Updated June 10, 2013
Rachel Russo, the owner of the AlphaSoul Café in Hintonburg, is practically bubbling with enthusiasm as she describes how she offered her restaurant as the new location for the 2013 Ottawa Jazz Festival jams.
The late-night jam sessions had been in limbo for months, when one evening Russo saw the announcement that the festival was looking for a sponsor and location for them.
“I had always meant to do something like that, but I didn't think that this year we were quite ready. But then when I realized they didn't have one, I thought, 'Omigod, we have to step up to the plate.' ”
And that led to the festival's announcement on May 21 that the jams would be held at AlphaSoul, with John Geggie again leading two slightly different house bands. It will be the first time that the jams have been located outside downtown, and not within walking distance of Confederation Park.
Russo said she bought a festival Gold Pass this year for the first time. She had attended the festival in past years – but not the jams. She had planned to use the pass to investigate getting involved as a festival venue next year, but the “brilliant opportunity” to host and sponsor the jams moved the schedule up.
“I really want the jazz to do well in this city, and we've had a number of clubs in this city close down, and it's just awful because I think it [should be] quite the reverse – we should have more clubs, we should have more places that have more music, we should have more places that have jazz because it's so vibrant, it's so alive. It's so indicative of where life is going.”
AlphaSoul's Friday jazz nights have appeared in OttawaJazzScene.ca's listings since it opened in 2011. Jazz trios, usually anchored by saxophonist Adrian Matte, play there three Fridays a month, and Matte's Ottawa Folklore Centre Jazz Band plays on the second Friday. The Latin Jazz Quartet led by Allyson Rogers plays there one Saturday evening a month, and the café has also hosted some special jazz events.
“Every so often, someone will come with their horn to play with the band, or a guitar, or they'll sing. And so we already have in a way a kind of jamming – very informal – and it's always so exciting!” Russo said.
In an announcement on May 21 the Ottawa Jazz Festival wrote that “A small but vocal group of Jazz Festival audience members who frequent the jam sessions were disappointed by the prospect of a jam-less festival. Alpha Soul [sic], emerging in popularity as a jazz venue offering live jazz every Friday evening, offered two essential components to allow the festival to keep the much-loved series: a venue, and sponsorship.”
Festival executive producer Catherine O'Grady was quoted in the announcement saying, “The Partnership with Alpha Soul allows the jazz community to continue to enjoy the jam and takes some of the financial load off of the Festival in providing the experience.”
The Café is located at 1015 Wellington Street West, toward the eastern end of Hintonburg, and 3.5 km west of Confederation Park [View map]. Last year's jam location (Arc the Hotel) was two blocks from the park. From 2008 to 2010, the jams were held at the Crowne Plaza (now the Delta) on Lyon Street at the western end of downtown.
Russo said the café seats about 50 people, with a patio on the sidewalk at front. It's long and narrow, with a coffee bar/bar in the middle.
Previous festival jams were held in hotels where musicians were housed, making it easy for them to drop in for an hour or so before going to sleep. Russo said she thought that the festival will shuttle musicians to the café.
Double bassist John Geggie will return to host the jams, but with two different trios because, he said, “at this stage, not everyone was available.” The festival said he would be playing with drummer Jim Doxas and pianist Josh Rager, both from Montreal, from June 20-25, and with Ottawa guitarist Roddy Ellias and Toronto's Nick Fraser from June 26-30. Geggie told OttawaJazzScene.ca that he is not, in fact, available for the first three nights of the festival and a substitute will be found for him for those nights.
(Update June 10: From June 20-23, the host band will be Josh Rager, bassist Fraser Hollins, and drummer Rich Irwin, all from Montreal.)
Festival programming director Petr Cancura wanted to “shake up” the jams, Geggie said.
“I think it's an interesting idea to have different people. It's unfortunate that Nancy [Walker] couldn't do it. But the people we're picking are really strong players that I have nice personalities, and I think it will be nice to have Roddy playing and doing things like that. So I think it will be just a nice change, just to switch it around for something different.”
This will be Geggie's 13th year hosting the jazz festival jams.For almost all of that time his steady trio had been Walker on piano and Fraser on drums, with occasional substitutes when they weren't available.
He expected a settling-in period. “We'll have to see how it works because it's a small venue. Its location I think will be challenging, but I think Petr wants to really try to make this work. So, hopefully, both audience members and musicians will come down. Having not done it there yet, we don't know what we're going to run into.
“With the places in the past, the venue was always very close to the festival so that people who were in the park could wander over afterwards. That's definitely not going to be the case – people are going to have to make a decision, 'OK, I'm going to come down, I'm going to drive down and go there' – which is interesting. It may take a little while for some people to catch on to that, and as I say, Petr Cancura is really trying to make this work, and so we'll see what happens. I've had a few reservations about it, but I want to be open-minded and see how it goes.”
The jam format won't change, he said. The house trio will continue to play for the first hour before opening the stage up to jammers. particularly since it will take longer for listeners to arrive from anything else going on at the festival. “Hopefully local players will come down and play.”
AlphaSoul is located on OC Transpo route 2, which runs to about 1 a.m. on weekdays and Saturdays and after midnight on Sundays. Festival-goers can catch the #2 bus downtown on Wellington Street. AlphaSoul is also three blocks away from route 14 (which travels on Elgin Street near Confederation Park to Gladstone Avenue in Hintonburg, and runs until after midnight Monday to Saturday and until after 11 p.m. Sunday), and about eight blocks from the Bayview Transitway station, where riders can catch some all-night buses to and from downtown and across town.
The café is also easily accessible by bike and has adjacent bicycle parking.There's on-street car parking on Wellington.
Russo said she thought the café's distance from most of the festival was an advantage. “I think it's totally brilliant. I'm glad that we're far away, because I don't think the festival should stay at Confederation Park all the time. I think it should spread throughout the city. When I read the ads for Montreal, for instance, they have 300 venues. So for me it's an opportunity for people to get to different places.
“It's about spreading the joy and spreading the excitement elsewhere. So for me I'm hoping that I do so well that there will be other venues that are appropriate venues that will step up to the plate in the future. I think it's an opportunity to change it up.”
She said she and her daughter opened AlphaSoul “to get people out. We want to help create the excitement of this city because it's growing very fast at this time. It will grow even faster in the very near future and I think we need to create more spaces and more venues for people to meet and explore different types of music and theatre and everything. So for me it's really about helping to create a better city.”
Geggie said he was looking forward to the jams. “I know those guys: I've played with all of those people, so I'm looking forward to it because the music will be great. They're all great musicians and I think we'll have lots and lots of fun playing whatever the situation is, so I think people should just come by, and have a bit of food and have a drink and listen to some music!”
– Alayne McGregor
What do you think of the new Ottawa Jazz Festival jam session location? Share your thoughts in the OttawaJazzScene.ca Facebook group.
- Jeff Johnston returns to his trio's musical roots and then moves forward with his new album
(scroll to the end for a coda about the importance of jazz jams)
Jazzfest 2012: jams will be familiar but unpredictable
- 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival Jam sessions move 4 blocks closer
- 2010 Jazz Festival Countdown: The joy of jams with John Geggie