Saturday's dreary weather was most certainly offset, if not diffused, by the Ottawa Jazzfest's continual upsurge of glorious music and zeal. Blasting the heavens with love and disdain. Think: Care Bear countdown, but with beer and music instead of rainbows. During the overcast daylight hours, an International Klezmer collaboration occurred with musicians marching in solidarity, becoming International allies. Then, to switch our hips into glide, re-imagined Afro Cuban music filled the early evening air. It was in this hopeful and positive spirit that I arrived to check Finnish Avant-Garde accordionist, Kimmo Pohjonen's set in the Lisgar Street Tartan Homes tent.
Walking in to a silent rapt, possibly terrified tent audience I was immediately struck by the intensity and theatrical irreverence of the performance. It was brave, unique, artful and absolutely jarring, yet at times ethereal, but also weird and funny. Vague, yet precise, perhaps, maybe not. The muscular Kimmo was seated facing, nay, lording over the audience holding his highly effected accordion (which acted as a traditional instrument, sample trigger, and percussion tool) mounted to his chest with leather bracing, surrounded by an elaborate pedal board, and wearing the swirling robes of a Finnish spice lord complete with partial Mohawk and goatee. Another take could be a renegade high priest from Game of Thrones- very fantastical.
His arrangements were equally varied and challenging to describe- from chaotic, to dreamy, synthed-out layered compositions reminiscent of romantic highland interludes, which might easily be interrupted by deconstructed samples of motor sounds- all accompanied by various chants or theatrical movements. A one man freak out band- perfect musical companion for a bag of magic mushrooms and a shoe-less walk into a dark forest.
My friend leaned over and said to me, 'It's nice to see a man play an instrument' - I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. My first reaction was during one of his more intense Nordic hell-scapes, which was punctuated with some sampled rhythms, intense howling and a slow chopping motion with one of this hands. I wrote a few things in my phone: "Soundtrack to a Netflix documentary about a Balkan yoga retreat disaster', 'Landlord recital from Big Lebowski', 'Total performance immersion,' 'Introspective nightmare, possibly with good outcome' - these are all accurate statements to describe this disruptive musical experience, but also somewhat dismissive and overly subjective- you just have to see it yourself. Or not! I applaud festival programmer Petr Cancura in his inclusion of experimental music in marquee time-slots, and offering original but difficult music a place to be heard. I can't say I'd be likely to pop Kimmo's album on my turntable, but I will certainly never forget the performance, which says a lot.
At the other end of the festival, and the 'jazz' spectrum, and life, was the mighty (and describable in traditional English) Lake Street Dive on the Main Stage.
A perfect mix of songwriting, musicianship and fun- this Brooklyn group is hard to resist, and they are clearly developing a solid following in Ottawa, evidenced by the healthy crowd partying and dancing despite the drizzle. Groups of normally reserved public servants, and quiet friends carefully stowed their umbrellas and bounced happily, like most people weren't watching. Though, I guess I was watching.This band is made up of dynamo musicians, fronted by Rachel Price- the most natural frontwoman I've seen in some time, with jaw-dropping pipes and charisma to match, confidently buoyed by the soulful arrangements and punchy background vocals of the band.
My ears were repeatedly drawn to the killer rhythm section, where the soulful engaging grooves of drummer and songwriter Mike Calabrese, support the phenomenally funky upright bass playing of Bridget Kearny- who in my estimation feels the like the heart of the band with her amazing energy and thoughtfully fun basslines. The group lost a bit of steam after climaxing with a killer slow-jam version of Shania Twain's 'Still the One', but ramped it back up for a lovely finish.
Like Boz Skaggs the night before, singer Rachel Price took a moment to express some of the band's Trump regret, which garnered mostly polite nods in silence from the audience. I can't imagine the conflict a progressive (reasonable?) person would have with Trump as their International spokesperson and 'leader'- God, but I do appreciate the idea of promoting the positive in response, and Lake Street did just that with a slow sexy cover of Michael Jackson's 'I Want You Back'.
It was almost a perfect set, except for an incident among the non-premium seated class. Midway through the set a stubborn curmudgeon of a security guard forced some (very happy and reasonable) dancers to sit or leave the area to clear the view for those behind them. The dancers pleaded in disbelief looking back to the complainants, and eventually walked defeated to the far side of the crowd to continue enjoying the show, in rage. Four or five seated men stood briefly to applaud the guard. I won't go into it again, because we've all seen 'Footloose,' which I'm pretty sure suggested: Let the kids enjoy music- even if it is 'against the rules'! Shouldn't this communal experience bring some joy as well, to see younger generations keeping cultural traditions alive and interesting with enthusiasm, not just observance? No one is guaranteed an unobstructed view- unless of course you pay to be in the premium zone. I suppose I'm used to a concert scene where etiquette and kindness are revered on par with the music- and this is not always the perspective of a more diverse audience, I suppose. Regardless, it was a great set from a great band, but a little more inter generational love would really be nice.
To wrap things we checked out the electrifying Israeli 16 piece brass powerhouse marching band, Marsh Dondurma. Sweet heaven! - do yourself a favour and catch these amazing players. Energy and enthusiasm was off the charts as this interactive and playful group got the crowd dancing on all sides of the After Dark tent. Everyone got a turn, and the Crowd response and interplay was incredibly fun and probably extra musical as half the audience appeared to be local musicians smiling from ear to ear in participation. I'm looking forward to checking out their collaboration with Mike Essoudry on his kit Sunday afternoon on the free stage!