Christine Jensen ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Christine Jensen (centre) with several of her favourite jazz collaborators, male and female. Jensen will lead an '=' jazz orchestra at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival, performing the works of both female and male Canadian jazz composers ©Brett Delmage, 2013

The Ottawa Jazz Festival announced Friday that it will focus more on women artists and on jazz in 2019 – but is presenting them in noticeably fewer total concerts.

The festival will showcase women jazz stars including Norah Jones, Omara Portuondo, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Patricia Barber, Ranee Lee, Terri Lyne Carrington, Melissa Aldana, and Christine Jensen – as well as perennial festival favourites Brad Mehldau, Donny McCaslin, Gilad Hekselman, Joey Baron, and The Shuffle Demons.


See the full 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival lineup


In a press release, the festival said it was “making deliberate curatorial choices that focus and highlight the contributions of women in music. You will find them on every stage, playing every instrument, as leaders, composers, arrangers, improvisers, collaborators and more.” Of the ticketed concerts so far announced, one-half (26 of 51) present groups that are led or co-led by women. In 2018, by comparison, one-third (22 of the 67) were led or co-led by women.

This year's festival will run for nine days from June 21 to July 1 – but with a substantially slimmer schedule. It will present only 55 (51 confirmed, 4 to be announced) ticketed shows, a reduction of almost one in five concerts compared to last year. In 2018, it scheduled 67 ticketed shows; 72 in 2017; 63 in 2016; 82 in 2015; and 86 in 2014.

For the first time, the festival will have no programming on one day (Monday, June 24). It will program fewer indoor shows: 14 in seven days in the National Arts Centre Fourth Stage, and six during five days in the NAC Studio. On the festival's final weekend, there will only be two indoor concerts.

Reductions were announced last fall at the festival's annual meeting of members, when a $198,577 deficit from 2018 was also revealed.

Canadian jazz easier to catch in 2019?

Fans of Canadian jazz may find it easier to hear more of those groups this year with programming changes in the outdoor shows. Traditionally, the time to hear Canadian jazz was the early “Great Canadian” show at 6:30 p.m. on the festival's main stage – but now many of those shows have moved to 7:30 p.m. slot on the second stage, which had previously concentrated on pop and singer-songwriters.

This year, the 6:30 p.m. time slot will feature two out-of-town groups: the Montreal salsa/cumbia band Los Anormales, and JUNO-nominated Toronto saxophonist Alison Young, who is originally from Ottawa. Three local groups – the Mark Ferguson Quartet, Rebecca Noelle, and Angelique Francis – have been scheduled, and two spots are still open.

The 7:30 p.m. slot includes jazz groups from across Canada, including award-winning vocalists Ranee Lee from Montreal and Laila Biali from Toronto, Baritone Madness (three baritone saxophonists with Calgary bassist Kodi Hutchinson and Vancouver pianist Tyler Hornby), the Easley Quartet from Atlantic Canada, Montreal pianist Emie R Roussel, and Toronto's The Shuffle Demons who are still high-energy, high-talent, and over-the-top after 35 years.

This may make it easier for listeners to hear these shows as well as the 6 p.m. indoor shows at the NAC Fourth Stage, although they will continue to conflict with the 7 p.m. NAC Studio series.

Also of interest to Canadian jazz lovers is a Sunday, June 23 concert at the NAC Fourth Stage: The Romance of Improvisation. It's a tribute to the music of prolific Canadian film composer Eldon Rathburn, performed by five acclaimed Canadians (pianist Marianne Trudel, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, saxophonist Petr Cancura, bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Jim Doxas) , and arranged by Ottawa musicians Adrian Matte and Allyson Rogers.

Star power in the NAC Studio

The NAC Studio series will again showcase major jazz names – and particularly vocalists.

Patricia Barber and her trio will perform from her new album Higher, her first in six years, a collection of originals including an art song cycle which she debuted with soprano Renée Fleming (Saturday, June 22). Cyrille Aimée – winner of the Montreux Jazz Festival Vocal Competition, the Sarah Vaughn International Jazz Vocal Competition and finalist in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Competition – will dive deeply into the Broadway songbook of composer Stephen Sondheim, including a few famous songs like “Not While I'm Around” and “Move On” (Thursday, June 27).

Cécile McLorin Salvant, the 2010 Thelonious Monk Competition winner and three-time jazz vocal GRAMMY winner (2015, 2017, 2018), will play two back-to-back shows on Saturday, June 29. Her latest CD, The Window, is a duo album with pianist Sullivan Fortner and also featuring saxophonist Melissa Aldana on one track.

Fiery NYC saxophonist Donny McCaslin has played with everyone from Maria Schneider to David Bowie (and with Ottawa double bassist John Geggie). His quintet will present the “wide range” of moods and textures in his new album, Blow (Friday, June 28).

And on Tuesday, June 25, JUNO-winning composer and bandleader Christine Jensen will debut her latest “=” (equal) Jazz Orchestra. It's a joint project with festival programming director Petr Cancura which will showcase the work of Canadian jazz composers.

“The repertoire will consist of 50% female composers and 50% male composers,” Jensen told OttawaJazzScene.ca, “and the orchestra will also reflect that diversity. I am excited to be working with the new generation of Canadians making a mark with their forward thinking on the international scene, including Anna Weber, Tara Davidson, William Carn, Marianne Trudel and a host of others in the band.”

Few Canadian musicians are better suited to this task. Besides being an acclaimed composer for large and small jazz ensembles, Jensen has led her own big band for many years and regularly conducts L'Orchestre National de Jazz de Montreal in themed concerts. Her previous big band festival show in 2015 was “filled with evocative solos, fine ensemble playing, and an overall abundant sound.”

From free jazz to fusion to favourites in the NAC Fourth Stage

The NAC Fourth Stage remains the place to go for modern jazz from Canada and abroad, ranging from Israeli Gilad Hekselman's fluent guitar playing, to the impassioned saxophone of Chilean Melissa Aldana (another Thelonious Monk competition winner), to the fusion of jazz/classical/rock in Vancouver guitar/oud player Gord Grdina's music. Russian jazz drummer Oleg Butman, the younger brother of conductor Igor Butman, plays in a trio with approachable but wide-ranging music.

American bassist Thomas Morgan, who received accolades for his previous festival shows with Bill Frisell and Jim Black,will play in a trio with Danish guitarist Jakob Bro and American drummer Joey Baron (whose performance with the “Now Trio” in 2017 was appreciated by OttawaJazzScene.ca listeners).

New Zealand-born saxophonist Hayden Chisholm (who now lives in Belgrade, Serbia) has two dates. The first is with with his long-time trio with German drummer Jochen Rückert and New Zealand bassist Matt Penman, and the second with a string ensemble.

On the avant-garde side: the classically-influenced NYC trio of flutist, saxophonist, and composer Anna Webber (with pianist Matt Mitchell and Montreal/NYC drummer John Hollenbeck); the risk-taking and border-shifting duo of Canadian pianist Kris Davis with German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock; the Italian/Canadian quartet ITACA with Vancouver clarinetist François Houle and Toronto drummer Nick Fraser; the highly exploratory and iconoclastic duo of French bassist Joëlle Léandre and Montreal clarinetist Lori Freedman.

Special series – not

The festival has also not announced any special series for 2019. In previous years, it had been known for special series showcasing international jazz. In 2018, for example, OLG (the Ontario Lotteries and Gaming Commission) presented the Play North Series (jazz from Northern countries), and the Israeli Embassy sponsored the Focus Israel series.

Fewer rock and pop acts this year

Fewer, controversial pop and rock acts fill the festival program this year, although they will again dominate the main stage on both weekends. Last year, they were one-third of the program; this year they are just under one-quarter.

The nearest of these to jazz is Chicago (Sunday, June 23) – which describes itself as a “rock and roll band with horns” and once appeared on a 70s TV special honouring Duke Ellington.

Other headliners include R&B singer Judith Hill (who had a late-night concert at the 2016 jazzfest), hip-hop band The Roots (a 2015 festival star), and soul singer Lee Fields and the Expressions (here for a late-night show in 2011).

Jazz will dominate the main stage mid-week, with jazz/pop vocalist Norah Jones (Tuesday, June 25), the new quintet of American pianist Brad Mehldau (Wednesday, June 26), drummer Terri Lyne Carrington and her group Social Science (Thursday, June 27), and Cuban jazz star Omara Portuondo on her Last Kiss tour (Friday, June 28).

As before, the late-night After Dark series is dominated by non-jazz acts, including for the first time a DJ. The exception is pianist Jerome Klein from Luxembourg, whose avant-garde trio show promises “an array of contrasts in a minimalist setting, slipping into a misty mood of melancholy and dark tones” (Sunday, June 23). And if you're looking for high-spirited Balkan-oriented music with horns, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra from Toronto will definitely oblige (Sunday, June 30).

Popular jams continue: same time, same place

With this line-up, jazz lovers will have no conflicts (or really much choice) about where to go late at night – to the jazz jams at Grill 41 on the main floor of the nearby Lord Elgin Hotel, where they've been located since 2016. The jams start at 10:30 p.m. and go into the wee hours; it's advisable to show up early to get a seat. The host band has not yet been announced.

Also yet to be announced are any related shows at local venues, other free shows on Canada Day, and the free local and student jazz series. These are normally confirmed later in the spring.

The festival main stage will again be located at Ottawa City Hall as it was in 2018, although the festival has said it plans to reorganize the site plan. The eastern half of Confederation Park, the festival's traditional location, is still under construction for the city's massive sewage tunnel project.

The festival's second stage, for its 7:30 p.m., late-night, and local shows, will again be located in the western half of Confederation Park, near Elgin Street. The festival had a third stage in 2018 in Lisgar Field on the south side of City Hall, but ran into problems with noise complaints with late-night shows there. It has only scheduled shows this year on two stages.

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