Show reviews

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.

Sasha Berliner
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 29, 2019 – 6 p.m.

On the stage sat a piano, a large vibraphone, a double bass – and a bereft-looking drumset, with no cymbals. American vibraphonist Sasha Berliner explained why as soon as she stepped on-stage: the quartet's drummer had been detained at Immigration and they weren't sure where he was at that point.

Unfortunately, he didn't make it to the concert, which was a pity, because I think drums and cymbals would have added a needed crispness and texture and propulsion to Berliner's music. What the jazzfest audience heard at this concert was lovely and unusual, but sometimes repetitive and occasionally almost soporific.

Berliner received the LetterOne “Rising Stars” Jazz Award (North American Edition) in 2018, which allowed her to undertake the festival tour that this show was part of. She has attended the Banff International Workshop in Jazz and Creative Music, and is about to enter her last year studying at the The New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in NYC. The 21-year-old has studied with Stefon Harris and Chris Dingman, as well as pianist Vijay Iyer. A drummer since age 8, she’s played vibraphone since 13, and released her first album at 16.

She's also a poet and essayist who has written on sexism in the jazz industry. She supports the We Have Voice organization, “vowing to create a non-tolerance and accountability policy for discrimination or harassment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and violence and abuse, in the performing arts.”

Nubya Garcia
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, June 29, 2019 – 4 p.m.

British saxophonist Nubya Garcia has a strong stage presence and an even stronger sound on tenor sax. In the UK, she's building quite the name for herself: she was named the Jazz FM Breakthrough Act of the Year Award and the Sky Arts Breakthrough Act of the Year Award in 2018, and the Jazz FM UK Jazz Act of the Year Award in 2019.

She brought her quartet with Taber Gable on piano and keys, Daniel Casimir on double bass, and Sam Jones on drums, to the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. Their hour-long show showed off not only Garcia's kinetic playing, but also the breadth of her creativity and the close communication within her band.

Despite the concert being scheduled for late afternoon, the room was full and the audience expectant and attentive. Garcia began with “Fly Free”, from her latest album Nubya's 5ive, which opened with her relaxed tenor sax lines over a fine texture provided by piano, bass, and drums. She then explored the diverse facets of her theme: from thoughtful and unhurried, to an intense delving into the theme, back to delicate tracery with complementary solos from Gable and Casimir, and then building up again, but all the time retaining a consistent feel.

“Source” had a similarly wide dynamic and conceptual range, with Garcia initially playing tenderly and on the softer side – in contrast to Jones' hard and demanding drum style. She and the band then abruptly changed to playing dramatically and full-out, before suddenly quieting to near-silence, with Gable's chiming keyboard notes sounding as though they were rising from still water. An electronic gloss was then added to the music, with Garcia creating long, eloquent sax lines over those rhythms, before the piece ended with a repeated riff from the entire band.

Jazz Youth Summit members listen carefully to Annie Lu's solo ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Jazz Youth Summit members listen carefully to Annie Lu's solo (l-r) Nicholas Adema, Annie Lu, Eamon Shiel, Jacob Do ©Brett Delmage, 2019

TD Jazz Youth Summit and Stingray Rising Stars
Ottawa Jazz Festival
OLG Stage, Confederation Park
Monday, July 1, 2019 – 2 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

They might be forgiven for looking a bit tired. For the past 10 days, the nine student musicians in the TD Jazz Youth Summit had been studying, taking part in masterclasses, and rehearsing for 4½ hours a day, as well as practicing, playing in the late-night jazz jams, and listening intently at concerts. They had played the opening show on the festival's main stage the previous evening, and now were back for a Canada Day show on the second stage.

Chosen by application and audition, they were some of the most promising young jazz players from across the country, including trombonist Nick Adema from Ottawa. They came from British Columbia to Ontario. All were university students: three were studying at the University of Manitoba, with others from the more usual University of Toronto, McGill University, and Humber.

In keeping with the festival's aim this year of celebrating women in jazz, three of the nine were female – the drummer, trumpeter, and baritone saxophonist – and clearly held their own against the male players.

Dominique Fils-Aimé
Ottawa Jazz Festival
OLG Stage, Confederation Park
Sunday, June 30, 2019 – 7:30 p.m.

With a striking vocal and physical presence, Dominique Fils-Aimé wowed a packed tent on the final evening of the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival.

Her hour-long concert flowed from song to song, hardly taking a break as she and her quintet created a soulful and emotional river of music – ending in a standing ovation. She opened powerfully with her anthemic originals “Where There Is Smoke / There Is Probably Fire”, which showcased the purity of her vocals in a very atmospheric double piece.

The Montreal vocalist has been named the 2019-20 Révélations jazz artist by Radio-Canada, the first vocalist to gain this signal honour for francophone musicians. And you could hear why in a concert which drew from both her albums, Nameless [2018] and Stay Tuned! [2019].

Fils-Aimé has cited Nina Simone as one of her influences, and performed several standards made famous by her, including a fierce and transcendent “Feeling Good”, in which her voice nearly cracked with emotion. Her version of “Strange Fruit” opened almost matter-of-factly, underlined by a simple keyboard motif; she gradually added in emotion but kept the mood restrained, letting the horrific story told by the lyrics speak for itself. In between those two songs, she sang an original, “Birds”, about the uncertainty of leaving to start a new life. She delivered it simply over Nathan Vanheuverzwijn's flowing keyboards, with scatting and wordless vocals filling in spaces between the words.

Andrew Littleford and Matt Walden play each others trumpets  ©Brett Delmage, 2019
Andrew Littleford and Matt Walden play each other's trumpets  ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Dirty Catfish Brass Band
Ottawa Jazz Festival
OLG Stage, Confederation Park
Monday, July 1, 2019 – 6 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

On Canada Day, Ottawans are in the mood for a party – and that's what they got from the Dirty Catfish Brass Band.

The New Orleans-style brass band, which hails from Winnipeg, played a hard-driving and crowd-pleasing set to close the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. They attracted strong applause from a full house, with as many as 10 swing dancers spinning in front of the stage.

Inspired by groups like the Meters, Dr. John, and The Neville Brothers, the band has a seven-horn front line plus a rhythm section of piano and drums, which gave a strong push to their own originals and covers of pop tunes. They played rollicking music: pianist Aaron Chodirker's dramatic glissandos and keyboard pounding was matched by deep grumbling baritone by Graham Dion, and by thumping sousaphone and drums. Tenor saxophonist Kyle Wedlake and the two trumpeters (at one point the trumpeters even played each others' instruments simultaneously!) provided interlaced lines and full-out fanfares.

©Brett Delmage, 2019
Justin Duhaime enjoys singing by one of his guests, Edra Silva Cavada ©Brett Delmage, 2019

Justin Duhaime's Gypsy Muse
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Sunday, June 30, 2019 – 12 noon
OLG Stage, Confederation Park

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Justin Duhaime pulled out all the stops for his Gypsy Muse concert at the Ottawa Jazz Festival – to the delight of his audience. Combining favourite tunes by Django Reinhardt with jazz standards, it was a fast-paced and vibrant show which demonstrated the enduring appeal of gypsy jazz.

Three talented guests – violinist William Lamoureux, clarinetist David Renaud, and vocalist Edra Silva Cavada – joined Duhaime's trio, with him and Nabil Yaghi on guitar and Normand Glaude on double bass. Duhaime had featured each guest separately at different concerts, but never before all three together. They each singly played several songs with the trio, before joining together for a grand finale.

The concert opened with “Viper's Dream”, a tune which Reinhardt recorded in 1937 with violinist Stéphane Grappelli and his Quintette du Hot Club de France. It was a fast and inviting number, with Lamoureux spinning out warm violin lines – very French in style – over swinging guitar and bass, followed by a pointillist guitar melody from Duhaime and an emphatic walking-pace bass solo from Glaude. Both Duhaime and Yaghi were playing gypsy jazz-style guitars with small sound holes, whose crisp and metallic tone rang throughout the tent.

Cyrille Aimée Trio: A Sondheim Adventure
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Studio
Thursday, June 27, 2019 – 7 p.m.

I heard the first half of Cyrille Aimée's concert at the 2019 Ottawa Jazz Festival. Performing with Canadian pianist Adrean Farrugia and American bassist Philip Kuehn, the French jazz vocalist paid tribute to musical theatre composer Stephen Sondheim.

Sondheim's Broadway tunes were given a strongly jazz interpretation from the entire trio, and Aimée did full justice to his lyrics with beautifully clear diction and careful understanding. Opening with the joyful love song “Losing My Mind”, she scatted as much as sang, her bright syllables echoing Farrugia's sequences of sparkling piano notes.

She told the audience she was only introduced to Sondheim's music a few years ago, and found it to be “une beaucoup de belle musique!” This year she released a collection of his songs, Move On: A Sondheim Adventure, music taken from many of his musicals with an emphasis on love songs. She told the audience stories about many of the songs, vividly describing the plots of the shows they were taken from, with a touch of humour.