In the last few years, in step with the backlash against a p—– grabbing U.S. president and the rise of the MeToo Movement, it became more apparent than ever that jazz had problems with patriarchy and sexism.
Big-name jazz professors left their jobs after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. Prominent jazz pianists Robert Glasper and Ethan Iverson were vilified after their conversation, printed in March 2017 on Iverson’s well-read blog, delved into a discussion of why women listeners prefer grooves over complex improvised melodies.
Women “don’t love a whole lot of soloing. When you hit that one groove and stay there, it’s like a musical clitoris,” Glasper notoriously said. “You’re there, you stay on that groove, and the women’s eyes close and they start to sway, going into a trance.”
“Glasper’s comments came as a shock to exactly zero people who’ve spent any time in the jazz world,” responded U.S. author and jazz journalist Michelle Mercer in a column that she wrote for NPR.
“This scandal reveals that the issue of women in jazz goes deeper, into a gendered construction of the music itself,” Mercer continued. “We need an intelligent public discussion about gendered notions of jazz, and this hot mess might as well be the impetus for that discussion.”
Since then, the jazz world has seen more music made with a feminist slant, more all-female bands, and even the recent creation of an Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice at Boston’s Berklee College of Music — a respected institution that had been plagued by “a culture of blatant sexual harassment,” according to a November 2017 Boston Globe investigation.
It may well be that this year’s TD Ottawa Jazz Festival, which starts Friday and runs until Canada Day, advances the cause of women in jazz more boldly than any of its Canadian and U.S. counterparts, thanks to its new commitment to strive for gender parity in its bookings.
As usual, the festival continues to be basically two events in one — an outdoor festival based in Marion Dewar Plaza with much mass-appeal, cross-over music in the mix, plus an indoor festival based in the National Arts Centre presenting more uncompromisingly jazz-based music.
But this year, the bookings prominently featuring women — vocalists and instrumentalists alike — make up roughly half of the festival’s bookings, from Norah Jones, Jane Siberry, Judith Hill, Cuban vocalist Omara Portuondo and former Prince guitarist Donna Grantis in the first category to the bonafide jazz stars Patricia Barber, Cyrille Aimée, Kris Davis, Mary Halvorson, Melissa Aldana, Anna Webber and Terri Lyne Carrington, plus rising stars Nubya Garcia and Sasha Berliner. Montreal-based saxophonist and composer Christine Jensen, a two-time Juno Award winner, will lead the festival’s first gender-balanced big band that will include Canadian jazz stars Marianne Trudel, Allison Au, Tara Davidson and Rebecca Hennessy.
“Ottawa may involve the best assemblage of women jazz musicians ever!” Mercer commented when pointed to the lineup.
Other commenters lauded the festival not only for trying to equalize the presence of men and women on its stages, but simply for the excellence of the musicians, gender aside, and the lineup’s generational shift.
While past jazz festivals in Ottawa and elsewhere could get caught up in nostalgically booking older musicians (and attracting grey-haired listeners), this year’s Ottawa festival also showcases more jazz musicians in their 30s, 40s and early 50s, including many of the women named above and also piano star Brad Mehldau, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and guitarist Gilad Hekselman.
The crush of talent seems all the more obvious given that this year’s festival is shorter than usual, starting on a Friday rather than a Thursday and with its Monday without performances for the first time.
Below, music writers Peter Hum and Lynn Saxberg zero in on the concerts they’re most excited about. Coincidentally, women figure as much as men in their picks.
Peter Hum’s picks
Anna Webber’s Simple Trio
Friday, June 21, 6 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
The B.C.-born, New York-based saxophonist, flutist and composer has grown to become one of the most invigorating musicians on jazz’s cutting edge. Be warned that Webber’s “Simple Trio” is named archly, as her compositions are fiendishly tricky and innovative. It’s a good thing pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck (an American who’s the current chair of McGill University’s jazz department) are world-class avant-gardists who revel in interpreting Webber’s intriguing, challenging material.
Gilad Hekselman Trio
Friday, June 21, 8 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
No less than jazz guitar hero Pat Metheny has singled out New York City-based guitarist Hekselman as a rising star. One listen to the 36-year-old native of Israel helps to explain why. Hekselman is a lucid, lyrical player at the fore of jazz’s modern mainstream, blessed with a mastery of tone and a knack for making fresh, personal music feel accessible and even ineffably right. At the NAC’s Fourth Stage, Hekselman will perform with Montreal-raised bassist Rick Rosato and drummer Jonathan Pinson, a supportive pair that accompanied the guitarist earlier this month in China and Japan.
Kris Davis & Ingrid Laubrock
Sunday, June 23, 6 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
In 2010, Ben Ratliff, then the jazz critic for the New York Times, wrote: “Over the last couple of years in New York, one method for deciding where to hear jazz on a given night has been to track down the pianist Kris Davis.” In the decade since, the Calgary-raised musician has demonstrated astonishing breadth and imagination as a vital figure on jazz and creative music’s leftmost flank. She and German saxophonist Laubrock are long-time, perfectly paired collaborators who explore bracing music that intertwines knotty compositions and unfettered improvising.
Jakob Bro / Thomas Morgan / Joey Baron
Tuesday, June 25, 6 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
For the last decade, the award-winning Danish guitarist Bro, 41, has been collaborating with the cream of the American jazz crop to make thoughtful and even dreamy music in line with ECM Records’s evocative aesthetic. At the NAC Fourth Stage, Bro will lead a trio that includes bassist Thomas Morgan and drummer Joey Baron, two U.S. musicians with whom he has released two records on ECM in recent years.
= Jazz Orchestra & Christine Jensen
Tuesday, June 25, 8 p.m., NAC Studio
A large ensemble formed to wave the flag for gender parity at this year’s festival, this group also pulls together some of the best jazz musicians of their generation in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Saxophonist Christine Jensen, the two-time Juno Award winner from Montreal, Toronto-based horn players, Rebecca Hennessy, Tara Davidson and Allison Au, plus pianist Marianne Trudel will shine most brightly as this command performance will feature their compositions as well as their playing.
Melissa Aldana Quartet
Wednesday, June 26, 6 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
After winning the 2013 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Saxophone Competition at the age of 24, the Chilean-born musician with a thrilling, virtuosic modern style saw her star rise dramatically. In Ottawa next Wednesday, Aldana kicks off a slate of especially promising concerts. Leading a quartet that includes the equally young and compelling pianist Sam Harris, Aldana will likely showcase some of the surging, heady music from her new album, Visions, whose compositions were inspired by the life and works of the late Mexican artist Frida Kahlo.
Wednesday, June 26, 8 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
The collective quartet called Illegal Crowns consists of four highly regarded and bristling improvisors: drummer Tomas Fujiwara, guitarist Mary Halvorson, cornet player Taylor Ho Bynum and pianist Benoit Delbecq. While the first three musicians, who are all New York City-based, are able to play together regularly, the quartet with French pianist Delbecq is a more sporadic project. Expect creative sparks to fly when the four strong and outward-bound personalities are reunited.
Brad Mehldau Quintet
Wednesday, June 26, 8:30 p.m., TD main stage, Marion Dewar Plaza
There’s seemingly little that Mehldau, the most influential pianist in jazz over the last two decades hasn’t tried. He’s led a breathtaking trio since the mid-1990s, dazzled as a virtuosic soloist who can delve into Bach one day and Radiohead the next, and played equally moving duets with classic soprano Renee Fleming and mandolinist Chris Thile. The 48-year-old will bring a new all-star quintet to Ottawa for what should be the most jazz-rich of the festival’s main-stage concerts. Expect horn players Ambrose Akinmusire (trumpet) and Joel Frahm (tenor saxophone) to thrill, while drummer Leon Parker is renowned for his uniquely buoyant, minimalist swinging.
Hayden Chisholm Trio
Wednesday, June 26, 7 p.m., NAC Studio
Thursday, June 27, 6 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
Raised in New Zealand and based in Serbia, alto saxophonist Chisholm is an infrequent visitor to North America. That’s a shame, because the 44-year-old is an engaging musician with a softened, appealing tone, great melodic agility and a quirky penchants for microtones and the Indian drone-producing shruti box. He will perform twice at the festival, on Wednesday with a larger ensemble that will include Ottawa-area string players, and then on Thursday with his long-time collaborators Matt Penman on bass and Jochen Rueckert on drums.
Terri Lyne Carrington and Social Science
Thursday, June 27, 8:30 p.m., TD main stage, Marion Dewar Plaza
A prodigious talent who received a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music when she was 11, drummer Carrington has blossomed into not just a leader of formidable ensembles but also a champion of gender issues, having recently created an Institute for Gender Justice at her alma mater. In Ottawa, the 53-year-old will present her forward-thinking and politically progressive project Social Science, which includes the incandescent thirty-something musicians Aaron Parks (keyboards) and Matthew Stevens (guitar) and Kassa Overall (DJ) along with vocalist Debo Ray and multi-instrumentalist Morgan Guerin.
Lynn Saxberg’s picks
Friday, June 21, 8:30 p.m., TD Main Stage
The powerhouse singer was one of the backup vocalists profiled in the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, recognizing her work with the likes of Prince, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Michael Jackson and more. She stepped into the spotlight with her Prince-produced 2015 debut album, which demonstrated her skill as a songwriter, too. Last year’s follow-up, Golden Child, is another showcase of her ability to weave synth pop, gospel, rock and soul into one funky brew.
Fun fact: Her dad is pioneering funk bassist Robert Lee Hill (and is in her band), while her mom, Michiko Hill, is an accomplished keyboardist. The couple also run a studio in L.A. Growing up, Judith always had singers in her room because her bedroom was the vocal booth.
Galactic featuring Erica Falls
Saturday, June 22, 8:30 p.m., TD Main Stage
New Orleans funk-and-jazz jam band Galactic blast off in a new direction with their 10th and latest album, Already Ready Already. Produced by band members Robert Mercurio and Ben Ellman, the record finds them joining forces with an array of emerging singers, including vocalist Erica Falls, who’s heralded as the queen of New Orleans neo-soul. She’s also touring with the band, providing a refreshing change from the band’s usual male-dominated groove-making.
Fun fact: Galactic recently purchased Tipitina’s, the legendary New Orleans nightclub where they’ve been playing regular gigs for 25 years, including an annual all-nighter on the eve of Mardi Gras.
Saturday, June 22, 10:30 p.m., OLG Stage, Confederation Park
Canada’s free-ranging songbird returns to one of her favourite nests, Ottawa, a city where she has found inspiration and plenty of support from the folk-music community over the years. She’ll be accompanied by a small but mighty ensemble consisting of Ottawa-born, New York-based music director Peter Kiesewalter on piano, Julian Armour on bass and Whitney LaGrange on violin. It’s hard to predict what she’ll play but we know that Siberry’s arty mid-’80s hit, Mimi On The Beach, has been resurfacing in recent concerts, and we hear there are new tunes to unveil, too.
Fun fact: Siberry once revealed that she enjoys a simple baked potato before performing, and won’t go on stage without lipstick and her hair done up.
Sunday, June 23, 8:30 p.m., TD Main Stage
Chicago has been going strong for half a century, proud of the fact that they’ve never missed a show in 52 years. They formed in Chicago, of course, in 1967 as the Chicago Transit Authority, with the intention of writing politically charged rock ‘n’ roll songs powered by a horn section. Instead they shortened the name and hit the charts with songs like If You Leave Me Now, Saturday in the Park, Hard to Say I’m Sorry and 25 or 6 to 4, becoming staples of the ’70s’ wave of soft rock. Three original members are still in the band, and they still tour with several truckloads of gear, making it the biggest production of the jazz festival’s main stage this year.
Fun fact: In the early years of touring, the budget only allowed for two hotel rooms, one for sleeping and one for partying. Which was fine because “we didn’t need much sleep back in those days,” recalls trumpeter Lee Loughnane.
Thursday, June 27, 10:30 p.m., OLG Stage, Confederation Park
DakhaBrakha was created 15 years ago by an avant-garde theatre director in Kyiv to liven up his shows, but probably not to dominate them, which is what happens whenever they play. With a name that means give/take in old Ukrainian, the quartet specializes in the folk music of their homeland, reinventing it for a modern age with an unapologetic feminist message. In traditionally-inspired costumes, Marko Halanevych, Olena Tsybulska, Nina Garenetska and Iryna Kovalenko rev up the rhythms with instruments from around the world, including tabla, djembe, accordion, bass, cello, didgeridoo and more.
Fun fact: DakhaBrakha’s first show at Bonnaroo in 2014 was such a hit that Rolling Stone declared them the breakout act of the festival, coining the new musical subgenre: “Ukrainian folkdrone Bjorkpunk.”
Omara Portuondo with NAC Orchestra
Friday, June 28, 8:30 p.m., TD Main Stage
The legendary Cuban singer, who’s well into her 80s, is renowned as the diva (and the only female voice) of the Buena Vista Social Club. International fame came with the Grammy-winning Buena Vista album and an Oscar-nominated documentary, but she had been a superstar at home for decades, equally comfortable with all the Afro-Cuban styles, from boleros to rumba. On this tour, a final, worldwide journey she calls her Last Kiss tour, she’ll be performing songs from Cuba’s golden era with the lush and expert backing of the NAC Orchestra.
Fun fact: Portuondo plays the good witch who lives in the Louisiana swamps in the Spanish version of Disney’s animated The Princess and the Frog.
Friday, June 28, 10:30 p.m., OLG Stage, Confederation Park
Two of the musical traditions that make New Orleans’ street culture so rich find a common groove in Cha Wa. The New Orleans band combines the big, brassy marching band sound with Mardi Gras Indian culture to come up with a funk-laced, sousaphone-soaked twist on the party music of the Big Easy. While some of the songs have a social-justice message, you can dance to any of them. Their latest album, Spyboy, is produced by fellow jazzfest player, Ben Ellman of the band Galactic.
Fun fact: Singer J’Wan Boudreaux is the grandson of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe. For more than 100 years, Indian tribes have paraded through New Orleans on Mardi Gras, decked out in elaborate costumes they craft themselves.
Saturday, June 29, 8:30 p.m., TD Main Stage
After wowing the jazzfest crowd for the 35th anniversary edition of the festival four years ago, the legendary Philadelphia hiphop crew The Roots are back to strut more of their stuff on the main stage. Last time Jimmy Fallon’s house band tailored their show to a jazz audience, with plenty of jazz-infused hiphop and a Herbie Hancock cover, along with crowd-pleasing surprises by the likes of Guns N Roses, Led Zeppelin and Kool and the Gang. And who knows? Maybe they’ll bring some of those delightful classroom instruments they use for the viral videos produced with Fallon and his superstar musical guests.
Fun fact: You don’t have to go far for the after-party. Roots’ DJ Questlove plays a DJ set on the OLG Stage in Confederation Park as part of the After Dark Series. It starts at 10:30 p.m. after the main set (June 29).
Saturday, June 29, 4 p.m., NAC Fourth Stage
The saxophonist is one of a generation of young musicians in London finding their way into jazz from the club scene, a wave that Rolling Stone magazine describes as a new British invasion. Raised by Caribbean parents, Garcia discovered the tenor sax at the tender age of 10, after learning piano, violin and recorder. She made her recording debut in 2017 with the fearless 5ive EP and followed that last year with the electronic-infused When We Are. Her Afro-tinged jazz doesn’t go wild on technique but, as an NPR reviewer said, she has an “imploring and soulful style on tenor, with enough controlled brawn to evoke a touchstone like Sonny Rollins.”
Fun fact: Garcia was one of the few jazz artists to showcase at SXSW in Austin last year. A month later, she was in the crowd at Coachella to see Beyonce.
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
When: June 21 to July 1
Where: Marion Dewar Plaza, National Arts Centre, Confederation Park, Queen St. Fare, Lord Elgin Hotel, Mercury Lounge
Info and tickets:ottawajazzfestival.com
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