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Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century
by Nate Chinen
Pantheon Books, 2018, US $27.95, CDN$36.95
This week, I finished reading Playing Changes: Jazz for the New Century by American jazz and pop critic Nate Chinen. There aren't many books written about jazz each year, so I'd been wanting to read it since it was released last summer. I found it a fascinating – if incomplete – guide to what's on in jazz today.
What worked: it's right up to date, and covers a wide range of musicians and styles from avant-garde, to jazz crossovers with R&B and hip-hop, to Afro-Cuban, to mainstream. The musicians profiled in the book are clearly influential and interesting, and continuing to push themselves. Many will be familiar to Ottawa listeners, whether from performances at the Ottawa Jazz Festival or mentions in other jazz publications or on jazz radio.
The chapter-long profiles of musicians such as Esperanza Spalding, Brad Mehldau, Vijay Iyer, Mary Halvorson, Miguel Zenon, and Dave Douglas were what I found most interesting. Chinen has done a good job of providing a sympathetic and music-focused profile of each of these artists, condensing their history and their ideas from different interviews and reviews, and giving an informed context for their music.
I also really enjoyed the learning more about Jason Moran's combinations of music and visual art, Chinen's excursions through Beijing's increasingly self-propelled jazz scene, or how Donny McCaslin linked up with David Bowie. The “Changing Sames” chapter about the links between hip-hop and jazz – and in particular, the continuing influence of the late producer J Dilla on both – helped me understand more about that scene and how much it added to the recent music of, for example, Roy Hargrove (and how much we lost with Hargrove's recent death).
The Ottawa Junior Jazz Band
The Nepean All-City Jazz Band
Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School, Ottawa
Tuesday, December 18, 2018 - 7:30 p.m.
If you'd ever wondered which is louder, a big band or a fire alarm, the question was conclusively answered last month at a joint concert by the Ottawa Junior Jazz Band (OJJB) and the Nepean All-City Jazz Band (NACJB).
The punctuated snarl of the fire alarm won.
Just after 9 p.m., the NACJB was in full flight playing Tom Kubis' “Grimey Yet Slimey Blues” in the auditorium of Longfields-Davidson Heights Secondary School in Barrhaven. The alarm went off loudly and with a bright flashing light, the music abruptly stopped, and the entire audience dutifully trooped out of the school. Three firefighters arrived within a few minutes and quickly confirmed there was no fire. Then everyone returned after a 10-minute break – to hear the band resume right where they had broken off, fully immersed again in the energy of the piece.
Each year, the two student bands present a joint concert in December. It's a shaking-in show, the first chance for new band members to perform before a live audience and play the music they had been learning and rehearsing for the past three months. OJJB Director Mandar Gumaste said it was the first time it had ever been interrupted by a fire alarm.
The concert opened with a seven-song set by the OJJB, performing a mix of big band standards and more modern pieces. It was an energetic performance, tight and clear, of innovative and generally upbeat arrangements. The band's performance of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's “Such Sweet Thunder”, with its many strong individual solo sections, garnered particularly strong applause. Gumaste noted that half of the band was new this year, but you wouldn't have known that from their smooth performances in numbers such as “Spain” and “Hot House”.
As OJJB's members were leaving the stage at the end of their set, the trombone section stayed behind and played “Jingle Bells” – an extra fillip of Christmas cheer that was nicely done.
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa and Outwards (IMOO) #187: A Very Ayler Christmas 2018
Sunday, December 16, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.
It's become a tradition. Every December for the last dozen years, saxophonist Bernard Stepien has given a new spin to familiar Christmas tunes by combining them with compositions by 1960s American avant-garde – and very spiritual – jazz saxophonist Albert Ayler.
Stepien has overcome ice storms, illness, and frequent changes in his orchestra's line-up to present this project each year – and even released a CD of it in 2011. He's continued to find new correspondences between carols and Ayler's music, fitting them together in surprisingly musical ways.
And with the aid of skilled and adventurous Ottawa-area improvising musicians, the combination works. Ayler's music, with its gospel and military overtones, comes from much the same musical sources as many of our carols and other Christmas-themed music; in each combined Ayler/carol piece, the two tunes complement and provide a new viewpoint on each other.
This year, Stepien recruited musicians who have been playing this music from the beginning: saxophonists Linsey Wellman and David Broscoe and bassist Philippe Charbonneau. To that group he added François Gravel on keyboards and electronics, David Jackson on electric guitar and electronics, and Patrick Sénécal on drums.
Bird in the Reeds
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra
National Arts Centre, Fourth Stage
Saturday, December 15, 2018 – 8:30 p.m.
It's been more than 75 years since saxophonist Charlie Parker started shaking up jazz. He took the genre away from swing and danceable music and instead explored advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, and chord substitutions.
His music was not easy to play – with fast tempos and difficult eighth-note runs – but it was far more interesting and gave more opportunities to build upon. As Parker said himself, “It's trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes. The beat in a bop band is with the music, against it, behind it. It pushes it. It helps it. Help is the big thing. It has no continuity of beat, no steady chug-chug. Jazz has, and that's why bop is more flexible.”
The Ottawa Jazz Orchestra paid tribute to Charlie Parker and his compositions in the second show of their 2018-19 season. But it was Parker with a twist – not the versions you might hear in a jam session. Instead, the OJO ensemble primarily played the challenging arrangements of Parker's music written by Los Angeles composer Med Flory for his Supersax group.
HMMH (Hétu / Martel / Mouchous / Hübsch)
Improvising Musicians of Ottawa and Outwards (IMOO)
Sunday, December 9, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.
When you're operating on the bleeding edge of music, the old rules don't precisely apply.
New instruments, new methods of playing them, new combinations – all those characterized HMMH's concert at IMOO on Sunday. It was not a show that one could judge based on its fidelity to a musical text – it was, after all, completely improvised – nor was there a specific style or genre that it adhered to.
It was as much visual as aural – what exactly is making that sound? And it was almost as much of a process of exploration for the audience as it was for the musicians, as one listened to and absorbed the music that was being born in the moment.
François Jalbert and Jérôme Beaulieu
Canada's National Arts Centre, Peter Herrndorf Place
Thursday, November 22, 2018 – 8:30 p.m.
It was a simple set-up: a bare stage with one grand piano and one acoustic guitar – and two long-time friends whose playing complemented and enhanced each other.
Guitarist François Jalbert and pianist Jérôme Beaulieu are well-known in Montreal's jazz and indie scenes. They've been playing together for years in different bands, and more recently as a duo. In 2017, they released an all-acoustic album together, This is a Real Place, and they performed primarily from that CD in this show.
The concert was thoughtful and intimate, with music that drew you in and repaid careful listening. The music ranged from folk to bluegrass to jazz ballads to jazz manouche, all given a strongly collaborative interpretation. From their opening number, “Clark's Reel”, a comfortable and upbeat number drawing on traditional sources but with a hint of dissonance to keep it lively, the audience was with the duo – swaying to the music, listening intently, and emphatically applauding, with even a few cheers.
The Jeremy Ledbetter Trio
Live @ Record Runner
Saturday, December 8, 2018 – 8 p.m.
From their first number onwards, the Jeremy Ledbetter Trio captured the attention and the appreciation of their audience at Record Runner Rehearsal Studios.
The material they performed was almost all from Ledbetter's recent trio CD, but this wasn't the trio that Ledbetter had on that album. Instead, the Toronto jazz pianist played with Ottawa bassist Marc Decho and Toronto drummer Sarah Thawer.
Although they had had two rehearsals in Toronto a few weeks before, this was the three musicians' first public performance together. “We hope you enjoy it, as we get to know each other here,” Ledbetter told the audience. “But of course, it's very important that you be a part of this, too. I'm going to talk to you a lot, because it's important to me that you feel that you're a part of this, too. That's one of the most important things about any music, is that it be played with passion and energy and that it feel as interesting and engaging to listen to as it is to play.”
The result was a vigorous and energetic performance, with laughter and smiles on-stage and off. They opened with “Amanecer”, the opening track on the CD, and that piece set the style for the evening: interactive, and full-bodied. Its opening, at first solo keyboards and then with light cymbals and bass, felt reverent and hopeful, reminding me somewhat of Pat Metheny. It grew steadily more intense and propulsive, and then quietened for a rounded and attuned bass solo, and then sprang back up in celebratory mood before ending in a strong drum flourish. Around me in the audience, I heard “Wow!” and strong applause.
Matthieu Hallé and Linsey Wellman: May the Waves Rise From Its Floor
Friday, November 30, 2018 – 8 p.m.
Two different worlds collided Friday evening, in a rare aural-visual live improvisation.
On one side of the room, Linsey Wellman stood upright and played baritone saxophone. On the other side, filmmaker Matthieu Hallé sat on an equipment case on the floor, bent over his film projector, electronics, and two burning candles. And between them, projected on a large white wall, were the constantly-shifting images that Wellman was responding to in his playing, and which Hallé was manipulating in response to Wellman's performance.
For 45 minutes, the audience in General Assembly was immersed in a stream of images and sound, as Hallé presented his new piece, “May the Waves Rise From Its Floor”. It was a flowing and mostly calm stream of images and music, developing in smooth transitions between barely-there penumbral shapes and bright sunlit images, and back again. Sometimes it felt like one's hazy vision on waking up; other times like multiple layers peeking through clouds.
The Lebanese Palace
Tuesday, November 20, 2018 – 7:30 p.m
It was a night of vibrant and melodic jazz, as Stay Tuned/Restez-à-lécoute showcased two vocalists in two sets at the Lebanese Palace on Tuesday, November 20.
The Ottawa jazz ensemble attracted an almost-full house, as it played an upbeat mix of standards and a few originals. The group has been often heard hosting JazzWorks jam sessions and performing at benefits for causes like equitable land development in Africa or support for Eritrean and Syrian refugee families, but its dedication and skill was completely professional.
Their spokesperson, pianist Karl Nerenberg, has frequently said that the group's mission is to bring the love of jazz to everyone – and you could see that in how their music connected with the audience, who regularly applauded and even occasionally got up to dance. Nerenberg added to the outreach through his friendly introductions, comfortably talking about the composers and telling anecdotes about the songs and their historical background – and perhaps reflecting his own background as a journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Michèle Castonguay was the vocalist for the first set, of which I heard most, but not all, because of a time conflict with another event. She sang with a smile and added bright scatted sections to standards like “You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To” and “Taking a Chance on Love”. On ballads like “'Round Midnight” and “Georgia”, she put her heart into the lyrics, giving them their full emotional due. She easily navigated the different time signatures in the Freddie Hubbard hard bop number “Up Jumped Spring” and gave it a warm, conversational vibe that was a hit with the audience.
Tariq Amery and Miguel de Armas Jr.
The Art House Café
Saturday, November 24, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.
“It was great! Just instant chemistry,” says saxophonist/flutist Tariq Amery of the first time he played with Miguel de Armas Jr., at the Beeched Wailers' Tuesday night jam at Irene's Pub. The duo shared that chemistry with a small but highly satisfied group of listeners in the cozy confines of the Art House Cafe on Saturday.
For the past month, Ottawa has had a new Cuban import. Miguel de Armas Jr., the son of the well-known Ottawa-based Afro-Cuban pianist/composer Miguel de Armas, is visiting Canada for the next six months – and performing around Ottawa. De Armas Jr., who is also a pianist, recently graduated from Cuba's rigorous university music program.
“I love his phrasing and the way he forms his lines. It's just a very unique approach. His energy when he's playing – he just takes you with him,” Amery said of his brief experience playing with de Armas Jr. That connection was clearly evident in their musical collaboration and the extensive improvisation it allowed in this performance, their second formal show together.
Outside, it was dark and dauntingly cold, with freezing rain making the experience more unpleasant by the minute. But inside, one completely forgot about that as the two musicians drew everyone into their obvious joy of making music together, interspersed with laughter and dialogue. There was enthusiastic applause after each number. One couple had heard them at their previous coffeehouse gig and came out to hear them again.