If you had just plopped yourself down in front of the main stage at 6:30 p.m. for every night of the 2018 Ottawa Jazz Festival, you would have heard some excellent modern jazz performances – all by Canadians.
I made a point of “buying Canadian” at this year's festival and, although I couldn't hear all of these performances due to conflicts, I was more than satisfied with the quality and originality of what I did hear.
The festival's 2018 Canadian contingent ranged from swing to Afro-Cuban to vocal harmony to modern jazz. Most were from Montreal and Toronto, with a few expats from NYC. Overall, their performances would satisfy any jazz purists while also being highly accessible to jazz neophytes. It was music that spoke jazz and spoke from the heart.
What I heard:
- June 21: The Jim Doxas Quartet
- June 21: Bria Skonberg
- June 22: The Joe Sullivan Big Band
- June 23: Rafael Zaldivar's Afro-Cuban Revival
- June 24: Don Ross: Louder than Usual [see separate review]
- June 25: Félix Stüssi's Les Malcommodes with Sonia Johnson
- June 26: A Novel Collaboration: A Novel of Anomaly + Lina Allemano and Andrew Downing
- June 28: François Bourassa Quartet
- July 1: TD Jazz Youth Summit [see separate review]
I was not able to see the following Canadian jazz shows because of time conflicts:
- June 21: Kellylee Evans and Petr Cancura: “Swing Swing Swing!”
- June 26: Ernesto Cervini’s Turboprop
- June 27: The Heavyweights Brass Band
- June 27: Jerry Granelli's Dance Hall group with guitarists Robben Ford and Bob Lanzetti
- June 30: Kellylee Evans
A few years ago, a mother and her young musician son came up to me at a concert and asked who the drummer was we'd just heard playing with a Toronto pianist. They were extremely impressed with his performance, and wanted to hear him again.
That drummer was Jim Doxas, a mainstay of Montreal's jazz scene. He's been frequently heard in Ottawa playing standards with Oliver Jones, energetic mainstream jazz with his brother Chet, or adventurous improv with John Geggie. In the many times I've heard him, Doxas has always provided a strong foundation to groups, in his own voice.
This was the first time, however, that I'd heard him leading his own group. With him were three exciting players from Montreal's jazz scene: trumpeter Lex French, saxophonist Al McLean, and bassist Adrian Vedady.
They played mostly standards: well-crafted pieces like “Tea for Two”, and Billy Strayhorn's “Johnny Come Lately” and “Chelsea Bridge”. This gave everyone considerable room to swing and to reinterpret the music. I was particularly impressed with French's and McLean's easy accord, with fierce alternating solos on “Johnny Come Lately”, and a lovely quiet trumpet introduction to “Chelsea Bridge” that then combined with saxophone to plaintively express the melody. Vedady also had room to shine, with an extended and inflected bass solo on “Tea for Two”, and a stately promenade of notes in “Chelsea Bridge”.
And Doxas? He not only provided well-attuned and varied rhythms driving the music; he also contributed an extended drum solo in “Johnny Come Lately”, light and airy with ringing cymbals matching drum taps. For the band's final number, he opened with a fantasia of drumstrokes, displaying a wide variation in textures and speeds and combining hand-drumming and sticks – but not needing to be loud to make an impact.
It was an accomplished set, showing again why standards can allow individual voices to shine. Doxas and his quartet were given strong applause and cheers at the end.
I suspect this wasn't the first time that Bria Skonberg had told some of the stories she related at the Ottawa Jazz Festival, especially her defense of her home town of Chilliwack, BC. But she told them with such good humour and assurance that she easily won the hearts of her capacity audience in the large Tartan Homes tent.
Not that she really needed to, given her level of musicianship. The trumpeter and vocalist – and her quartet – produced a polished mix of standards, originals, and jazz versions of modern pop songs which made her hour-long show just zip by.
Skonberg, who has lived in NYC since 2010, brought Americans Christopher Pattishall on piano and Devin Starks on bass with her. Her American drummer had been stranded in the New Orleans airport, so Montreal drummer Greg Ritchie, who was already scheduled to play in the late-night Swing Swing Swing! show, got the call at 2 p.m. to sit in. He did an excellent job of keeping up the energy and adding textures that fit well in with the show's dynamics.
Their opening number was a vivacious “Get Happy!” which showed off Skonberg's assertive and accomplished trumpet playing counterpointed against warm bass lines, rippling piano, and fast drumming, all interlaced and trading 4s near the end of the song. She then switched to vocals, delivering the lyrics to the modern pop song “Trust in Me” with a sultry and hypnotic feel, her rendition underlined by simple, unadorned piano.
Skonberg's original “How Can It Be?” began with a hard-edged trumpet line but modulated into a sweet melodic bossa. She alternated between singing and playing swinging trumpet in this optimistic love song, which was also invigorated by Pattishall's bright piano.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the show was Skonberg's simple, heartfelt, and totally engrossing version of Leonard Cohen's “Dance Me to the End of Love”. After a romantic piano intro, Skonberg took up the melody on trumpet, slowly and beautifully and then followed with hushed vocals. With Starks' deep bass notes and Ritchie's light cymbals underneath, she sang Cohen's lyrics without affectation, creating a peaceful and utterly still oasis in the tent. After the last long held note, the audience erupted with extremely strong applause and cheers.
I also enjoyed her tribute to bebop pioneer and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie with his “Dizzy Atmosphere”, a confident and fast-moving ensemble piece. Skonberg told the audience after this piece that she plays jazz because “it's the closest I can get to flying, especially with a rhythm section like this!” – and it was easy to visualize the notes swooping out as the quartet played this bebop classic.
It was a vibrant show from a musician who knows how to connect well with an audience – but also how to showcase her own abilities as trumpeter and vocalist with an appealing variety of material.
- Get Happy [Harold Arlen, Ted Koehler]
- Trust in Me [Robert and Richard Sherman]
- How Can It Be? [Bria Skonberg]
- Thinking Out Loud [Ed Sheeran]
- Dance Me to the End of Love [Leonard Cohen]
- Dizzy Atmosphere [Dizzy Gillespie]
- Big Yellow Taxi [Joni Mitchell]
- [last title not announced]
Montreal's jazz community has depth. When I compared the actual lineup of Joe Sullivan's big band with what was printed in the Ottawa jazzfest program, there were five substitutions in the 17 members. But you wouldn't have been able to tell that from the tightness and power of this ensemble.
2018 is the band's 20th anniversary. Over that time, Sullivan has released four albums with this group, all playing his own material – most recently, Unfamiliar Surroundings in late 2016. With him leading off on trumpet, the band opened this show with the title track to that album.
Immediately you could hear classic big band music, arresting in its sheer force and multiple layers of sound. Because André Leroux was on tour with François Bourassa's quartet, more of the lead tenor role fell to Al McLean; he was a strong and inventive soloist on this piece and throughout the show, as was trumpeter Aron Doyle.
Pianist Josh Rager provided thoughtful piano lines on the ballad “Prelude”, while David Bellemare sat in for Leroux on “Samba Leroux” and played fast, inquisitive, and very pointed and high saxophone in a samba much more angular and heated than average. “Bye Bye Blackbird” began with the full band playing the driving melody, but then left space for a brassy trumpet solo from Dave Mossing and a velvety bass solo from Adrian Vedady.
Sullivan told the crowd he had recently revived his older composition, “Two Views”; it was a more introspective piece which allowed him to stretch out on flugelhorn, along with Donny Kennedy playing wistful alto sax and Dave Laing with a reverberant drum solo. The more recent “Let's Go!” sped up the action again, building up to full throttle with solos from MacLean and trombonist Jean-Nicolas Trottier.
The band closed with “Sandy's Blues” by baritone saxophonist Jean Fréchette. It was a full-out swinging number, that went both high and low with Fréchette on baritone and Richard Gagnon on trombone contraposed against Bellemare on flute – for a sizzling ending to a fine hour+ of big band jazz. Sullivan and his band played music very much in the tradition, but a strong modern feel and vividness that caught you up and kept you involved.
(All pieces by Joe Sullivan unless otherwise indicated)
- Unfamiliar Surroundings
- Samba Leroux
- Bye Bye Blackbird [Ray Henderson, Mort Dixon]
- Two Views
- Let's Go!
- Sandy's Blues [Jean Fréchette]
I was glad I'd interviewed Montreal pianist Rafael Zaldivar before hearing this show. Perhaps because of the limited time for his set, he let the music speak for this quartet rather than explaining in words to the audience how he had incorporated historical Afro-Cuban rhythms in the tunes he'd composed. Without that background knowledge, it may have been difficult for the audience to understand the depth of what Zaldivar's quartet was presenting.
One thing you immediately noticed was how much everyone was enjoying playing this music: bassist Rémi-Jean LeBlanc had a big grin for most of the show, and he, drummer Michel Medrano, and percussionist Eugenio 'Kiko' Osorio happily worked together to create captivating grooves over which Zaldivar's piano sparkled.
Almost all the pieces were originals by Zaldivar, which drew on different Afro-Cuban traditions, and which he will be releasing on a new album this year. I liked the wide-ranging dynamics in “Obatala”, which opened with light contrasting rhythms on drums and congas, then added thoughtful piano and bass, and slowly grew into a loud and commanding beat. It then faded again, with Zaldivar singing wordlessly over the music, and increased and ebbed in intensity several more times before ending in a last hand strike on the congas.
I particularly enjoyed two traditional pieces: the romantic and wistful “Guaguanco”, based on a Cuban dance; and “La comparsa”, a lovely song by Cuban nationalist composer Ernesto Lecuona, in which Zaldivar's classical training shone in his virtuosic piano solos.
The quartet ended with a piece that piled rhythmic piano upon intense percussion to create a bright groove with, oddly enough, almost a Thelonious Monk feel. Near the end, Zaldivar stood mid-stage and danced and clapped along with the congas – before returning to the piano for a last piano/percussion fanfare.
The audience responded enthusiastically, with many calls for an encore – and the quartet acceded, beginning with punctuated rhythms on drums and piano, and then flowing into a sweet samba, with lots of flourishes.
“Les Malcommodes” can be loosely translated as “little troublemakers”, but the vibe you get from this Montreal trio's music is neither troubling or irritating. Their jazzfest show was instead energetic and compelling. Guest vocalist Sonia Johnson's carefree dancing to the music as she opened the show perfectly epitomized the group's charm.
Johnson contributed lyrics to several of Stüssi's tunes – one only the previous week, meaning she wasn't word-perfect, she told the audience. “Jazz is like that. It's a work in progress and you have to take some risks. You have to be in the moment to play it, and experiment with it. And that's what I love to do with these guys!”
Leader Félix Stüssi on piano, Daniel Lessard on bass, and Pierre Tanguay on drums created a rich instrumental mix over which Johnson was scatting and singing in both English and French. They played songs from Stüssi's last few albums plus a new tune, in styles ranging from ballads to bebop.
On the up side: the hip and ironic “Subsub's blues”, the soaringly joyous “Idée Fix” (“about Félix's big vision of the world and how he'll always be optimistic about things”), and the warm barrelhouse blues of “Buster” (dedicated to silent film star Buster Keaton).
On the more thoughtful side: the dramatic ballad “Solaire”, with Stüssi's romantic piano and Lessard's harmonics on bass underlining Johnson's heartfelt singing (and poetry recitation). Johnson, who won a JUNO for best vocal jazz album in 2012, used her flexible voice and considerable range to beautifully project the aching sadness of the song.
“Walked the Same Sands”, Stüssi's memorial to the victims of the 2015 Al-Shabaab terrorist attack in Kenya, was a moving and at times harrowing commemoration, with piano and voice echoing the fear and chaos and heartbreak, and calling for unity and peace. It evoked strong applause and cheers. Stüssi himself is an immigrant to Canada (from Switzerland); “Emigration”, a new tune in response to recent events, was a simple yet intense call for empathy for all.
The group closed with “Don't You Ever Give Up Playing Be Bop!”, a feisty, fun number which swung with abandon and instructed the musicians to “hit them with the rhythm and keep it up!” as Johnson alternately sung the lyrics and scatted to the music. As the ended, the crowd immediately responded with very strong applause and cheers. I was not surprised: this was one of the most instantly and consistently appealing sets I'd heard in years.
I only was able to hear the last half of this show, but I was impressed with this cross-Atlantic collaboration: the quartet A Novel of Anomaly from continental Europe, and trumpeter Lina Allemano and cellist Andrew Downing from Toronto (and in Allemano's case, part-time in Berlin).
I heard them play two pieces by Allemano and one by Downing, plus a closing number from the quartet. It was very much an ensemble performance: accordion curlicuing around cello, trumpet and guitar exchanging leads, and lots of energy on the drums in complex but very approachable music – with a distinct cabaret bent. The group took the music seriously, but not themselves, strongly reminding me of the Willem Breuker Kollektief in their good humour and how they joined with the audience in enjoying the music.
The collaboration – just for this show – went remarkably well. One hopes these musicians will be able to repeat it.
JUNO-winning pianist François Bourassa believes in long-standing collaborations. He told the audience at his main-stage show that he'd been playing with bassist Guy Boisvert since 1982, saxophonist/flutist André Leroux since 1983, and drummer Greg Ritchie since 2002. He also recorded with this same Montreal quartet for his most recent album, Number 9 .
You could hear the quartet's deep rapport in this show as they played selections from the album, plus some newer compositions. Their opening number, “Frozen”, for example, began softly with rounded piano chords against bowed bass, light brushes on the drums, and finely-attuned tenor sax. While it heated up substantially in the middle, it ended with a singing flute lines over repeated patterns on piano – very quiet and frigid, like cracking ice.
I particularly enjoyed “Lostage” (also from Number 9), a slowly-expanding piece which grew from accented piano notes over shivering cymbals to powerful piano punches, punctuated sax lines, and demanding drumming, before ending in an extended sax-piano-drum flourish.
The audience was relatively still during the show, the better to catch the fine nuances in the quartet's playing. And that stillness was repaid in expressive and dynamic performances, in pieces ranging from peaceful and thoughtful ballads to all-out ensemble pieces with strong forward momentum. The quartet ended with a vigorous piano/sax duet – and the audience responded with strong and extended applause.
There are no photos of these shows, as OttawaJazzScene.ca’s accreditation request for Brett Delmage was denied by the festival.