The GigSpace Jazz MicroFest opened Friday to full houses and enthusiastic applause throughout.
The festival, whose aim is to celebrate jazz in Ottawa, featured two vocal groups and two instrumental groups for its first evening – and not one of them sounded anything like the others.
Vocalist Karen Oxorn opened the festival with a breezy and fun set of standards all related to two jazz cruises she recently sailed on. She recounted the not-so-mournful tale of a lover on one ship who was not meant to be, and added a new original and well-crafted verse to “Nice 'n' Easy” talking about that experience. Accompanied by Tim Bedner on guitar and Mark Alcorn on bass, she sang several new-to-her sea-linked songs, as well as “Let's Get Lost”, a song she heard Cyrille Aimee sing during one of the jazz cruise concerts.
Oxorn also paid tribute to her perennial favourite singer, Ella Fitzgerald, with two songs, including a heartfelt and lovely “How Deep is the Ocean?”. I particularly liked the Stephen Sondheim number, “Live Alone And Like It”, a tune in which her smooth clear vocals nicely delivered the clever lyrics. She closed with the sweet Caribbean vibe of the Henri Salvador tune "Dans mon île" – another sea-related song – and told the audience that the song is said to have been an influence on Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim in developing the bossa nova.
The next show was a tribute to Jobim, in the original Portuguese. Vocalist Rachel Beausoleil and guitarist Garry Elliott had presented a well-received concert commemorating Jobim's birthday in February, and they brought back much of that material – with a few additions – for this show. Accompanied by Mark Alcorn on bass guitar and Marilee Townsend-Alcorn on drums, they showcased songs Jobim wrote between 1958 and 1970: some warm and upbeat, some deeply melancholy and aching.
The songs flowed beautifully, with a fine connection between the instrumentals and the vocals. The feeling in the lyrics definitely came through despite them being sung in a language few there would have understood. I particularly enjoyed the hopeful samba “Outra vez (Once Again)”, and another accented song with soaring vocals whose message was everyone needed a chance for success. “Retrato em branco e preto (Portrait in Black and White)” was a show-stopper, Beausoleil's intense vocals over Elliott's quiet, reminiscent guitar evoking the deep grief and melancholy of the lost love being remembered in photographs. The quartet ended with “The Girl from Ipanema”, celebrating the joy in the moment with wide smiles.
The vibe changed at 9 p.m., as Modasaurus came on-stage. The group is a collaboration between pianist and composer James McGowan and the HML Trio (guitarist Alex Moxon, bassist J.P. Lapensée, and drummer Jamie Holmes). They play primarily McGowan's own compositions – complex and multi-layered and drawing inspiration from sources inside and outside jazz.
They opened and closed with two funky, catchy numbers: “Cereal and Eggs” and “Funky Pterodactyl”, which gave each musician room to stretch out. “Mind My Time” was an exercise in changing time signatures, but also a richly accented piece, with the focus shifting among the musicians as they played mostly pointillist solos.
The highlight of their set was two songs played back-to-back: “Inner Peace” and “Khaleegy”. “Inner Peace” was a new piece with overtones of North Indian/Hindustani music, with Holmes providing an hard, insistent steady beat on a hand drum, and Moxon and McGowan together building up the music into a rich and sonorous whole, accented with sparkling piano and glistening guitar solos. I was particularly impressed with Lapensée's improvised solos in this piece: his seven-string bass allows him to reach into sonic realms normally for the guitar, and he used that to produce glorious results. At one point, he sounded like chiming church bells; a longer, very intricate solo had the formality and beauty of classical guitar with notes quietly vibrating through the room.
“Khaleegy” had overtones of Middle Eastern music. Its abrupt changes, signaled with joint flourishes, included inflected bass, a hard-edged drum solo, and McGowan strumming the strings inside the piano under Moxon's vibrating guitar lines – all encased in a dancing beat. At the end of the two pieces, there was an audible “Wow!” from the audience and strong applause.
Moxon, Lapensée, and Holmes were right back on stage for the last show of the evening, as part of the Chocolate Hot Pockets with Ed Lister. They deliberately played more quietly than usual to fit the small space – and the result was both grooving and insightful and just nicely enveloped you in sound. Lister alternated between keyboards and trumpet, providing arresting solos on each but also softer passages.
They played their signature Bill Withers tune, “Use Me”, giving it a joyful and powerful – but not loud – beat. “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley (but with overtones of Willie Nelson too) featured expressive and melodic trumpet playing and exploratory keyboards lines from Lister, an effortlessly light and airy guitar solo from Moxon, and atmospheric bass and drums – all giving the song a lovely atmospheric feel.
They also played a series of originals by Moxon, Lapensée, and Lister: some funky, some fusion, some bright and jazzy, and all showing the strong intuition among the quartet from years of playing together. Even the piece Lister introduced as “ferocious” ended up including a soft, romantic guitar solo and quiet trumpet lines reminding me more of Miles Davis' groups in the 1960s. The group's multi-layered sound worked well in the space, and was a fittingly energetic end to the evening. The audience greeted it with extended applause.
Some listeners came for the entire evening; others came for just the first or second or last two shows. But the 45 seats in GigSpace were consistently full (with the last few selling out in the late afternoon), and the audience consistently attentive and appreciative. Judging by these shows, GigSpace has tapped into an enthusiastic market of Ottawa listeners interested in supporting Ottawa jazz musicians.
– Alayne McGregor
The GigSpace Jazz MicroFest continues on Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30. Some shows still have seats available.