The Ottawa Jazz Festival finds its groove

Halfway through the jazz festival’s restart, its first full edition since the pandemic began, the music has been plentiful and presented with careful attention to technical detail.

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

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On a beautiful summer night in the park, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams performed wonderful concerts in front of an audience of around 7,200 – the largest crowd so far for the festival, which kicked off June 24. For Harris, it was his first Ottawa performance in nearly a decade.

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

At 75, the silver-haired singer sang with passion and conviction, dating 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 homage to her old country roots on songs by Bill Monroe, George Jones and Ralph Stanley, but also revealed her love of folk music with material from James Taylor and the Canadian McGarrigle sisters.

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Harris, who was spotted watching Williams’ set from the side stage earlier in the evening, also hailed 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 much better display of her artistry than the rushed set she gave at the CityFolk festival in 2019. With her raspy voice in top form and her backing band behind her, the 69-year-old delivered a knockout show that ended with a flamboyant version of Neil Young’s « Rockin’ In The Free World. »

Meanwhile, jazz was seeping into the three NAC shows on the schedule. Colleagues reported a dazzling display from virtuoso guitarist Julian Lage and his trio, followed by a mind-blowing workout from Amendola vs Blades with saxophonist Skerik and Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista. Equally breathtaking, I was told, was Grammy Award-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding’s Southam Hall performance with the NAC Orchestra.

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

Overall, halfway through the restart of the jazz festival, its first full edition since the start of the pandemic, the music was plentiful and presented with careful attention to technical detail, including fantastic sound and lighting. enhancing the ambience both from outside steps.

Thanks to generally pleasant weather (except for a light rain on Monday), last-minute ticket sales were strong and attendance exceeded organizers’ expectations, with around 4,000 people coming to see Punch Brothers during the opening night, 5,000 for jazz legend Charles Lloyd on Saturday and around 5,500 on Sunday for crowd favorites Blue Rodeo, the thousands of voices turning the park into a mass chant.

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Jazzfest general manager Catherine O'Grady stands in front of the main stage in Confederation Park, where volunteers were setting up for the festival before it started on June 24.
Jazzfest general manager Catherine O’Grady stands in front of the main stage in Confederation Park, where volunteers were setting up for the festival before it started on June 24. Photo by Julie Olivier /Postmedia

Executive director Catherine O’Grady is thrilled with the numbers, especially the turnout for Lloyd’s show, which also featured brilliant guitarist Bill Frisell. « I was very surprised because often we don’t get a huge jazz audience on the main stage, but it was very busy, » she said.

In the crowd, a few minor issues emerged, including confusion over recycling, frustration with people talking during the music, and a crazy atmosphere in the Golden Circle, a dark, tented platform that welcomes the both Golden Circle customers and wheelchair users.

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

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The final leg of the festival, which ends on Sunday, includes free performances by Ottawa-area artists The Lionyls, Lynne Hanson and The Prime Rib Big Band on Friday, as well as ticketed concerts on the main stage of Pink Martini on Saturday and of Kamasi Washington on Sunday.

One headliner who cannot appear is Buddy Guy, who canceled his Thursday show weeks ago for health reasons, although his name still appears on some versions of the programme. Updated lineup for Thursday includes 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 taking the late-night OLG stage at 10 p.m. 30.

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

« The police seem much better prepared than last time, » said artistic director Petr Cancura, who was assured that any protest marches would be kept away from the festival. « They have a really solid plan if things go wrong, but they don’t expect them to. »

The Ottawa City Hall underground parking garage will be closed Thursday and no street parking is available Friday. The nearest LRT station is Parliament, and cyclists can use the bicycle parking area at City Hall.

Go to for further updates.

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