Every year brings a very different Ottawa Jazz Festival than the last, and this year was no exception. With the festival no longer happening in the heart of Confederation Park, the main stage had been moved to City Hall (much like to the early Bluesfest days). The Late Night Tent was initially put behind City Hall, which seemed like a great idea, but after a few days the noise complaints from local residents caused the Late Night shows to be moved to a small stage on the edge of Confederation Park. My apologies to the Jazz Fest for all that they had to put up with this year, and I hope that it goes more smoothly to you folks next year.
As always, I was able to see a lot of amazing groups this year. Here they are in order of date:
Joe Sullivan Big Band
It was a treat to start the festival off with the Joe Sullivan Big Band. This is a serious contender for the tightest swing band in Canada. Everyone was firing on all cylinders, with great swinging leads, ripping solos from every player, and disgustingly sly harmonies speckled throughout every solo section. Always great to hear Al McLean take a tenor solo and this show was no exception.
I didn’t catch the entire Boz Scaggs show, but what I did see was in good form. It’s always a treat seeing an act that you forget has such an extensive catalogue. He played it all- tracks from the Boz Scaggs record (with Duane Allman) to the famous Silk Degrees. The band was fairly tight and Boz himself still has some strong crooning left in him. Now I did miss a couple tunes, so he could have snuck it in—but I spent most of the set hoping he would play “Look What You’ve Done To Me.” Next time!
I had missed Moon Hooch last time they came through Jazz Fest in 2015, so I was really excited to see this group. I was fortunate enough to catch Too Many ZooZ in Ottawa earlier this year- a band who often is compared to Moon Hooch due to their saxophone-house sounds and NYC busking habits. While MH weren’t as nonstop sweaty dance party as ZooZ, I was really impressed with their variety. Mike Wilbur and Wenzl McGowen hopped consistently between synthesizer and saxophone (tenor, bari and soprano), highlighting their strengths the entire show and hyping up the crowd. Occasionally McGowen would play his signature “giant construction pylon in a bari sax” which just has a monster sound. By far, though, the highlight of the show was when drummer James Muschler broke out a soprano sax and joined the other two during a long delay-ridden solo section. Awesome!
Now let’s be clear about something: Chaka Khan is 65 years old. I heard a lot of people talking about pitchiness and low stage energy afterwards, but seriously—she’s 65 and she’s earned her keep.
Moreover, her very few pitchy moments were not a deal-breaker because she simply did not phone-in the show. I was wildly impressed how many times many times she went for the high notes and really owned her trademark wails. With that said, I think that she was wise to bring the group that she did. Her three background singers did an incredible job nailing her classic lines while she ad-libbed over top. Ronald Bruner Jr. had no trouble reminding us all how much of a beast he is behind the drummers—and it was awesome to hear his trademark “hats on the toms” sound as he shredded 80’s fills all night.
KNOWER did what everyone expected—they put on a gigantic sweaty dance party in the late night tent, sparkly jumpsuits and all. They play such an interesting combination of electronic music and funky jams that it’s hard to tell where each groove ends and the next begins. If anything I would say it was a bit too chaotic for me at times, with not a lot of silence between instruments, but it definitely amped up the crowd. They knew their crowd well as they wrapped up the night by medleying “The Government Knows” into “Overtime,” both tunes off their new album that were sure to get people fired up.
This was potentially the show I was most excited about at Jazz Fest this year. Ghost-Note is a small percussion-fueled instrumental group operated by two members of Snarky Puppy: Robert “Sput” Searight and Nate Werth. Like Snarky, the group features a who’s who of Dallas players.
I had been listening to their 2015 debut Fortified for a few years when they were announced, and was immediately disappointed to hear that they wouldn’t be touring with Snarky keyboardist Shaun Martin with them on this tour. However, after hearing the growth on their Swagism record, and hearing the arrival of MonoNeon on bass, I knew this was going to be something special.
The show started off with a half-full tent, but they weren’t concerned as they dove right into it. They played songs off both of their releases with extended jams, synthy breakdowns and great solos by all. It’s always great to see a group where percussion gets the spotlight, as it meant for a lot of dirty percussion breakdowns that meant business. Also, it was really cool to see MonoNeon in this kind of environment, as he knew exactly when to keep it in the pocket and when to unleash the percussive slap fury. His array of filters and fuzzes was super tasteful. Check out Ghost-Note.
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones
Man! What a show.
First of all, I remember the last time The Flecktones played Ottawa, and it was in 2005 when Bluesfest was still at City Hall. That actually meant that this year they returned after 13 years to the exact same spot, which is pretty cool. Secondly, if you haven’t been following the Flecktones closely the past few years, you probably reacted like I did: “where’s Jeff Coffin?” I had no idea that going full-time with Dave Matthews Band had meant he no longer played with Bela.
After a little research, I learned that his replacement was actually his predecessor—Howard Levy—originally played harmonica and piano for the Flecktones’ early years.
Howard was far from a disappointment. His technique to play beyond the diatonic scale on a blues harp is stupendous—every time I heard a Stevie Wonder-esque line I immediately went searching for the chromatic harmonica. His ability to play beautiful melodies and harmonies alike was incredible.
Bela and Victor were in usual great form, rifling through their classics with a general ease. It’s always great to hear both play. Bela mentioned that they “never quite know where these songs are going to go each night,” and I can concur. Most songs eventually graduated into a lengthy jam that was always interesting and never meandering.
Lastly, Futureman’s Drumitar just keeps getting more and more legitimate as time goes on. It looks and sounds a lot different since they last came through in 2005, but the concept of playing full beats and fills with his hands hasn’t changed.
Truly a group of musical inventors and philosophers, this show hit home more than I expected, and I for one couldn’t wait to get home and play (isn’t that the point of jazz music?)
Afterwards, I slipped over to Tanya Tagaq, who I’d yet to have seen. On this tour, she was accompanied by a drummer and a soundscaping violinist.
Unfortunately, I was on a bit of a time crunch and she was the opposite. After coming out a little late, Tanya expressed to the audience that she was feeling a bit nervous and anxious, and told stories and anecdotes for ten minutes or so. When she did start, we were all blown away by how theatrical her performance was. I remember reading that she refers to herself as a “sound sculptor” instead of a musician, and I totally can agree. Even the musicians she brought spent most of the time creating strange sounds while she offered a combination of throatsinging and art singing. Unfortunately I couldn’t stay for long and had to duck out after the first couple songs.
I was eager to see The Commotions on Friday as they just released a new record that has been doing exceptionally well. Brian Asselin did a great job assembling the group, featuring a who’s who of Ottawa musicians. I am always impressed by Jeff Rogers and Rebecca Noelle as performers, so I knew I would enjoy a band in which they trade off front-person duties. This show was no exception, even in a heatwave. Their calm and collective banter and vocal trade-offs were a nice touch to their stellar individual performances. Rebecca’s knack to start strutting before the count is even finished is truly amicable. Mackenzie Di Millo stood by to add extra harmonies, and keyboardist Clayton Connell really shone on the organ. All in all, a great big original soul group.
Mack & Ben
This couldn’t have been a better night to finish off the festival. I was able to catch the second half of Mack & Ben’s set at the Confederation Park stage. They played to a full tent and put on a great performance despite the incredible heat and a seated audience. The three-point harmonies between siblings Mackenzie & Ben DiMillo and local songerwriter extraordinaire Sarah Bradley were dead on. This was their second show and the audience didn’t seem to believe it.
Their final tune was a cover of Rich Girl by Hall and Oates. I snuck out halfway to head to the Herbie show, and found myself smiling the entire way as I watched every passerby singing along.
I specifically didn’t read up on Herbie’s band for this show to keep it a surprise, but to say I was surprised when a four-piece walked out (including Herbie) was an understatement. It was really elating to see one of my legends playing with such a small group, and their chemistry really made it sound like we were sitting in on a practise rather than a giant concert.
Bassist James Genus (the bassist from the Saturday Night Live Band) definitely takes the cake for the most in the pocket player of the festival. His calm and groovy playing really made the show, as it allowed Herbie and guitarist Lionel Loueke to really work their magic.
A combination of banter and variety taught us a lot about Loueke throughout the show. A guitarist originally from Benin, sections of songs were often intersperse with amazing vocals in various languages, sometimes with Herbie singing along. His guitar work was very interesting, often with a Niles Rodgers-esque percussive palm-muting approach to his grooves.
Herbie was on his A-game, with extended solos on piano and synth, and a few vocoder breakdowns. It was great to see him in such a small and calm group as he hopped between songs and stories all night. We all got a good chuckle when he quoted the hook from Chameleon twice in the middle of a long jam.The pre-encore tune was a really great medley of Canteloupe Island and other extended jams. I did have to calm the grump in me as they came back out to play Chameleon (I thought it was more sly to reference it earlier and drop it), but it was harmless fun.
Cory Henry & The Funk Apostles
**Important Precursor: It may have taken the entire festival, but Jazz Fest were extremely smart about this show. While Herbie was playing, they moved all of the tables and chairs to the outskirts of the Confederation Park tent. This allowed people to remain seated and still see the band, while the rest of us slammed into the middle ready to dance.
The second Snarky Puppy link to the festival- many festival goers were excited to see Snarky’s most admirable soloist play with his own group, myself included. However, I’m not sure we expected what we got.. which was an insanely good variety act of epic sweaty-dance-party proportions
One of the best ideas Cory had with this group was to hire a second synth player. With the chords being comped throughout, it allowed him to really shine as a performer. He seamlessly ran around the stage, ripped organ solos, played tambourines, and sang his heart out, all while hyping the crowd nonstop. After a couple songs, he brought out two female singers who helped him ramp up the party with an amazing cover of the Beegees’s Stayin’ Alive (I too, before this night, though that was impossible).
But it was really the variety of Cory’s set that made the night. His ability to weave between Al Green-esque slow jams into hardhitting R&B funk fusion was highly impressive, and left the crowd hanging off of his every action.
Rather than explain it any more, I recommend that you watch this clip of a very similar set in Frankfurt—a great way to end a festival!
Last But Not Least: The Lawn Chair Conundrum
I would like to mention the issue of lawn chairs at the main stage. While there was a large area specifically designated for lawn chairs, many people continued to set up lawn chairs hours in advance in a section clearly labelled for standing. This meant that upon entering the standing section, you often felt like you were blocking sitters, and they often expressed it. This was further bothersome because there simply was no longer a way to stand at the back and still see the stage and screen as in previous years. Many young people expressed that, despite paying a hefty ticket price, they felt there was no real spot for them to enjoy the show.
I’m confident that this issue will continue to get solved as Jazz Fest and its patrons get used to the new area.