When the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival announced its lineup in late winter I dubbed it the Year of the Voice because of the number of highly distinctive singers who were featured: Willie Nelson, Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin (who since cancelled), David Byrne, and Patricia Barber among them.
I hadn't counted on discovering Monica Akihary, a Dutch vocalist of Austral-Asian heritage. Co-leading the quartet Boi Akih with guitarist Niels Brouwer, she covers a wide range, from soulful crooning on Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" to hyper-glottal wordless improvisation. Even better, her rich vocals are mirrored by the expressive playing of trombonist Wolter Wierbos, who delivered some memorable work on two Jimi Hendrix compositions: "Drifting" and a radically deconstructed "The Wind Cries Mary." Even though some of the band's equipment didn't arrive until midway through its performance, Akihary maintained the flow of the set and its sense of focused surprise.
I doubt that festival programmer Petr Cancura knew there was a connection between Boi Akih and Chicago drummer Mike Reed's People, Places and Things, who followed the Dutch band into the National Arts Centre's Fourth Stage. If he did, then kudos for a canny booking decision; if not, then it was one of those lucky accidents that sometimes push festivals to a higher level.
As it turns out, Reed's quartet—featuring the powerhouse bassist Jason Roebke and simpatico saxophonists Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman—has spent considerable time in Amsterdam, and recorded a forthcoming album with some of the leading Dutch improvisers, including Wierbos. The trombonist joined the band for a pair of pieces that illustrated his mastery of plunger mute, and his presence added a new dimension to a band whose incessant road work has made them a ferocious unit with unerring instincts for blending their voices.
From the high intensity improvisation of Reed's band it was huge step to the late-night tent adjacent to Ottawa's city hall and the delightfully weightless voice of Aoife O'Donovan, the Celtic/bluegrass singer who seems on the verge of breaking through to a much larger audience. Best known by jazz fans for her contribution to trumpeter Dave Douglas' album Be Still, O'Donovan has the kind of gorgeous vocal instrument and effortless charm that Emmylou Harris displayed when she first moved from beneath the shadow of Gram Parsons. The tent was not the most favourable setting for her gentle voice (ironic, since the last time she performed in Ottawa—with the band Crooked Still—she, along with guitarist Richard Thompson, had been drowned out by Dweezil Zappa's over-amped tribute to his father) but her band was loud enough to cut through the incessant chatter of those reliving the night's Willie Nelson concert even if the lyrics of her new batch of songs were mostly lost in the din.