Ottawa Jazz Festival rediscovers its groove

At the halfway point of the rebooted jazz festival, its first full edition since the pandemic started, the music has been plentiful and presented with careful attention to technical details.

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The TD Ottawa Jazz Festival turned a routine Tuesday in Ottawa into an epic night of musical performances by artists we rarely get to see in this part of the world, with a slate of offerings that included a triple-header of jazz shows at the National Arts Centre and a main-stage country-rock bill that filled Confederation Park to capacity.

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On a beautiful summer night in the park, both Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams gave wonderful concerts in front of an audience of about 7,200 — the biggest crowd so far for the festival, which kicked off June 24. For Harris, it was her first Ottawa performance in almost a decade.

Performing with her top-notch band, the Red Dirt Boys, the red-dirt queen appeared relaxed and happy to be in Canada during a headlining set that demonstrated her unparalleled ability to interpret a song with elegance, easing into the night with numbers by Delbert McClinton, Steve Earle and Gillian Welch.

At 75, the silver-haired chanteuse sang with passion and conviction, reaching back to her Flying Burrito Brothers/Gram Parsons days to dust off gems like the Brothers’ “Wheels” and Parsons’ “Ooh Las Vegas”. She not only paid tribute to her old-time country roots on songs by Bill Monroe, George Jones and Ralph Stanley, but also revealed her love of folk music with material by James Taylor and Canada’s McGarrigle sisters.

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Harris, who was spotted watching Williams’ set from side stage earlier in the evening, also gave a shout-out to her country-folk-rock counterpart, saying she felt lucky to live in a time that allowed her to see Williams.

For Williams, who suffered a stroke in 2020, the evening was a triumph, a far better display of her artistry than the rushed set she gave at the CityFolk festival in 2019. With her raspy voice in fine form and her supportive band behind her, the 69-year-old delivered a knockout show that ended with a blazing version of Neil Young’s “Rockin’ In The Free World”.

Meanwhile, jazz was percolating at the three NAC shows on the schedule. Colleagues reported a dazzling display by virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage and his trio, followed by a head-spinning workout by Amendola vs Blades with saxophonist Skerik and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Equally mind-blowing, I was informed, was the Southam Hall performance by Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding with the NAC Orchestra.

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What’s more, to top off this feast of music on a Tuesday, Irene’s Pub hosted a free show, courtesy of the jazz festival, by New Orleans’ Aurora Nealand and The Royal Roses, showing off their dazzling jazz-meets-Dixieland sound. The versatile Nealand also played a demented accordion with avant-garde saxman Tim Berne earlier in the festival.

All in all, at the halfway point of the rebooted jazz festival, its first full edition since the pandemic started, the music has been plentiful and presented with careful attention to technical details, including fantastic sound and mood-enhancing lighting at both of the outdoor stages.

Thanks to the mostly pleasant weather (except for some light rain on Monday), last-minute ticket sales have been strong, and attendance has surpassed organizers’ expectations, with about 4,000 turning out to see Punch Brothers on opening night, 5,000 for jazz legend Charles Lloyd on Saturday and about 5,500 on Sunday for crowd favourites Blue Rodeo, the thousands of voices transforming the park into a mass singalong.

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Jazzfest executive director Catherine O’Grady stands in front of the main stage at Confederation Park, where volunteers were setting up for the festival before it began June 24.
Jazzfest executive director Catherine O’Grady stands in front of the main stage at Confederation Park, where volunteers were setting up for the festival before it began June 24. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

Executive director Catherine O’Grady is delighted with the numbers, especially the turnout to Lloyd’s show, which also featured the brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell. “I was very surprised because often we don’t get huge audiences for jazz on the main stage but that one was very well attended,” she said.

In the crowd, a few minor issues have surfaced, including confusion over recycling, frustration about people talking during the music and a killjoy atmosphere in the gold-circle are, a dark, tented platform that accommodates both gold-circle patrons and wheelchair users.

As for the recycling efforts, the brown bins throughout the park are not intended for beer cans or mini wine bottles, contrary to popular opinion on their use. Those recyclables go in the clear plastic bags that should be (but aren’t always) attached to the bins, while paper and organic waste go into the bin. O’Grady agreed they could do a better job of recycling.

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The last stretch of the festival, which ends Sunday, includes free shows by Ottawa-area artists The Lionyls, Lynne Hanson and The Prime Rib Big Band on Friday, plus ticketed main-stage concerts by Pink Martini on Saturday and Kamasi Washington on Sunday.

One headliner who can’t make it is Buddy Guy, who cancelled his Thursday show weeks ago for health reasons, though his name still appears in some versions of the schedule. The updated lineup for Thursday features former Snarky Puppy member Cory Henry at 9 p.m. and Ottawa’s JW-Jones and his big band at 7:30 p.m., with Lido Pimentia holding down the late-night OLG stage at 10:30 p.m.

Finally, organizers are advising festival-goers to check the website for the latest on parking and street closures over the Canada Day weekend, and not to be deterred by “freedom” protesters.

“Police seem way more prepared than last time,” said artistic director Petr Cancura, who’s been assured that any protest marches will be routed away from the festival. “They have a really solid plan if things go awry, but they’re not expecting them to.”

The underground lot at Ottawa City Hall will be closed Thursday, and no street parking is available Friday. The closest LRT station is Parliament, and bicyclists can use the bike lockup area at city hall.

Go to ottawajazzfestival.com for further updates.

lsaxberg@postmedia.com

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