine Jensen Jazz Orchestra: a rich hour of evocative solos & fine ensemble playing (review) 
- 2014 Geggie Invitational Concert: complex tapestries of music (review)
- Montréal Guitare Trio starts Chamberfringe on a strong note (review)