The Ottawa Jazz Festival concentrated its efforts into its Winter and summer jazz festival in 2013. The music ranged from sublime and delightful, to puzzling or frustrating or simply not jazz.

The season began at the end of January, with the second annual winter jazzfest presented by the Festival. Unlike in 2012 where each night featured several concerts, this festival began with a high-profile single concert in Dominion Chalmers United Church featuring Fred Hersch and his trio, with NYC-Vancouver group Michael Blake's Variety Hour opening. Both groups gave really fine performances, and it was a great pity the church was only half-full.

The second and third nights consisted of three consecutive concerts a night at the NAC Fourth Stage, plus a Friday late-night show at the Mercury Lounge and two rock-jazz bands at the University of Ottawa on Saturday night.

The Friday night lineup at the NAC featured notable local groups playing to full houses: Miguel de Armas and his quartet started the night with a particularly fiery performance and had to be practically dragged off the stage (and the listeners would have been happy to have them continue). Nick Fraser debuted his first CD as a leader in many years,Towns and Villages, featuring NYC saxophonist Tony Malaby, to a highly appreciative audience. And pianist Brian Browne and guitarist Roddy Ellias teamed up with a smooth Montreal rhythm section for a concert of mostly standards, in which Ellias added considerable counterpoint and unexpectedness to well-known melodies – an extra challenge to Browne's standard oeuvre.

Chicago saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and his trio ended the night with a high-energy and personable concert at the Mercury Lounge, with music ranging from blues/gospel to AACM-free jazz, all played with skill and familiarity. Unfortunately, the sound was cranked up too loud for the space, forcing Editor Alayne McGregor out after the first set.

On the Saturday night, the most notable concert of the three was the first. The Wee Trio had been billed as a David Bowie retrospective based on their latest CD, but their concert was far more varied and more melodically interesting than that, with shimmering vibraphone notes dancing over bass and drums. It was a symphony of percussion, showing how all three instruments could collaborate on music ranging from Bowie to originals to “Cherokee”.They were followed by John Escreet's Trio, which presented an angular and disconnected series of avant-garde originals, and finally by guitarist Charlie Hunter with drummer Scott Amendola, who thoroughly pleased a packed crowd with upbeat country-folk songs interspersed with well-delivered stories, and minimal jazz content.

The summer Ottawa jazz festival was its usual diverse self, but with high-profile non-jazz artists again being given pride of place in the outdoor concerts.

Highlights which McGregor heard included

  • the David Murray Big Band playing with R&B/hip-hop singer Macy Gray: they filled the park with grooves, staying true to jazz and exuding energy, style, and emotion
  • the tribute night to Jacques Émond with Los Gringos, the Rob Frayne Dream Band, and the Vic Vogel Big Band: showing the beauty, range, and vigor of big band jazz. It was a wonderful and fitting tribute to Émond.
  • Trifolia: nuanced and beautiful narratives with pianist Marianne Trudel, percussionist Patrick Graham, and bassist Étienne Lafrance.
  • the French American Peace Ensemble, with Hamid Drake, William Parker, Kidd Jordan, François Tusques, and the trio of Joe Morris/William Parker/Charles Downs: the best in free improv, for both heart and head. Each group started with an hour-long improvisation followed by some shorter pieces: the music consistently went to interesting places while still retaining a central idea for each piece.
  • the Alan Jones Canadian All-Star Quartet: Jones' compositions were both deeply textured and propulsive, and were beautifully interpreted by his all-star ensemble.
  • the Stretch Orchestra: finally able to tour their Juno-winning album, they put on an energetic, enjoyable, and multi-layered show to a packed Fourth Stage.
  • the Brad Turner Quartet and the Peggy Lee Band: two adventurous and melodic groups from Vancouver who shared many of the same musicians. Turner's was more mainstream and Lee more avant-garde, but both produced approachable and diverse music which showed off the skills of the musicians, particularly Lee on cello, Turner on trumpet, and Jon Bentley on tenor sax.
  • the Roberto López Afro-Colombia Jazz Orchestra: wonderfully danceable and bright music that almost chased the rainshowers away, along with López's interesting explanations of the different Colombian musical traditions which he paid tribute to.
  • Ten years of the Triplets of Belleville: a live rendition of the movie soundtrack (along with the movie) which was great fun to both listen and watch, especially when they got going on the bicycle wheel and the teapot.

The festival jam sessions were rescued this year by the AlphaSoul Café. While not as close to other festival locations as previous year's jams, the cafe had a happy, intimate vibe and was consistently packed. You could see the grins on the faces of visiting musicians like Wayne Escoffery or Matt Brubeck as they joined in the music. The presence of new jam host band players this year, including Montreal's Josh Rager, Rich Irwin, Jim Doxas and Fraser Hollins, and Ottawa's Roddy Ellias and Jeff Asselin, brought new sounds to the jams and kept the evenings fresh.

The Great Canadian Jazz series was particularly strong this year, with great performances by the Hutchinson Andrew Trio from Calgary (which won the Grand Prix de Jazz in Montreal), the Roberto López Afro-Colombia Jazz Orchestra, the Mike Murley Septet, the Relative Quartet with John Stetch and Chet Doxas, and the Alan Jones Canadian All-Star Quartet.

But because of competition from other indoor series at 6 and 7 p.m., the audiences for these groups were not nearly what they deserved, and fans missed out on some great music. It was embarrassing to see a tiny crowd of maybe 20 people in the middle of Confederation Park lawn listening to the all-star front line of Seamus Blake, Phil Dwyer, and Ingrid Jensen blow up a storm. The festival needs to find a better way of showcasing Canadian groups. Perhaps fill its Canada Day lineup with real jazz instead of mostly indie pop?

The free concerts in the middle of the day at the Rideau Centre and at the OLG Stage have traditionally been an important showcase for local jazz musicians to present new projects. This year, however, several of these concert slots in the last weekend were filled by local indie-pop groups rather than jazz – removing the opportunity for local jazz groups to get exposure in the highest-profile weekend adjacent to Canada Day. This did not support the local jazz scene.

One innovation at this year's festival was the JazzED band, comprised of nine talented high school students who rehearsed and learned weekly this spring under the tutelage of Roddy Ellias, culminating with a performance at the festival. Several have gone on to study jazz at university, while others still in high school are starting to play around town. The festival also continued its TD Jazz Youth Summit and Galaxie Rising Stars programs, recognizing the best of Canadian university-age jazz performers, including from Ottawa.

Perhaps we will see some of those performers at a jazz festival five or ten years from now.

    – Alayne McGregor

Note: photos are unavailable because the Ottawa Jazz Festival refused to accredit's photojournalist, Brett Delmage.

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