Robert Wannell is saying goodbye to Ottawa – with jazz standards.
On Thursday, August 22, the young guitarist presents a show at the Art House Cafe featuring the music he's found he loves best: classic jazz from the 1950s to 70s. He'll play with his frequent musical companions – double bassist Chris Pond, and drummer José Monchito Hernández García – plus saxophonist Sam Cousineau, who has recently returned to Ottawa.
“I wasn't planning on going out with a bang or anything. I just wanted to play one last fun show in Ottawa before I head out.”
Wannell promises a set list of lesser-known tunes. “The idea was I didn't want to play songs that have been played a thousand times before, like 'All the Things You Are'. The classic standards that get thrown around at a jazz jam, you know? Not that those are bad songs or anything, but we just wanted to pull from a different pool of music.”
They'll also include some better-known Hank Mobley tunes, but the band wanted to get “a little deeper into the music, to find songs that we all like that aren't necessarily run-of-the-mill jazz standards. Cool, harmonically-interesting songs.”
It's a choice of music which Wannell has been gradually moving towards, in his four years studying at Humber College in Toronto and this last year back in Ottawa.
“I decided I didn't like fusion as much and I didn't like other types of jazz – and I found my focus: I really liked straight-ahead, 1960s, 50s, 70s even. That area of jazz. I think I found that as I progressed at Humber.”
“Right now I'm kinda just really into straight-ahead, old jazz standards, learning the tradition really – going back, checking out Lester Young, checking out Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, the lineage of jazz. I'm working on some original music, but it's very heavily rooted in the jazz tradition – nothing too ethereal or spacey or anything.”
Wannell grew up in Ottawa, playing in the Nepean All-City Jazz Band and in jazz combos at Nepean High School. His high-school music teacher, Jean-François Fauteux, introduced him to jazz – and to “the idea that you can do this for a living, that you can do it not just as a hobby, but essentially as a career.”
He started out on piano, listening to Bill Evans: “I liked the sound of lush chords and the rhythmic intensity of it”. After he heard George Benson play “Breezin'” he moved to guitar. These days, he said, he listens to a wide variety of jazz musicians on different instruments: most recently pianists Mulgrew Miller and Keith Jarrett.
In 2013, he was in the JazzEd group directed by Roddy Ellias which performed at the Ottawa Jazz Festival. “That was a great program for senior high school students that really wanted to get into the music, rehearse every week. Getting the chance to work with all those great people Roddy brought in: Petr Cancura, Mark Ferguson, Jesse Stewart, and bunch of really creative people in the city that had a lot to offer. It blows your mind when you're that age.”
Starting at Humber in 2014 pushed him further. “There was just an extreme learning curve. Just the overall playing level at Humber, this was something I wasn't used to hearing. It was a little intimidating at first. It forces you to really get yourself together, to dig deeper and find how to fit into the scene in there.”
Humber's jazz program crosses over into a wider range of music than those at the University of Toronto or McGill University – which allowed him to “explore music, just see what it had to offer” and then decide he preferred straight-ahead.
Wannell returned to Ottawa last year. He has been teaching and playing around town, mostly gigs at Art House Cafe, and most frequently with The Homecoming Quartet, a group he, Pond, Garcia, and saxophonist Caelan Roberge-Toll formed last fall. The group's name was chosen by Garcia to reflect how they had recently come home to Ottawa after studying or living elsewhere – and were “trying to figure out the scene together”.
He's found Ottawa congenial: “Coming from Toronto, I found that I was just as happy playing music in Ottawa as I was in Toronto.”
“I used to have this romantic idea that to be really great you had to live in a city like New York or Los Angeles [where] there's an extremely high level expected. But I think that's not necessarily true. Great music can happen in any city. Ottawa's not a city where you would expect to see really amazing music, but there's a lot of amazing stuff happening here.”
But he's decided to leave Ottawa permanently, and head back to Toronto. Part of the impetus is to complete his degree at Humber. He still needs to finish his fourth-year recording project, in which he'll create an professional-quality EP of his own music, which he hopes to publicly release.
He's also looking to get pushed further in his career. “Not that I feel uncomfortable now. Ottawa is definitely a great creative city as well. There's lots of stuff going on here, but in Toronto you have U of T and Humber, you have just all these different people coming from across the country, pushing to really find yourself musically, I guess.”
“Toronto's great, because you have all the Canadian legends living in one city. There's music at an extremely high quality every single night. You can go to the Rex, you can go to the Jazz Bistro, you can go to all these great venues that host really wonderful music. Basically every night of the week, and also not only the older generation, but the younger generation. A really creative scene – like a lot of different stuff happening, not just straight-ahead jazz, but like chamber music. Everyone's putting together great work at an extremely high level.”
And for the future? Possibly a Masters degree, at U of T or elsewhere, “depending on how I feel after I finish my degree at Humber.”
“So far I'm just trying to figure out how to balance teaching and playing and working, figuring out how to survive as a musician [he laughs]. Doing gigs, writing music, maybe relocating from Toronto to a different city like Montreal or Vancouver. Who knows?”
But for right now, he's thinking about his final Ottawa show. “It's going to be a really fun night of music. I would say come and hear the rest of the band – come and hear Sam Cousineau. He just came back from North Texas State and he's sounding amazing. Everyone in the band sounds great, so I think it's worth coming out to see everyone else in the band. Ignore me!”
The Robert Wannell Quartet (Robert Wannell on guitar, José Monchito Hernández García on drums, Chris Pond on double bass, and Sam Cousineau on alto sax) will perform at the Art House Café on Thursday, August 22, from 8:30 to 11 p.m. Doors open at 8 p.m., and the cover charge is $10, payable at the door. Seating is limited so arrive early for the best seats.
The Art House Café is at 555 Somerset Street West, at Bay Street, in Centretown. OC Transpo route 11 serves it, and it is also walking distance (10 minutes) from the Bay station on the Transitway. Try the OC Transpo Trip Planner to find your trip to this show!