Friday, July 19, 2024

Ottawa Jazz Festival wraps up the first weekend

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Opening weekend of the 44th annual festival featured crowd-pleasing, funkified spectacles on the main stage at Confederation Park.

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The Ottawa Jazz Festival kicked off Friday with one of the most upbeat, joyful and trombone-filled nights of music in recent memory before a steady drizzle left the rest of the weekend’s abundance unfolding in front of a slightly soggy audience.

Opening weekend of the 44th annual festival featured crowd-pleasing, funkified spectacles on the main stage at Confederation Park, with Trombone Shorty and his New Orleans Avenue band rocking the park on Friday, followed by a Saturday-night bash with funk legend George Clinton and his Parliament-Funkadelic all-stars. Another New Orleans stalwart, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, headlines on Sunday.

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As usual at jazzfest, there were weatherproof options, too. An eclectic assortment of shows took place in the tented OLG Stage at Marion Dewar Plaza, including a late-night workout by Moon Hooch on Saturday that would have satisfied any EDM fan’s desire for beats, and Sunday’s free Segue to Jazz show, a made-in-Ottawa celebration of Black history and culture that showcased some of the city’s top talent.

The National Arts Centre also hosted jazzfest concerts on two of its stages, with an adventurous program that drew the serious listeners and jazz purists (more about some of those shows in a moment).

For those of us who stuck it out in the park on Saturday night, the precipitation did little to dampen the party spirit that ramped into overdrive the moment Clinton’s current P-Funk lineup dove into their warmup routine, the stage swarming with at least a dozen musicians, divided between grizzled veterans and youthful firecrackers.

In his first Ottawa appearance in 15 years, the legendary Dr. Funkenstein, who’s now 82, took a few minutes to make his entrance, time that let the band members show off their chops, explore the bottom end and engage a few thousand fans with a call for one nation under a groove.

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Margaret Dickenson was enjoying the show
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Margaret Dickenson was enjoying the show and capturing a photograph from the crowd Sunday afternoon. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

To the delight of the dancing throngs, most of whom braved the conditions without umbrellas or even rain jackets, the energy rarely let up for almost two hours, creating a whirlwind of movement that surrounded Clinton. The wild man of yesteryear was able to sit on a stool as needed to command the proceedings, although he got up frequently to attack the mic or stir up the crowd.

Highlights came fast and furious, including tracks like Give Up the Funk and Atomic Dog that showed the connection between funk and rap, igniting the already exuberant fans. A crowd fave was the snippet of O Canada worked into a trombone solo.

Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz, including Michael Hanna, were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024.
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz, including Michael Hanna, were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Speaking of trombones, the brassy slider of an instrument was the festival’s MVP on Friday, and not only because of the entertaining work of New Orleans’ Trombone Shorty and his crack band in their fifth appearance at an Ottawa festival since 2009.

Also lending her T-bone power was the Brass Queens’ Stephanie Young, who was the standout performer in a standout Friday show in the OLG tent. The eight young women from New York City who make up Brass Queens created a celebratory vibe with their unapologetic showmanship and fierce playing, along with a commitment to showcasing the work of female composers.

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What a thrill for the Queens when Shorty later brought Young and her sousaphone-playing bandmate, Nora Nalepka, to the main stage to join him and his band for a rousing encore. What’s more, he switched to trumpet, letting Young have a well-deserved moment in the trombone spotlight.

Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Stefan Keyes, Deborah Davis and Michael Hanna led the group on vocals Sunday afternoon.
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Stefan Keyes, Deborah Davis and Michael Hanna led the group on vocals Sunday afternoon. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

The whole experience converted one Ottawa music fan who never thought jazz was her thing, but found herself with a last-minute ticket to Friday’s show.

“I was very pleasantly surprised,” said Centretown resident Alice Cullen, beaming to hear Trombone Shorty tackle Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy. “I will certainly go next year and learn about the musicians before I go.”

Meanwhile, a completely different festival experience took place at the NAC, where concerts that prioritized art over entertainment took place in the Azrieli Studio and Fourth Stage.

Friday’s fully packed studio show by Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society was as enthralling as it was fabulously complex. The Brooklyn-based composer and bandleader conducted his 18-piece band through a set of heady, sprawling compositions that, for all of their unexpected sounds, textures and intellectual rigour, connected with listeners. It helped that Argue prefaced most pieces with long introductions so that his audience could latch on to those fascinating creations via Argue’s heroic inspirations or progressive politics.

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Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Jamaal Amir Akbari, an award-winning spoken word poet, joined the group on stage.
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Jamaal Amir Akbari, an award-winning spoken word poet, joined the group on stage. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

Vancouver-born Argue played up his Canadian bona fides, and in his band were several other expats who shone when afforded solo space, including trumpeter David Smith, saxophonist Chet Doxas and Ottawa-raised trombonist Mike Fahie.

Despite Argue’s stature and importance in music at large — the four albums he has made since 2009 have each been Grammy-nominated —  the Ottawa Jazz Festival was the only Canadian jazz event this summer to book his project, which will play later this year in the Netherlands and Italy. That reflects well on Ottawa’s programming manager Petr Cancura, but much less well on other Canadian festivals. This is a brilliant and significant artist who is lighting the way for ambitious, large-scale jazz to come.

On Saturday, the Australia-based ensemble called Hand to Earth also proved that esoteric sounds could move listeners with open minds and hearts. With the singing of Indigenous Australian Daniel Wilfred at its centre, the sextet made unique and expansive music that combined Wilfred’s evocative vocals with whooshing, reverberant soundscapes. The project invited the packed house in the Fourth Stage to absorb Wilfred’s cultural gifts born from a tradition extended back millennia, and listeners accepted with wonder.

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Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Margaret Dickenson (left) was enjoying the show in the crowd Sunday afternoon.
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Margaret Dickenson (left) was enjoying the show in the crowd Sunday afternoon. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

The festival also made room for smaller Canadian jazz groups of various vintages. In Confederation Park on opening night, the Montreal-based quartet Bellbird, fronted by two saxophonists, Claire Devlin and Allison Burik, played lean, forward-thinking original music that took advantage of the absence of a chordal instrument. A next night, the Alberta-based Hutchinson Andrew Trio, plus two venerable, octogenarian hornmen, paid tribute to the late Canadian jazz legend (and senator) Tommy Banks, keeping lit his flame for not just jazz but also the arts in Canada. Over boppy, quintessentially swinging and straightforward material, alto saxophonist P.J. Perry played robustly and incisively, while trumpeter Al Muirhead, 88 and six years Perry’s senior, exemplified graceful lyricism without wasting a note.

After a lull on Monday, the festival continues until June 30 with concerts by Ottawa’s own Kathleen Edwards, guitar legend Al Di Meola, Gen Z darling Laufey, jazz-pop chanteuse Norah Jones and much more.

Go to ottawajazzfestival.com for full details.

(Peter Hum is also a jazz pianist who performed as part of the Ottawa Jazz Festival’s Homegrown series this year.)

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

phum@postmedia.com

Martin Newman playing the bass during the performance of Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz at the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024.
Martin Newman playing the bass during the performance of Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz at the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Stefan Keyes, Deborah Davis, and Michael Hanna led the group on vocals Sunday afternoon.
Deborah Davis and the Segue to Jazz were on the OLG Stage in Marion Dewar Plaza, part of Ottawa Jazz Festival, on Sunday, June 23, 2024. Stefan Keyes, Deborah Davis, and Michael Hanna led the group on vocals Sunday afternoon. Photo by Ashley Fraser /Postmedia

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