Must-see Performances at Ottawa Jazz Festival - part I

2012 Ottawa Jazz FestivalOh Jazzfest. At once laid back, eclectic, well planned, inspired, inspiring, and at times, mind blowing– Jazzfest promises year in and year out to be well worth its bang-for-the-buck. Really, we ought to count ourselves very lucky since no matter what acts you catch they'll be worthy of a relatively big time festival with small- to mid- size administration and sensibilities. In writing this preview I found myself shaking my head numerous times, getting stoked for the acts that lie ahead. There's an inherent paradox in the jazz world, that the top tier musicians play "humble" festivals like ours while "equivalent" bands (in terms of talent and relative success) for Bluesfest may pooh pooh what's on offer in Ottawa despite their relative lack of technical abilities. Alas, so it goes in the world of jazz.

A quick word, first off, about the noon-time shows in the downtown core. While I realise these are seldom the big name draws, I've been to a few and, while rarely wowed (the Bitches Brew quartet at the WEP was certainly an exception to that), have never once been actually disappointed. I do think it's safe to say that (a) it's potentially a great opportunity for emerging acts to showcase their skills. (b) it's a fantastic option to have if you want to enjoy a captivating and civilised lunch and (c) It's a great way to start off your Jazzfest day in a low-key, ease-into-it kind of way.

This year's Ottawa Jazzfest is a bit unique, perhaps, in boasting such a wide variety of acts from different genres; from traditional and modern jazz bands to blues, reggae, gypsy jazz and folk music this year seems unique in that aspect, however one fact that does remain year after year is that in terms of heavy hitters seeped in pedigree, the Ottawa Jazzfest punches above its weight, which, relative to other annual festivals in the region, sets it apart.

Thursday June 21

The festival's opening day explodes out of the gate with the legendary bluesman, John Mayall, who, in his decades in the blues scene has played with some of the biggest names in the business including Clapton, Micks Taylor and Fleetwood, Jack Bruce, Peter Green, Paul Butterfield and John McVie (to name but a few!). That he's still touring at the age of 78 speaks volumes of his dedication and perseverance. In a scheduling stroke of genius Robert Cray follows Mayall on the Canal stage at Confederation Park; this should pack a fine 1-2 blues wallop. To top things off, Montreal's Barr Brothers are sure to get a fine turn out in the late night OLG Stage slot, interweaving sounds and melodies with an accomplished quartet of musicians.

Friday June 22

In the NAC studio on Friday night (7:30) the Kenny Barron and Dave Holland Duo plays in a great little intimate setting. I feel particularly blessed at having seen some fantastic acts in such a small setting and there's no doubt in my mind that this will be up there with some of the best acts that the studio has seen. Having Holland as artist in residence this year is certainly a remarkable coup.

If you're unable to make it into the studio, a fine consolation comes in the shape of 90 Miles who play the Confederation Stage @ 7:30. 90 Miles promises a Cuban cacophony of sounds, rhythms, and instrumentation flying at you in frenzied purposefulness. These three very talented and Grammy nominated musicians have a full sound accented with vibes and a shit hot trumpeter.

Brian Blade's Fellowship Band (9:00, Confed. Park) is another example of a high profile name visiting as bandleader- an opportunity for Blade to express his talents under full control. Having played, supported and recorded with such luminaries as Wayne Shorter, Kenny Garret, Bob Dylan (on Time Out of Mind), and Joshua Redman, Blade takes the opportunity of having his own band to express his own intricate, blazing, driving songs.

Destroyer is the late night act at the OLG stage, and sounds interesting, although the one track I listened to reminded me of the Pet Shop Boys... eclectic festie indeed. I think of Dan Bejar as primarily a lyricist, accentuating his easy flowing songs with overarching trumpet and rolling rhythms.

Saturday June 23

A one person show, Iva Bittova plays acoustic violin and vocals; she's playing the NAC Fourth Stage at 5:00. Hailing from the Czech Republic she's renowned for spontaneous creativity, excellent classical/gypsy chops expect clicks of the tongue, intense crescendos, interesting stage props....quirky, talented and sure to be interesting in this great intimate setting.

Thimar is another act that features the artist in residence, Dave Holland, Thimar features the oud (a lute-like instrument) playing Tunisian, Anouar Brahem who has a reputation for being a progressive musician with traditionalist training. Not knowing a lot about the oud, I'd be very interested to see how it sounds accompanied by woodwinds and Holland's bass, particularly in the First Baptist Church.

Slim Moore & the Mar-Kays are sure to set the OLG tent alight on Sat night with bona fide 70s-esque soul, this one I think may prove to be a dark horse and really should not be missed.

Sunday June 24

Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra - I'm not always too big on big latin jazz bands but these guys have great chops and seem highly danceable with great layers of interweaving sound and interesting solos.

Dave Holland, Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland: PRISM play at 9:00 on the Confederation stage... lots and lots of talent and some smoking technical virtuosity will make this one difficult from which to pry your eyes and ears away.