For François Houle, it's always been about the clarinet, starting from when he was 7 years old.
Unlike most other clarinetists, he doesn't double on saxophone, or even play the bass clarinet. He has regular B-flat, A, and E-flat clarinets, and that's it.
He was first introduced to the instrument through his father's big band LPs. Records by Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman were often heard in their house – and they all played clarinet.
"And so I just got that sound in my head. One day when I was 7 years old, a cousin showed up and he had started the band program at school. He had his clarinet, and he said, 'Oh I really hate it! I don't want to play it,' and he left his clarinet at my place. And so I started tooting on it, just out of curiosity, and I just basically fell in love with the instrument. And having that sound of that music from the 30s and 40s and 50s in my head, I just started taking lessons and never looked back.”
“That was it. I was hooked from the get-go.”
When Houle was studying for his Masters in classical clarinet at Yale University, he got to meet Benny Goodman in person. “He came to do a fundraiser with his big band and I got to hang out with him for a few days – not just hearing him live but actually getting to hang out with him. That was pretty special!”
“He was already an old man, a bit grouchy, but very generous with his time and talking to us, the students about his career and his life, and his approach to the clarinet and all that. That was very informative and very inspiring.”
Listening to clarinetist François Houle, you hear a man endlessly fascinated by the myriad possibilities in music. His enthusiasm for his many different projects – even involving a mysterious hum – bubbles over as he talks.
When OttawaJazzScene.ca interviewed him over the phone this week, he got so involved in our conversation that when he was stung by a wasp while walking he ignored the pain and kept on talking.
Houle is an wide-ranging innovator on the clarinet, taking it to places ranging from free improvisation to classical to new music to world music to melodic jazz, and even as a first-call musician for indie rock artists like Matthew Good. He has been listed several times by Downbeat magazine's Critics' Poll and Reader’s Poll as a “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” and “Rising Star”. His more than 20 recordings have earned multiple Juno Award and West Coast Music Award nominations. His performances with French pianist Benoit Delbecq were a highlight of the 2012 Ottawa Jazz Festival.
This week, he is on tour in Ontario and Quebec. He performs on Friday and Saturday in two featured concerts at the Guelph Jazz Festival. He'll also play in Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and Montreal. He's playing a solo concert in Guelph;his other shows are in a trio with two fellow Vancouver musicians – guitarist Gordon Grdina and drummer Kenton Loewen.
They're long-time friends: “We've been working together as a group and in various projects for the last ten years. These guys are my brothers on the scene here. They're my go-to collaborators.”
Grdina is a Juno-winning composer and musician, who mixes mainstream jazz, free-form improvisation and classical Arabic music, as well as rock and punk. Loewen plays improvised and rock music, including with an anarchist punk band, an art pop group Mother Mother, and Tanya Tagaq.
Updated September 8
Jazz. Improvisation. Pushing the edge. The Guelph Jazz Festival has always had a very clear idea of what type of music it wants to present and what it's trying to promote.
Much of that is due to the festival's founder, musician and academic Ajay Heble, who has brought a deep love of jazz and an intellectual approach to improvisation to the festival. But after 23 years, Heble is retiring as the festival's artistic director.
|Ajay Heble introduces the 2013 Guelph Jazz Festival photos ©Brett Delmage|
The 2016 festival, which runs from September 14 to 18, will be the last he organizes – and he's brought back many festival favourites to perform.
From Vancouver: clarinetist François Houle, guitarist/oud player Gord Grdina, and drummer Kenton Loewen. From Montreal: pianist Marianne Trudel, saxophonist Jean Dérôme, and Esmerine. From the Toronto area: saxophonist/flautist Jane Bunnett, baritone saxophonist David Mott, reed player Peter Lutek, cellist Matt Brubeck, guitarist Kevin Breit, tabla player Ravi Naimpally, banjoist Tim Posgate, and guitarist Neil Hendry. From Ottawa: percussionist Jesse Stewart and violinist William Lamoureux.
From California: pianist Myra Melford. From Chicago: percussionist Hamid Drake, trumpeter Rob Mazurek, saxophonist Ernest Dawkins. From Philadelphia: drummer Chad Taylor. From NYC: trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Amina Claudine Myers, tuba player Howard Johnson, and pianist David Virelles.
Some of the music they play will look back: there will be two tributes to famous free jazz musicians, and one concert which will remix performances from previous Guelph festivals.
Others will expand possibilities, with performances as diverse as DJ/scratch artist Kid Koala, to the Asiko Afrobeat Ensemble, to the “heavy-handed” FreePunk of Peregrine Falls.
But the core of the festival remains improvised jazz. It has similarities to the Ottawa Jazz Festival's Improv Invitational series – ranging from melodic to highly avant-garde – but on a much larger scale.
Think "September Song", and you'll have a good idea of what's happening in jazz and improvised music in Ottawa-Gatineau. It's a month to hear jazz vocals – and the start of a new jazz season in which you can hear award-winning vocalists.
Sign up to our JazzScene newsletter to get a full listing of all the jazz and improvised music events within 100 km of Parliament Hill in your inbox every week. You can also check our list of Ottawa-Gatineau-area jazz clubs.
Of course, there's still lots of opportunities to hear mainstream jazz and the avant-garde. But this fall, the big names will include Diana Krall, Emilie-Claire Barlow, Bet.e and Stef, Tanya Tagaq, and Jane Bunnett and Maqueque.
In September, you can hear the human voice celebrated in jazz in many different forms, from ballads to blues to Latin, with shows by the Nylons, Bet.e and Stef, The Juliet Singers, Diane Nalini, Kimberley Beyea, Nicole Ratté, Betty Ann Bryanton, Rachel Beausoleil, Megan Jerome, Anne Lewis, Peter Liu, Steve Berndt with the Jivewires, Hélène Knoerr, Rachelle Behrens, and Caroline Cook.
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For Toronto vocalist Denielle Bassels, swing music is a happy escape – one that she likes sharing with her audiences.
“I just love that sound. I'm drawn to this kind of rhythm, swing and happy rhythm, because I think it's an escape for me. You know, to feel this happy, driving force. It just takes you away from the monotony of life, and things that might be bothering you at the time, which for me is kind of an escape.”
And for her audiences? “I like to take them with me me, yes!”
Bassels and her quintet will perform this music – including selections from her upcoming CD – at GigSpace this Saturday, August 20. It will be her first full show in Ottawa proper, although she was a big hit at Merrickville's Jazz Fest in 2014.
Although Bassels is a big fan of Ella Fitzgerald, her music isn't just standards. Rather, it's a blend of her own originals, and covers of songs written anytime between the 1920s and the 1960s – all in a swinging style.
Why that style? “Because that's the way I feel the song. There's a lot of songs that I love that aren't swing, and I just find that when I do take a stab at singing them myself, there's just this rhythm they seem to fall in. I feel more attached to the song and more invested in the song when it feels right to me. And with that rhythm, it just flows more.”
Besides the larger jazz camps where many different instruments are played, Ottawa also supports several camps devoted to players of a single instrument. This week, it's the turn of the trumpet.
This is the sixth year that Nick Dyson has run his Trumpet Bootcamp at Alcorn Music Studios. The camp, from August 15 to 19, is a chance for young trumpeters to get up to speed before the school year – and its free student concerts will provide music lovers a chance to hear trumpets in different combinations.
“It's not your typical jazz camp, because we cover both jazz and classical music,” Dyson told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “It's more about fundamental trumpet playing and music making.”
In jazz, trumpets are heard in big bands in packs of three or four, and singly in combos along with other instruments. But the trumpet is also featured in classical music, including in chamber ensembles and symphony orchestras.
Dyson is keeping both jazz and classical music “on equal footing” at the camp, he said, “because it's not about jazz music, it's not about classical music – it's about trumpet, and the way that the trumpet fits in to that [music]. I try to blur the lines as much as possible.”
In 2016, Merrickville's Jazz Fest is getting funkier – and celebrating John Lennon in jazz.
The mid-October festival released its full line-up today, featuring musicians from Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa-Gatineau. Opening with the grooving funk of Ottawa's ERU-ERA, and ending with the 70s-style horn band The Pharoahs, its shows will range from New Orleans-style to modern jazz, but definitely on the harder-hitting side than in previous years.
With a new voice at the helm and many new faces in its faculty, Ottawa's oldest jazz camp will sound different this year.
Saxophonist and composer Rob Frayne has taken over as music director of the JazzWorks jazz camp, which runs August 18-21 – and for 2016, he's focusing on rhythm.
The camp workshops will emphasize “rhythm or phrasing or swinging” – both in playing instruments and in singing, Frayne told OttawaJazzScene.ca. “That has been something that I think needs focusing on. And that's the big change this year.”
That doesn't mean just percussion. “There's one workshop [saxophonist] Christine Jensen is giving on articulation, how to make rhythmic phrasing with straight eighth-notes in a jazzy way.”
Vocalist Julie Michels and pianist Dave Restivo are teaching “how to groove vocally in different styles. And I'm doing one with [pianist] Steve Boudreau just on how to set up time, you know a rhythm feel, and then change and develop that feel. These are all things that most students wouldn't think of.”
That's not the only change in the 23-year-old camp this year. There's a significant alteration in its faculty. Long-time instructors like Christine Duncan, Jim Lewis, Frank Lozano, and Kevin Barrett are missing. Double bassist John Geggie, who co-founded the camp and had directed it for decades before announcing his retirement last year, will not be at the camp this year, either.
Replacing them are musicians from Montreal, Toronto, and NYC with impressive resumes: multi-Juno-winning saxophonist Christine Jensen, bassist Jim Vivian, guitarist Lorne Lofsky, trumpeter Bill Mahar, trombonist William Carn, saxophonist Don Braden, percussionist Alyssa Falk, and pianist Yves Léveillé.
Frayne said this “changing of the guard” was caused by several factors, including work conflicts. Kevin Barrett, for example, is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, and pianist Nancy Walker is working on a composing commission, he said. “So people have other stuff to do, which has happened before, but it's coincidental that it's [happening] all at once.”
The Carleton University Jazz Camp is sticking closer to home this year.
The camp, which runs from August 8 to 12, will be featuring its long-time Ottawa faculty this year, and not bringing in any instructors from out of town. It also has moved its faculty concerts, which are open to the public, from the evening to the afternoon.
In its previous six years, the camp had been regularly including one to four instructors each year from elsewhere in Canada, and even renowned American saxophonist Dave Liebman in 2014.
The instructors are a who's-who of Ottawa's jazz scene, including double bassist John Geggie, drummer Mike Essoudry, trombonist/pianist Mark Ferguson, guitarist Tim Bedner, vocalist Elise Letourneau, trumpeter Nick Dyson, trombonist Ryan Purchase, guitarist Wayne Eagles, and camp director and saxophonist Mike Tremblay. Several are regular instructors at Carleton. Carleton music professor James McGowan will also be teaching at the camp.
Ferguson told OttawaJazzScene.ca that the camp had had “substantial” budget cuts this year, which meant they couldn't afford to bring instructors from outside Ottawa.
It's a lower-key month in August, as the Ottawa jazz scene looks inwards.
Sign up to our JazzScene newsletter to get a full listing of all the jazz and improvised music events within 100 km of Parliament Hill in your inbox every week. You can also check our list of Ottawa-Gatineau-area jazz clubs, and our daily On The Scene listing on our website's front page (and in our RSS feed) to learn more about what's going on in jazz locally right now.
While some visiting musicians are back in Ottawa, including the Sultans of String, Boston saxophonist Benny Sharoni, NYC vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia and guitarist Rez Abbasi, Toronto vocalist Denielle Bassels, and Toronto bassist Dan Fortin, what you'll hear this month is mostly home-grown – and in some new combinations.
Look for high-profile shows featuring pianist Steve Boudreau, Afro-Cuban vocalist Caridad Cruz and pianist Miguel de Armas, guitarist Rômmel Ribeiro, and Modasaurus, as well as a tribute to ground-breaking jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus.
OttawaJazzScene.ca's August jazz highlights are brought to you by Peggy Holloway, Alrick Huebener, Nancy Preston, Richard Thibodeau, Peter Turner, Judd Richardson, Chris Smelser, Mike Steinberg, and Riek van den Berg. We greatly appreciate their financial support that helps OttawaJazzScene.ca to continue serving the jazz community every day of the year.