McGill Jazz Orchestra I
Bronson Centre Theatre, Ottawa
Monday, May 13, 2019 – 8 p.m.
On Monday evening, the McGill Jazz Orchestra I, directed by JUNO-winning composer Christine Jensen, performed a packed and vibrant hour-long concert for students at the MusicFest Nationals in Ottawa. It was a show I was glad to have heard.
While ostensibly a student band, the orchestra includes many musicians who have played professionally here in Ottawa, and its standard of playing was extremely high. Montreal's jazz scene and McGill University's jazz program are strongly entwined, with many well-known jazz musicians teaching there and many of its graduates enlivening the scene.
The show opened and closed with two mid-60s tunes by Thad Jones, whose innovative compositions brought a new framework and new sounds to big band writing. The Orchestra presented a “Thad Jones Lineage” tribute concert in April, and “The Waltz You Swang for Me” was an engaging opening number. It featured Ottawa's Claire Devlin on flying soprano sax soloing over the exuberant full band.
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra – Symphony in Riffs
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, May 4, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.
Listening to the Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) tribute on Saturday to American bandleader and composer Benny Carter, you could hear why Carter had an eight-decade career in jazz. His music was warm, approachable, and repaid close listening.
Since 2006, the OJO has performed the music of many jazz legends from the 20th century, including Ellington, Mingus, and Miles Davis. Its concerts introduce listeners to jazz history, and give them a chance to hear large-scale works that aren't often performed live.
This was the first time that they had paid tribute to Carter, and OJO artistic director Adrian Cho decided to have Carter's music played by two different ensembles. The first set featured a saxophone quintet (effectively the sax section of a big band with two altos, two tenors, and a baritone) plus pianist, guitarist, bassist, and drummer. In the second set, these musicians were joined by one additional saxophonist, four trombonists, and four trumpeters to form an 18-piece big band – which just barely fit on the stage, even with extra sections added.
The additional musicians gave an extra richness – but not extra loudness – to the sound. Throughout, the music filled the intimate Fourth Stage but did not overwhelm it. As Cho noted, this gave listeners a chance to see a big band up “right up close”, as they did in the swing era.
The Nepean All-City Lab Band, and
The Nepean All-City Jazz Band
featuring special guest Dr. Shirantha Beddage
Nepean High School, Ottawa
Tuesday, April 30, 2019 – 7:30 p.m.
Spring is the best time to hear student big bands, when they've had nine months to play together and become familiar with their repertoire. It's also when they bring in guest artists, spurring them to further achievements.
On International Jazz Day, the Nepean All-City Lab Band (NACLB) and Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB) invited JUNO-nominated baritone saxophonist Shirantha Beddage to perform with them. The result was two sparkling and challenging sets of big band jazz, with Beddage's performance adding an extra fillip to the music.
Beddage had come up from Toronto the day before to work with the two bands, and he and the students looked comfortable and happy on-stage together.
First up was the NACLB, co-directed by Nepean High School music teachers Jean-François Fauteux and Stephen Szabo. The Lab Band performed a set of modern big band numbers, beginning with the flowing “Apollo's Reel”. It was a multi-layered piece whose different colours – Laura Seaborn's wordless vocals (standing in for flute), Sarah Ramsay's alto sax, and Kian Wong's trumpet – smoothly evolved and overlaid each other. The students continued in this Wheeleresque and thoughtful mode with Szabo's “Pine Hill”, with Seaborn again contributing wordless vocals and Hope Ballinger a wistful trumpet solo.
Seaborn was again featured – this time singing the lyrics – in an upbeat and swinging version of “Route 66”, and in “Here's To Life”, a hopeful but subdued ballad with a flowing and emotional tenor sax from Catherine Gendron.
Joe McPhee, Nicolas Caloia, Jesse Stewart
Saturday, April 27, 2019 – 9 p.m.
Listening to a free-improv concert is different from listening to a mainstream jazz show. There are no tunes to recognize, no natural song structure to follow. The music develops and evolves as the musicians will it from moment to moment, and can change direction without warning. You have to keep more of it in your head to see where it's going.
It's more intense, more immersive, more challenging – for both the listeners and musicians – and rewarding in a different way.
On Saturday, Joe McPhee from Poughkeepsie, NY, Nicolas Caloia from Montreal, and Jesse Stewart from Ottawa performed two back-to-back shows at GigSpace – both completely improvised. The music ranged from the barest whispers to full-out ensemble playing, and managed in the second show to both delight and startle me.
McPhee, who will turn 80 this year, has had a long and illustrious career in jazz, particularly as an free improviser, performing with top-ranked avant-garde musicians in Europe and North America like Hamid Drake, Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann, or The Thing. And he's as active as ever, with numerous releases and re-releases just in the last year. On stage, he was vigorous, moving with the flexibility and dynamism of a much younger man.
Caloia is a linchpin of Montreal's avant-garde scene, who was last in Ottawa in 2018 with his Mercury collaboration with Lori Freedman. Stewart is an endlessly inventive percussionist and composer who frequently masters or invents new instruments, and has played with everyone from Ernst Reijseger to William Parker to Kevin Breit. He and McPhee both performed with and were influenced by musical innovator Pauline Oliveros.
On Saturday, all three created a musical conversation, with give-and-take and profound listening. They had first played together at the 2015 Ottawa Jazz Festival (a well-received show), and then immediately gone into Phil Bova's studio in Ottawa to record an album. That album, Permutations, was released in 2018. Saturday's shows were their first return to Ottawa.
Salle Jean-Despréz, Maison du citoyen / Gatineau City Hall
Friday, March 15, 2019 – 8 p.m.
Omar Sosa takes music from Afro-Cuban, Latin, and African traditions, and immerses his audiences in its warmth, beauty, and vitality.
At his recent concert in Gatineau, the Cuban-born pianist teamed up with kora player and vocalist Seckou Keita from Senegal and percussionist Gustavo Ovalles from Venezuela for a show which transcended cultural and language barriers and evoked no fewer than four standing ovations.
Sosa switched between grand piano and keyboards, and sometimes played with one hand on each. He also had an electronic keypad and several mixing stands, and occasionally used effects, including looping.
Keita performed behind his kora, a harp-lute whose 44 strings were attached to two tall heads rising from the instrument's resonating chamber. It produced a more defined, almost metallic sound than a European harp, but at the same time, its shimmering tones could fill the room to its edges. He also had a mixer/effects box beside his instrument.
Ovalles played large and small hand drums and shakers and a small drum set, but the most interesting piece in his repertoire was a miniature fountain. A thin smooth stream of water poured from its bamboo arm into a large plastic tub and was pumped back up to fall again in a soothing continuous gurgle, which he used to great effect in several of the pieces.
Carleton University Jazz Ensembles
Thursday, March 21, 2019 – 7:30 p.m.
Contemporary and original was the vibe as two Carleton University student ensembles presented their end-of-term jazz concert last week.
The nine-member Studio B band and the ten-member Studio A band performed an eclectic selection of modern jazz tunes along with their own compositions and arrangements, in a fast-moving and well-received show.
Jazz ensembles director Mark Ferguson has regularly encouraged his students to contribute their own work to these concerts – as they did again this year. For the opening Studio B band, saxophonist Angelo Leo mixed Charlie Parker-style bebop with the study of angels for his piece “Angelology”. It was a sleek, bluesy number featuring wordless vocals from Wichina Bastien, swinging sax solos from Leo and Samuel Boucher, and a thumping drum solo from Christian Lascelles.
Pianist Steven Estafanos rearranged the Simon&Garfunkel version of the folksong “Scarborough Fair”, giving it a time signature of 5/4 and taking his inspiration from John Coltrane's arrangement of “My Favourite Things”. The result was an fast-moving ensemble piece with vocal, guitar, piano, and flute lines floating above.
Bastien picked one of her favourite songs, “Love You I Do” from the film Dreamgirls, and gave the R&B number a polished and emotional rendition over a powerful horn section and inflected guitar solo from Reef Downing.
Updated March 20, 2019
Read OttawaJazzScene.ca's full guide to the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival
There's a wide range of interesting music at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. But of those so far announced, you won't go wrong with these:
We don't know the three baritone saxophonists, but have heard and enjoyed Calgary bassist Kodi Hutchinson when he won the Grand Prize at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2013, as well as Vancouver pianist Tyler Hornby. And you can never have too many baris!
“Constantly evolving, always intimate art”: that's how Patricia Barber's music has been described.
One reviewer noted that “She darkens, renews and completely takes possession of [songs], probing and questioning the inferences implicit in every word.”
The pianist, vocalist, and songwriter has just released a new album, Higher, her first in six years. It's a collection of originals and standards, including an art song cycle which she debuted with soprano Renée Fleming.
Ranee Lee is a triple threat as a vocalist, actress, and teacher and role model to generations of Montreal musicians. Her concert a few years ago in Ottawa was generous, expressive, and swinging, and well deserved the two standing ovations from the delighted audience.
Ed Lister's Prime Rib Big Band
Second Anniversary Show
Wednesday, March 6, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.
On Wednesday, the Prime Rib Big Band filled every seat at Irene's Pub for a long set (100+ minutes) of dynamic big band music. All but one song was a meaty original, but they were very much in the tradition. The show marked their second anniversary as a band: two years in which they've played 30 concerts, including monthly shows at Irene's, festival dates, and special concerts.
The band is the creation of Ottawa trumpeter Ed Lister, who invited ten of his favourite jazz musicians to join in. They began with seven of his compositions and three classic big band numbers – and the promise of a continuing monthly gig if they could draw the crowds at Irene's in the Glebe.
Since then, Lister has continued writing tunes for the band, more than tripling its repertoire. For this show, he included one of the band's first tunes, and one he only debuted in February – plus a tune by Richard Page which he added to the band's book this month. Irene's now offers a full prime rib dinner on band nights. And judging from the reaction to this show, they've developed quite an audience for their big band music.
Shenkman Arts Centre, Ottawa
Friday, March 1, 2019 – 8 p.m.
Molly Johnson brought three friends and favourite musicians with her to Ottawa on Friday, for a concert that was inimitably hers in style and musical vibe.
To an easy and insinuating beat, she sashayed onto the stage at the Shenkman Arts Centre – and told the audience, “This is gonna be a little bit of groove, a little bit of soul, a little bit of jazz, and a little bit of Marvin Gaye 1976”. And then she launched into Gaye's “Inner City Blues”, a song which quietly but unwaveringly demanded more out of life.
Combining new tunes with standards and old favourites, the Toronto jazz vocalist presented a concert that celebrated hope and love, even in its sad songs. It was a very “Molly” show, with her talking intimately in an almost-stream of consciousness style to every single person of the hundreds in the large theatre. She told stories, praised her band members, joked about herself, got laughs when she lightly referred to current federal politics, and treated the stage much like her living room.
Ottawa Jazz Orchestra performs “Hidden Gems”
Fourth Stage, Canada’s National Arts Centre
Saturday, February 23, 2019 – 8:30 p.m.
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra (OJO) introduced a modern American jazz composer to its Ottawa audience Saturday – and everyone had a great deal of fun in the process.
It was a smaller and more relaxed show than the ambitious Strings in Focus concert the orchestra presented in January – but still definitely connected to jazz history and the jazz mainstream. It showcased the music of San-Francisco-Bay-area composer Reed Kotler, as arranged by trumpeter Bobby Shew.
Kotler is a “triple threat”: a pianist and multi-instrumentalist, a composer, and a software designer who has created tools to help musicians transcribe music. In that, he has a great deal in common with OJO's artistic director and bassist, Adrian Cho, who combines a software day job with a jazz avocation.
The tunes by Kotler which Cho selected for the concert were consistently appealing and approachable, in styles ranging from straight-ahead to ballads to even calypso. Many of these compositions were included in the 2002 album, Bobby Shew, Gary Foster and Friends: Play The Music Of Reed Kotler.