Thursday, June 30, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #5

In the 26 years that I've been attending or, occasionally, working for the Ottawa International Jazz Festival my clearest memories are of the solo piano recitals. They were a cornerstone of the festival's programming for many years; now more of a special occasion when someone like last night's guest—Vijay Iyer—is booked.

Perhaps these concerts are clearest because for a couple of years in the '90s the solo piano series was my main reviewing assignment for the daily newspaper. Day after day throughout the 10 days of the festival I'd join the audience and immerse myself in 70 or 80 minutes of solo piano: from Andrew Hill to Joey Calderazzo, from Marilyn Crispell to Jennifer Williams. Reviewing a solo piano concert is perhaps the most challenging kind of arts writing because it's such a personal experience. It's just the musician, the instrument and the audience, and every artist approaches the experience a different way. Some, like Williams, engage the audience, turning the performance into more of a musical conversation. Others, like Hill and Crispell, might as well be playing alone in their practice space; they are so fully engaged in the music that the audience is almost superfluous. Finding an entry point to writing about some solo piano concerts can be a challenge.

I think my former colleague Doug Fischer did a superb job of capturing last evening's first set by Iyer in this review.

Reviewers often exchange impressions after a show. If Doug and I had been doing that last night—instead, I was being feted by my wife at a fabulous birthday dinner—we would've been in complete agreement.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #4

There were some people who had serious misgivings about the viability of the tented stage that the festival inaugurated last year. Immediately adjacent to one of the city's busiest streets, it promised to be a less-than-intimate space. That may be so; I've never seen a really quiet show in there, but it has become a terrific space for big bands.

Last year, Christine Jensen's band gave one of the best shows I saw at the festival—no surprise, really, given the music and the playing of her sister Ingrid—and last night (again, with Ingrid aboard) Darcy James Argue's Secret Society sounded marvellous.

The first time I saw the band with its full New York-based lineup (Argue has also done variations with a number of Canadian subs) was in Le Poisson Rouge in the Village, which is not the ideal place for close listening. Last night in the tent, though, everything was crystal clear, and you could see the way the band interacts with the leader and each other.

It was topped off by a nice hang at the jam session, with the room filled with Secret Society members, Christian McBride and his band, and a number of other musicians like drummer Ari Hoenig.

Fun times!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #3

My seat mate at last night's concert by Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman admitted that he wouldn't recognize it if Mehldau decided to rhapsodize on a Radiohead song, and that it really didn't matter. And that statement summarizes the way the pianist and saxophonist erase the boundaries between source material and art. In their hands, everything is beauty.

In fact, it was a Jeff Buckley composition that offered the most intense interaction between Mehldau and Redman, in a concert stuffed with high-level interaction.

Timeless and sublime, it was the kind of exchange of musical ideas that went well beyond the music being played. To mine the cliché about jazz duets, it was more of a conversation than a recital. And we were privileged to have overheard.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Best CDs to Date

While I'm on the topic of things in the air, the idea of posting mid-year lists of worthy recordings seems to be gaining ground, so allow me to chip in here, if only to prompt you to check these discs out for your own enjoyment and the enhancement of some fine musicians.

Here are some things that have caught my ear, and stand a good chance of making it to my best of 2011 list:

Joe Lovano Us Five: Bird Songs

Nordic Connect: Spirals

Trio Derome Guilbeault Tanguay: Danse à l'Anvers

Erik Friedlander: Bonebridge

Denny Zeitlin: Labyrinth

Lee Konitz/Brad Mehldau/Charlie Haden/Paul Motian: Live At Birdland

Jazz Exploitation?

Given what passes for news in some media outlets now, I guess I shouldn't be surprised that the 'non-jazz artists at jazz festivals' story has the legs it does, but so be it. The story has kept growing this week as most of North America's jazz fests get underway.

I've already blogged about my own take on it here, but let me address a new twist on this that comes up in some of my former colleague Peter Hum's blog entries. (And, understand, I don't fault Peter for keeping this story going. I know he has a genuine interest in this on a personal level, which is the kind of thing that makes his blog essential reading.)

The issue that bassist Christian McBride and others raise in their responses to Peter's questions is that of festivals "exploiting" the term jazz to attract patrons—both of the listening kind and sponsors. McBride specifically posits that festivals with jazz in their title but acts like Robert Plant or Elvis Costello on their stages are "insulting the legacy of Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk."

Well, what would insult their legacy more, I wonder: exposing dozens of jazz artists to audiences by way of the subsidization from artists like Plant, or dropping the name 'jazz' from the festival's title and booking, say, one-quarter as many jazz musicians and filling the rest of the roster with more recognizable musicians? Wasn't it Ellington who once said there was two kinds of music—good and bad? Just how does providing a good venue, good payday and audience exposure to jazz artists through healthy gate revenue violate his memory? Would jazz purists truly feel better about the whole thing if festivals like Ottawa's, Montreal's and Montreux's changed their names and focus?

There's something of a defeatist attitude in all this; as though some of these purists would like the situation for their music and the people who play it to be even worse so they can feel truly marginalized. Last year's jazz-packed lineup at Ottawa's jazz festival (standard disclaimer here that I was under contract to the festival last year) resulted in a deficit of $80,000. Would the anti-rocker faction be happy to see that trend continue in a short-term gain/long-term pain game?

And it's not just jazz fans who do this; the same is true of Ottawa's Bluesfest—one of Canada's most successful music festivals. A common refrain I hear from people is, Where are the blues acts? I often feel like asking them just who they'd book on the festival's mainstage to draw 30,000 people and fulfill that blues quotient they're pining for. The economic reality is that only certain acts are going to draw those kinds of numbers. At least people should take comfort in the fact that fame is a cyclical thing; every so often, a Diana Krall or Blues Brothers will actually get popular for a minute. More often, though, if you want to draw that kind of crowd, you're going to have to look to the diminishing number of iconic figures like Plant or the ever-changing pop sensations who are on their way up.

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #2

So, there was the night in 2006 when a cold rain fell throughout a great show by Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, and I recall trying to review a show under an umbrella one night in the '90s, but I think last night's downpour in advance of Elvis Costello's concert may be the worst I've seen. Sitting, stranded, in a parking lot at a suburban big-box mall—waiting out the deluge—I was certainly convinced that this was the most rain I've ever seen fall during five decades in Ottawa.

Fortunately, the last burst of rain ended before Costello hit the stage at 8:30, but the onslaught was enough to keep his audience relatively small (one of the newspaper critics estimated it at 2,500).

Perhaps it was the ongoing rain during the afternoon (when soundchecks are usually done) that affected the sound mix during the first 15 minutes or so of the show. Even though Costello was performing with his long-time mates Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher, it sounded like they'd never played together before. The sound was pinched and thin, and Nieve's organ—so essential to Costello's sound (especially when he's opening with "Pump It Up," basically a vehicle for Nieve and Costello's voice)—was almost absent in the mix.

The sound issues were sorted out eventually, and Costello went on to weave together a show that ranged through his entire catalogue. I felt that the show hit its peak when he performed a medley anchored by Bob Dylan and Rick Danko's "This Wheel's On Fire." It was the kind of gesture that only the most confident songwriter can pull off convincingly, using another writer's song as a fulcrum for your own show, and it was so far away from the Costello we first met in 1977 that it illustrated how much he has evolved to become one of the great composers himself.

I've become convinced that Costello's shows will always have ragged edges—a given, really, as long as he is the sole guitarist onstage—but that's his charm, and a big part of what reminds us that he was once an angry, loutish, little nerd who blew all our hair back. There's always a little part of that guy in everything he does, no matter what musical genre he's working in.

Friday, June 24, 2011

2011 TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival #1

Full disclosure: I was never a Led Zeppelin fan. I owned their album III and, of course, couldn't escape them on the radio, but compared to the Allman Brothers Band, Little Feat, the Stones and my other favourites of the era, they always seemed pompous and overblown. My loss, probably, but that's the way it went.

Consequently, I've never followed Robert Plant's post-Zep career although, again, I've heard some of his recent work on the radio. So, I had no expectations whatsoever for last night's opening show at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival. Given that this is a rare year when I'm not either under contract to the festival to manage media relations, or reviewing acts for a media outlet, I was ready just to hang out, have a few beers and catch up with my jazz buddies.

Well, some performers just have a stage presence that endears them from the moment they appear. Bruce Springsteen wins you over with his energy and his obvious joy at being onstage, Leonard Cohen slides onstage like a man who feels graced to be in your presence and share his words. Plant seemed like a man who has a meaningful, wry overview of who he is—and who he used to be to many in the crowd. On most men with a face that so obviously shows its age and mileage, chest-length curly blond hair would look ridiculous. On Plant, it's like a uniform, like he's saying: Hey, it's me. Remember? And then he launches, unexpectedly, right into a rootsy version of "Black Dog" that both thrills those who are there for a Zep nostalgia trip and convinces everyone else that this is a singer. He's just here to entertain, and after a half-dozen songs his voice is warmed up and he can still hit those powerful tenor thrums that defined him as a young man—and inspired many, many pallid imitators (are you listening, David Coverdale?).

Plant is a man with a sense of humour, a sense of himself, and the sense to give an audience of 11,000 people a little of what they want and a little of what they never expected.

It was a superb and satisfying show from beginning to end.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Back To Jazz

While I haven't exactly been living outside jazz for the past two months—see my ongoing reviews in DownBeat magazine—my work on a non-music book has occupied most of my time. The book will have to share some space with music for the next few weeks because festival season officially begins on Thursday in Canada.

This week and next I'll be at the TD Ottawa International Jazz Festival, although strictly as an audience member—one of the few times that has happened since 1992.

With no review assignment or other official function, I have strictly a fan's perspective on this event, so here's my list of shows I'm looking forward to:

June 23: Robert Plant & the Band of Joy – I was never a huge Led Zep fan, and never saw them live, but anything Buddy Miller involves himself with is usually worth hearing, and I'm intrigued how Plant translates his rock god persona to this kind of role.

June 24: Elvis Costello & The Imposters – Unlike Plant, I've seen Costello often, but never tire of him.

June 27: Joshua Redman and Brad Mehldau – Thinking back, although I've seen him many times, I don't think I've ever seen Mehldau play in anything but a trio setting (could be wrong, but I don't recall it) and it's been awhile since I've seen Redman. I don't know what to expect, and I like that.

June 28: Darcy James Argue's Secret Society – I've been lobbying to get them here for three years, and looking forward to hearing them for the first time in 18 months.

June 29: Vijay Iyer – Again, I haven't seen him play in about 18 months, and haven't seen him in a solo setting in about twice that long. Loved his solo record, and probably looking forward to seeing this show as much as anything I'll see this year.

July 2: Kenny Wheeler/Myra Melford/Jon Irabagon/Diana Torto – Another show where I don't know what to expect. Wheeler once told me that he loves throwing himself into new situations, and while I'm familiar enough with my friend Myra's music to know she can fit herself into any situation, I have no idea how Irabagon will sound with Wheeler.

July 3: Daniel Lanois' Black Dub – My favourite recording over the past year until The Decemberists knocked it off. Always a joy to see Brian Blade, and Lanois always gives a great show in his hometown.