Ottawa International Jazz Festival – Day Eight, June 30, 2005
Published: July 2, 2005

With the kind of broad-scope programming that the Ottawa International Jazz Festival has delivered for this, its 25th anniversary, it's almost a futile effort to try and isolate one show as the best of the season. But with only three days left, it’ll be very difficult for anyone to top trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s headlining 100-minute main stage performance on day eight.

A number of local performances in the early afternoon featured, amongst others, guitarist/vocalist Steve Grove’s trio performing an easygoing set of standards including Stanley Turrentine’s “Sugar,” “All the Things You Are,” and “That Old Black Magic.” The 4 pm Connoisseur Series at the Library and Archives Canada theatre presented yet another outstanding performance, this time from Canadian expat pianist Jon Ballantyne and his outstanding quartet featuring drummer Jeff Hirshfield, bassist Boris Kozlov, and alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Douglas Yates.

Library and Archives Canada has the distinction of owning one of the late Glenn Gould’s Steinways, a piano that every performer who has come through that theatre, including Harry Connick, Jr.—who normally brings his own piano to every performance—seems thrilled to play. But there was an even greater sense of history on stage for Ballantyne’s show: Kozlov was using a double-bass originally owned by the late Charlie Mingus, courtesy of the Mingus estate. (Kozlov is, not coincidentally, the bassist in the Mingus Big Band that recently released I Am Three.)

As Ballantyne suggested in his open interview just before the performance, the set consisted of a real mixed bag—a little swing, a little free, a little bop, and a lot of texture and modernity. Ballantyne, who first made his name working with the late saxophonist Joe Henderson, is an advanced player who favours a dense harmonic approach. The set included tunes from Lennie Tristano and Ornette Coleman, but consisted primarily of Ballantyne compositions. The group hit the stage at a gallop and kept the energy level up most of the way. In terms of pacing, while there was one composition that relaxed things slightly, the only real criticism of the performance was its almost unrelenting density. If it wasn’t Ballantyne creating close clusters of notes, it was Yates delivering a flurry of ideas.

But that’s not to say it wasn’t a powerfully compelling set. Ballantyne’s purview clearly extends beyond the jazz tradition—although on tunes like Tristano’s “Lennie’s Pennies” and Coleman’s “When Will the Blues Leave,” his roots, while well-subsumed into his personal style, are clearly evident—and some of his own compositions, most notably the moody and visual “Anne’s Dream,” displayed an interest in contemporary classical composition, with the quartet creating a broad array of textures and timbres.

“Anne’s Dream” wasn’t the only composition to exhibit a vivid visual sensibility; “Go Local,” inspired by a New York City subway line that Ballantyne and his wife use regularly, evoked images of being on a train—from Kozlov and Ballantyne’s rolling rhythms to Yates’ musical imagining of ambient surroundings. The tune ultimately resolved into a slow, harmonically altered blues, but with the audioscape already defined, the impressions of being on a train remained throughout.

Ballantyne’s set was not complacent, or aimed at providing an easy-going experience for the audience—it made its own set of demands, challenging the listener to accept a broader interpretation of contemporary post bop that ultimately paid big dividends.