Don Ross – Louder than Usual
Ottawa Jazz Festival, Jazz Warriors Series
First Baptist Church
Sunday, June 24, 2018 – 7 p.m.

Udi Raz
Ottawa Jazz Festival
Sunday, June 24, 2018 – 5 p.m.

I've usually heard master fingerstyle guitarist Don Ross playing solo. The man can play three lines at once; he can fill a hall with vibrant melodies and rhythms. For him, a band isn't a requirement.

But hearing him play with two jazz musicians on Sunday was a fascinating experience, and added even more dynamism to his music.

Ross has been increasingly working with other musicians over the past few years, and this year formed a jazz quartet with three Torontonians. He had played before with pianist Andrew Craig and bassist Jordan O'Connor, but percussionist Marito Marques was new to him. His aim was to form several quartets in different parts of the world and experiment with “louder than usual” music.

This quartet recently recorded a six-song EP “live off the floor” in Toronto. Ross mixed it in Germany last week and released it June 20.

But when the musicians filed on-stage on Sunday, there were only three of them. Ross told the audience that O'Connor had badly thrown his back out a few days before, and had to bow out. Instead, Craig put a laptop and MIDI keyboard on top of his piano, and used that to create bass lines with his left hand, while he played piano with his right. After the show, Craig explained that he also plays bass professionally – and the result was surprisingly good, with both the bass and piano clearly audible in the mix.

The quartet played all the pieces on the EP, plus one from Ross' 2017 album, A Million Brazilian Civilians. They included several older pieces I'd heard Ross play before – but they were given considerable extra presence with the addition of Craig and Marques.

Marques, who is originally from Portugal, underlined Ross' strong guitar lines with his own powerful drumming, using all parts of the kit to create thundering climaxes and strong echoing beats – but he could also create barely-there atmospheric touches on drums and cymbals with bamboo brushes. Craig counterpointed Ross' guitar work with intricate piano patterns and sparkling solos, as well as providing a consistent underpinning on bass.

The quartet open with the classic Ross tune, “Wall of Glass”; its strong rhythms echoed around the church, immersing the audience in a very full sound that constantly evolved while still being safely moored to its primary riff. It’s one of my favourites by Ross and this was one of the best performances of that tune that I'd heard.

Next came a surprising choice, a piece by Simon Neil of the Scottish alternative rock/heavy metal band Biffy Clyro. Ross assured the audience the depressing lyrics of "Black Chandelier" weren't about him (“Don't worry, I'm fine!”). It was quite enjoyable as a warm-toned acoustic ballad, if one ignored the mentions of cyanide poisoning.

“Jesse Helms' Night in Havana” featured a dancing rumba beat, with evocative trembling guitar lines and a thunderous drum solo that evoked strong applause. “Any Colour But Blue” created an hypnotic fusion of rolling vocals, driving guitar patterns, supple piano, and atmospheric drumming – very like its inspiration, a long and freezing winter highway trip up to Sudbury.

Ross happened to hear a BBC announcer use the phrase “A Million Brazilian Civilians” in a newscast, and it so stuck with him that he wrote a tune to fit it. The music evolved from a demo Ross created for the electronic dance band Swedish House Mafia: it was a catchy dance tune with a hard-edged groove, over which Ross' guitar lines flew.

“With You in Mind” was inspired by jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and showed that influence while definitely remaining a Ross piece. It was a long, multi-layered piece, expressive and in a minor key, with room for all the musicians to spread out. Ross played glistening guitar lines over Marques' restrained drumming with bamboo sticks, and Craig's intense piano lines that deliberately didn't quite resolve – and then the piece built up momentum to climax in an extended and crashing drum solo, before ending in a fine tracery of notes on guitar and piano.

The audience, which nearly filled the church, was clearly friendly: they applauded strongly as the musicians filed on stage even before they started playing, and continued appreciatively clapping after each song. Ross introduced each song with a story, funny and personable, and spoke in both French and English. He had everyone involved and frequently laughing at his tales, and the entire vibe was like a happy family.

The band closed with the dramatic and funky “Dracula and Friends, Part One”, with strong textures and patterns on guitar matched by inflected keyboard lines. Everyone – band and crowd – became immersed in the groove, and when the last held note died out, the audience stood for an extended standing ovation.

For an encore, Ross played “Corvos”, an amalgam of two pieces he wrote at different times in his life. Its title was the Portuguese word for crows, but it wasn't raucous like those birds. Instead, it had a gentle Brazilian feel and evolved like an interesting conversation before ending sweetly – to another standing ovation.

I'd like to hear Ross again with his full quartet, and with Craig given more of a chance to step out and match Ross' guitar with his piano. Having these musicians on-stage gives an extra richness to Ross' music and challenges him a bit more, to a fine result. This would see a natural fit for the NAC Presents series. Heather Gibson, are you listening?

Set list:

(all pieces by Don Ross unless otherwise specified)

  1. Wall of Glass
  2. Black Chandelier (Simon Neil of Biffy Clyro)
  3. Jesse Helms' Night in Havana
  4. Any Colour but Blue
  5. A Million Brazilian Civilians
  6. With You in Mind
  7. Dracula and Friends, Part One
  8. (encore) Corvos

Earlier that afternoon, I had the delight of hearing not one, but two, tubas perform in an impromptu Israeli-Ottawa collaboration. Half were from 16-piece Israeli big band Marsh Dondurma and half from Ottawa's Bank Street Bonbons.

Marsh Dondurma had played a late-night concert at the festival the previous evening, but they'd also played a late-afternoon Battle of the Bands against the Bonbons on June 22.

Now the tuba player from each of those bands – Israeli Udi Raz and Ottawan Keith Hartshorn-Walton – gathered a few other members of their two bands for an impromptu hour-long jam at 5 p.m. With Zakari Frantz (alto sax) and leader Mike Essoudry (drums) from the Bonbons, and Aviran Ben Naim (trumpet) and Evyatar Levy (alto sax) from Marsh Dondurma, they set up by the fountain in Confederation Park and quickly gained a happy and attentive audience who filled all the seats and flat surfaces and more in the area.

Raz played a sousaphone (which, as he pointed out, could also be considered a tuba) while Hartshorn-Walton played his E-flat tuba. I particularly enjoyed how they both used the full capabilities of their instruments, for example in a duet mid-concert where their smooth, warm, and hushed tones lovingly combined, and sounded nothing like the standard oompah caricature of a tuba.

The music ranged from the New Orleans brass-band boogie of the Bonbons (with sizzling Louis Armstrong-style scatting from Raz), to the more Mid-East feel of Marsh Dondurma (with a folkloric and hypnotic beat), and everything in between. But it was consistently upbeat and exploratory, with lots of room for all the instruments – and particularly highly expressive tuba playing, in both circling solos and intertwined duets.

Read related stories by

Note: 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.