Review: A look back at Ottawa Jazz Festival 2019


Friday, June 21

Friday night marked Judith Hill’s second concert at the OJF, and like the first time it was a family affair in the best way. Her band again included her parents; father Robert Lee Hill on bass and Michiko Hill on keyboards; two Nashville session legends in their own right, as well as a childhood friend on background vocals. As they started the first song with Judith on electric guitar, the chemistry between the band was undeniable. As always, her vocals were giant, but it seems that her ability to add Tina Turner growl on command has grown even more, with way more opportunities for her to screech and wail at the peak of each song.

1) A honky tonk piano solo by Judith, followed by “take it ma!” who broke into a ridiculous classic-drenched organ solo.

2) Awesome synthy bass tones all night long

3) A medley straight into MJ’s Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough

Following Judith, The Suffers took the OLG stage. I couldn’t find a single acquaintance in the crowd who had heard of them beforehand, but I imagine they have a decent Ottawa fanbase after their powerset of soul funk. In my opinion, it was a mistake to have chairs out for this one, but it only took about three tunes before the crowd was up.

Harkening from their ska band days, the sheer brassiness of their forever-dancing brass section (trombone and trumpet) was spectacular. These two had a great move- anytime they weren’t playing, they would set their instruments on the floor to clap and sing together with incredible energy. The lead singer Kam Franklin was a ball of energy herself, with even her banter boosting the crowd’s energy. About halfway through the set, they dug deeper into the vault, breaking out a couple classic rocksteady tunes that sounded straight out of a Trojan compilation. Keep your ears to the ground for this group!

Saturday, June 22

Saturday brought me to Mercury Lounge to catch Rommel Ribeiro and his band. If you’ve never caught Rommel, he’s a Montreal treasure that we’re lucky to have performing fairly frequent in Ottawa. Rommel performs Brazillian music that plays with other genres such as reggae, funk and jazz.

Despite not having their saxophone player, the group did a spectacular job keeping a packed house dancing and singing along. Local drummer Andrew Ferdeber did a fantastic job holding down the fort, while Andre Galamba of Montreal played his own basslines as well as many of the missing saxophone lines while holding down some greasy grooves. But hands down, percussionist Vovo Saramanda of Montreal was the most fun to watch showed an incredible understanding of Afro rhythms – playing a percussion kit and a table full of unique instruments with a grin from ear to ear.

Sunday, June 23

I was fortunate enough to catch powerhouses Chicago on Sunday night. First off, I was immediately impressed with their showmanship as each member weaved in and out, knowing when to be in the spotlight and when to take the backseat. I was surprised at first, but it all made sense when they announced that they were on the 42nd consecutive year of touring! They came with three original members (trombone, trumpet and piano), as well as new bassist, guitarist, drummer, percussionist and a new lead singer.

They had a strong start, playing a lot of new tunes and showcasing each member. In the middle of the set, they slowed it down, showing off many of their number 1s from the ‘80s. A highlight was a giant percussion breakdown which saw drummer and percussionist switching between one another’s kits and ended with their new percussionist running to the front of the stage with only a shakere, getting the crowd to holler and chant along with him. After that, they finally brought out the catalogue we’d all been waiting for, playing classics like “Saturday in the Park” and “26 or 6 to 4,” which the crowd obviously went nuts for.

Their new singer Neil Donnel, who is a Canadian, was able to show off his impressive 4 octave range with relative ease, but it was his humble nature that set him apart from past singers. When other members (usually the pianist) took the lead, Neil would simply stand to the back with a big smile, occasionally stepping forward to sing the odd background.

Overall, a great performance that kept me surprisingly engaged for an hour+ while waiting for the hits at the end.

Tuesday, June 25

On Tuesday, I was lucky enough to catch Ottawa singer Rebecca Noelle with the newest version of her band. Though her band only received half the stage (the other half was set up to Norah Jones’ specifications), they managed to keep the crowd engaged. Rebecca’s banter has grown since the last time she performed at Jazz Fest, as she spoke to the crowd with a relative ease and joked about her parents having to catch the concert from behind the porta-potties.

They performed mainly originals, from her own classics to a couple brand new songs, and toyed with a couple classic covers like “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. I found that her newest songs have a unique vibe that sounds like alternative chord progressions, backed by a soul band (most of the members also play with her in The Commotions). A highlight was hearing Clayton Connell, a great Ottawa keyboardist, add strong male backgrounds to many of the songs. DeeDee, who also performs in the Peptides and Commotions, also held down the fort, though I was sad to hear that Clayton’s keyboards and DeeDee’s microphone were so low, probably a byproduct of their limited stage setup.

All in all, a fantastic performance by a must-see Ottawa group.

Though I didn’t catch Norah Jones, I did slide back in for the late night show at OLG to see Donna Grantis. I was really excited about this one, not only because of Grantis’ unique style, but also because of her exceptionally stacked bands, with Toronto giants Rich Brown on bass, Suphala on tablets, and James Hill (of Bad Bad Not Good!) on keyboards. Wowza!

It was a great performance of jazz and rock fusion, seamlessly moving from heavy, heavy sections of distorted guitar to spacey, strange jazzy shoegaze. I hadn’t heard of drummer Marito Marques before, but I loved his deep and solid grooves, and the lock-in between he and Rich Brown was unheard of. Donna was a force to be reckoned with, moving between heavy Prince style chops to wild shredding with ease. My favourite part was that when she was done her part, she would often fly to the back of the stage where she stood, hands behind back, and let the song develop between the rest of the band. Awesome!

Friday, June 28

The biggest disappointment of the Friday night was definitely missing the Larnel Lewis band. Due to weather in Paris, their show was moved to 10pm at the NAC 4th Stage, and it filled up relatively quickly.

Fortunately, we were able to catch Cha Wa at the main stage, and what a show! These recent Grammy nominees from New Orleans started off strong with the brass section leading the first tune, only to have the two singers J’Wan and Joseph rush the stage with full Mardi-Gras headdresses and start the real performance. It was a great way to slowly introduce their magic.

Their set itself was a tribute to Mardi Gras, with songs like J’Wan’s Story helping to explain the history of the festival and the culture of New Orleans. A highlight was a funky, soulful cover of Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” Great horn section, great party.

Saturday, June 29

Unfortunately, Saturday night started off with rain, which made a rough start for opening act Mack & Ben, an Ottawa neo-soul group performing for the second year in a row. However, the rain didn’t seem to bother the group this sibling-fronted 6 piece, who flew through their set with a breezy, relaxed vibe. Mackenzie Di Millo jokingly bantered about the rain, commenting on the ‘new fashion’ of ponchos emerging in the crowd, before belting out a variety of original tunes.

Some highlights included blazing keyboard solos by Clayton Connell, slick bass grooves by Caylan Penny, and some newer soul-soaked pop arrangements that sound like some of the slicked Anderson .Paak grooves. It was a shame that they were rained out, but the small crowd there got a great performance.

Afterwards, the sun began to shine just in time for a massive crowd to pour in for The Roots. It was the first time I had seen them since they performed at Bluesfest in 2011, and it was just as great a show as I remember. 

As usual, their performance was a giant mishmash of medleys and throwbacks, weaving between Roots classics, hip-hop classics such as Chamillionaire, and some great groovy breakdowns. To be expected, Black Thought was cool and collected, saying his part and then stepping back to make way for antics by various members. Eve Quest Love got on the mic to show off his baritone.

As usual, guitarist Captain Kirk Douglas had a lengthy guitar breakdown, which slowly transformed into a stellar vocal-matching guitar solo where he eventually played a talking box style version of Old Town Road before launching into the usual heavy metal fare.

The Roots proved yet again that they are a unit, and have become even moreso since their time on Jimmy Fallon. The focus is not just on Black Thought or Quest Love, but on the consistent showmanship of each member. After a week of lawn chairs, it was nice to see a crowd standing, dancing and partying with one of the greats.