Eager listeners wait to be admitted to an NAC Fourth Stage concert at the Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2007
Eager listeners wait to be admitted to an NAC Fourth Stage concert at the Jazz Festival. ©Brett Delmage, 2007
The 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival is almost dividing into two festivals: outside in the park for the jazz crossover fans, and inside in smaller venues for the connoisseurs.

There are notable exceptions, of course, but this year's Main Stage headline and OLG late-night series in the park are particularly heavy on artists with pop, blues, world, and other non-jazz origins. The featured artists in Confederation Park on the first three nights tell the tale: Robert Plant, the former lead vocalist with Led Zeppelin, pop songwriter Elvis Costello, and chanteuse K.D. Lang.

At the late-night OLG stage, there's hip-hop with SHAD, fado with Ana Moura, folk rock/alt-country with Elliott BROOD, and "Alternative / Melodramatic Popular Song / Pop" with the Peptides.

In contrast, the the Friends series at the National Arts Centre Studio will feature jazz stalwarts like vocalist Kurt Elling, pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Joshua Redman, bassist Christian McBride, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler with pianist Myra Melford, guitarist Richard Galliano, and pianists Gonzalo Rubalcaba and Vijay Iyer. Similarly, the Improv Invitational series at the NAC Fourth Stage will showcase a wide range of experimental jazz from artists from France, Japan, Israel, Scandinavia, and Canada.

In 2011, the announced line-up includes six arguably non-jazz headliners at the Festival. This is a substantial increase from previous years. From 2001 to 2010, the number of non-jazz headliners ranged from 0 to 4 each year.

Non-Jazz artists in the last ten years of the Ottawa Jazz Festival

Year

Non-Jazz artists
2011
6
Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, K.D. Lang, Youssou N'Dour, Paco de Lucia (flamenco), and Lucky Peterson (blues)
20103
Smokey Robinson, Bettye LaVette, and Sharon Jones
2009
1
Al Green
2008
2
Salif Keita, Gladys Knight
2007
2
The Neville Brothers, Cesaria Evoria
20064
Maceo Parker, Bedouin Soundclash, Mavis Staples, Blind Boys of Alabama
2005
0

20041
Youssou N'Dour
2003
0

20021
Yerba Buena
2001
1
Nitin Sawhney  

At the festival launch on April 13, programming director Petr Cancura defended the choices, describing the three Main Stage artists as "superstars who cross all musical boundaries" and "iconic artists who have constantly reinvented themselves to keep their voices fresh and their music interesting."

"I consider myself a jazz musician, and I love the new Robert Plant CD. His last one, the one that won six Grammys with Alison Krauss, was huge on my playlist, but also I like a lot of the bluegrass and country things. I really like what he's doing: it's very rootsy and it's very original. Of the headliners, I think he's actually very relevant. I can't speak for everybody else's taste but I think a lot of people are going to like it. I like it."

Cancura also argued that having more popular headliners allowed the festival to bring in excellent but lesser-known acts. "I really believe that one of the key things to remember at a festival is that, in order to expose [Norwegian jazz groups] Atomic, and The Thing, musicians like that, to a wider jazz audience, is why we're programming the headliners. Otherwise it wouldn't happen."

What will this mean for purist jazz fans?

After looking at the schedule, long-time Ottawa jazz fan Gaby Warren said he won't be in the park very much, and instead will be at the NAC for the 20-odd concerts he's looking forward to.

But, while Confederation Park can hold 10,000 people, the Studio only holds about 300 people, and the Fourth Stage about 160. So those who wish to hear jazz names may have to line up earlier, or even in some cases buy tickets on top of a Bronze pass.

According to the Festival website, Gold Passes ($282.50) guarantee access to all venues as long as you arrive 15 minutes in advance, as do tickets. Bronze pass ($158.20) holders can attend Studio and Fourth Stage events if there is space once Gold Pass and ticket holders are accommodated. The last time Brad Mehldau was at the Ottawa festival, he filled the National Library auditorium twice; the time before, he filled Confederation Park. This may mean an overflow demand at his two concerts with Joshua Redman.

Darcy James Argue conducting the Secret Society at IAJE Toronto. ©Brett Delmage, 2008
Darcy James Argue conducting the Secret Society at IAJE Toronto. ©Brett Delmage, 2008

The Canadian jazz contingent

There are exceptions to this dichotomy. The artists in the early-evening "Great Canadian Jazz" series in the park are all well-known in jazz circles. Cancura described them as "on the vanguard of jazz, musicians who are revitalizing improvised music and taking us in new directions."

He particularly noted the big band Secret Society, led by ex-pat Darcy James Argue and featuring Canadian trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, which will be playing the OLG late-night stage. Canadian jazz artists in the early evening slot include Juno-nominated Toronto singer Laila Biala, Playground (led by Toronto drummer Mark McLean with saxophonist Kelly Jefferson and pianist David Braid), and two groups led by Montreal pianists: Francois Bourassa and Marianne Trudel. Those who enjoyed the Doxas Brothers' gig with John Abercrombie last September at Paradiso should look forward to Chet Doxas' Quartet. And Cancura particularly recommended the Jacek Kochan Quartet with Canadian ex-pat saxophonist Seamus Blake.

And even in the main shows there are some unmistakable jazz acts: Chick Corea's Return to Forever IV, and Daniel Lanois' Black Dub featuring drummer Brian Blade.

Recommendations

Cancura recommended several European musicians "that may not be as well-known here":

  • two "really strong" Norwegian groups: The Thing, and Atomic
  • Tigran Hamasyan, winner of the Thelonious Monk piano competition
  • trumpeter Erik Truffaz

and

  • Unsupervised, "a cool group from Vancouver"
  • free improv group Way out Northwest, with Vancouver drummer Dylan van der Schyff and British saxophonist John Butcher

At the launch, local jazz drummer and movie reviewer Robert Fontaine (who also has done translation for the festival) recommended four shows:

  • Pilc/ Moutin/ Hoenig, "for the high level of musical dialogue they achieve and because of drummer Ari Hoenig who brings melody as much as percussion to his music."
  • trumpeter Erik Truffaz, known mostly for his tight, Miles Davis influenced fusion grooves, here backing up singer Sophie Hunger "who possesses a lovely, versatile voice. She can sing many styles with authority, from rock to beautiful ballads."
  • trumpeter Kenny Wheeler with pianist Myra Melford: "in the intimacy of the Studio, the delicacy of Wheeler`s playing and the beauty of his compositions will be showcased."
  • singer and harmonica player James Cotton, "one of the great bluesmen", whom Fontaine saw many years ago at Le Hibou.
Increased local involvement

Four local artists (instead of the usual two) are being featured in the main evening concerts. Pianist Brian Browne's Trio and Don Cummings' Back-Talk Organ Trio will each appear on the main stage. Mike Essoudry's Mash Potato Mashers will open for Pink Martini on the first Sunday, but Cancura said that the Mashers would play while marching through and around the park, rather than from the stage. And the quirky vocal duo The Peptides will be on the late-night OLG Stage.

The Festival will be producing two shows in a new partnership with the Mercury Lounge: Toronto's percussion-jazz orchestra Drumhand on the first Friday, and Israeli-Mexican guitarist Ilan Bar-Lavi on the second Saturday. The last time the Festival guide mentioned local club events was in 2004.

Cancura said this was a big step, and he wanted to continue to get clubs involved in the festival – as well as talking to local jazz musicians to discover how the festival could be more of a part of the Ottawa jazz community. "I grew up in this community, I love this scene, and I think there's a lot that can be done throughout the year."

However, the number of opportunities to hear local artists at the festival has been reduced, with the closure of one noon-hour stage by the sponsor, and the non-renewal of the afternoon workshop series because of lack of grant money.

Other festival news

A number of festival crowd-pleasers from past years have returned: Pink Martini, Bela Fleck and his original Flecktones, Youssou N'Dour, and Return to Forever. Gord Grdina,  Médéric Collignon, and Kurt Elling, who each played festival winter-season concerts in the last two years, also return for separate indoor concerts.

The jams will still be organized by veteran John Geggie and his long-time trio but will move closer to Confederation Park into the lounge of Arc The Hotel (see story).

The first four rows of seats in the park will again be reserved for higher-priced "Platinum" seating (that evening only, chair included, no discount for pass-holders). Two days after the launch, the availability of premium "Platinum" seating for Robert Plant was "very limited". The Platinum seating availability for K.D. Lang was "limited".

There will be no jazz festival shows in the National Library Auditorium, for the first time in decades.

    – Alayne McGregor

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