Friday, June 28, 2013

TD Ottawa Jazz Festival: Day 8

It's akin to the so-called 'fog of war.'

When proponents dig in on two sides of a debate, some key facts get lost.

It follows that one of the things that was lost when bebop came to dominate jazz in the years following World War II was the primacy of jazz as social music. With its radical chord substitutions and lightning tempos, bop was music for close listening rather than dancing. By the time it reached the mainstream, bop was characterized as intellectual music, and many that aped the innovations of Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Dizzy Gillespie ignored the fact that each of those musicians had deep roots in rhythmic music. When Louis Armstrong objected to the movement, battle lines were drawn, and the 'mouldy fig' epithet was thrown.

In reality, the 'fig' designation was about as accurate as the belief that all boppers favoured berets and goatees.

Those with longer vision see past these types of cultural reductions—many of which were imposed by popular media outlets. In the '70s, Henry Threadgill, David Murray and others looked back 50 years to some of the roots of African-American music in the 20th century, and now Jason Moran is mining the genius of Thomas (Fats) Waller to create a hybrid of social music that channels Waller's compositions through the lens of hip-hop.

With longtime trio partner Tarus Mateen on bass and Meshell Ndegeocello as occasional bassist, poetess and onstage director, Moran brought his Fats Waller Dance Party to Ottawa's Dominion-Chalmers United Church for an early evening concert on June 27. On the previous Sunday, Mavis Staples had packed the church, so perhaps it was the mid-week timing that accounted for the small crowd that turned out. A number of those people fled during the first couple of songs—perhaps due to the way the sound of Moran's amplified quartet boomed through the large church, muffling the sound of singer Lisa Harris and deadening the effect of the rhythmic infrastructure.

Things shifted sharply when Moran donned a large Waller mask—all bowler hat, raffish eyebrows, toothy grin, and cigarette—and the band kicked into Babatunde Olatunji's "Jin-Go-Lo-Ba" (better known to many music fans as "Jingo" in the form that Santana recorded it on its debut album). With the rhythm more elemental than the reinterpretations of Waller's stuttering tempos, some of the audience members jumped up to dance along.

Moran also reminded listeners that he is, first and foremost, one of jazz's most gifted contemporary pianists, performing exceptional solo renditions of Waller's "A Handful Of Keys" and "Lulu's Back In Town."

Although the band never really overcame the acoustics of the church (a closing "The Joint Is Jumping" lost much of its power in the mix) it succeeded in connecting the dots between what Waller set out in the '20s and '30s, his roots in the church, and contemporary rhythms.

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