Kellylee Evans and Peter Liu ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Jazz vocalists Kellylee Evans and Peter Liu are two of the headliners at the 2018 Merrickville's Jazz Fest. They're performing separately, on two different evenings ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Kellylee Evans, Ori Dagan, Rafael Zaldivar, and Nick Maclean will headline the 2018 edition of Merrickville's Jazz Fest (MJF) – along with a Saturday night swing dance with Peter Liu and the Pollcats.

The festival, now in its 8th year, runs from Thursday, October 11, to Sunday, October 14 in Merrickville, a small, historic town about an hour's drive (77 km) south of Ottawa. Jazz will again animate the venues known warmly to MJF audiences: local restaurants, churches, the Baldachin Hotel ballroom, the town's community centre, and its arts centre.

MJF continues to uphold its firm commitment to the jazz mainstream, with no side trips into rock and pop acts. Its 2018 line-up showcases a wide variety of jazz styles, from standards, to Afro-Cuban and Latin, to funk and groove, to contemporary jazz. It mixes promising and established jazz artists, vocals and instrumental jazz, local musicians with those from Toronto and Montreal, and familiar jazz faces with those new to this area.

Ottawa jazz vocalist Karen Oxorn will open the festival with a completely new collaboration, “Vocals and Violin”. She's teaming up with three veteran Toronto jazz musicians, performing standards by some of the group’s favourite performers and songwriters to the accompaniment of guitar, bass, and violin. The Thursday evening concert is free to anyone who has bought a festival pass or ticket to another festival show.

Saxophonist Samuel Blais is an important voice in Montreal's jazz scene, playing in groups small and large, including l'Orchestre Nationale de Jazz de Montreal. He's had long-time collaborations with musicians from both sides of the border (New York City and Montreal). 

Samuel Blais at the Montreal Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2012
Samuel Blais at the Montreal Jazz Festival
©Brett Delmage, 2012

His current quartet features some of the strongest younger voices from his own city, who are also known for creating their own music: pianist Jérôme Beaulieu (MISC and Bellflower), bassist Olivier Babaz, and drummer Alain Bourgeois (Parc X).

After a four-year break, Blais has just released a new CD with this quartet. He's on tour this week in Quebec and Ontario to showcase the CD, Equilibrium. They'll perform on Friday, September 28, at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios in Ottawa. editor Alayne McGregor talked to Blais on the phone this week, before his second show in Toronto. This is a lightly edited version of the interview. What are you playing at Record Runner?

Blais: We’re going to play all the nine tunes from the new record, and probably one or two from previous albums. How did you team up with this all-Montreal quartet? I was looking back at your previous Ottawa shows, and, five years ago, you were doing more cross-border collaborations.

©Brett Delmage, 2018
Satoko Fujii's This Is It! at IMOO Fest 2018 ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Japanese pianist Satoko Fujii looked slightly bemused as she addressed the near-capacity audience at IMOO Fest 2018 in GigSpace Saturday evening.

"We've had such a special week", she said, with a tornado and a power outage. But this "special treatment" hasn't been too bad so far, she assured the crowd.

IMOO Fest 2018, which Fujii and her trio were headlining, had showed considerable resilience this weekend. The music never stopped, even when the power did for most of Ottawa due to the damage caused by two tornados (EF/3 and EF/2) late Friday afternoon.

The festival concludes this evening (Sunday) with four hour-long shows at GigSpace starting at 6 p.m., including a solo piano set by Fujii and her conducting the IMOO Orchestra in one of her large-scale compositions.

Enthusiastic listeners make a vibrant jazz scene.

Brad Evans (by window) listens to the first IMOO house concert, which he hosted ©Brett Delmage, 2017
Brad Evans (right, by window) hosted the first IMOO house concert in his basement ©Brett Delmage, 2017

Our first Listener of the Month, Brad Evans is, without question, one of these listeners.

Like many other jazz fans, Evans doesn’t have formal music training. That hasn’t stopped him from organizing a music festival this weekend which includes renowned Canadian jazz musicians and Japanese improvisers: IMOO Fest 2018.

He talked with me about his journey into jazz listening. This is an edited version of our conversation. How many shows on average have you seen in the last year?

Brad Evans:I go out about twice a week from about May to November and hibernate a bit in the winter. It depends on the weather and road conditions, and sometimes even my mood. If it’s pitch black at a 6 p.m. on a Sunday, sometimes I can’t get motivated.

IMOOfest 2013 ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Brad Evans (lower right) in the audience at IMOOfest 2013. This weekend he's organizing IMOO Fest 2018. ©Brett Delmage, 2013

“Doing something like this is something I daydreamed about for a few years”, says Brad Evans, the driving force, financial backer, and very much hands-on organizer of IMOO Fest 2018. The festival, which runs from this Friday through Sunday, features top jazz and improving musicians from Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Japan performing original music that won’t be heard the same way again.

Evans is a software developer by day, and a very enthusiastic live music fan during the evenings and weekends. We’ve seen him at many, many live performances over the years, and he's a regular at the biweekly Improvising Musicians of Ottawa/Outaouais (IMOO) shows. It isn’t surprising that he is’s first Listener of the Month this month. He’s had a fascinating journey into jazz and improvised music.

Improvisation is normally thought of as happening on the stage, as it will happen on the stages this weekend at IMOO Fest. But Evans has also invoked his own improvisational magic – and determination – in the past year to bring together his dream festival, which other listeners can enjoy with him this weekend.

He shared with me how IMOO Fest 2018 came to be, from daydream to tickets you can buy. This is an edited transcript of our conversation. How did you get involved in IMOO Fest 2018?

Brad Evans: It was June of last year, 15 months ago, I was looking ahead to this year. I knew that at some point this year my house would be paid off, so I could do something stupid with my money after that [he laughs].

Updated November 26, 2018
This fall, GigSpace has filled every concert slot it can manage, with groups coming from NYC, Toronto, and Ottawa.

©Brett Delmage, 2013
Two listeners in an overflow crowd listen to a 2013 IMOOFest concert inside GigSpace. The festival returns on September 22-23 as part of a jam-packed season of concerts at GigSpace.  ©Brett Delmage, 2013

Its eighth season begins September 14 and includes brand-new jazz groups along with revivals of well-loved duos, three CD releases, and an improvised music festival. Most of the musicians playing there, both local and from out of town, will present material new to Ottawa audiences.

The Hintonburg concert venue has doubled the number of groups it has scheduled compared to 2017 (17 plus a festival, versus 9), and it is offering a more diverse selection than previous years. At the same time, it has updated its website with an integrated ticketing system, and increased its general ticket prices to $25.

GigSpace director Tim Bedner, who organizes the venue's concerts, said that the venue's fall season is completely booked (although they could possibly try to squeeze in a high-profile touring artist) – and, in fact, GigSpace is booked until next June.

From New York City will travel the duo of lyrical pianist Bryn Roberts and acclaimed guitarist Lage Lund, and the high-powered quintet of vibraphonist Stefan Bauer. Roberts and Lund were last in Ottawa in 2016 for the release of their first duo album, Nightsong. In late October, they released a new duo album, Hide the Moon and the Stars.

Bauer's “Voyage West” ensemble (vibraphone/marimba, sax, wordless vocals, bass, drums) will release their new album, Some Other Time, which combines “American-infused Modern Jazz” and world music. That album even has a Canadian connection: one of its tunes is called “In The Town of Springhill, Nova Scotia”, and the ensemble includes Toronto bassist Jim Vivian.

From Toronto comes two mainstream modern jazz groups: guitarist Harley Card's quintet with pianist Matt Newton, and a quartet led by drummer Ethan Ardelli featuring pianist Chris Donnelly and saxophonist Luis Deniz. Card released his third CD, The Greatest Invention, last fall, while Ardelli's group will be on a cross-Canada tour for their debut CD, The Island of Form.

The Ottawa line-up is all established groups, almost all of whom have played GigSpace before. But their projects are fresh: for example, vocalist Karen Oxorn will pay tribute to husband-and-wife jazz musicians Julie London and Bobby Troup (best known for “Cry Me a River”), in a show with Toronto guitarist Kevin Barrett and Montreal bassist Alec Walkington.

The Garry Elliott/Steve Boudreau Quartet will release a new CD, Opus 2; vocalist Diane Nalini will debut recent songs she's written for her trio with Mark Ferguson and John Geggie; and vocalist Elise Letourneau and her trio will both interpret songs that have “moved and shaped her” as well as putting on a rare performance of her own originals.

GigSpace Performance Studio, now starting its 8th season, has more demand for presentation space than its organizers can handle.

GigSpace's Jazzin' the Holidays ©Brett Delmage, 2013
Jazzin' the Holidays is an annual fundraiser, one of the many shows which Tim Bedner schedules each year at GigSpace. The 2013 edition featured (l-r) Elise Letourneau, Tim Bedner, Nicole Ratté, Mark Alcorn, and Karen Oxorn, and Marilee Townsend-Alcorn (not shown) ©Brett Delmage, 2013

“It's all that we can do to keep up with the volume of emails that we get,” says GigSpace director Tim Bedner, who is responsible for bookings at the small (46-seat) concert hall.

But that doesn't mean that every evening has a concert. Part of the reason why the Ottawa venue isn't accepting more bookings is related to its own organization and the constraints that imposes.

GigSpace, located just outside downtown and near the Preston Street strip, is one of the few listening spaces in Ottawa with a resident and frequently-tuned grand piano. Its concerts are almost all jazz – with the occasional classical or folk show mixed in – and the artists playing there include both touring Canadian and American musicians and Ottawa groups.

It only programs shows on Friday and Saturday evenings and a few Sunday afternoons. Bedner said 90 to 95% of the shows there sold out last season.

GigSpace opened in the fall of 2011, and started programming weekly concerts the following January. Six months later, Café Paradiso, which had been Ottawa's best-known jazz spot, closed its doors, and GigSpace was left as one of the few places here hosting touring jazz groups, or where more complex local shows could be presented.

Toronto jazz pianist Nick Maclean has taken many lessons from jazz legend Herbie Hancock – not the least about taking risks with his music.

Brownman Ali and Nick Maclean ©Brett Delmage, 2017
In the 1960s, pianist Herbie Hancock and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard created several classic jazz albums together. Nick Maclean (r) is channeling that vibe in his quartet with Brownman Ali (l). ©Brett Delmage, 2017

“The kind of jazz that I really enjoy, that means a lot to me, involves constant risks. It involves exploration. The kind of guys who are playing it safe, and play what they know – it can be very nice sounding, it can check all the right boxes, but there's something courageous about stepping into the unknown and seeing what happens. And Herbie's definitely one of those artists that idealizes that for me.”

Maclean's quartet will perform in Ottawa on Saturday as part of a Ontario/Quebec tour. They’ll play from their debut album, which he describes as a “love letter” to Hancock. The group and the album are inspired by Hancock's 1960s quartet/quintet with trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, which produced four classic albums on the Blue Note label: Takin' Off, My Point of View, Maiden Voyage, and Empyrean Isles.

The general vibe is mainstream and acoustic – but with “a willingness to not know what the destination is going to be and just be along for the ride.”

“What we're trying to do with the quartet is to take the ethos of Herbie's 1960s Blue Note Quartet, but move it into the modern day – with modern compositions, with modern sensibility – and see where that ethos goes today.”

Maclean's quartet line-up takes its inspiration from Hancock's line-up on Empyrean Isles: trumpet (with his frequent collaborator Brownman Ali), piano, bass, and drums. It was a rare line-up for Hancock and relatively rare in jazz.

Justin Gray has designed an instrument which combines his two musical passions – for jazz and for Indian classical music.

Justin Gray
Justin Gray with his bass veena (photo by Sean O’Neill, provided by Gray)

He'll play his bass veena on Wednesday, as he gives his cross-genre quintet, Synthesis, its Ottawa debut at Chamberfest. The quintet, which includes well-known Toronto jazz musicians Ted Quinlan on guitar and Drew Jurecka on violin, will play Gray's music, which features Indian-inspired melodies in a jazz framework.

It's a surprisingly compatible and very listenable mixture, in part because Hindustani classical music also includes improvisation – just not in quite the same way as jazz. Synthesis has so far released one album, New Horizons, in 2017, with the same core quintet which will play Wednesday, although the album has a large number of guests from classical, jazz, and Indian classical music. The Chamberfest concert will showcase pieces from that album.

Gray has been studying Hindustani music for more than decade, at the same time as he's grown a substantial reputation as a bassist in Toronto's jazz scene, playing with a variety of groups, including several which have made it up to Ottawa: Gray Matter, and the Hoffman-Lemisch Quartet. editor Alayne McGregor recently interviewed Gray about the concert, the Synthesis project, and why he was inspired in 2010 to design an entire new instrument to play much of this music. This is an edited and condensed version of our interview. How did you get introduced to Indian classical music?

Justin Gray: My mom was born in India, so growing up, my brother Derek, who's the drummer in the project, and myself certainly were exposed to Indian music. We traveled to India to visit family. We listened to a variety of music growing up, which included things like Ravi Shankar, and of course getting into the Beatles and some other world music contexts.

When jazz trumpeter Paul Tynan was in Berlin in early May he played jazz each night but spent his days exploring the city. That became the inspiration for a number of his compositions which he'll perform in Ottawa next Tuesday, in a concert at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios.

Paul Tynan has a hobby that uses some of the same creative skills as his jazz compositions and jazz trumpet playing: forging knives ©Brett Delmage, 2013

“Berlin is an amazing city!” Tynan said. “I was there for a week. I had seven nights in a club called the The Hat Club in Berlin. It really was just a fantastic experience playing my original music every night at the same club, oftentimes for audience members who would come back, who would hear us one night and then come back the next night and maybe the next night and the next night. It was really inspiring.”

During the day, he tramped around the city. “As a kid I was always taken by the Brandenburg Gate. I got to see it. I'd been to Germany before, but this was the first time I'd been to Berlin, so I spent literally hours walking around the city and combing everything from the Schöneberg neighbourhood to the Kreuzberg neighbourhood to the typical tourist spots as well.”

And that ended up being reflected in his music. “You just hear these melodies in your head, and fortunately the place I was staying had a grand piano so I would come back and just write some music at this piano that was in the flat that I was in.”

On Tuesday, Tynan will combine this music with other “time-tested” tunes he's written in the last decade, and some jazz standards, in a trio show with Ottawa pianist Peter Hum and Montreal bassist Alec Walkington.

Tynan, who is a professor in the music department at St. Francis Xavier University, last performed publicly in Ottawa in 2013, in the faculty concerts at the Carleton University Jazz Camp. One of those concerts featured his compositions for big band.

This show will be on a much more intimate scale, but Tynan says that many of his pieces are flexible enough to work for a trio. “All the music I write can function either on a very small level or can function on a very large level. It just is how it's packaged or arranged. It's meant to be malleable. And I like that about it.”