A concert honouring and explaining Duke Ellington. Cuban jazz in collaboration with strings. A musical meditation with improvised bass clarinet. A new, partly-improvised score to a Buster Keaton movie. Those are some of the jazz-related highlights of the 2019 Ottawa Chamberfest, primarily in its late-night Chamberfringe series.

Hilario Durán (photo provided by Ottawa Chamberfest)
Hilario Durán will perform with his jazz trio and with Roman Borys and Annalee Patipatanakoon of the Gryphon Trio on August 2 at Chamberfest (photo provided by Ottawa Chamberfest)

The festival, which will run from July 25 to August 8, released the first part of its 2019 schedule Tuesday. The full lineup will be made public by May 1.

Chamberfest artistic director Roman Borys told OttawaJazzScene.ca that concerts crossing over into jazz and world music fit well into a chamber music festival. Borys performs in the JUNO-winning Gryphon Trio chamber music group, whose repertoire covers both classical composers like Beethoven, and collaborations with jazz and world musicians. He's taken the same approach to programming Chamberfest – looking for similarities and linkages in other traditions to chamber music.

“[Jazz groups] are small ensembles and they rely on each other as musicians to create amazing music that can engage audiences the way a chamber group would. So for me that's always been a very natural place for chamber musicians to turn to – a direction for them to turn to and look to, to expand their voice and their artistic experience. Because people are doing that I feel very legitimately that that kind of programming absolutely needs to be part of the Chamberfest experience.”

The jazz-related concerts at the 2019 Chamberfest range from the jazz mainstream to improvised music to crossover concerts including jazz traditions or musicians.

Pianist and composer Duke Ellington is one of the greats of the jazz canon. On Monday, July 29, American musicologist and composer Rob Kapilow will focus on Ellington in a “What Makes It Great?” talk-and-play show together with the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO), at Dominion Chalmers. It's one of his most popular presentations with big bands, which he recently presented at the University of Toronto.

Kapilow, who has frequently lectured at Chamberfest, will take listeners deep inside the music.

“With the orchestra on-stage, Rob explains and introduces each of the pieces, digs into them, points out various features of each of these pieces, explains what it is that makes them so special and what makes Ellington's touch so magical,” Borys said. “The orchestra follows along in quick succession, plays these excerpts that Rob's organized for them so they're very engaged throughout the whole thing. And at the end of each tear-apart, they play the tune. There's a Q&A at the end to give the audience the opportunity to ask questions, to fill in the gaps that might still be left after Rob finishes.”

The 15-piece OJO will play five compositions by Ellington which Kapilow picked: “It Don’t Mean A Thing”, “Harlem Airshaft”, “Peanut Brittle Brigade”, “Single Petal of a Rose”, and “Chinoiserie”. The orchestra has performed most of these tunes multiple times before, says OJO artistic director Adrian Cho.

Cho has chosen Duke Ellington/Billy Strayhorn pieces for several OJO shows, ranging from its “Lush Life” show a year ago with vocal pieces and the Far East Suite, to its major staging of The Ellington Sacred Concerts in 2010. He said he was delighted to have the orchestra take part in this concert; it's “had a lot of experience playing Ellington in the style and so it definitely feels like a natural fit.” He is not able to be present for the show, so John Geggie will replace him on double bass and Mark Ferguson will direct the orchestra.

Friday, August 2: Toronto-based Afro-Cuban pianist Hilario Durán has been a regular at Chamberfest for many years, playing both in his own bands and with members of the Gryphon Trio. “My work with Hilario in the last 20 years pretty much established my foundation for this Chamberfringe series,” Borys said.

At his late-night concert at La Nouvelle Scène, Durán will perform with his trio with acclaimed Toronto jazz musicians Roberto Occhipinti on bass and Mark Kelso on drums – and for about one-third of the concert they'll be joined by two members of the Gryphon Trio: Borys on cello and Annalee Patipatanakoon on violin.

They'll play original compositions and arrangements by Durán and Occhipinti, both of whom are notable jazz composers, and possibly by others. Borys said that the same musicians will also perform together in Toronto in April, in a similar program.

“Hilario has written some new stuff that we will be playing in April which many people won't have heard. So that's always fun, to get the fingers moving, crazy rhythms, watch out for those trilled forms, it's going to be great!”

Borys has been performing with Durán almost since Durán arrived in Canada, and Durán has written original material and arrangements for the Gryphon Trio.

“He brought with him this amazing Cuban music and this Cuban jazz tradition. The musical training for most Cuban musicians is one that's steeped in the whole Russian school approach to musical training, which doesn't differentiate between somebody who might end up in jazz and somebody who might end up in classical. They all start out being exposed to all of the theory, and the harmony, and the history. So Hilario's just an amazing jazz musician who has all of this training and is always arranging and writing things for strings and orchestrating.”

In 2007, Durán was awarded the 2007 Chico O’Farrill lifetime achievement award in Miami for his outstanding contributions to Afro-Cuban jazz and Latin Jazz. The pianist, composer, and bandleader has won numerous National Jazz Awards, and, in 2013, the Toronto Musicians Association named him Musician of the Year. He's been nominated six times and won twice in the JUNO Awards for his own groups, as well as playing on many of Jane Bunnett's JUNO-winning and nominated albums.

Thursday, July 25: San Francisco pianist Stephen Prutsman will perform his live score to the Buster Keaton silent film College, in a late-night show along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet, at Dominion-Chalmers. “He's created the score, but he's improvising all around it,” Borys said. “He's created his own edit of the film as well.”

Borys describes Prutsman as a “total savant and a brilliant improviser”: “He's generally considered a classical pianist, but he can do anything, whether it's classical or jazz, and he does. His work just jumps from one end of the classical spectrum to playing in jazz clubs. He can do anything at the keyboard with amazing authenticity.”

Wednesday, July 31: Canadian bass clarinetist Jeff Reilly uses “extended techniques, avant-garde sonorities and complex forms of notation” in “the service of musicality and sensitivity”, and has released recordings on the ECM label. He'll perform at Dominion Chalmers with his Sanctuary Trio (with Peter Togni on the church's organ, and Christoph Both on cello) and special guest narrator Tom Allen. They'll be playing from the trio's album To Dream of Silence, a story of personal transformation as told through dreams.

“They're all great improvisers, so for the people who like free-form in music, they're really [there]. I think people in jazz will appreciate that,” Borys said. “They create a heavy, relaxed, contemplative vibe.”

Monday, August 5: The Al Qahwa Ensemble will team Egyptian violin master Alfred Gamil with Toronto jazz vocalist Maryem Tollar, in a concert exploring classical and popular music of the Middle East. “Improvisation is a key and fundamental part of [this music]. It's the kind of departure from the traditional core chamber that I always think [would interest] people who are interested in jazz – not to mention that Maryem Tollar is just such an amazing and gifted, beautiful singer.”

Tuesday, August 6: Toronto's Queer Songbook Orchestra is dedicated to “exploring and uplifting queer narrative” in popular music from the last 100 years – including jazz – and “bringing forward obscured LGBTQ2S historical narrative”. The 12-piece ensemble, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, includes jazz vocalist Alex Samaras and bassist Dan Fortin. It takes familiar songs – for example, by jazz composer Billy Strayhorn – and reinterprets and rearranges them in order to give listeners “a new entry point into familiar works”.

Borys said he knew most of the ensemble's musicians: they are “chamber music people” with “a particular lens and artistic point of view … I've always wanted to have them [at Chamberfest]. They're just great musicians and it's great music.”

Other concerts of possible interest to jazz fans:

Friday, July 26: NYC guitarist and composer Benjamin Verdery will present a concert ranging from Bach to Jimi Hendrix, including “his insights into what is that ties all that music together” (10 p.m., Ottawa Art Gallery). The previous evening, Verdery will collaborate with the St. Lawrence String Quartet to present the Canadian premiere of a piece especially written for them by guitarist Bryce Dessner, who plays in the indie band The National.

Tuesday, July 30: CBC host Tom Allen will present his latest cabaret show, called Exosphere, with vocalist Patricia O'Callaghan. It uses music and story-telling to talk about the future of water, Borys said.

Saturday, August 3: Ladom Ensemble: Rumi’s Fables. "The story of a hero who is looking for a treasure and encounters various adventures along the way". It is told by a narrator, Parmida, with original music composed by Iranian-Canadian Composers of Toronto, and performed by the Ladom Ensemble (cello, percussion, accordion, piano).

Chamberfringe is one of six “streams” of music which the festival presents, from early music to core chamber to contemporary. In past years, it has included mainstream jazz, jazz musicians playing classical music, classical musicians playing jazz, free improv, contemporary compositions, pop and folk crossovers with classical, and simply unclassifiable concerts. Borys said that Chamberfringe in particular “embraces my own idea of the limitless possibilities that might exist for any chamber musician.”

The Chamberfringe concerts will be presented in three primary venues: La Nouvelle Scène and De La Salle High School (both in Lowertown), and the Ottawa Art Gallery (downtown, next to the Rideau Centre). This is the first year that the festival has presented shows in the Ottawa Art Gallery.

Early bird passes and selected single tickets are on sale now: online at www.chamberfest.com/tickets, or by phone or in person at the Chamberfest offices. Early bird prices are in force until April 30. Chamberfringe single tickets go on sale May 1.

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