Show reviews

Way North
Irene's Pub, Ottawa
Wednesday, September 11, 2019 – 8:20 p.m.

The crossborder jazz quartet Way North created an oasis of calm and good feelings in Irene's Pub in Ottawa on Wednesday night, playing two sets of upbeat original music.

The band members – Rebecca Hennessy on trumpet, Petr Cancura on tenor sax, Michael Herring on double bass, and Richie Barshay on drums – performed a fast-moving and entertaining show, which primarily showcased new material that they've recorded for their upcoming third album.

Though the band has been billed as combining roots music and jazz, the sound I heard was more reminiscent of old-timey jazz – think Louis Armstrong and 20s/30s jazz, or New Orleans second line – with touches of gospel and Latin jazz.

Hennessy and Cancura overlaid and alternated trumpet and tenor lines in appealing harmonies, and Herring and Barshay drove the music with strong and interestingly varied rhythms. The tunes provided considerable space for each to solo – and in the case of Herring and Barshay, often to have fun trading fours in increasingly fast and complex interactions.

All four musicians were showcased in the opening number, Hennessy's “Play”. Its sweet multi-layered melody on trumpet and tenor sax was ornamented by a charged and clear trumpet solo, a vibrating and assured tenor solo, streams of fast notes in a bass solo, and a dancing drum solo, before ending in a comfortable all-band vibe.

©Brett Delmage, 2019
Togetherness! at IMOO Fest 2019 (l-r: Scott Thomson, Ellwood Epps, Stephane Diamantakiou, Aurélien Tomasi, Ivan Bamford) at IMOO Fest 2019 ©Brett Delmage, 2019

IMOO Fest 2019 – Day 2
GigSpace, Ottawa
Saturday, September 7, 2019 – 7 to 10 p.m.

The second evening of IMOO Fest 2019 was a study in complete contrasts: from nuanced sounds in near-silence, to joyful South African grooves, to a four-part improvisation.

Up first was a trio from Montreal and Guelph, playing unusual instruments in graceful harmony. Pierre-Yves Martel performed on various whistles and on the viola da gamba – bowed, pizzicato, and rubbing against the instrument's wooden body at its waist. Ben Grossman created melodies, drones, and rhythms on his hurdy-gurdy. Patrick Graham produced sinuous sounds and complex rhythms on a wide variety of drums, rattles, and triangles. Their improvised show was crisp, beautiful, and used the GigSpace's quietness very well.

Togetherness! took its vibe primarily from South African jazz, with pieces by Abdullah Ibrahim and Dudu Pukwana predominating. Their three-horn front line – Scott Thomson on trombone, Ellwood Epps on trumpet, and Aurélien Tomasi on alto sax and clarinet – played joyous melodies over a strong rhythm section of Stephane Diamantakiou on double bass and Ivan Bamford on drums.

©Alayne McGregor, 2019
Listeners paid quiet attention to saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock in her performance with drummer Tom Rainey on IMOO Fest's opening night at The Record Centre ©Alayne McGregor, 2019

IMOO Fest 2019 – Day 1
The Record Centre, Ottawa
Friday, September 6, 2019 – 7 p.m.

See photos by Alayne McGregor

IMOO – Improvising and Experimental Music of Ottawa and Outwards – is used to improvising at the last minute. So when the opening act of IMOO Fest 2019 was called away by a hurricane, they just rolled with the change.

Nicole Rampersaud had to make a last-minute, emergency trip to the Bahamas to assist relatives affected by Hurricane Dorian. IMOO coordinators Linsey Wellman and David Jackson stepped in on seven hours' notice to play a duo set in her place – and produced a complex and coordinated mix of baritone saxophone and unadorned electric guitar.

They were the first of three duos, each different, which were featured at The Record Centre on Friday. The three sets attracted more than 30 listeners, some long-time free jazz fans, some new listeners, to sit among the bins of vinyl records and vintage audio in the store. Throughout, the audience was consistently attentive and applauded appreciatively.

Wellman and Jackson have played together in many different large groups at IMOO shows, but only once before as a duo. Their music opened with fast and angular lines, quietened into light breathing into the saxophone and attenuated single notes on guitar, and then sprang back up into loud growls. This wide dynamic range and diversity of textures – from both players – continued throughout, with Wellman's baritone popping out individual notes and sounding like birds chirping, and Jackson creating metallic rubbing sounds, deep grunts, and muted strums on his guitar.

They were clearly listening carefully, attuned to each other: a melancholy melody on baritone was accented by twanging guitar; Wellman's fast descending lines on baritone were echoed by Jackson. They closed with a intense, almost chaotic, mix of screeches and rumbles, ending abruptly together.

Cynthia Tauro ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Cynthia Tauro in a keyboard solo moment at her Ottawa CD release show for Moments ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Cynthia Tauro
Live! on Elgin, Ottawa
Wednesday, September 4, 2019 – 8 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Cynthia Tauro received a warm welcome back on Wednesday as she gave her first album, Moments, its Ottawa release.

The pianist and vocalist performed many of the tunes from that album – her originals and a few jazz standards – along with two classic 70s pop songs. She told the audience at Live! on Elgin that she had written most of the originals during the six years she lived in Ottawa. “I got my groundings, my bearings here,” she said, in studying for her music degree at Carleton University and then playing professionally in Ottawa's jazz scene: She returned to Toronto in 2018.

The show was the start of Tauro's first multi-city tour – “I'm excited to start it off in Ottawa!” – which will also take her to the Upstairs Jazz Bar in Montreal on Saturday, followed by concerts in south-western Ontario and a Toronto jazz festival.

It was also an opportunity for her to play again with two well-known Ottawa jazz musicians – guitarist Alex Moxon, who had been in her first jazz band in 2016, and drummer Stephen Adubofuor – and for the first time with jazz bassist Marc Decho. The four musicians played smoothly together, creating a sound that ranged from straight jazz to R&B to pop, but with enough added touches to keep the music interesting. Both Moxon and Decho contributed fluid solos throughout, adding effects and changing styles to fit the songs, while Adubofuor's vigorous but modulated drumming energized the show.

All of Tauro's own songs were about relationships, and generally about romance gone wrong. She opened her one-hour set exactly on-time, with “Wondering”, an earlier tune which she had first recorded with Moxon. It was a pensive ballad about whether to reunite with a lover, whose upbeat chorus created an interesting hook, and her keyboard playing had considerable intensity and dynamic range. She followed it with “Like That”, a confessional song about not being able to forget someone, which opened with a insinuatingly bluesy bass line and whose sad lyrics contrasted with the bright keyboard accompaniment.

©Brett Delmage, 2019
Gord Grdina with oud ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Gord Grdina
21st Century Guitar Conference
Freiman Hall, Perez Hall, University of Ottawa
Sunday, August 25, 2019 – 12 noon

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

On Sunday, Gord Grdina enthralled his audience at the 21st Century Guitar Conference with a 70-minute solo performance, quiet yet intense and exploratory.

Switching between classical guitar and oud, the Vancouver jazz musician played a series of new acoustic compositions plus one Arabic piece. They were primarily ones that he was preparing for a new album, he said.

Grdina won a JUNO award this year for Instrumental Album of the Year for China Cloud, a collection of improvised solo pieces recorded at the China Cloud underground art space space in Vancouver. He also appeared with his quartet at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Many of the pieces he played on Sunday were from his “Seeds” series, in which he has collected seeds of ideas meant to inspire further improvisation. He opened on guitar with “Seeds 12”, creating a series of figures, which repeated and gradually evolved with questing high notes singing over the underlying rhythm, and longer notes interspersed with quick bursts of short notes. The overall effect was controlled and liquid: at one point reminding me of water descending in a fall, at another like serene waves rippling in a lake.

James McGowan played "Hymn to Freedom" with composer Oscar Peterson watching in a picture ©Brett Delmage, 2019
James McGowan played "Hymn to Freedom" with composer Oscar Peterson watching in a picture. ©Brett Delmage, 2019

The James McGowan Trio
Options Jazz Lounge, Brookstreet Hotel
Saturday, August 17, 2019 – 8 p.m. to midnight

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

The James McGowan Trio immersed themselves and their audience in the joy of jazz Saturday evening, creating an upbeat vibe that suited the warm summer evening.

While the local musicians in this trio – McGowan on piano, Marc Decho on six-string electric bass, Valeriy Nehovora on drums – knew each other before, this was the first time they'd played together as a group. They came together smoothly and easily, playing modern jazz classics and two of McGowan's originals.

Each contributed substantially to the sound: McGowan creating reflective and inventive openings and moving piano passages, Decho adding melodic and flowing solos which spanned the guitar/bass divide, and Nehovora maintaining a strong underlying drive while adding fine cymbal and drum touches that made the pieces sparkle, and inserting well-timed “trading 4's” passages.

Opening with a swinging version of the standard “Beautiful Love”, the trio played three diverse sets: bossa nova, bebop, modal jazz, show tunes, and Pat Metheny all featured in the set list. Highlights included the dancing and immersive “Morning” by Clare Fischer; the entwined trio work on “On Green Dolphin Street”; their sincere and uplifting version of Oscar Peterson's “Hymn to Freedom”; the grooving and scintillating “Mercy Mercy Mercy”; and an unusual take on “God Bless the Child” which was much more accented and almost celebratory. Before their full-bodied and dynamic version of “Willow Weep for Me”, McGowan (ever the university professor) explained how that tune was written by Ann Ronell, who had to fight to be recognized as a female composer.

Huu Bac on the dan bau ©Brett Delmage, 2019 
Huu Bac Quach on the dan bau ©Brett Delmage, 2019

The Huu Bac Quintet
Festival de Jazz du Parc de l'Imaginaire
Parc de l'Imaginaire, Gatineau (Aylmer)
Saturday, July 27, 2019 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Huu Bac Quach plays instruments rarely heard in jazz: the Vietnamese dan bau, the Chinese erhu, and Andean quena bamboo flutes. But at his quintet's concert on Saturday, the music and his friendly demeanour instantly broke through any cultural barriers with the audience. They not only listened with great appreciation; afterwards, they crowded around the stage to chat and ask questions for more than half an hour.

Quach describes his music as a mix of Western and Eastern. The same could be said for himself: he was born in Vietnam, but came to Canada as a two-year-old, and was raised in small-town Quebec. During the concert, he spoke fluent and idiomatic Quebec French, exchanging jokes and comments with the audience.

He brought a high-powered and inventive jazz quintet with him from Montreal. Double bassist Jean Félix Mailloux, violinist Marie-Neige Lavigne, and pianist Guillaume Martineau all play in the OPUS Award-winning chamber jazz group Cordâme, whose latest album contains music inspired by Debussy. Martineau, whose background is in both classical music and jazz, was a Radio Canada Revelations jazz winner and combines chamber music, jazz, and rock in his own projects, including a jazz recreation of Nirvana at the 2019 Montreal Jazz Festival. Drummer Etienne Mason is an improviser and multi-instrumentalist who included field recordings in his original compositions inspired by Quebec's winter, and who creates drum and synth tracks.

The concert featured Quach's own compositions, about half from his 2017 debut album, On the Steps of St. Paul's, and half newer pieces. While the dan bau, erhu, and quena were prominent in the mix, the essential shape of his music was Western, drawing from both melodic jazz and classical music with an occasional tinge of French chanson. It was both varied and immediately approachable, easily keeping one's attention as the instruments smoothly danced together and complemented each other.

Larnell Lewis Sextet
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Friday, June 28, 2019 – 10:30 p.m.

“We made it!” Larnell Lewis sounded considerably relieved as he opened his sextet concert at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, many hours after its originally scheduled time. The drummer had played the previous night in Paris with Quincy Jones before almost 20,000 people – an “amazing time”, he told the audience – but had then got caught in an ever-worsening cycle of cancelled and delayed flights back to Canada.

You might have thought the audience would be cranky, too – first having the show moved from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and then have to stand in long lineups as delays mounted up. The doors didn't open until about 10:25, and the show didn't start until 10:35 p.m.

But once they got going, both the sextet and their audience got caught up the rush of the music – played with energy and zest. In the 70-minute-long show, the band was able to play half of Lewis' JUNO-nominated album, In the Moment, expanding and improvising on his memorable and attractive original tunes.

Lewis is a well-respected jazz drummer from Toronto, who has also played internationally with groups like Snarky Puppy. In the Moment, released last year, was his first album as a leader. For this show, he brought together five Toronto-area musicians: Rob Christian on saxophone and flute, Andrew McAnsh on trumpet, Elmer Ferrer on guitar, Jeremy Ledbetter on keyboards, and Andrew Stewart on bass; Christian, Ferrer, and Stewart had played on the album. Unlike Lewis, they came by train from Toronto and had no problems getting to Ottawa.

“Beignets” set the style for the concert: starting with a powerful fusillade of drumbeats and a funky bass beat, it was a hard-driving tune with punchy trumpet and sax lines giving it a fun New Orleans groove.

= Jazz Orchestra + Christine Jensen
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Studio
Tuesday, June 25, 2019 – 7 p.m.

Women can wield a mean horn and write a fine jazz composition – and the '=' Jazz Orchestra concert at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival showed them fully exercising those abilities.

Directed by saxophonist Christine Jensen, an accomplished composer in her own right, the 90+-minute show featured jazz pieces written by six women. They were performed by a big band brought together especially for this one-time concert, with eight women and ten men.

It was an compelling and highly rewarding evening.

Jensen had asked four other women in the band to provide music for the orchestra. She added two of her own pieces, plus one by noted American composer Carla Bley. It was consistently complex music, with several musicians doubling on different instruments and constantly changing combinations of sounds – as Jensen told the audience, “There's such a huge spectrum of notes and music with this band!”

The musicians came from Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and many of them had not played together before. They only had a day's rehearsal together, but appeared confident and enjoying the music.

Bley's “On the Stage in Cages” set the tone for the show with its multiple passages and layers, and its ambitious design. 13 minutes in length, it allowed several soloists to shine: tenor saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Emily Denison, alto saxophonist Allison Au, and trombonist Mark Ferguson. It was an attention-getting and often-jagged melancholy piece in many contrasting voices, with Webber's noir-ish full lines on tenor and Ferguson's finely-controlled and valedictory trombone particular standouts.

The Romance of Improvisation
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Sunday, June 23, 2019 – 8 p.m.

The National Film Board of Canada has been rightly recognized as a pioneer in short and animated films, but the composers who wrote the music that gave those films much of their vibrancy aren't as well-known. One of the NFB's most prolific and versatile composers was the late Eldon Rathburn, who wrote in many styles – and for several films in the 1950/60s, mainstream jazz, from bebop to Latin to ballads.

Those short films included one film which was nominated for an Academy Award, but others much more obscure (for example, one on how to prevent fish from spoiling). They came to light again when Carleton University professor James Wright wrote an in-depth biography of Rathburn, and Ottawa jazz drummer and academic Allyson Rogers researched Rathburn for him in the NFB archives. She saw the films, recognized the quality of Rathburn's jazz scores, and jointly with band-mate Adrian Matte, unspooled, expanded, and rearranged Rathburn's music into longer pieces for jazz quintet.

The eventual album was called The Romance of Improvisation, a take-off on the Oscar-nominated NFB film which Rathburn scored, The Romance of Transportation. Five well-known Canadian jazz musicians – pianist Marianne Trudel, saxophonist Petr Cancura, trumpeter Kevin Turcotte, bassist Adrian Vedady, and drummer Jim Doxas – performed on the album, which was released on Justin Time Records last November.

It received its live debut, with the same musicians, before an enthusiastic audience at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. The National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage was packed, with every chair taken and listeners perched in the windowsills.