Ottawa Jazz Festival
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Thursday, June 27, 2019 – 8 p.m.

“ITACA” stands for Italy and Canada, the countries of origin for these four fine improvisers. Ottawa jazzfest listeners had an advance opportunity to hear their avant-garde jazz quartet Thursday, as they played only their second show together.

The Canadians are clarinetist François Houle and drummer Nick Fraser. The Italians are alto saxophonist Nicola Fazzini and bassist Alessandro Fedrigo. They met two years ago when the Italians toured Canada and played with Houle in Vancouver and Fraser in Toronto. “I guess they liked us,” Houle told the audience, “so they said, why don't we put a band together? I was thrilled at the idea.”

The quartet is a collective, with each musician contributing pieces. They had rehearsed for a couple days in Toronto this week, and played their first show at the Toronto Jazz Festival the day before. The result: intricate combinations of instruments and intense and extended improvisations, which were happily received by the audience in the Fourth Stage.

They opened with Fraser's “Sketch #26”, one of a long series of semi-improvised sketches he's written and recorded. Houle joked that he had Fraser beat, since his “Aerials” series of solo improvisations now has 76 entries!

Houle gave it an attention-getting start with an intense, descending line on clarinet. He was quickly joined by Fazzini on alto sax, the two creating complementary strands of sound which flew around each other. The effect was in-your-face and dissonant, with hard drum and bass rhythms adding to the ferocity.

The opening section of the following medley, Houle's “Chorale” mixed with Fazzini's “Quartet”, was a strong contrast – with a deep, satiny bass solo over light cymbals and an almost-classical melding of clarinet and sax. It didn't stay that way, however: sections like a benediction abruptly shifted into ones sounding like howling fire alarms.

In past few years, Houle has expanded his playing to include electronics and looping to add extra rhythms and voices, and he used that effectively in this piece, letting looped lines reverberate as he played over them. Fazzini contributed fast, spiky alto lines which became slower and more deliberate, underlaid nicely by barely-there clarinet.

I thought the piece was about to end when the two horns returned to the original theme, but then Houle, who had been playing light inquiring clarinet lines, stopped – and you could still hear his looped recording. After a few moments he again started playing with the recording, and then Fazzini joined in for a melodic duet. Fraser took over with a slow, stately drum solo, the horns returned, playing fast and circling each other, and then the piece ended abruptly – surprising the audience.

I enjoyed Houle's “The Third Murder”, which is part of a suite he is currently writing based on Dashiell Hammett's mystery, The Maltese Falcon. It was the highest-energy piece of the show, opening with screaming clarinet and savage drumming and also including raw-edged alto sax lines and slashing bass lines. It resolved eventually into a quieter space, with twirling and soaring clarinet joined by fast saxophone before ending on a last bass note.

After that, Houle announced that “I somehow managed to destroy a synthetic reed, which is not easy to do!” While he hurried backstage to get a replacement, the remaining three musicians played a more conventional jazz tune, a tribute to Ornette Coleman by Ed Blackwell. Houle returned half-way through and added a dancing melody to the upbeat number.

Throughout, Fraser used a wide percussive vocabulary, from rattles to sharp taps on the edges of his drums, from light mallets and brushes to commanding drumstrokes to fast streams of single notes. He in particular made his cymbals sing, both sweetly and softly and occasionally with loud screeches. He carefully fitted his drumming to the other musicians, adding the necessary textures to fill in the background and keeping the energy up in the most intense sections.

Fedrigo was often the most melodic player in his solos: for example, beginning his tune “Mono Esa Tono” with a fast and rounded patterns on electric bass. He also provided a consistently well-attuned backing rhythm to the horns, often in patterns whose complexity was only obvious if you listened carefully.

Fazzini and Houle were well-matched, each pushing the other to further feats and working smoothly together. They were a well-attuned front line with a wide dynamic and stylistic range, and I particularly liked the fluidity of much of their performances.

The quartet ended their last piece in a sudden stop after an energetic rush of dissonant sounds – and were greeted with strong and extended applause. After a moment, most of the audience also rose to their feet for a standing ovation.

On Saturday, ITACA will perform at the Vancouver Jazz Festival, and then they will go into the studio to record their debut album. Houle said what they played at this concert was “a little snapshot of what's hopefully going to end up on the CD.”

Set List

  1. Sketch #26 [Nick Fraser]
  2. Medley: Chorale [ François Houle] / Quartet [Nicola Fazzini]
  3. Rakesh [Alessandro Fedrigo]
  4. Calanques [Nicola Fazzini]
  5. The Third Murder [François Houle]
  6. Nette [Ed Blackwell]
  7. Mono Esa Tono [Alessandro Fedrigo]

Photos of this performance are not available because the Ottawa Jazz Festival denied's request for news media accreditation for founder, journalist and photojournalist Brett Delmage for the 9th consecutive year.

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