Mavis Staples, Hiromi, The Bad Plus, and Ryan Keberle and Catharsis were among the hits for listeners this week at the 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival. Overall, though, it was the talent and commitment of each artist – not their jazz content – which drew the most favourable responses in's festival listener poll.

Mavis Staples (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)
Mavis Staples (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)

The poll, which is open to all, now continues with its final survey, covering shows on July 2 and the 2017 festival as a whole.

On Monday, June 29, Mavis Staples' sold-out show in the NAC Theatre received a very satisfied rating from listeners: an average of 4.5 stars out of 5.

Eric Sladic said that Staples “outdid her previous performance last time at Dominion Chalmers. Her rendition of 'Slippery People' which she just recently covered with Arcade Fire caught many people off guard. Her story of her family's involvement in the march from Selma to Montgomery brought the studio theatre to its feet by the end of the song. Her last official song of the night, 'I'll Take You There' brought people to their feet... then her encore (which was only the 2nd encore so far in the 2017 tour) stunned many. Mavis leveraged her involvement in the 1976 classic, The Last Waltz, and sang 'The Weight'. I left walking on clouds.”

Another listener observed that Staples “thoroughly engaged the audience. Her voice was in great shape, the band was tight, the guitar especially so. The set list was more secular than last I saw her and the crowd was with her.”

Sladic mentioned that he was lucky to get in. was informed by one listener that that “quite a few” Bronze Pass holders were turned away from this show – while there were still open seats in the Theatre balcony. We inquired of Jazz Festival executive director Catherine O'Grady whether some Bronze Pass holders were turned away from this concert, and if so, why, but received no response.

The New Orleans blues, jazz, R&B, and gospel sound of Davina and the Vagabonds also received an enthusiastic response: 4.7 stars. Pierre Hughes said the upbeat and exciting music got the crowd going, and praised lead singer Davina Sowers.

Betty Ann Bryanton agreed. “Wonderful performer and a very professional band. They dress the part (very classy), they all sang, they had cool arrangements, and Davina engages with the crowd and draws you in with her comments and her facial expressions (very expressive). Very kind of 30s fun! I didn't know what to expect and was very pleasantly surprised. (The other thing I liked is that it was not super loud like some bands in the tent.) Oh! and the swing dancers! How cool was that!"

At La Nouvelle Scène, the Shai Maestro Trio's more experimental music drew its audience in, with an average rating of 4.25 stars. “This is the second time we have heard the outstanding Shai Maestro at the festival,” said Geoff Zeiss. “We love their thoughtful approach to Jazz and their ability to do new things without losing their sense of rhythm and sounds you want to listen to.”

Steve Szabo agreed. “This may be the finest concert I have ever seen. The group somehow managed to combine breathtaking lyricism with telepathic improvisation, while also integrating a 23 year old drummer into the ensemble. I was spellbound during the performance. These musicians were totally connected to each other and the musical moment they were creating together. Shai Maestro also came across as a refreshingly humble musician.”

Another listener noted that the music was “definitely 'out there' in terms of style. A very tight trio exploring some interesting musical ideas.” A less-enthusiastic listener liked the trio's “good musicianship but I got tired of the layered minimalism.”

In Confederation Park, the Montreal sextet of saxophonist Joel Miller with vocalist Sienna Dahlen performed music from their “Dream Cassette” CD. They received 3 stars, and varied reviews. Pierre Hughes praised the band's “different groove” and its exploration of new sounds, and another listener highlighted Kevin Warren's “great drumming”.

Betty Ann Bryanton, on the other hand, said the show was “a little too sedate. I think this would have been better-suited for a smaller indoor venue, with someone like Mavis Staples (which I couldn't get into) in the park.”

The park headliner on Monday evening was saxophonist Maceo Parker's tribute to R&B vocalist Ray Charles, with the Ray Charles Orchestra. Respondents gave it 3.7 stars, particularly praising the big band sound.

“They delivered. It was a fine celebration of the music of Ray Charles. Though Maceo Parker's vocals were excellent and quite 'nearly Ray' some people had expected him to play more saxophone and were mildly disappointed. However, Maceo certainly did bring the voice of Ray Charles to life and put his own accomplishments aside,” Sladic said.

Another listener was delighted “to have a real orchestra at the main stage. The Raelettes were so so. I felt Maceo imitated Ray too much and could have done his own thing. Although he has a good voice and appeared to enjoy himself."

“The orchestra was great, Maceo was great, but a little sedate for an 8:30 weekend park show. I would have preferred Maceo to play more sax instead of so much singing. His sax playing was very nice,” Betty Ann Bryanton concluded.

The evening ended with the electronic/hip-hop jazz sound of the Robert Glasper Experiment, which garnered 4.3 stars.

“This was very energetic and exciting! Fun for everyone who attended,” said Steve Szabo.

“What a treat. Fresh young talent pushing the boundaries. I have their first two albums but have never seen them live. The guitar was especially great,” wrote another listener.

“This was a must see and be seen show, the place was packed!” Sladic stated. “The whole aura of the Tartan tent changed when Robert Glasper (with sunglasses and big floppy hat) stepped onto the stage. I had not expected this! He had the stage presence, talent and mysterious persona of Jimi Hendrix. Thankfully, he won a Grammy and is alive keep playing. The show was riveting but as a good citizen of Ottawa, I left early since I had to work the next day. If I had stayed, I am unsure if I would have returned from the universe that Glasper and crew had invited us into.”

Other Monday shows didn't receive sufficient votes to report meaningfully.

Tuesday, June 27

Japanese pianist Hiromi was definitely the star of Tuesday evening, with a 5-star rating. Her duet with Colombian harpist Edmar Casteñada garnered numerous raves.

Hiromi and Edmar Casteñada (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)
Hiromi and Edmar Casteñada (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)

“I have heard Hiromi before in the context of her electric trio and enjoyed the music very much. But this collaboration with Edmar is extraordinary. Each of these two musicians has achieved a level of technique and artistry with their instruments that is almost supernatural, but even so the whole is greater than the parts. The talent, technique, energy and creativity of these two musicians combined to produce music that touched deep wellsprings of emotion. That sounds corny, but that how I felt. I actually went home after this concert because I didn't want to hear any more music for a while, so intense was the experience,” said David Miller.

“Both performers were technically superb AND brought joy to every tune,” said a happy listener. “The interaction between performers was giving, fun and musical. I have not heard harp in this configuration and really enjoyed it.”

Another referred to the show as the “best concert I've attended in years”.

The Sonoluminescence Trio's 8 p.m. at La Nouvelle Scène also received a 5-star rating from those who replied. Gaby Warren’s comments backed up that high rating: “the musicians and their exploratory interaction are of the highest order.”

Geoff Zeiss described the music as “very sonorous and thoughtful”, and added that “we appreciated the trio playing at a reasonable (to our ears) volume and the bass saxophonist's avoidance of blowing overtones excessively.”

On the other hand, vocalist Youn Sun Na's 6 p.m. show at La Nouvelle Scène was much more controversial, with an average rating of 2.7 stars. Her voice received kudos: “Amazing performance especially when she lets our voice go free,” was Jean-Marc Mangin's comment.

Gaby Warren agreed that Na was an excellent singer, but “most of her material and her backing, however, are not what I prefer.”

Another listener was less charitable: “It was a pop and rock music concert at an indoor 'Jazz Discovery Series' concert. And it was way too loud for an indoor venue. I had to leave to stop the ringing in my ears. Also, the music they played bore little resemblance to the video posted on the OIJF site. Had I known the real genre of this music, I wouldn't have attended the concert. This was at least the second indoor 'Jazz Series' concert comprised primarily of rock music!”

The cross-border group In Orbit, with Canadian guitarist Michael Occhipinti, and Americans Jeff Coffin on sax and Felix Pastorius on bass, was the opening show in Confederation Park on Tuesday. Listeners gave them a 3.8-star rating.

Chris Halford was delighted by the show. “Jeff Coffin was a favourite of mine when he was with Bela Fleck, and I enjoyed Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project. Felix Pastorius has inherited more than a famous name - what a talent on the bass! Best of all, the group was great together.”

Pierre Hughes praised the group's good feel, and its “great solos and good groove”, while Natalya Kuziak described their music as “just great cool jazz”. Another listener noted that “some of the music was a little progressive for me, but not all.”

They were followed on the Main Stage by the electro-swing group Caravan Palace, who received an average rating of 3.7 stars. They played dance music, which worked for some but not others.

“Absolutely the funkiest, fun, dance music I've heard in years,” said Natalya Kuziak. Chris Halford agreed: “The ultimate dance party. A great mix of electro/techno and swing, hard to believe but they make it seem natural! What an energetic bunch and some fabulous dancers in the band.”

“Again certainly not jazz but an entertaining show with fun music and a great cast of musicians,” said another listener.

Pierre Hughes, on the other hand said that the music became annoying after a while, although it was “very animated and a good beat.” And another listener noted that the blinking stage lights “made it difficult to follow or even know the instruments.”

In the afternoon, Ottawa guitarist Lucas Haneman's original blues tunes drew strong approval from those who heard the Lucas Haneman Express, giving the energetic trio a rating of 4.7 stars. “They do creative blues with great skill,” one listener said. Another comment: “I liked the musical variety.”

In the evening, the Ottawa performance artists the PepTides received ratings ranging from very satisfied to very dissatisfied, averaging out to 3.7 stars. On the positive side: “Not jazz but upbeat fun music with good musicians and singers.” Natalya Kuziak described them as “so creative, energetic, funny and fabulous.” Another listener called them “energetic, fun, sometimes amusing, local.”

One listener had problems with their sound: “While quite creative as a group I found the sound to be such that I couldn't make out the lyrics."

Wednesday, June 28

Red Hook Soul is a project of Canadian ex-pat saxophonist Michael Blake plus a bevy of musicians from Brooklyn. Its 6:30 p.m. performance on the Main Stage, which one listener described as a “a good main street jazz sound”, received 3.9 stars. Karen Oxorn noted the group's “appealing sound and friendly stage presence”.

“I had not done any reads earlier on the band and had no expectations. I was very happy to see Michael Blake on stage. One of my favourite 'finds' from earlier festivals. His tone and feeling are wonderful. The whole bands presentation was unforced confident and very musical” was another response.

David Miller said the band and musicians were good, “but for my taste much of the music was too repetitive. You can only take so much blues scale. Appreciated their use of dynamics to keep it interesting.”

The feel-good music of Sammy Miller and The Congregation, at 7:30 p.m. on the City Hall Stage, was even more of a hit, with a rating of 4.4 stars. Pierre Hughes praised their “showmanship and great tunes”. Another listener described it as “not jazz but a fun loving bunch of guys playing uplifting music. A great bar band for the youth, but the grey hairs loved it also.”

Karen Oxorn was even more enthusiastic. “One of my 2017 jazz fest highlights for sure!! I arrived at the park in time to catch a couple of songs from their mystery concert performance that afternoon and loved their vibe. Got a front row seat in the Tartan Homes Stage at 7:30 pm and like many in the audience was delighted with their quirky showmanship, interaction with the crowd and absolutely stellar playing. Sammy Miller is a very engaging and endearing personality on stage and the concert was full of humour, crazy antics and ended with a wonderful theatrical tableau that seemed to last for a full minute as the band members held their positions. Of course, none of this would have worked so well had it not been for the excellent playing by all of the musicians in the band. I hope they return to Ottawa; they were fantastic!”

The main stage headliner that night was scheduled to be The Liberation Music Orchestra, but the group bowed out that morning because the flight carrying half their band from New York City cancelled and they couldn't find a replacement. The festival then moved The Bad Plus from the NAC Studio to the Main Stage. The Bad Plus received a rating of 3.9 stars.

The Bad Plus (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)
The Bad Plus (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)

Comments were mixed. Natalya Kuziak was positive: “Nice cool jazz. A bit quiet and low key, but I like variety” – as was Pierre Hughes: “Great jazz. I love trios. Very relaxing and introspection but easy to follow.” Chris Halford said the group does “a great job playing difficult music.”

Karen Oxorn agreed: “I could not have called myself a true fan of The Bad Plus over the years finding their presentations over the years generally a little too out there for me. But as disappointed as my friends and I and most other jazz fest goers were over the cancellation of the concert by the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, The Bad Plus stepped up and put on a superb concert that was as accessible and inspiring and simply beautifully performed as I could have hoped for. And later on at the start of the jam, TBP pianist Ethan Iverson played for a half hour straight to the delight of those who were there in time to hear him.”

“The Bad Plus are unique. The very first time I saw them (at the TD Ottawa JF), it was a revelation. However, while the group is still excellent and producing great music, the surprise is gone. I think the upcoming and well-publicized shake-up of personnel is probably what the band needs,” said David Miller.

Others would have preferred to hear the group indoors: “An excellent band that I've heard three times. I would have preferred to hear them indoors, as the weather and people talking nearby were a bummer. I couldn't get into the spirit of the band as much as I would have liked, but this wasn't the fault of the band,” wrote one listener. Another noted: “Their material was good but the song selection was for an inside venue.”

Another wrote he was “disappointed in the apparent effort and engagement of the band. I have followed and enjoyed the band for years. This was their most lackadaisical performance I have seen. I seemed they could not get off the stage fast enough. That said they are still a great band. Iverson will be missed.”

And for one listener, the music was simply “too progressive for me. Even their renditions of a Cyndi Lauper and Barry Manilow songs”.

On the festival's late-night stage that evening, the multicultural hip-hop group Nomadic Massive received 3.3 stars and mixed reviews. Both comments we received were positive. Natalya Kuziak described the music as “energetic, fun, big sound, uplifting!”.

Karen Oxorn heard the first part of their set. “I'd heard the sound check earlier in the day and was entranced by the beautiful vocals, a little sample of which I enjoyed during the first songs of the evening set. High energy, appealing look and sound, and interesting blend of genres and individual performances.”

Thursday, June 29

It was time to sing the Rainy Day blues on Thursday, as the day just kept getting soggier and soggier, discouraging attendance in the park. None of the three hard-working blues acts on the main stage received sufficient votes to report meaningfully.

Donny McCaslin (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)
Donny McCaslin (photo provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)

Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, on the other hand, got varied reviews for his group's two indoor shows in the NAC Studio, playing music influenced by the musicians' experiences recording with David Bowie. While the ratings averaged to 4 stars, they alternated between very satisfied and mixed for both shows.

“I wasn't sure what we were in store for with Donny's group. It was electric, raw and very loud. Moments of ugliness and beauty in succession. Very interesting music, but on the whole somewhat hard to listen to for a long period, particularly because of the volume. (Only Stanley Clark was louder, in my experience.) I'm going to have to digest what I heard some more before my opinion is fully formed,” said David Miller.

Gaby Warren, who describes himself as a big Donny McCaslin fan, said he preferred McCaslin in other contexts. McCaslin also is part of Maria Schneider's big band, and plays with Dave Douglas and and Danilo Pérez among many others.

The rain finally stopped for Nashville jazz vocalist Kandace Springs' late-night show, for which listeners gave her 4.3 stars.

“Another one of the highlights of the jazz fest for me,” said Karen Oxorn, who had previously heard Springs. “She was well supported by her bassist and drummer; a treat to see her this time leading a combo. Her piano playing is exquisite and often dipped into the classical repertoire for a moment, a nod to her years of training. Her distinctive vocal styling is captivating and quite unique.”

Other Thursday shows didn't receive sufficient votes to report meaningfully.

Friday, June 30

One way to turn off your jazz audience is to play too loudly, and that's what several listeners complained about with Bixiga 70's show at 7:30 p.m. on the City Hall stage. The group's overall rating was 3.5 stars, but it ranged from very satisfied to very dissatisfied.

“Their music was just way too loud – a theme that showed up regularly at this year's festival events; worse than previous years. (At one of the 11:00am shows early in the festival, a local vocalist in the audience beat me to the punch in speaking with the sound tech to have the overall band volume reduced so we could tolerate the sound levels.) The genre of Bixiga's music was right on, but I couldn't tolerate even being outside the tent at Marion Dewar Square for more than 5 minutes, before leaving,” said one listener.

“Very repetitive. No dynamics. Just a bunch of guys playing as much and loud as possible,” was another comment.

Chris Halford, on the other hand, liked the music. “Another great Latin band which I bet would be even better if the bari sax player had made it as the baritone is key to a lot of bigger band music. As usual in Latin music, the percussion section was great.”

Another listener described it as “Great energy, great percussion, nice moments in the horn section.”

Catharsis' musicianship evoked a standing ovation (photo by John Rogers, provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)
Catharsis' musicianship evoked a standing ovation (photo by John Rogers, provided by the Ottawa Jazz Festival)

At La Nouvelle Scène, the music at the 8 p.m. show was much more nuanced, and received a standing ovation. Listeners gave Ryan Keberle & Catharsis 4.7 stars.

Geoff Zeiss described the group as an “outstanding group of musicians with a political protest theme (which is rapidly growing in the US). We particularly liked Scott Robinson on tenor sax and Jorge Roeder on double bass. Jorge also plays with another favourite of ours, Shai Maestro Trio.”

“Superb musicianship from a stellar band and excellent stage patter by leader Ryan Keberle (that provided great introductions to the songs that set the performances up beautifully) were the perfect formula for the second band at La Nouvelle Scène (a handy venue for me since I live a few blocks away),” said Karen Oxorn. “Each musician excelled in their group interaction and especially their solo moments and I especially enjoyed the beautiful vocals and guitar work by Camila Meza. Whether doing their own take on Dylan and Lennon/McCartney numbers or paying homage to Ornette Coleman, this was a terrific concert that I thoroughly enjoyed.”

Gaby Warren was also enthusiastic: “One of the best concerts at OJF 2017. Excellent compositions played with an exuberant spirit. Camila Meza is not only an excellent vocalist but also a competent guitarist.”

The evening ended with a packed house for young multi-media artist Jacob Collier. His solo performance garnered 3.7 stars.

Karen Oxorn said she was “quite simply blown away watching this energetic multi-instrumentalist and vocalist do his incredible thing. Watching him race around the stage to the various instruments to play and lay down tracks using a looping technique was really something to behold. While it will never be the kind of experience that will be top of list for me, and there is nothing like musicians working together in live performance, I am glad that I had the opportunity to check this out.”

Gaby Warren said he was “pleased finally to experience the music of this British wünderkind. An amazing talent. It's not the type of music that I usually listen to.”

Other Friday shows didn't receive sufficient votes to report meaningfully.

Generally happy surprises

Not all acts at the jazz festival will be familiar to listeners. We also asked how accurate the festival's descriptions and videos were, compared to what people actually saw. The average response was 4.3 out of 5, between accurate and very accurate, with only one so-so.

Almost half the respondents were surprised by some of the groups, pleasantly or unpleasantly.

On the happy side: the younger Canadian musicians in the Jazz Youth Summit and the MDB Quintet. “Canada has a great future in jazz,” one listener concluded after hearing them.

Other groups that exceeded expectations included The Bad Plus, In Orbit, and Caravan Palace. One listener wrote they “did not expect much of a piano+harp duo and attended mostly because of Hiromi. Ended up very impressed with both performers.”

On the unhappy side, one listener pointed out that Youn Sun Nah's performance “was nothing like the video posted on the OIJF site … It hurt my ears and gave me a headache, and I left early.”

Canada Day too perceived as too crowded, regardless of music

When asked about the festival's Canada Day lineup, all but one of the respondents indicated they wouldn't go near the festival that day – just too many people out for the other festivities! “There's no way I'm going downtown on Canada Day” was one response. “Good - just not interested in large crowds” was another. “It'll be an absolute zoo!” was a third.

“I think the lineup is excellent and despite my 'No' reply, I may wander over there. But the lure of staying home and not wading through the Canada Day revelers in the rain is very strong.”

“They never have on Canada day the big shows that I would want to see and it would take something extraordinary to lure me down there and back on the packed buses. No offence to the bands but that's the way it is."

Read's reports from our 2017 Ottawa Jazz Festival survey: