A Filetta – Paolo Fresu & Daniele di Bonaventura
Studio Series
Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre Studio
Thursday, June 25, 2015 – 7 p.m.

From the Ottawa Jazz Festival's description, you might have reasonably concluded that this concert was an improvised jazz duet between Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and bandoneon player Daniele di Bonaventura, with some choral singing in the background.

Not quite.

A Filetta, a six-member a cappella male choir from Corsica, was front and centre on the Studio stage, and took the majority of the concert's time and attention. Fresu and di Bonaventura were primarily accompanying or soloing around their voices, and there were many times when only the choir was heard.

The choir, which formed in 1978, sings in Corsican, with the objective of saving that island's oral patrimony. In 2006, they first performed with Fresu and di Bonaventura. They all released an album together on ECM in 2011: Mistico Mediterraneo.

The concert lasted almost 90 minutes, of which the singers occupied well over half. They sang a series of relatively short pieces, most of which also featured instrumental interludes from Fresu and di Bonaventura. Some were heartfelt ballads; some reminded me of Gregorian chant; some were dirge-like.

One of the singers introduced each song – but in very fast, accented French that was hard to understand. Before the second piece, he talked for 5 minutes about the historical injustices of colonialism in Africa; before others, he appeared to be reciting poetry.

After a while, all the songs started sounding alike.

This didn't have to happen. For example, in Michael Occhipinti's Sicilian Jazz Project, all the songs are sung in Sicilian. But in concert Occhipinti makes a point of explaining each song and its origins and how he adapted it, and ensures that the audience can connect with the song's message – plus there's more variety in the music. This just didn't happen in this concert. Perhaps an English translator – or a printed programme – might have solved this language barrier?

But if you simply ignored the vocal sections, the remaining music was delightful – and perhaps what the audience recognized with its standing ovation at the end.

di Bonaventura plays many instruments, but for this concert, he concentrated on the bandoneon, a type of concertina frequently played in tango ensembles. He took it far past tango, initially playing it like a drum, and then making it sound like the accordion in French chanson (quoting “La Vie en Rose” near the end), and later playing complicated rhythmic riffs. In particular, he played beautiful, often wistful, sometimes jaunty melodies on it, frequently underlining and strengthening similar melodies from Fresu.

Fresu played both trumpet and flugelhorn. He opened with a romantic, long line on muted trumpet, which later became more complex and intense: a foretaste of the entire show. Throughout, he showed a beautiful tone and control of his instruments, sometimes full-out and invocatory, sometimes fast and gypsy-like, sometimes quiet and intimate.

Both musicians used effects. At one point, Fresu's trumpet sounded like a Fender Rhodes, while di Bonaventura created clipped, muted percussive riffs. At another point, Fresu used either looping or multiphonics to create several lines of sound, and then added sounds like birds chirping or water running underneath his flugelhorn.

But what really worked well was the combination of them together: the sounds created by the muted trumpet and the bandoneon melded beautifully, and both instrumentalists showed their comfort and experience with each other in creating lovely swirls of music.

I think this concert would have worked better at Music and Beyond or Chamberfest, where the audiences might be more interested in primarily choral music. I found it frustrating: gorgeous and innovative instrumentals, but vocals that just didn't connect with me.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: OttawaJazzScene.ca received review access to the Ottawa Jazz Festival but was denied access for our photojournalist, Brett Delmage. Therefore we are unable to publish photos with this review.