Welcome, audiophiles, to Dave’s rundown of the Ottawa Jazz Festival which wrapped up just last week. I know I’m a little late to the party, but it would be an injustice not to write about a festival that occupied such a large amount of my time and which boasted a fantastic lineup each night. Behold! here is my countdown of the top five indie acts of the festival, with a a few non-indie honourable mentions. Keep in mind that I was not able to attend every show of the festival, and that includes some of my most anticipated bands that graced the lineup.
I didn’t know anything about Canailles, and originally had no intention of seeing them. They happened to be sharing a time slot with one of my jazz favourites, The Hiromi Trio Project, which was a show I was determined not to miss. Unfortunately, Hiromi’s small space in the NAC Studio filled up, and I was forced elsewhere to get my musical fix. The silver lining here was the accidental discovery of the Quebec folk band known as Canailles. This big folk group (stylistically described as “cajun-poutine”) brought life and colour to the stage with banjo, guitar, double bass, accordion, drums, washboard, mandolin, and plenty of vocals. Their music was energetic and danceable, with a hefty serving of charm that came from the chaotic and relaxed nature of the band.
4. Lake Street Dive
Lake Street Dive has been getting a lot of attention after their debut album. A rather popular video of them covering “I Want You Back” by the Jackson Five was my first exposure to them, followed by a solid performance on The Colbert Report. When their name appeared on the lineup I figured it would be a great way to get a real idea of what these musicians were made of. The four-piece blues-soul-jazz mix was fronted by the dynamic and powerful voice of Rachael Price, providing the best vocal performance of the festival by a wide margin. She was backed by a talented rhythm section featuring some excellent double-bass work, intricate drumming, and an alternating guitar/trumpet player who added some crisp solos and tight accompaniment. The members of the band contributed to the vocal stack with their own harmonies, giving the band a very lush sound which could be enjoyed by just about anyone. They had emotion, soul, and just the right amount of dirt wrapped in a truly fun package.
3. Béla Fleck and Brooklyn Rider
I’m cheating here a little bit, since Béla Fleck is no indie artist. He was, however, backed by an indie string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider in the newest glorious incarnation of the banjo master. This show was a display of virtuosity that one does not have the chance to see often. Béla Fleck is an absolute genius, and every note he plays on the banjo (and believe me, there were a lot of notes played) is pure gold. Without any backup he is capable of taking his audience anywhere he wants, and he does so in a way that no banjo player has before. Give him an extremely coordinated and talented string quartet to work with, and he produces yet another stylistic variation of the banjo that must be heard. In this case, he took his usual bluegrass-jazz-folk stylings and applied them to a pseudo-classical setting. The crows was treated to complex compositions that constantly evolved, rising and falling with the calculated drama of classical music. While Béla Fleck could have commandeered the show with ease, he made plenty of space for Brooklyn Rider to show what their worth, and they certainly proved that they were worthy of backing one of the true musical legends of our time.
2. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble
This band of horn-wielding brothers brought jazz and hip-hop together in a seamless marriage. This show was about as energetic as they come, switching between instrumental tunes that explored the bright punch of brass, and hip-hop backed by a horn chorus. Every moment of this show forced me dance to the dirty groove that permeated the evening. Hypnotic Brass Ensemble was truly mesmerizing, urging me to sink into every horn line and every vocal rhythmic twist. The notoriously docile jazz festival crowd threw down their lawn chairs and joined the irresistible party, letting the horns blast them into a dancing frenzy. This show also gets bonus points due to the fact that I went crowd surfing for the first time, and it was nutty.
And now for the festival champions…
1. Snarky Puppy
Where do I even begin with this show. My mind was being overloaded with joy during every second of this set. Every chord, every line, every jam took the audience from groovy lows to ecstatic highs that displayed one of the most talented and tight touring bands around. Michael League’s bass, the keyboard, the horn section, the drums, the guitar…every voice meshed perfectly through mind-bending tempos and rhythmic switches that most bands of this size couldn’t dream of tackling. The audience travelled through jazz, fusion, R&B, instrumental hip-hop, rock, latin jazz, and really anything else you might be able to think of without a missed beat or a suffering from a quick stumble. These guys stole the jazz festival and ran away with it. I walked out of that show wanting so much more, but with a feeling of complete auditory satisfaction. Rest assured, I will be seeing Snarky Puppy at every opportunity, because these guys are unlike anything else around.
Honourable Mentions and Missed Acts
There were two bands that I was really itching to see and unfortunately missed out on: The Bad Plus and Hiromi: The Trio Project. I have no doubt that these were both fantastic shows that could easily have been among the best of the fest.
A few non-indie bands that were truly excellent: Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, Bill Frisell, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Go see any and all of these artists if you get the chance.