Why do we go hear jazz at festivals? To see our friends? To chill out on a summer night with great music? To catch up on acts we loved years ago? To get surprised by the next new thing? All the above, but in particular to hear music and musicians we wouldn't otherwise encounter.

Fred Frith kept us awake with his prepared guitar during the Guelph Jazz Festival's Nuit Blanche ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Fred Frith kept us awake with his prepared guitar during the Guelph Jazz Festival's Nuit Blanche ©Brett Delmage, 2012
And that's what OttawaJazzScene.ca certainly heard (and covered) in 2012, in Ottawa and elsewhere.

Headlined by Montreal pianist Oliver Jones, the Ottawa Jazz Festival presented its inaugural Winter Jazz Festival on February 2 to 4. It featured a wide range of jazz styles from local, Canadian, and American performers, with two to three acts per evening. Our review: “a diverse, interesting, and crowd-pleasing mix of music”.

Then the summer 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival avoided the controversies of 2011, with more emphasis on jazz. While four of the headliners (including Steve Martin and Daryl Hall) were non-jazz, the festival balanced these better with major jazz names like Brian Blade, Kenny Barron, Jack deJohnette, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Bill Frisell, and Esperanza Spalding.

Bassist Dave Holland was the festival's first artist-in-residence, with a three-concert series, including the first public performance of his new group, Prism.

Outstanding performances we heard included: The David Mott Quintet, Brian Blade and the Fellowship Band, Prism, The Mingus Big Band, Eliane Elias Brasileira, Marc Ribot, HEXENTRIO, Francois Houle and Benoit Delbecq, Roddy Ellias/Marc Copland/Adrian Vedady, the Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo Duo, The Rob Garcia 4, and Colin Stetson.

Despite a substantial increase in pass prices in 2012, the festival ran a small deficit, although this was easily covered by previous years' surpluses. Box office revenues dropped 16% compared to 2011.

The TD Jazz Youth Summit, which brings outstanding young jazz musicians from across Canada to learn and play at the festival, had been threatened by funding cuts by the National Capital Commission. However, the festival did continue it for 2012, and later announced it was saved by a grant from TD which would continue in future years. Two Ottawa musicians participated in this year's Summit band: Emily Denison (trumpet) and Daniel Desgroseilliers (trombone). Emily is now studying at the University of Toronto, while Daniel is at the University of Ottawa and playing with the Capital Youth Jazz Orchestra.

Steve Swallow,  Dave Dougles, Chet and Jim Doxas: making jazz at Chamberfest  ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Steve Swallow, Dave Dougles, Chet and Jim Doxas: making jazz at Chamberfest ©Brett Delmage, 2012
The Ottawa Chamberfest continued its late-night jazz programming in 2012, with excellent shows, some of which combined classical and jazz musicians in fruitful combinations. Violinist Mark Fewer played a three-hour extravaganza to celebrate his 40th year, starting with early music and moving all the way to hot swing, including some lovely jazz and improvised music. The Cuban Connection concert informed Ottawa audiences how the Gryphon Trio chamber ensemble has forged a connection with Toronto Latin jazz musicians at occasional Lula Lounge appearances.

With Chamber Elements, cartographic composer Scott Thomson used the National Gallery of Canada as his sounding board for an extraordinary part-improvised/part-composed piece which featured eight brass players against Christine Duncan's 30-member Element Choir.

Most impressive of all was the concert by Riverside, the group led by Chet Doxas and Dave Douglas, with Steve Swallow and Jim Doxas. It pays tribute to 50s/60s jazz innovator Jimmy Giuffre, through both original compositions and Giuffre's material. The audience which packed St. Brigids heard wonderful ensemble playing and some compelling compositions, which we hope to hear again when the CD is released. Riverside recorded it the week after this concert.

The City of Gatineau continued to offer some solid Quebec and Ottawa jazz and world-beat musicians in free summer concerts, particularly at the Le Festival de jazz Desjardins in Aylmer in late July. Bluesfest had three jazz acts this year (an improvement over 2011): Norah Jones, The Souljazz Orchestra, and Lucas Haneman.

The Merrickville Jazz Festival celebrated its second year, with four days of music in restaurants, churches, and halls all over the town, featuring many local jazz names, while raising money for a good cause: free books for preschoolers.

And only a short trip away...

Ottawa's Mash Potato Mashers motivated the Montreal masses as part of their cross-country jazzfest tour   ©Alayne McGregor, 2012
Ottawa's Mash Potato Mashers motivated the Montreal masses as part of their cross-country jazzfest tour ©Alayne McGregor, 2012
The Montreal and Guelph Jazz Festivals offered interesting opportunities to hear jazz which you couldn't hear in Ottawa, and both are within easy public transit or driving distance of Ottawa (2 and 6 hours respectively). Both festivals also had their own complementary vibes, quite different from Ottawa's festival: Montreal being the largest and one of the best run jazz festivals, and Guelph having a warm, small town friendliness. OttawaJazzScene.ca took to the road, to tell Ottawa listeners more about them this year – and to catch some great performances for our own ears.

At Montreal, where we attended the second week, the first two groups we reviewed were from Ottawa: the Mash Potato Mashers, and the Souljazz Orchestra, both of which drew large and delighted crowds.

The Montreal Jazz Festival was its usual combination of high jazz and crowd-pleasers. We concentrated on the jazz, particularly Canadians, and were particularly delighted to hear and review or interview: Toronto pianist Robi Botos (just after he won the Grand Prix), Lorraine Desmarais, Ernesto Cervini, Frank Lozano with Francois Bourassa and Thom Gossage and Adrian Vedady, Marc Copland, Remi Bolduc's 50th birthday party, Joey Calderazzo and Aaron Parks, Samuel Blais, Chet Doxas, and Tord Gustavsen playing solo piano.

The Guelph Jazz Festival takes more chances than any other jazz festival in Canada (with the possible exception of Victoriaville), and almost all of them turned out well in 2012. The daytime colloquium contained some unexpected gems of analysis and information (including how jazz helped one community recover after a tornado), and a fascinating improvisation among musicians from around the world.

We couldn't hear all the evening and afternoon concerts, but we were delighted with what we did: South African pianist Abdullah Ibrahim playing one long improvisation, moving from melody to melody to make a harmonically-consistent whole; British guitarist Fred Frith doing things to and with his prepared guitars you wouldn't have thought possible, but to produce integral sounds, not just for effect; Colin Stetson making an entire church sing with his bass saxophone; ROVA's Ascension rethinking John Coltrane's composition with 21st century instruments, but keeping its essence; Michael Stuart and three other fine Toronto jazz musicians producing a fine interpretation of mid-60s Coltrane, despite typhoon-like conditions nearby; the collaboration of singer Mary Margaret O'Hara with cellist Peggy Lee and other Vancouver jazz musicians to create a blend of music that sounded quite different from any of them separately; and a rare chance to hear Charles Spearin's Juno-winning The Happiness Project, which combines instrumental improvisation with taped interviews from Spearin's neighbours.

Hearing more of the musical offerings at Guelph's Nuit Blanche than before, we still finally collapsed at 4 a.m., after a cymbal-only performance by percussionist Germaine Liu and a wonderful tribute to John Cage by Quartetski, and didn't quite see the night through.

To produce a successful festival is a mixture of careful balancing and planning, knowing your audience, picking good musicians, and hoping for decent weather – and taking the risks necessary to get a great show. The festivals we attended in 2012 took those risks, and overall were highly successful.

    – Alayne McGregor

What were your favourite 2012 festival concerts and experiences? Share your thoughts with other jazz fans on our Facebook discussion group, or email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and let us know.