Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Family Ties

Those of us who toil on the jazz fest circuit know that there are few better people to encounter on the road than the musicians in the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Several of them have close ties to Ottawa and its musicians, so the jam session on Monday night promised to be a good one.

It didn't disappoint. In fact, it more or less defined the jazz tradition, prompting house pianist Nancy Walker to Facebook that the room was like "one big, extended, happy, musical family" and bandleader John Geggie to blog that "it seemed as though the (room) was a gigantic tour bus with the heaviest all-star band on the planet."

I was deep in conversation with fellow journalist Mark Miller and Schneider pianist Frank Kimbrough, but we all had half-an-ear on Donny McCaslin as he played chorus after chorus after chorus on "What Is This Thing Called Love?" and Ingrid Jensen burned on "Invitation."

Best Laid, And Other, Plans

Not blogging from the festival site as much as I'd hoped due to a dodgy wireless connection, but storing up lots of interesting experiences.

Most of all, and I think I've blogged this before, I hit the bed at the end of the long day trying to recall the myriad conversations — long and quick hits — that occur.

The pace slows somewhat after today's second of two panel discussions, so there'll be more to come.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Inside The Media Trailer...And Out

I only dip into the world of full-time media relations once or twice every couple of years, but it's always akin to trying to maintain your equilibrium while bouncing and churning around the bowl of a Cuisinart.

Friday. Out late the night before, I'm still dozing when I'm bolted awake by a gorgeous saxophone solo on my bedside radio. I'd completely forgotten that I'd booked former Ottawan Petr Cancura to appear on CBC Radio. He sounds great, and the interview is entertaining and informative. A solid start to the day.

On the drive in, I get a call from the producer of a noon-hour AM talk show I've agreed to go on to promote the jazz festival. I ask her for an overview of what ground she'd like to cover. "I thought we could spend some time talking about Michael Jackson." Cool, but not part of my agenda. At least I can relate how the musicians I was surrounded by the previous night responded to the news.

It's pouring rain on the walk back from the radio station, making Ottawa feel like one big sauna — being shared by a few hundred thousand of your closest friends.

Grabbing a fantastic organic Mennonite sausage in the park, I spot my former drum teacher, a lovely guy I never see often enough. Brief hang while my sausage is going cold.

The sounds of doom fill the air. We all look up to see if another storm is imminent. No, it's just Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten soundchecking. I catch a few minutes in front of the stage, then duck into the trailer to encounter the situation that will dominate my afternoon. Al Green's flight from Memphis was cancelled, meaning he will not be in Ottawa in time to do a live radio interview that had, so far, been the best achievement of our media relations efforts. I spend the next three hours on and off the phone, trying to find the good reverend, who is neither at home, in his office, or anywhere close to his cell phone. A lot of stuff goes on, but Mr. Green remains my focus, and concern. The odd thing about media relations is how much you want the story to work out for the journalists at the other end of the relationship. It goes beyond promotion at that point, especially if you've been a journalist yourself. Many calls back and forth to the radio producer — I would not want that job – Green's record label and manager, I write it off as a lost cause an hour after the show is underway. I leave a message for the singer to call directly to the producer and move on to some other issues. Miraculously – hey, he is the Rev. Al Green – he calls in right on time and, according to a later backstage conversation with host Adrian Harewood, the interview goes well.

Nice sets by Jane Bunnett's current touring unit featuring the sweet-voiced Grupo Desandann and Jimmy Cobb's tribute to Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue, and then I hook up backstage with saxophonist Javon Jackson for a pre-arranged dinner. We decide to catch a couple of songs by SMV, which turns out to be a bad move, because we miss the close of the kitchen at the Japanese restaurant we had chosen. We're on Jazz Time, Javon has to check out of his hotel at 3 a.m. to make a flight to Saratoga via Philly, and Ottawa suddenly seems like the provincial town that so many people claim it is. Not the finest moment for showing off my city to my New York friend.

We catch dinner, in the gracious company of longtime jazz festival board member Judy Humenick, and manage to twist Javon's arm into sitting in at the jam session.

The session room is packed when we get there, lots of people to talk to, and when Javon finally hits with Dave Restivo on piano and Jim Lewis on trumpet – now about three hours before his lobby call for the Saratoga trip – he sounds fantastic, flying on tenor like he's playing alto. If anyone can capture the sound of John Coltrane in his mid-'50s period, it's Javon, and he's brimming with nice melodic ideas.

Two great sax solos. Perfect bookends.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Blanchard Beats The Odds

How fast can you turn out a huge crowd of jazz fans for a free concert by arguably the world's best trumpeter? Twenty-four hours is plenty, it seems.

My sometime-colleague Doug Fischer has the background details in this crisply written story.

As media advisor for this year's TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, I got word of Wednesday night's final lineup at 10:10 p.m., Tuesday. I posted something here and on Facebook, and began wondering if social networking and good-old word-of-mouth would work fast enough to draw out a crowd that probably already had plans the night before an 11-day run of solid jazz. As luck would have it, I was already booked to do a radio interview for one of the two local campus/community radio stations at 6:40 this morning, and I sent an early-morning email or two to the producers of the morning drive show with the largest audience. My colleague Suzan was working another set of media contacts.

We lucked out with the weather — a sweltering day that gave way to a balmy, clear evening — and the jazz-ready spirit of Ottawans, who love a free concert as much as the next guy.

While not as full as it has been for shows by the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Return To Forever or Brad Mehldau's trio, the park was pretty full and the vibe was great.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The Real Sound Of Surprise

The stage in Confederation Park is ready to go, so why wait?

Why, indeed. That's the thinking at the TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival, which is kicking off a day early with three free concerts on our mainstage, featuring:

Terence Blanchard Quartet – hot off his win last week as Trumpeter of the Year at the Jazz Journalists Association Jazz Awards.

Pavlo – terrific flamenco guitarist from Toronto.

Souljazz Orchestra – hometown favourites to start things off.

Nothing like three surprise concerts and a media blitz to get the adrenalin pumping. Stay tuned for posts from backstage until July 5.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Four Days To Go

With just four days to go before the launch of the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival a few trends have revealed themselves.

Al Green is far and away the most requested interview, and thankfully the good reverend is doing his best to accommodate requests. Canada Customs permitting, I'm hoping to have him live on air at the local CBC Radio studio on Friday afternoon.

There is no shortage of good stories among this year's artists, including the new models of music distribution pioneered by Dave Douglas and Maria Schneider, the New York City and Boston breakout of homegrown talent Petr Cancura, our focus on the miracle that was the year 1959, and the Polaris Prize nomination of the astounding young talent Coeur de Pirate.

Surprisingly, no one has yet requested an interview with Pat Metheny. Arguably the most-popular musician just 90 minutes away in Montreal, Metheny hasn't generated one media inquiry yet.

The weather forecasters are predicting temperatures above 30 Celsius by week's end. That sounds like jazz weather to me.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Another Perspective

When I'm not writing about music I make my living in corporate and government communications—marketing, for lack of a more inclusive term. Now, for the first time since 1989, I'm bringing the two parts of my life together to take on the role of media advisor to the 2009 TD Canada Trust Ottawa International Jazz Festival. I served on the board of the festival during the latter part of the 1980s, during a time that I was out of journalism, and have been co-ordinating a set of panel discussions at the festival the past two years, so it's familiar ground.

This opens up some interesting blogging possibilities from now until the festival wraps up on July 5, and I plan to post here some of what I see and hear to provide some insight into what goes into making a large jazz festival run.

These are interesting times, to say the least. It seems now that the rumours about the demise of JazzTimes are indeed true, and it's anyone's guess what the future holds for jazz festivals in the wake of JVC's decision to pull out of New York and various other blows to U.S. festivals. Here in Canada, the festival circuit remains strong—thanks in large part to the ongoing sponsorship of TD Canada Trust—but we're not without a few cracks in the foundation: witness the decision by General Motors not to renew its substantial support of the Montreal jazz fest, even before the company's current re-structuring.

It is evident that a new model is in order on several fronts. In many ways, the current situation reminds me of the mid-'70s, when the popularity of rock had pretty much decimated the established jazz scene. The bloom was largely off the jazz-rock fusion movement, as the innovation of John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, et.al., began to give way to less-creative efforts, and the club circuit was in ruins. Commercial jazz radio had started its long death march. Things were grim; just ask any jazz musician who was trying to make ends meet back then. But those doldrums gave way to a long upward cycle, which saw the spread of the jazz festival concept to cities like Montreal and Vancouver (and Ottawa), and the rise of a new generation that included the people who grew JazzTimes into a slick publication that could hold its own with anything else on the newsstand.

So, I'm holding out for another upward swing, which will bring a new model for many parts of our industry. What format will those things take? I don't think we can safely guess, any more than we might've predicted 15 years ago that digital, broadband technology would mean the destruction of the music industry as we knew it then. We'll just have to wait and see. But, meanwhile, stay tuned, and I'll take you backstage at one of North America's largest jazz festivals, where we'll likely hear a lot more about where we are and where we might be headed.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Sign Of The Times?

The rumoured demise of JazzTimes — as yet not addressed by anyone associated with the venerable jazz magazine — is probably the worst news that anyone in the business needs to hear. The story, broken by Howard Mandel this week, created an instant storm of response on Facebook because industry insiders realize that the failure of a linchpin like JT can have wide-reaching effects... none of them good.

A followup piece by Howard speculates that Jazz Times itself fell victim to the death of yet another industry linchpin, the JVC-sponsored New York City jazz festival.

What impact this might have on Jazziz — already down to four issues a year — and DownBeat — currently celebrating its 75th anniversary with a commemorative issue — remains to be seen. Clearly, instrument manufacturers and electronics companies — the bread and butter advertisers for these publications — will re-direct some revenue to the remaining magazines, but experience tells me that when a big tree like JazzTimes falls in the forest it's a sign that something is deeply wrong in the woods.